Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What is a Fair Grade? Should Effort Count?

What's sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander. -- Proverb
Instructors at even “top-rank” universities report that their students fuss and fume if they get anything less than an A on an assignment. They expect that just putting out the effort – or claiming to have done so – merits a B so that anything more should bring it up to an A. A professor’s insisting that there may be standards that should influence judgments of quality is dismissed as some kind of cranky, outmoded elitism.

The retorts are obvious. The easiest one is to ask students if they would want to go to a doctor who had “put in the effort” during his or her studies, but never really learned the material. The students see the point but somehow continue to believe that their work should be exempted from conclusions drawn from such examples.

So far as most students are concerned, grades are competitive prizes, to judge from their comparison and boasting about GPA’s. However, everyone’s entitled to the honor of a diploma. This is a benefit that must be fairly shared quite independently of its use as a marker of accomplishment

To examine these issues further, see Fair Share vs. Fair Play: 
Two Competing Conceptions of Justice

-- GKC (EGR)

All Schools Are Little Wheels: the J. Fred Muggs Effect

The little wheel run by Faith…
…(W. Guthrie, Ezekial Saw the Wheel}

Many of us were shocked, -- shocked, I tell you, -- to read (more likely, see on TV) that chimpanzees, affectionately known as "chimps," were not just the cute buffoons we had been seeing all our lives in the media. In the wild, they warred against other clans of their own kind and hunted and fed on the fresh kill of Bonobo monkeys; you know, those even smaller, cuter, gentler primates whose main pastimes merely mimicked those of a typical college undergraduate population.

Faith in the docility, the sociability, of “pets” has brought it about that Florida is overrun by snakes of foreign origin. You flush ‘em down the toilet down there and they end up in the Everglades. (In the North, it’s alligators; elsewhere, it’s boars and cats.)

Americans make a big deal about the distinction between religious and public schools. But both rest on some kind of Faith. The great myth is that the public schools – accused dim-wittedly of being “secularist” – put their faith in Science. Not so.

A group of psychological researchers have reviewed the literature and determined that the following beliefs – often fanatically held by many public school personnel and university trainers of teachers-- are false or lack verification:

--There are left-brained and right-brained people
--Intelligence tests are biased against certain groups of people
--Students have learning styles. Teachers can teach to them.
--Heritable traits cannot be changed.
--Low self-esteem causes psychological problems.

A recent book, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior, by Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio and Beyerstein explains the 50 myths and actually mentions 167 more.

How much so-called education, not to mention educational reform, is carried on assuming that these either downright false or unproven ideas are true? How many so-called Best Practices are based on these myths? Perhaps reform doesn’t take in schools because too many people would rather hold on to their chimps – pardon me, “faith” -- than be effective educators.

To examine these issues further, see The Pop-Psych Schoolhouse: Educational Reform Mired in (Inspired by?) Scientific Misconception


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Schooling Practice: ignoring power-nurture conflicts

“Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing -- Thomas J. Peters
New teachers worry about professionalism. They worry whether their peers, their superiors and even their students and their students’ parents will take them seriously. It’s a worry about being accorded the respect they think they deserve.

Why do they worry about respect? Because it gives them the authority they need to bring their students into the paths specified by the school’s curriculum. So they bolster that authority by following and preaching policies, rules and methods. And, behold, it generally works. They are acknowledged to be “the teacher.” And the students do “school activities” as they are bidden.

But teachers face, every day, day-in-and-day out, young, needy, human beings. The teacher’s inclinations are to slip into the role of counselor, parent, older sibling, friend. But then they would have to loosen, to give up on emphasizing policies, rules and methods. This undermines their authority, little enough as they have, and distracts from the stern demands of curriculum.

There are just too many individuals in their classes. And they confront, perhaps for the first time clearly in their lives, that fact that the idea of an “average student” is less a reality than an abstraction. Abstractions don’t have needs. Real kids do. The amount of individual attention parents want for their individual children is just not a possibility given even a small group.

So, to avoid the appearance of favoritism, or neglect, teachers -- often with heavy heart -- learn to apportion their attentions among their many students, knowing that some will find the teacher’s help hardly -- if at all -- nurturing; and others, almost an imposition.

Complicating this basic tension are official importunities that professionalism requires that teachers concern themselves, simultaneously, for special needs, gender, bullying, ethnic, cultural and personal differences among students. Missing any of these issues might result, during a professional observation by administration, in a less than satisfactory evaluation.

And there is also, the inescapable, often deep, moral dilemma: How much of the individual student’s comfort, freedom and self-esteem should be sacrificed, when necessary, for the good of the group?

For references and to examine these issues further, see Power in Schooling Practice: 
The Educational Dilemmas

--- EGR

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Name-Dropping Is Not Enough: faking it with buzzwords

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. -- Matt. 7:21 KJ
A graduate student asked me to recommend him for admission when I was an advisor in a university doctoral program. He was in his regular life a businessman as well as a long-term elected official in a nearby township where he was expected to decide on such things as policies and contracts.

I asked him, “Considering you’re already fifty-seven, why do you want to go to the trouble of studying to get a doctorate?”

He said, “Because I want to speak with authority on how our school district should be run, and not always be suspected of just trying to feather my nest with contracts.”

I said, “Anyone can appear to have authority if the audience is ignorant enough. And if they use impressive buzzwords. You know, both academia and the business world are full of them. I’ll recommend you with the understanding that – as much as possible – you'll convert those buzzwords into meaningful ideas and use them in a well-reasoned way. Your authority should be based on knowledge; not, BS!” He accepted and eventually became my dissertation student.

Schools and businesses are remarkably similar in many ways. Both in education and management, whether it occurs in the classroom or office, in a school system or in an entire corporation, lack of understanding, of resources, or of consensus is masked with buzzwords.

Words expressing the most profound of concepts can be reduced to a buzzword when they are used unthinkingly or merely to impress the ignorant. (Or to pass licensing examinations!) Some big concepts typically misused as buzzwords in education or business are, among many others: synergy, constructivism, team-player, reinforcer, measurement, accountability, win-win, knowledge, reward, market, research, post-modern, Foucaultian, Lacanian.

If you don’t know what something is or isn’t; or, where it might work, or won’t; or, what difference knowing about it makes, you aren’t speaking with authority.

To examine these issues further, see Using, Rather Than Merely Alluding To, Theory

--- EGR

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Naive Reform Proposals: Suggesting Uncertain Means

The little things you haven't got
Could be alot if you pretend
-- "Pretend" by D. Belloc, L. Douglas,
F. Lavere, C. Parman
We expect that almost every experienced adult can talk easily about means and ends, methods and goals. And so they do. We ask a friend,
“What big item do you want to buy this year?”
“A new car.” (end or goal)
“How are you going to get it?”
“Take out a loan.” (means, or method)
Sounds reasonable. Certainly a big enough loan ought to enable him to buy the car he wants. But we might have information that makes the means (the method) less than certain. For example, we reply,
“But you’re out of work, and you already have a lot of debt. Who’s going to lend you much more money?”
Let’s call the means or method in such a situation, “uncertain means” or “uncertain method.”
A new teacher might complain
“My students don’t seem to be finishing their homework. What can I do?”
“Consider the following three suggestions:
1. Keep them after school until 7 PM. That’ll give them time to complete homework.
2. Give them partial lunch detentions for homework purposes. (But let them eat lunch in your room.)
3. Stop giving them homework.
Now, any of these could work, but whether or not they are feasible may depend upon factors beyond your control. Maybe school bus service is not available beyond 4PM. Or maybe there are policies prohibiting eating in the classrooms. Or policies that require giving homework.

