Transportation Planning and “Bad” Teachers

control chart smallConflict is an important part of story telling. Fortunately for the writer, there is no shortage of conflict to draw from. Recent reports about plans to evaluate teachers illustrates one of the conflicts I had in my work in transportation planning.

Conflict in Transportation Planning

For much of my career in Transportation Planning I advocated a program to monitor and adjust the transportation plan. This is the application of the scientific method to planning. I would likened it to keeping your eyes open when you drive your car.

I strongly believe in the value of monitoring, but because it is so often misunderstood and misused it is very difficult to implement

In the last few years before I retired, I was assigned to develop a monitoring program. I ran into a lot of resistance. Partly it may have been my style that generated resistance, but then many others have faced the same resistance.

My rationale for a monitoring program was that there were too many unknowns that could not be accounted for in advance. The world does not always unfold as we expect. Sometimes population growth is slower, some times faster. A transportation solution that worked well in other cities may not work well in yours. Changes in fuel costs and transportation technology can have a profound impact on how successful a plan is.

When you develop a plan, it isn’t reasonable to account for events that are unlikely to happen. But, there are so many possible events that are unlikely, it is likely that some will happen. We just can’t know which ones.

Why, if there is so much uncertainty about the future, would any rational person resist a monitoring program?

I think the main reason is the misapplication of such programs by managers and political leaders who fail to understand how these programs actually work. They see it as a way to put the blame for bad outcomes on someone else. Naturally, anyone who works on transportation planning will see such programs as a personal attack on them.

It was never my intention to approach monitoring in this way, but many people reacted as if it was. The history of misuse undermines any attempt to apply the proper application of the method.

Where I Come From on This

As I noted above, “monitoring” is the application of the scientific method to transportation planning. Although I was an advocate since early in my career, it wasn’t until I read W. Edwards Deming’s book “Out of the Crisis” that I was able to understand what was involved.

Deming’s ideas are not easy to learn. It took me six months to read the book, and even longer to absorb a superficial understanding of his methods. I fear that even a very intelligent person who has only a rudimentary understanding of probability and statistics will not be able to understand. It is no wonder that his ideas are so often misused.

The purpose of Deming’s method is to understand what factors affect the outcome, and then address the areas most likely to make a difference. Deming says that it is the system that is the biggest factor and the individuals are constrained by the system. To blame the individuals for poor outcomes is to divert efforts from the changes that need to made to the system.

Getting Rid of Bad Teachers

Earlier this month The Alberta Government released a report that advocated more stringent testing of teachers. (source:  http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/Teachers+union+leader+calls+report+offensive/9810740/story.html). In it I see the same problems I saw in my work on transportation planning. The focus is on “the teachers” as the problem, and the goal is to get rid of “bad teachers”. That might not be their real intent, but it is certainly how most people would interpret the report.

As with transportation planning, this is the wrong focus and will only divert attention from more productive actions. A recent report in the U.S. by the American Statistical Association (ASA) reported that only 1% to 14% of the variability in how successful students were was due to teachers. (source: http://www.amstat.org/policy/pdfs/ASA_VAM_Statement.pdf).

This statement needs some clarification. Teachers do have a major impact on students, but what the ASA talks about is the variation. It may be easier to see this as a measure of the difference between good teachers and bad teachers. What this suggests is that even if extreme measures are used to replace all the “bad teachers”, the effect on student success would be small. It may even make the problems worse.

There are other factors that are more important and these need to be the focus. A report from the American Education Research Association and the National Academy of Education provides more information on other factors. (see: https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/getting-teacher-evaluation-right-challenge-policy-makers.pdf)

Sadly, it looks like many more years will be wasted while administrators try to fix the wrong problem.

Where Can This Conflict be Used in a Story

A major goal of this blog is to explore ideas for my stories and movies, so I want to consider the conflicts above as the basis for future stories. I do see this conflict as important, but I can also see that the complexity of the issue would make it difficult to express in story form. Long discussions would be needed to properly explain the conflict. Unfortunately, long discussions would quickly drive away the audience.

When I made my movie “Line of Taxis” I decided to draw on the emotions I felt from a particular situation, but used none of the details of the actual situation. Partly that was to create some distance to allow me to express what I felt, but it also put the focus on the human and emotional issues. I think this helped make “Line of Taxis” a success. As Gene Roddenberry said, “What people are most interested in is other people.”

Maybe I can do something similar with this issue. The essence of the conflict is a misunderstanding where the protagonist has a benign goal, but the antagonist sees it as a threat to them. The challenge would be about how to bridge that gap and remove the misunderstanding, and do it in a way that is entertaining. Since I wasn’t able to do that in the real world, I’m not sure how I could do it in a fictional world.

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