Looking like you are helping vs. actually helping

I recently finished reading Nickel and Dimed, which describes author Barbara Ehrenreich’s experience spending a year (trying to) live on income only earned through minimum wage jobs.

For part of the year, she worked for a housecleaning service.

During her training and her work as a housecleaner, she is surprised by the extent to which the company focuses on making houses seem clean, while sometimes neglecting to make houses actually clean:

We scrub only to remove impurities that might be detectable to a customer by hand or by eye; otherwise our only job is to wipe. Nothing is said about the possibility of transporting bacteria, by rag or by hand, from bathroom to kitchen or even from one house to the next. It is the “cosmetic touches” that the [training] videos emphasize and that [supervisor] Ted, when he wanders back into the room, continually directs my eye to. (75)

Image: www.cleaningservicesslo.com

People pay to have their house cleaned, but are only able to judge how clean their house is by relatively superficial measures of no visible dirtiness and the scent of a quick spritz of “the cleaning service’s signature floral-scented air freshener, which will signal to the owners, the moment they return home, that, yes, their house has been ‘cleaned’ (76).”

I worry about the extent to which many organizations, particularly in education, succumb to this same trap of rejoicing in making things look better, without actually accomplishing as much as they appear to have accomplished.

Certainly, in cleaning, there is indeed value to living in a place that seems clean and tidy. However, my guess is that much of this instinct to try to live in a “clean” place emerges from evolutionary and social pressures to live in a place that is less likely to cause disease–precisely the germs Ehrenreich’s cleaning service did not focus on.

image: www.photos-public-domain.com

Similarly, in a school context, yes, there is certainly value in helping a student improve her attendance or grades. However, in doing so, people must keep in mind that these measures are stand-ins for other more important things (the things an education system should actually care about): deeper learning, personal growth, etc.

I’ve written before about false proxies and that thinking certainly comes into play here.

It is certainly possible for a particular intervention to temporarily raise student attendance, grades, etc. without impacting the student’s attendance, grades, etc. in the long run.

It is also certainly possible for a particular intervention to temporarily raise student attendance, grades, etc. without really having much of an impact on a student’s actual learning, the student’s self-image as a successful student and person, or the student’s likelihood to stay on a healthy academic and personal track in the long run.

This is where the scariness comes in: just as a kitchen that smells and looks clean may not actually be very clean, a student’s somewhat higher grades may make it look like he is on the right track, though maybe he isn’t.

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3 Responses to Looking like you are helping vs. actually helping

  1. Anonymous says:

    Love this analogy. So true that an intervention can have a temporary, superficial impact that isn’t doing much (or any) good in the long run. As a social worker, I often struggle with my feeling that the reverse is also often true: an intervention that could have significant positive impact in the long run may not produce bright, shiny, clean-smelling evidence of immediate change – and funders aren’t interested in supporting it.


  2. Amy says:

    This applies in so many areas: car repair is another good example. Maybe there is a little too much human nature going on.


  3. Israel P. says:

    Some government entities are like that too. All shiny, but rotten inside.
    Especially when there is no incentive to fix them.


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