Proposed means are only as certain as the resources, the policies and the practices available to support them. Someone might offer to take you on a trip to Mars. If you ask how they’ll do it, they reply, “In a vehicle that will make the round trip.” It’s not likely you’ll take them seriously. (Logically, it makes sense, if there were such a vehicle, then it would be a certain means for going to Mars -- all other things being equal.)

Much of what is suggested quite seriously by presumed “experts” to reform public schools is if this type: uncertain means. For example in a column in USA Today, named “3 ways to improve the USA's teachers,” Wendy Kopp and Dennis Van Roekel (http://usat.ly/uu8mDG) suggest the following methods (means):
A. Use data to improve teacher preparation.
B. Bring new talent to the teaching profession.
C. Give teachers opportunities for continuous professional development.
“Data,” “new talent,” “professional development,” are all very popular phrases, slogans easily bandied about by the experientially challenged. But these are clearly uncertain methods.

What data are we supposed to get? At what cost? Over what period of time? Requiring whose permission? And is there any consensus on the possible answers to any of these questions?

New talent? Talent for what? How will it be identified? With what certainty? And how would such “new talent” be attracted to the profession? And is there any consensus on the possible answers to any of these questions?

Professional development? Actual informative, non-soporific activities? To be done when? In place of what present activities? Who will give it? How and by whom will they be identified and determined to be appropriate to the prospective audiences? And is there any consensus on the possible answers to any of these questions?

To examine these issues further, see Best Practices? Don’t Bet On It!


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Is School Still Educational?

Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind. -- Plato
Legislation was proposed in 1995 in Colorado to do away with "compulsory education." I was interviewed by Colorado Public Radio regarding my position on the issue. I asked for clarification: What was the proposal? Was it to do away with state-mandated educational requirements, thus reopening the door to the child labor abuses that abounded in the last century? Or was it to do away with compulsory school attendance?

My interviewer wasn't sure. He said he thought the voters of Colorado were tired of seeing more and more of their educational tax dollars go to dealing with kids who make trouble because they don't want to be there in the first place.

I said that I thought that noncompulsory school attendance was probably a morally preferable situation to the present practice. But the Colorado proposal would be like scratching an itch with a scalpel.

Unless schools can reject students whose parents want them to attend, the problem of undermotivated, distracted students would not necessarily be addressed. In any case, it is not clear how student-on-student abuse will be affected by even a change to non-compulsory schooling so long as educators persist in avoiding moral commitment.

To examine these issues further, see Fear in the Classroom 
Is Schooling Still Sufficiently Educational?

-- EGR

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is Your Child Really At Risk? Lessen Your Worries.

The sky is falling, the sky is falling. -- Chicken Little
So your kid doesn’t do homework regularly, or cuts class, or doesn’t seem interested in school. Think of the kids from your own school days. How many did the same? Perhaps, you slacked off, too. And yet many of these same kids pulled it together later in life and are doing OK right now. Why I bet you could even name a former President of the United States (or two or more if you really know your history) who goofed his way through school, even through college!

There is a lot of money to be made by getting parents to worry that their children are “at risk.” Some parents are seduced into believing that poor grades predestine their adolescents to a life of crime or poverty. Others are more concerned with bragging rights in comparing their offspring with their neighbors’ brats: Mom or Dad really would like an Ivy League window sticker for a car.

Luckily, we live in a society where school success and life success are only tenuously related, despite the efforts of panting pedants to make a high school diploma the only door to human happiness. There are many more paths to adult success than might be considered by a middle school guidance counselor, or parent -- for that matter.

To examine these issues further, see Identifying the ‘At Risk’ Student

--- EGR

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Do Public School-Religious School Differences Matter?

“Religion which requires persecution to sustain, it is of the devil's propagation.” -- Hosea Ballou
It is the mission of religious and many secular organizations, e.g. the State, to convince, persuade, seduce, coerce or dupe us to concede authority to them over certain aspects of our lives: these are then called duties and obligations. As children, dependent and ignorant, we willy-nilly concede authority to those who importune us. However, as adults we ought to question -- as Thomas Aquinas reminds us -- whether the faith we concede as a child is appropriate as a free adult.

In a democratic country where custom and law maintain Church-State separation, it is more likely that secular institutions, especially the public schools and those that promote and administer them, will undermine freedom in pursuing the fads and fashions the flesh is heir to.

For example, non-sectarian university teacher-training programs routinely indoctrinate prospective public school teachers with questionable theory as though it were incontrovertible fact, e.g., All children can learn, Protect self-esteem, Consider learning style, Education for Democracy, International Competitiveness, etc.

Because such indoctrination is not based on religious sectarianism, public schools are not protected from, indeed, have become inundated with, dogmatic ideologies imposed with totalitarian rigor.

To examine these issues further, see PERSONAL LIBERATION THROUGH EDUCATION

-- EGR

Friday, December 9, 2011

Are Students a Teacher’s Clients?

“You are rewarding a teacher poorly if you remain always a pupil.”-- Friedrich Nietzsche
Our advertising-saturated culture invariably slops over into education. Houses are offered for sale as "homes"; amusement parks as "great adventures"; life insurance as "protection."

Some suggest that a student should be thought of as a "client." Perhaps what is at work here is the thought that people who deal with clients are more "professional," more worthy of respect, than those who deal merely with customers, wards, dependents, charges, inmates, or students.

Is reconceptualizing student as client just harmless ego bolstering for the practitioners of our traditionally underprized occupation? I think not. Students are not their teachers' clients. Nor should we aspire to our students' someday achieving such a relationship with us. Client is a term both too pompous and too shallow to characterize the special relationship that under the best of conditions exists between teacher and student.

No teacher gains an increment in prestige by referring to his or her students as clients. That deep commitment to (one might say, "obsession with") students' well-being found in many, many teachers -- a commitment that leads them to spend energy, time, and money far in excess of any compensation they could hope for -- is miserably served by the characterization of the student as "client."

To examine these issues further, see The Student as "Client"

-- EGR

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Who Can We Trust to Raise Our Children?

“A village is a hive of glass, where nothing unobserved can pass” -- Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)
Does it take a village to raise a child. To be what? Village idiot? Village prostitute? Village drunk? Village ne'er do well? These are not failures of village education but roles integral to certain kinds of community life. Without the fallen, the at-risk, the tempted, those we celebrate as moral leaders would have little to do in a village. Comfortable educators purveying their wares to an increasingly comfortable clientele sentimentalize beyond historical recognition the outcomes of village life. These outcomes were usually not very good for the majority of village dwellers. The motto of village life is not "Thrive" but "Just survive."

Did my village raise its children? Yes, in some sense. Any adult felt free to tell a child what to do. Children were expected to obey. When an adult told me to hand over my mother's grocery money to him for safe-keeping, I, at seven years old, was not considered at fault for obeying. The presence of the thief was the neighborhood scandal. He was an outsider; he had to be. Only outsiders did really bad things in our neighborhood. What our neighbors did, e.g., bloodying their wives' noses, breaking their child's arm, wasn't really bad. For “our own kind,” the quality of mercy could not be strained.

To examine these issues further, see School and Family: A Partnership for Educational Success?

-- EGR

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mentors for New Teachers: just another fad?

Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction. -- John Crosby
Mentoring -- one might think -- is just the most wonderful thing to come along in education for ... centuries, almost. Everybody seems to be talking about it; why, you can tell how successful it's going to be because just about every other educational conference you see advertised has loads and loads of presentations on mentoring. Or used to. Who knows? Perhaps it will even achieve the stunning success enjoyed by such innovations as open classrooms, or programmed learning!

