Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

June 29, 2009


We ran this earlier this month but, in view of the Supreme Court decision, are running it again

Sam Smith

The real problem in the Ricci v. DeStefano case is neither the white nor the black firefighters but the law and its technocratic application. For the past six years - as the lawyers have had their fun - no one of either ethnicity has been promoted in the New Haven fire department.

This is not a good way to run a fire department or improve ethnic relations. Yet because we have become so accustomed to depending upon legal and technocratic solutions to our problems, because so many assume that verbal skills equal pragmatic competence, few even bother to ask whether there might be a better approach to such situations, such as mediation and arbitration or subduing our obsession with tests.

I was never a firefighter but I was the operations officer on a Coast Guard cutter that handled aids to navigation and heavy weather search & rescue. Among the men on our ship were a number who hadn't even completed high school. I knew this not because they were any less competent but only because they were studying for the GED and had asked me for help. And at the top of the list of qualified officers on our ship was not this Ivy League educated product of crash officer candidate training (including 40 tests in 13 weeks) but two warrant officers - enlisted men who had fleeted up to officer status through their experience and performance far more than their test taking skill.

If these officers had been trying to get promoted in the New Haven Fire Department, their experience and performance would have been submerged in examinations designed by large corporations profiteering on government and business assessment addiction. It is, after all, so much easier to read a test score than to judge the true nature of someone's performance.

Which is why we are giving up educating our kids in favor of just preparing them for tests. And which why our public vocational training is so poor. We assume everyone is going to be a law clerk or other desk bound manipulator of words and data.

But running a ship or being a firefighter is quite a different matter than being school superintendent, politician or lawyer.

As Joseph Conrad noted, "Of all the living creatures upon land and sea, it is ships alone that cannot be taken in by barren pretenses." Firefighters similarly deal daily with unforgiving reality. Yet these days they also face exams that, in the case of the New Haven firefighters, cost some of them upwards of a $1,000 for study materials, tutoring and similar preparation. As the white firefighters put it, "We gave up three months of our lives to intense study and preparation during the three-month study period preceding the exams. We studied many hours a day and rarely saw or spent little time with our families and friends during this period. Some of us took leave from second jobs, or our wives did so to assume childcare responsibilities while we studied, so the economic loss was even greater than the out-of-pocket costs of the exams."

The black applicants struggled, too. Said Donald Day, former regional director of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, "Historically, as African-Americans, we don't do as well on strictly written exams." Reported the New Haven Independent, "Oral exams are fairer, he argued, but they're also more expensive to administer. He said that written exams can't really determine who will make a good leader. 'Some of the worst officers you/ve ever had were book smart officers.'"

To get some idea of what these guys were up against, I checked out one of the cram programs firefighters use. Bearing in mind that you are looking to hire someone who can get you out of a smoked filled, fifth floor bedroom, consider the following test taking advice:

|||| When evaluating answer choices, the words to be on the lookout for are the little words that tend to either "harden" or "soften" statements. Words which "harden" statements, and make them difficult to defend, are strong words like: all, every, always, will, must, certainly, invariably, surely, no one, ever, any, no matter, nothing, etc. Words which "soften" statements, and make them easy to defend, are words like: some, many, sometimes, may, possibly, generally, probably, usually, often, can, could, might, occasionally, etc. . .

When answering test questions, you must base your answer solely on the information contained in the test question. The test for a Firefighter requires no previous knowledge of the job. The test questions do not have to reflect the way the job is really done or the actual procedures of the Fire Department. . .

Problems arise when a person who is familiar with procedures of the fire department encounters a test question based on something that contradicts actual practices. It is in this kind of situation that you must ignore actual practices and answer on the basis of what the test question says. For example, you might know that kitchen stove fires are usually extinguished with a portable fire extinguisher; but a test question might describe a stove fire being put out with a fire hose attached to a hydrant. In this kind of test situation, never mind the actual practice; go by the information in the question. . .

A skillful test maker tries to make two or three of the answer choices look very good. All the answer choices may contain some truth, which make them tempting. Or all may look wrong. But the test maker has to have put some detail into the "fact pattern" of the question to justify the claim that one of these answers is better than the others. If reviewing the answer choices themselves has not helped, the clue to which answer is correct is likely to be in the question stem or "fact pattern" rather than in the answer choices. So go back to the question stem and the fact pattern the look for the deciding factor. ||||

This is not advice for someone seeking to clerk for a judge or win some cable quiz show but for someone who is expected to stop fires and save lives. Yet, "the test questions do not have to reflect the way the job is really done or the actual procedures of the Fire Department." And: "Problems arise when a person who is familiar with procedures of the fire department encounters a test question based on something that contradicts actual practices. It is in this kind of situation that you must ignore actual practices and answer on the basis of what the test question says."

Somehow I feel a lot less safe.

The New Haven case is a mess caused by infatuation with the law, mistaking verbal dexterity for practical skill, and an obsession with examinations. It has protected neither people's safety nor their civil liberties.

It would, for example, be interesting to know how much has been paid lawyers (especially white ones) in this case, because I suspect it might have supported increasing the number of job openings so that black firefighters could have been hired along with the higher scoring whites. As older white officers retired, the bubble could deflate again. Black mayor Walter Washington used this approach to integrate the whole DC government during the 1970s and no one got mad. Mediation might have worked out a deal where most of the whites got promoted along with some of the blacks, with the remaining whites with passing scores being placed at the top for the list for the next promotion.

Such approaches could have gotten New Haven through its immediate crisis, which it could avoid repeating by developing a much fairer way of choosing officers for its fire department.

A successful multiethnic community is one that works well for everyone. It is not one in which government puts members of one of the most honorable trades at each other's throats.


Anonymous Mairead said...

Benjamin Bloom wrote the world-standard edu taxonomy: the Taxonomy of Educational ObjectivesMichael Scriven later made some (imo) improving changes to it.

Both scholars made clear that any but the most trivial knowledge cannot reliably be captured by a written test.

As they and other major scholars (Bruner, Simon, etc) of cognition have noted, the best education comes from high-quality simulation (i.e., the experience without the danger), and the only way to test at that level is more simulation.

This is not arcana.

June 1, 2009 12:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What we have in this country are far to many highly educated complete idiots. People who would have a difficult time finding their way out of a wet paper bag regardless of the number or type of university degrees they held. And far too many of these get voted into government.


June 29, 2009 12:25 PM  

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