Monday, January 12, 2015

Cambell's Law

I've had a gut feeling that the data driven decision making that has become the mantra guiding our educational practice in US schools these days is actually harmful to students and education.  I can sense that the problem is related in some way to the erroneous assumption that you can separate the observer from the observed - that the educational system can both gather data on itself and use this data to effectively improve its own practice.

In the case of a political, bureaucratic system like a public school system, relying on data points to determine the effectiveness of our efforts, and then doling out rewards and punishments based on these data points guarantees that it is the data points that will soon take on primary value, regardless of what they actually mean in terms of student growth and development.

It was with great delight that I came across this entry on Wikipedia on Cambell's law.  I take comfort in finding a statement by a well known and respected personage of what I was trying to say stated much better than I could say it:
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
Donald T. Cambell


  1. I think a lot of people take “corrupt” in this context to mean legal or ethical misdeeds – such as cheating on tests, and so on. The typical response to that is to tighten up on security and discipline, with more money spent on controls and more serious penalties for infractions.
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