Student teaching, we know, has long attempted to provide mentors for the fledgling educator by pairing him or her up with an experienced teacher. But the reality is often that each school principal picks the sponsoring teacher for reasons other than any concern to help the student teacher.

The colleges, generally competing with each other for scarce placements, have little control over how their students are placed or what is done with them should they be lucky enough to secure a placement.

To examine these issues further, see Mentoring: Are We Serious?

-- EGR

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Providing Services for Children in Special Education: what should they be?

Handicapped kids and those who care for them have pretty consistently ended up losers in the public schools. Neglect didn’t work. Special education didn’t work, either. Will our efforts to fully include special children in regular classes do any better, given our insatiable desire to raise achievement and measure it by test scores?

Working with less-fortunate kids in academic classes might help the “included” kids a bit, and it will undoubtedly make the “including” kids better people. But let’s also admit that it will take time away from kids’ test preparation, and we all know damn well what really counts.

Teachers all know what suffering we create when we neglect the needy. But we should also consider the grief that follows when overzealous service is provided. Maybe it’s time to explore alternatives when public providers are not satisfactory, for example, private, even religion-based experts, more aggressively ...but with more care than enthusiasm.

To examine these issues further, see Special Education: misgivings and reconsiderations

-- WAC

Monday, December 5, 2011

Schooling: from the trifling to the trivial

It is one of the maladies of our age to profess a frenzied allegiance to truth in unimportant matters, to refuse consistently to face her where graver issues are at stake. -- Janos Arany
C'mon, let's be honest. How many taxpayers really care whether no child is left behind in the quest for the intersection of east- and westbound trains? How many administrators really care what percentage of your students understand the deep significance of Brother Lawrence's character in Romeo and Juliet? How many presidential candidates really care whether the kids from the hood or the barrio or the trailer park can list the steps in meiosis?

Education, alas, is of interest only to the educated, and in Georgia, that limits our constituency (and in your state too, in case you hadn't noticed) — but everybody is interested in success, and the first step in achieving success is avoiding failure. And since NCLB, all schools are obsessed with avoiding failure.

For many years I've told my teacher education students that the primary letters in teaching are not A, B, and C, but C,Y, and A. That has never been more true. Avoiding unfavorable publicity and unpleasant litigation is the principal worry of every principal, and a smart principal will make sure you are correspondingly principled.

We all want our statistics and portfolios and accreditation reports to be flattering, or at least not shameful. That in itself is human, but nowadays, I hear about little else, and that is anything but humane.

To examine these issues further, see The Public School's Sorest Need: ToTransfigure the Trivial

-- WAC

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Curriculum for the Soul

A just laicism allows religious freedom. The state does not impose religion but rather gives space to religions with a responsibility toward civil society, and therefore it allows these religions to be factors in building up society. -- Joseph Ratzinger
There are areas in which public schools cannot do well but public school teachers succeed, and dealing wisely with the soul of a child is probably one of them. Be patient here, please: I am aware of and endorse the constitutional restraints on religion in public schools. I share with my separationist friends a distrust of religious activity by the state and many doubts about government’s ability to deal adequately with issues of faith and morals.

But we should remember that not only do the courts forbid any action by government schools not prompted by a “secular primary purpose” or which would “principally and primarily” aid religion; they also forbid any that would inhibit it, and they further require that these conundrums be resolved without creating “excessive entanglement” of government and religion. Much of religious parents’ dissatisfaction with public education undoubtedly arises from concern about the possible negative impact of public schooling on their children’s faith and morals.

Teachers may want to reconsider practices that could inhibit the development of faith in their children, and consider practices of general application that would accommodate grace without overstepping the bounds of law.

To examine these issues further, see Jacob’s Children and Ours:
Richard of St. Victor’s Curriculum for the Soul

-- WAC

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Should Schools be Clone Factories?

The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to an uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. -- James Madison

Many of us seem to long for the deep excitement, the sense of mission, the pervasive invigoration that was provided by the Cold War. Lacking the imminent threat of "mass participation in that Grand Incineration" that gave such cogency to our duck-and-cover drills, we miss the struggle against a world Communism that gave so much meaning to life and so much federal funding to U. S. industry and education.

So we dig up Frankenstein, Body Snatchers, and the Manchurian Candidate! We worry about WMD’s, terrorists, polygamists, militias, and other harbingers of the apocalypse. And we fuss and fret about cloning. We express apprehension, vexation, or reservation about the possibility of creating genetic duplicates of humans.

In reality, we have been cloning, or at least, trying to clone, educated minds for millennia. What do religious leaders want? Doctrinal clones. What do political leaders want? Political clones. What do ethnic leaders want? Ethnic clones. What do parents want? Clones of themselves.

To examine these issues further, see Cloning Student Voice

-- EGR

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Liberal Arts: House of Intellect or of Questionable-Repute?

True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.-- Socrates
It’s been some 2500 years since Socrates persuaded the denizens of the Academy to accept one of the world’s grandest absurdities: the belief that successful practitioners, in general, do not “really know” what they are doing. This cooks down today to the common academic prejudices that
a. practice, hands on experience, or apprenticeship, is an inferior approach to learning; and
b. seat time in a lecture hall provides a superior education; and
c. the glibbest person on a topic is likely the most knowledgeable, and consequently, the most authoritative.
To “know something” – according to Socrates -- is to be able to articulate it or demonstrate it in the manner of a geometrical proof. Contrary to popular belief, Socrates was not engaged so much – if at all -- in reflective critical thinking as in cultural warfare. Most important for us today, Socrates and followers provided a criterion of membership in what in modern times would be called the Intelligentsia.

A second tragedy was Socrates’influence on religion, via Plato and then Aristotle. Early Christian Aristotelians, pressured by Constantine for uniformity in order to morally legitimate state interventions, invented “Rational” theology. Statements of belief were formulated and could now become became a matter of life and death. “Creeds” had to be memorized and recited for admission to one or another competing congregation of true believers. Acquaintance with theology defined a religious Intelligentsia as opposed to the merely pious plebians.

How many millions of people have been sacrificed on the altars of the Intelligentsia, both religious and secular? Lenin, for example, considered himself, as well as Marx and Engels, members of the bourgeois intelligentsia, destined to lead a generally "falsely conscious" working class into revolution. Like Stalin, Hitler suffered through a fairly standard religious education as a child, but each man pursued his own phantasm of doctrinal purity: economic vs racial.

ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has resolved in 2011 to ensure that college graduates
“… have the skills and knowledge they need in math, science, American history, and economics.”
Why these subject areas? Behold the Non Sequitur!
“Students can’t think critically, and succeed professionally, if they don’t have anything to think about.”
Is there a logical connection here? Is this really a concern for critical thought; or, a sales pitch for a particular type of education?

Ought we to believe that if people can’t get a college cafeteria meal, they’ll likely starve to death? If they don’t work out in a college gym, their muscles will likely atrophy? If they don’t learn to sing Gaudeamus Igitur they, growling, will likely devolve into feral animals?

Even though it is still considered a sign of advanced educational achievement, wisdom, even, to tip one's hat to Socrates' despair about the possibility of knowledge, in reality many, if not most, people hold (more wisely) to the following:
Inarticulate knowledge must not be despised: we grasp theoretical ideas only if we have sufficient experience to give them meaning.-- Stephen Toulmin Return to Reason (2001,174)

To pursue these and related issues, see Moral Education: Indoctrination vs. Cognitive Development?

--- EGR

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Switching Sides -- and taking others along

You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
-- Johnny Mercer & Harold Arlen (1944)
You’ve been pushing a proposal, but now you’ve reconsidered.

Your priorities have changed. What you thought were benefits turned out to have unacceptable, previously hidden or underestimated costs.

What you thought were unacceptable costs, now seem to be not too bad, after all.

Time to reverse yourself, but not look scatterbrained or hypocritical in the process.

How to do this? Just consider: what someone may call “tact,” another will call “lying.” Same thing, just two ways of looking at it. It's a matter of value priorities. Characterizing an action "tact," prioritizes concern for other peoples' feelings over truth-telling. Calling it "lying," gives higher priority to truth-telling than to concern for peoples' feelings.

Consider another example: what some people may say is “plain truth” or “forthrightness,” others will call “insensitivity” or even “cruelty.” Again, it's a matter of value priorities: openness vs. not upsetting people.

To promote a change of course, you will have to reorder value priorities. You’ll need to know how to commend the values you now avoid even if previously you disparaged them. You’ll need to know how to disparage the things you now want to avoid even if previously you commended them. If you can handle these inversions skillfully, switching sides should be no problem.

But think it through first. Reversing yourself too frequently undercuts your credibility.

For references and to learn how this reversal process works, see see Mechanisms for Policy Reversal

--- EGR

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Getting Clear on Outcomes : a preliminary to project planning

There are many examples ... of situations in which disparate groups of politicians and the constituents they represent have joined together in common cause but consensus has represented nothing more than a superficial commitment to a simple slogan. -- Susskind & Cruikshank, Breaking the Impasse, 1987, p.63-64
Suppose we were considering funding a project to improve student scores in mathematics. Suppose it is shown that Johnny Jones has failed a math test. Is Mr. Smith his teacher to blame because he is a bad teacher? Or is Johnny a lackadaisical student? Or was Johnny sick when he took the test? Or something else?

From the meager information that Johnny failed a test, we cannot make a fair judgment. Johnny’s failure might be accounted for by any of the suggested explanations. How could we add information to the skeletal description, "Johnny Jones failed a math test," to make a decision as to what really happened? What information would be critical? What would be non-informative? What our project aims at will depend upon it.

People often jump into planning a project without carefully specifying what outcomes they are looking for. This avoidance is done sometimes because they feel that the commitment to the project is weak and they don’t want to provoke objections. A risky choice! They may finesse agreement in the initial stages of the project only to have crucial support pulled out after vast expenditures of resources. Such has happened, for example, throughout the history of school reform movements in the United States.

Another reason they may avoid careful specification of outcomes is that they think such procedures are a “mere matter of semantics,” a dispensible impediment to “action-oriented” people like themselves to getting things accomplished. This is delusion. It treats superficial consent to vague terms as though it were deep commitment.

If you consider how many things incite calls to action which are later abandoned because hidden disagreements arise to sap them of support, you will likely agree that some kind of process is in order that will help avoid misunderstandings at a basic level. The alternative is to go ahead blindly and hope for the best. From experience we know that the likely result is a vast waste of time, money and effort.

The process we suggest is called case comparison and analysis. In using it we bring up realistic examples for consideration. We note differences and similarities. We decide which cases we, individually, can agree on most clearly represent the critical terms contained in our goal statement. Then we try to spell out what the defining characteristics are for those terms.

Examples of cases for analysis can be found via the following links:
Model Cases: Effective, Moral or Worthy Teaching
Model Cases: Justice, Expedience, Favoritism
Model Cases: Punishment, Cruelty, Infliction
Take a look at the cases involved. You will see that they are very similar. Yet a minor difference in description may involve a major change in how we classify them.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Defeating or Supporting a Case Characterization

--- EGR

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Critical Thinking: weapon, or tool for self-development?

"He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever." - Chinese Proverb
One of the most persistent suggestions for curing what ails American education at all levels is to help students develop "critical thinking." Everywhere, you find people complaining that college graduates don't know how to think critically. Neither do younger students.

But why is critical thinking often praised but seldom implemented in the schools? There are four important reasons. This first is that, in casual conversation, “critical” implies nasty, often disrespectful, mocking evaluation and complaint. Parents don't want to have their kids coming home even better equipped to do what many are already too inclined to. And they certainly don’t want it applied to what they, as adults, esteem.

Secondly, critical thinking is conceived of, by many people, as little more than a weapon. Parents only want weapons pointed at the things and people they disapprove of. Many would sooner trust their kids with firearms. You can’t destroy Faith with a bullet; but you can sure weaken it with critical reflection. So it is that critical thinking is shunned if it focusses back on one’s families’ own beliefs and values.

The third reason why it is not taught is that it is not sufficiently emphasized that, in order to avoid indoctrination, all reasoning in critical thinking classes, is hypothetical. It examines what connections among thoughts might exist. It need not take the additional step of advocating action. People outside of schools tend to be, or pretend to be, action oriented. To think something is to act on it. Teachers -- indeed instructors at all levels of education -- often overstep the boundary here and try to surreptitiously press students to act, rather than let those students reflect on whether they have good, personal grounds for action.

But messages here are mixed. Parents, and social leaders, want teachers to get their students to act in ways those higher-ups approve of. The incessant worry about values education reflects this. But teachers who get kids to act, no matter how morally and rationally, in ways their superiors find discomforting, are liable to criticism, even dismissal.

The forth and final reason is that critical thinking instruction is seldom thought of by non-educators as teaching how to "get down to facts" or "uncover basic values.” Assuring that indoctrination will be avoided, critical thinking skills could be seen as even more important when applied to things we value. For example, most people when they want to sell their house, overprice it and try to show it to prospective buyers full of the memorabilia that makes it a home for them, the present owners. They don’t see the faults and don’t consider that piles of books, souvenirs and pillows they personally find comforting and homey, are likely to be just junk in the eyes of a prospective buyer.

Suppose you, the seller, were buying a house. What would you be concerned about? The age of the roof? A wet basement? Termite or mold damage? Make a list of questions. Now ask yourself what the answers might be for this beloved domicile, this home you are putting up for … sacrifice, er… sale? Don’t make excuses or cover-ups. An astute buyer wouldn’t. Use critical thinking methods to guide your actions. If you won’t, a good real estate agent will.

The practice of systemizing and standardizing questioning has long been followed in many occupations, especially, the law. Sets of broad, standardized questions are called “Interrogatories.” Many kinds of legal activity, for example, require that interrogatories be completed, before time is spent by specialists in judicial proceedings.

Here is a hypothetical example for educators: suppose we were considering whether to incorporate computer literacy into a class on printmaking. Important questions in developing an interrogatory might be:
1. Is there a consensus among specialists in both printmaking (and computer literacy) as to what pertinent knowledge computer literacy offers?
2. Do the students already have that knowledge?
3. If they already "know" computer literacy, in some sense, is it in a form they can use?
4. Will computer literacy enhance their skills as practitioners in printmaking ?
5. Will computer literacy enhance their performance in those many activities that support printmaking as an enterprise, e.g. academically or vocationally?
Notice that merely to answer these questions does not automatically commit you to the change, or even, to resisting the change.
(For more on this see Evaluating Proposed Program Expansion)

A useful, non-formal approach to critical thinking is to get familiar with formulating and using interrogatories. For example of interrogatories and their applications, see Developing Interrogatories to Aid Analysis, 
Problem-Solving and Conflict Resolution

--- EGR

Friday, November 18, 2011

Lecture: an overused pedagogical tool?

Any subject can be made interesting, and therefore any subject can be made boring. -- Hilaire Belloc
Why do teachers at all levels lecture so much? First of all, lecture is a cheap "delivery method." Class size can be maximized once lecturer-student interaction is dispensed with. Lecture is not, however, an effective means of developing and tracking knowledge or skills in a great many people.

Second, lecture is the easiest technique for the teacher to develop a modicum of skill at. It requires minimal preparation. (A fast talker can "wing it" from time to time apparently undetected by his audience.)

Third, and not the least important, the emphasis on lecture obscures the common perception that pedagogical skill is inversely related to level taught; that is, elementary and middle school teachers tend to be better at pedagogy than high school teachers and college professors. (Many universities go through an elaborate ritual of denial by bestowing MacArthur awards for teaching on – usually, assistant -- professors whom they later reject for tenure.)

To examine these issues further, see “ ‘The Mind's Eye’ and Pedagogical Practice”

-- EGR

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tolerate Everything, Stand For Nothing: the practical limits of tolerance

In the practice of tolerance, one's enemy is the best teacher.-- Dalai Lama
The biggest difference that I found between the native-born and the immigrant (or refugee) children that I taught for almost twenty years was this: the native-born kids could talk up a storm about tolerance and the "right" of people to be different. The immigrant children tended not to express such views. Not that anyone practiced them with any regularity

Americans profess both to celebrate their own individual ethnicity and to tolerate others different from them at the same time. This strikes many foreigners as schizophrenic, but uniquely American. "But then," one Greek visitor remarked to me, "you are all really Americans, even if you kid yourselves that you are different." He suggested that the truest celebration of ethnic difference was to be found among the Bosnians and the Serbs, who at that time were busily trying to ethnically cleanse each other from the map.

The pursuit in our public schools of "multiculturalism" not only perplexes immigrants who have come here with the full intent of becoming "Americans", it conflicts with the traditional mission of the schools to promote a democratic society by inculcating a common political culture.

To examine these issues further, see Immigrants in the New America: 
Is it time to heat up the melting pot?

-- EGR

Monday, November 14, 2011

Schools Can Be Just Too Big

The dinosaur's eloquent lesson is that if some bigness is good, an overabundance of bigness is not necessarily better. -- Eric Johnston
In the 1930's there were about 127,000 school districts. By the late 1980's they had been consolidated into slightly over 15,000 much larger units. Bigger pots, is seems, were thought to make better soup. Do we still think this is true? Is it time for a change?

No doubt some can point to many benefits gained by such consolidation. But who exactly gained those benefits? And who paid the costs?

University students who are prospective teachers want to be told there is no connection between what goes on in a classroom and the organization of the school. After all, why not close their classroom door and shut out the world? Can't they just "raise their expectations"?

Prospective teachers also want to know how to be "effective." That is all. They do not want to hear that important factors are not under their control, unless, with equal though contrary confusion, they give up the struggle, citing them as insurmountable.

Would-be teachers tend not to believe that school consolidation can have much effect on what they do. Much more important, they imagine, is their personal verve and dedication. This "Man of La Mancha-complex" often persists well into their careers. Being true to their glorious quest, their hearts, perhaps, will lie peaceful and calm when they're laid to their rest. Fine for them, but what about their students?

To examine these issues further, see Really Want Change? Deconsolidate the Schools!

-- EGR

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Free Market Incentives to Educational Monopoly

All professions are conspiracies against the laity. -- George Bernard Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906)
Let's consider a metaphor, "Organizations strive for Immortality." Rome’s highly paid and indulged Praetorian Guard, formed in 27 BCE to protect a market of relatively few individuals, e.g. August Caesar, his retinue and family, eventually came to the point of choosing and disposing of emperors. It lasted until the 4th century when it was dissolved by Constantine.

However, in our reality of rocks and humans and clouds, organizations are not the kinds of entitites that can be said, literally, to strive. They are, in law, merely fictional individuals. It is their their leaders, members and supporters who are the real, flesh and blood, coveting, striving, needful and prideful persons.

Because most organizations are rank-based rather than goal-based, they don’t plan for their own demise once their goal is accomplished or no longer viable. The Praetorians did not say on August 19, AD 14, “Too bad. Augustus has died. Let’s hike out to the boonies and go back to being regular, underpaid and overdisciplined soldiers.”

Leaders, particularly, want permanence, continuance of the substantial and psychological rewards of leadership. What the organization was set up to produce, becomes less and less important as leaders participate less and less, operationally, and serve mostly political purposes -- the most important being organizational continuity.

So it is we have corporate-form organizations that outlast their members in the form of churches, industries, armed forces, universities and unions. In the United States we also have systems of public education which mimic corporate form, even though there is no legal recognition of that status. Along with such corporate organizations we have, over a span of time, successions of so-called “leaders,” less expected to be producers than figureheads, whose often dispensible prerogatives of office are paid for at the cost of those who are compelled to support them.

Some people worry that charter schools will eventually do away with public education. This is like worrying that flea markets will wreck Microsoft. Public schools live on because they create markets and pay for its purchases with public funds. So called-reform-leaders who push charter schools are usually those who only want a place at the public funding trough.

Other educational Chickens Little worry that our university system, opening itself up more and more to all comers, is bound for shipwreck. Unlikely, so long as universities control professional credentials that secure high-earning jobs. The credentials market can persist for a long time whether or not anyone believes that a diploma is an indicator of knowledge so long as that diploma is an admission ticket to a well-paying occupation.

For references and to examine these issues further, see LEADERSHIP AS USURPATION: 
the Grand Inquisitor Syndrome and Morality in Rank-Based Organizations

--- EGR

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Is Special Education Fair?

The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people's children. -- Marian Wright Edelman
Most people try to do what they are aiming for at the minimal cost to their own energies and resources. To expend time and energy pointlessly is thought to be inefficient, certainly no virtue.
Teachers -- though they dislike the simile -- are like battlefield surgeons. They have limited supplies, time, and energy, and demands greater than they can handle. Thus, if they want to be efficient, they divide their potential patients into three groups:
1) the Gifted: those they can neglect because they will get well (learn) anyway -- they don't need it, whereas others do;

2) the Subnormal: those they should neglect because all (or an unfair proportion) of their resources will not help anyway, the resources available are insufficient to help them and would be wasted;

3) the Normal: the group that will show maximum improvement (learning) for the resources used. Allotting resources to this group optimizes their effect. 

This is called triage in medicine. In education it is called teaching to the middle. A common Principle of Equity, Fair Share, requires that no one receive more of a scarce resource than any other -- all things being equal.

Special education identifies both the Gifted and the Subnormal as Special Students, exempting them not only from the particular rules that support triage, but also from the Fair Share principle. This invariably shortchanges the normal student.

Should we give up on efficiency? When resources are scarce, which kids should we deprive?

To examine these issues further, see, The Ethics of Educational Triage


--- EGR

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Selling Off Your Freedom: what would be your price?

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose
And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free
-- K. Kristofferson, F.L. Foster
Do you want to have a say in what happens to you and yours? Do you want to be able to protect and promote the things you value? What’s it worth to you?

Would you be willing to join the 1/7 of mankind that goes to bed hungry every night, that watches their children’s bellies swell up with Kwashiorkor, and their limbs wither away with their hopes? Or join the even greater number who lack medical services, a roof over their heads and reliable water and electricity?

Would you be willing to worry about pollution, tsunamis, recession, immigration, food and water scarcity and so on; or, would you be willing to have someone else worry about it if you can be left in peace?

How about if I offered you a steady income large enough to afford some minor luxury, health services for you and your children, and a comfortable pension? Suppose I told you that you might be asked to render a service at some point, but its likelihood would be of low probability. In addition, only a small number of those called would be exposed to any kind of risk. Would you be willing to leave governance to people who made you such an offer? How many people like you, would you estimate, would be ready to accept the deal?

But there’s always a catch. Here it is: Who can you trust to make such an offer and keep their part of the bargain? The world is filled with would-be tyrants, false prophets and charlatans. How would you know what they were? How could tell them apart from the many well-meaning but merely less than competent people you meet or see in the media?

It is worth your bother even to think of all this? How did your education prepare you, and how does the education your children are now receiving prepare them to be involved and act intelligently in dealing with the real problems of living in a vast, multicultural society?

For references and to examine these issues further, see Personal Liberation Through Education

--- EGR

Friday, November 4, 2011

Will That Dog Bite? Will That Applicant Be an Effective Teacher?

The proof is in the pudding. -- Proverb
A recent (2009) article asks, in its title, an intriguing question: Can You Recognize an Effective Teacher When You Recruit One?. The authors propose testing potential teacher recruits for two factors: “cognitive skills” and “non-cognitive skills.” On the basis of their tests they claim they can predict likely future student academic achievement, thereby reducing or sparing school districts the costs of probationary appointments.

When I applied for the Peace Corps in 1964, I and the other applicants were subjected to two kinds of tests: one for cognitive skills; another, for non-cognitive skills. Those of us who “passed” them nonetheless participated in programs with various outcomes: some successful and some not. I have never run across any indication that program successes or failures showed any correlation with Peace Corp Volunteer scores on either test.

What seems to be going on here with this “predictive testing” is an example of what some psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error -- ignoring contextual and environmental factors by locating all causality, all responsibility, in the individual person.

The tests mentioned in the article will likely be very popular with school boards and parents because they basically wipe the slate clean when it comes to asking what influence, and what responsibility, these groups have for student achievement.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Increasing Teaching Efficiency: 
the evaluation of method

--- EGR

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Can Science Improve Moral Education, Too?

When religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic."
 -- Thomas Szasz
Science has helped us improve many aspects of life: agriculture, medicine, travel, construction, manufacture, longevity and health. Generally, where scientific method has been brought to bear successfully in these arenas, there is little controversy as to the desirability of the results.

So why doesn’t Science step in and find out how best to morally educate people? Traditional moralists and promoters of religion don’t seem to agree very much on what should be done. And even when they agree they don’t seem to succeed very much with the people they work on.

Some scientists propose that what enhances natural human capacities also enhances their morality; and, apparently, their happiness, too. People who run, dance, play, reason, love, sing, read, consider, paint, cook, swim and compare better are happier than those who can’t. They also tend to be more ethical, or so it is believed. Science can investigate what produces these enhancements and help produce them more reliably.

But what else makes people happy? Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock ‘n’ Roll. If you judge what makes people happy, not so much by what they say, but by what motivates them to pursue it, then happiness is, for many, sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock ‘n’ roll.

But some of the products of research on artificial intelligence -- hopefully, perhaps precipitously, -- called "intelligences"(should we read here "minds"?} would not likely be tempted by sex 'n' drugs 'n' rock ‘n’ roll. And people do worry about creating dangerous robots. Elon Musk has cautioned about wakening "the demon." Can Science perhaps help even here?

Some stodgy old moralists -- I suppose I am one – would point out that what makes people happy may not be good, for them or for others, or just not good, period. Certainly we can enhance an individual’s indifference to the suffering of others, his ability to inflict pain without remorse, his hatred for folks different from himself both by methods that have been known for eons and have also been enhanced by the scientific study of torture and propaganda. This individual might be happier for being crueler, more sadistic and prejudiced. (He,she, it might even be artificial.) Has his(her, its) individual morality improved?

Perhaps would-be moral educators, fixating on either Religion or Science for answers to moral education's conundrums have been looking too hard, but not very well, in all the wrong places.

(updated 3/27/17)

To examine these issues further, see Moral Education: Indoctrination vs. Cognitive Development?

--- EGR

Friday, October 28, 2011

Higher Academic Education: a Road to Servitude?

The farm laborer and the artisan are in a state of servitude, and have to do what they are told, but that is where it ends.

But the courtiers of a tyrant ingratiate themselves with him and beg favors of him, and the tyrant, seeing this, requires them not just to do what he says but to think the way he wants them to and, often, to anticipate his desires.

It is not enough that these people obey him, they must also please him in every way, they must endure hardship, torment themselves and drive themselves to the grave in carrying out his business; his pleasure must be their pleasure, his taste must be theirs, they must distort and cast off their natural disposition, they must hang on his every word, his tone of voice, his gestures, his expression; their every faculty must be alert to catch his wishes and to discern his thoughts.

Is that a happy existence? Can that be called living? Is there anything in the world less tolerable than that? And I do not mean less tolerable to a man of valor, a man of natural goodness, but simply endowed to a man with common sense, or just someone who has the appearance of a man? What way of life is more abject than one bereft of possessions, in which one's comfort, liberty, body and life depend on someone else?

– E. De La Boetie (circa1548) A Discourse on Voluntary Servitude

Technical and Skills Education, known also as Vocational Education, has long been a dumping ground for students whose benighted teachers and school counselors have thought them to be “not suited” for higher “academic” studies, when, in many cases, what they lacked was maturity, docility, or refined manners.

They great irony of this 21st Century is that along with an ever increasing ardor for college life, high school graduates do not, in increasing numbers, come to the university with what many consider the requisite level of preparation to succeed at their studies.

Parents and students have been oversold on the idea that finishing college with a high G.P.A. is automatically the road to a good life, a future in the Seat of Command and Respect. But unless students acquire needed economic skills along the way, the likelihood is that they will end up, at best, in a large organizational environment, perhaps, even with a comfortable salary. And they will spend their lives “playing office politics,” catering to the whims of higher-ups, rather than producing desired goods or services. (Think of the cartoon, Dilbert -- it is not, by any means, based on pure imagination!)

This is what has happened in public education where politicians, courts and other distantly situated "tyrants" endeavor to remove the last vestiges of professional decision-making from those most closely connected to schoolkids.

To examine these issues further, see "Tracking" in Public Education: preparation for the world of work?

--- EGR

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Can Teachers Be Educational Leaders?

“Leadership is an opportunity to serve. It is not a trumpet call to self-importance.” -- J. Donald Walters
There are no people more obligated and less likely to lead school improvement efforts than teachers. Teachers have to look the kids in the eyes every day — not kids in the abstract, not kids in the third person, not kids in the future tense, but real, live, honest-to-God kids, and that obligates them in ways that theorists, politicians, and innovators may not even understand.

Teacher leadership can happen, and I believe it should happen, but it may require major changes in the way educators do business, and I’m not sure anybody’s really ready for it.

Teaching is a great calling. But somehow, we have managed to turn a first-rate calling into a third-rate job that hundreds of thousands of bright-eyed young people will find unacceptable.

Maybe Socrates and St. Paul were right to begin with: teaching for a living is really a very bad idea. After all, as a vocation — a calling — teaching is incomparable. But as a profession, teaching is marginal, and as a job, in many places it is the pits. Just think of all the ingenious and adventurous things we could do to educate our students if we weren’t dependent on our teaching jobs to feed our own children.

To examine these issues further, see Teacher Leadership: a likelihood?


-- WAC

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What is Truth? Does It Matter to You?

In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves. -- Buddha
You may have come across this somewhere: the truth shall set you free. How free are you? How free do you want to be?

A history professor once told me that she forbids her students from talking about “truth.” “It’s a pointless chase, a matter of opinion!” she exclaimed.

“Do you have your students do research in order to write a paper?” I asked. “Of course,” she replied. I continued, “If what you say about truth is true (!), then what does it matter? Why can’t they just make it up out of their heads?”

The professor asked that we continue our conversation at another time because she had just remembered an important meeting she had to attend. We never got to discuss it again. That was fifteen years ago. In the time since then, I have talked with many people in the Liberal Arts and Humanities who expressed similar disregard for what they called "a hegemonic conception of truth", invoking a condition called post-modernism, in which our society is putatively now existing.

Recently, much concern has been expressed about the withering of the Liberal Arts and Humanities at many universities, and warnings abound about the "corporatization" of the Academy. But what attraction does a discipline have if it holds out no hope for truth, even in approximation? Very few people treat their studies as some kind of game with which to while away their life and fortunes.

To examine these issues further, see Personal Liberation Through Education

-- EGR

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Does Schooling Actually Harm Students?

Readin' 'n' writin' 'n' 'rithmetick
Taught to the tune of a hick'ry stick
-- Cobbs & Edwards (1907)
We’ve each been told a thousand times: “School is good for you!” Everywhere and always? Have you lost your memory?

Let’s ask a more general question. What disadvantages does the student suffer, when he or she is subject to one kind of curriculum rather than another? For example, one product of emphasizing math (or pick your own most hated subject) is that a large number, if not the majority, of students leave school believing:
a. they don’t like math;
b. they can’t do math well;
c. math is incomprehensible.
This situation is not improved, contrary to current misconception, when schools are pressured with faddish “high stakes” testing.

In the best case, where all curricular "targets" have been hit, we may still wonder what the collateral damage has been. It is not uncommon for academic students to get their diplomas although they are physically feeble or obese; and, for Jocks, especially “stars,” even if they are near illiterates.

The Hippocratic Oath, (partially rendered)
“I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone”
guides, somewhat, the practice of physicians and other medical personnel. But, educators have no Hippocratic oath. In education, blessing one's efforts to change schools with the incantation, "reform," seems to ward off collateral damage. Certainly, "reform" can never hurt.

To examine this issue further, see Pursuing Educational Targets: 
What is the Collateral Damage?


-- EGR

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mistyping People: placement test error and worse

No placement test -- a test which places subjects in a category -- is 100% accurate. It will generate a number of "false positives," persons who don’t meet the specs, but nonetheless test positive. False positives will be practically indistinguishable from true positives.

Can we trust such tests? For example, suppose a student has been test-identified as a drug user, how likely is it that that student is truly a user? Or, if a placement test indicates that a student is ready for instruction at a third grade, is that student really ready to begin at that starting point? Do tests purporting to show that students have learned beginning calculus actually let some through who really need to learn more?

Our normal admission processes to public school are haphazard, usually nothing more than checking the child’s age. This process will allow in quite a few "false positives;" that is, students who at the point of admission appear no less capable -- they walk, they talk, they can fog a mirror -- than the students who possess the skills to succeed at that level. And a flood of incompetence commences.

Progressing upward from grade to grade in this manner generates the flood of inept "false positives" which now fills our colleges -- as suggested by the epidemic dimensions of cheating and plagiarism throughout high school and well beyond.

To examine these issues further, see Classification Error in Evaluation Practice: 
the impact of the "false positive" on educational practice and policy

-- EGR

Friday, October 21, 2011

Celebrate Diversity! How do we do that?

Education, particularly public education, is such an exhausting undertaking that often we find educators distracting themselves from substantial problems, such as low grades, student absence, funding programs, maintaining buildings, or replacing classroom equipment, by an obsessive focus on vaguely formulated questions:
Should schools celebrate diversity? (Never mind what this question boils down to in practical terms: we need entertainment.)

Should schools prepare children for the mainstream? (Again, don't bother us with critical analyses - we need simplicity.)

Formulated as a controversy, the question makes the distraction from bottom-line hard issues even more “recreational”: should the schools celebrate diversity or prepare students for the mainstream? Instead of evaluating costs and benefits, assessing risks and dealing with a reality of shades of gray in which today's allies may be tomorrow's adversaries, we want black-and-white - or at least starkly multicolored - choices.

To examine this issue further, see Celebrating Diversity vs. Preparing for the Mainstream: a Pseudo-Controversy?


Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Ideal School: What should it be like?

The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.
-- Abraham Lincoln
In the United States people have been disagreeing for over 150 years what public schools should be, what they should teach, and how they should teach it. These controversies have persisted in the face of concerted effort by intelligent people to address them. People disagree as to what public schools should be because they have different expectations of them.

These expectations can be understood in terms of people's having three different images of the school, the Temple, the Factory and the Town Meeting. Conflicting images generate conflicting expectations. They imply different costs and benefits. These conflicting expectations maintain school controversies.

-- EGR
For more on this and a link to a survey with which you can evaluate your own expectations, see School Image: Expectations & Controversies.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Want Effective Teachers? Serving Whose Purposes?

That’s the secret to politics: trying to control a segment of people without those people recognizing that you’re trying to control them. -- Scott Reed, Republican Strategist and Lobbyist (NYT mag. 10-16-11, 47)
In the United States of America, a country where, repeatedly in public ceremonies, much is made of its being a democracy, the idea of “controlling” people is taboo, not to be spoken of, an elephant in the room.

Rather, we are taught to think that educated, informed citizens, consulting their consciences, freely and rationally choose to vote for the leadership of those people who, in fact, support the values of the voters. This is the professed political ideal.

This ideal helps us understand why a lot of concern is expressed over what is taught in schools, particularly in public schools. But is that concern because people fear that teaching is not up to producing ideal citizens? Or is it, rather, because many people, “important” opinion influencers, feel that the ideal rational citizen of a democracy would be a threat to their interests, political, social and economic?

For references and to examine these issues further, see The Classroom Teacher: Who Wants Experts?

--- EGR

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Intervention: helping, interfering or just being useless?

Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny. -- Thomas Jefferson
A little power, like a little knowledge, can be a dangerous thing. Some people think of power as though it were a muscle: Use it or lose it. So they easily give into the temptation to “intervene” into other’s affairs.

But intervention can easily be seen as “interference” by those who gain nothing from it. Those who welcome the intervention and the advantages it brings will call it “help.” Easily overlooked is the likelihood that the intervention will not have any effect besides producing headlines in newspapers, or hours of comment by media pundits.

The fact that an intervention may be well intended does not prevent it from turning out to be a long-term disaster. The wars in Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan were all initiated though interventions based on presumably honorable intentions. Notably, the costs of these interventions were not borne, in the largest measure, by their initiators.

Educational reform in the United States has been a continuing focus for delusional intervention through more than a century of U.S. history. Why delusional? Because the basic logic of intelligent intervention was ignored or replaced by wishful thinking.

What is this basic logic? It consists of three things. Do not intervene unless…
1. (cue) … you have accurately determined whether the situation that prompts you is, in fact, what you think it is. (Misperceptions and false starts abound.)

2. (concern) … the situation prompting your intervention will, in your best judgment, negatively affect your (whose?) interests. (Is it your “business”; is it worthwhile?)

3. (control) … your actions (or strategic inactions) will generate effects that influence sufficiently lasting changes in the situation. (Will things revert back to the way they were before intervention?)
I worked for many years in a school system with a “zero-tolerance policy” on fighting: students, otherwise peaceable, who offered resistance against the physical assault of bullies were suspended along with their attackers. One particular student, a quiet sort, was admonished by the principal, “Johnny, you’re such a good student; but, you keep on getting suspended for fighting back. I’ve told you time and time again that whenever someone assaults you, to are to come tell me about it.”

Johnny replied, “What’d you do before that has ever stopped ‘em botherin’ me? You gonna walk me home or to school? How’m I supposed ta live in my neighborhood, if I get a rep(utation) for running to a teacher every time I’m in trouble?”

The principal responded with a not untypical intervention: Johnny was sent away to a disciplinary school for being “highly insubordinate.”
“They .. make a desert, and they call it peace” -- Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 117)
For references and to examine these issues in detail, see Rationales for Intervention: From Test to Treatment to Policy

--- EGR

Monday, October 17, 2011

Grades: an Illusion of Value?

Princeton University students are upset. Their alma mater has decided to fight back against grade inflation by putting a cap on the number of A’s students can be given. But students feel they are being deprived of what they are entitled to. (New York Times Metropolitan Section, Sunday, January 31, 2010)

In many disciplines academic grades have little significance because professors in those fields cannot themselves agree on what standards should be. How much knowledge a student has acquired may play only a small part in the process of chasing a grade. No small factor is how the student capitulates in the face of faculty demands for deference. In many institutions of “higher learning” it is not reasoned argument and factual knowledge that wins the grade, but rather, -- to bypass more obvious, vulgar expressions – obsequiousness.

Students have learned to expect a certain quid pro quo: they will give rambling, incoherent college teachers good reviews on the grounds they are “nice people.” In return the students expect to be rewarded with A’s and B’s despite their ignorance and low levels of production, for having been “enthusiastic.”

If they care at all, prospective employers may use an applicant’s academic grades as an inexpensive selection method. Using grades to screen new employees helps those making hiring decisions cover their "assets." No one gets criticized for hiring a bad employee if that employee came in with a sterling transcript! And transcript review is a lot cheaper than an apprenticeship.

To examine these issues further, see The Teacher as Technician: Will Technology Improve Schooling?


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Blocking School Reform: “scientific” metaphors

...a faith in our capacity for limitless self-improvement (is) just as much a wide-eyed superstition as a faith in leprechauns.”
― Terry Eagleton
In the American public school tradition, teaching is primarily a performance art that depends on the teacher’s skill at imparting information, skills and attitudes. But, often overlooked, it also depends on the realities of the classroom's group dynamics as well as by many other factors outside the classroom and even, the school.

The misconception among many educators, of course, is that their professional training is mainly scientific. Teacher preparation is chock full of references to treatments, learner characteristics, outcomes and the like. What, in fact, there is of science that informs pedagogy, is more likely than not to be washed out by the fads and political agendas of those who directly control our schools.

Educators are seldom taught to think carefully and analytically about the foundations of their practice and the pressures and rewards of the workplace dissuade them from criticism of the status quo.

To examine these issues further, see Public School Reform: Mired in Metaphor


Friday, October 14, 2011

Destroying Schools to Improve Them: should the NCLB revolution continue?

"It became necessary to destroy the school to save it." -- updating a quote originally from the war in Vietnam
Suppose someone advocated overthrowing the government solely because poverty, even at a low level, continued to exist over the span of a generation. We might point out to that person that poverty exists at some level almost universally. We might argue that weighed against the progress we have made over the centuries, there was no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. If that person persisted in his advocacy of overthrow we would, at least, disregard him as someone who lacked the wisdom to render intelligent judgment on such matters.

In accord with guidelines set out under No Child Left Behind, Sam Houston High School in Houston Texas was closed down because 110 students out of 2500 persisted in getting low scores on math exams. (See Erika Mellon Houston Chronicle Friday June 6, 2008
 "Math scores of a few were the death of Sam Houston" http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/front/5824088.html).

It is not that anyone knows exactly what the problem here is. This is just a knee-jerk response involving the superstition that by firing principals and teachers, students can be made to learn; and, by interrupting the education of the majority, a minority can be brought to succeed. This confuses reprisal with accountability.

See Moral Responsibility in the Education Industry:
how much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness?


-- EGR

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Teachers Needed: Only Mature, Experienced People Need Apply

Everyone who remembers his own education remembers teachers, not methods and techniques. The teacher is the heart of the educational system.
-- Sidney Hook
Many would-be educational reformers suffer the delusion that they will be able to “turn around” troubled schools by hiring newly post-adolescent, recent college graduates. They will likely be cheaper, but unlikely to be effective.

Change-of-career entrants into teaching are perhaps the best prospect for reform in education. Mature people in their thirties, forties and even fifties, generally with a great deal of organizational experience under their belt are leaving the corporate world, leaving industry, and, having raised children, leaving the household, looking for something "new and different," something "more human," some undertaking that has concerns other than "the almighty dollar."

Undergraduate teacher candidates are commonly unself-possessed, befuddled by pedagogical catchwords, and often all-too-ready to abandon what few ethical precepts they have for the sake of a job. In contrast, these change-of-career entrants come into education with a sharpened critical sensitivity that often leaves them dismayed upon first exposure to the ethical and political morasses not infrequently encountered in education today. That there is a ethical dimension to education need hardly be argued to this experienced group. Inexperienced undergraduates, on the contrary, generally only want to talk about technique.

To examine this issue further, see The Ethical Miseducation of Educators

-- EGR

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What Works in Schooling: the “Newfanglers” versus the “Oldfashioned.”

Invention consists in avoiding the constructing of useless contraptions and in constructing the useful combinations which are in infinite minority. -- Henri Poincare
After a century or more of fiddling with schools and the kids in them, it should be apparent to anyone who can fog a mirror that there is not even a will-o’-the-wisp of a new method for teaching everyone, everything, everytime, everywhere, as is often “mandated” by federal, state and local school authorities. The “newfanglers” who populate our educational research institutes are much more adept at promoting their careers than student learning.

This is not to say that there is some "good old fashioned" method that works best, either. Time magazine recently featured the dicta of yet another befuddled educator: “what works best is a good teacher with a chalkboard and a class of willing students.”

This is mere rhetoric: it is like saying that health will be achieved by eradicating sickness; or, strength, by overcoming weakness. Such buffoonery is not uncommon in many areas of our public discourse.

Since our Home of the Free and Land of the Brave purports to be democratic, equal “respect” is accorded all opinions, from the least informed, most prejudiced to those most carefully considered. So it is that, to avoid a suspiciously “elitist” complexity, our public discourse, even among the technically skilled, tends towards vacuous hyperbole.

Thus, we Sons and Daughters of Liberty, lacking the means to even identify, much less achieve, ill-advised or unclear school goals, persist in trying to fix schools that either aren't broken, or which can't be fixed.

To follow this train of thought further, see What Works? Under What Conditions? And Who Really Cares?
-- EGR

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Technician, or Magician: Can You Tell the Difference?

… he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currently without discovery ... — Thomas Ady, A Candle in the Dark, 1656
If baldness treatments really work then why does a wealthy man like Donald Trump still have problems? If Hollywood spas and diets really work, then why are they visited again and again by pretty much the same movie stars? If prisons help to reduce crime, why is the American prison population the largest in the world and still growing?

If pious declarations of Faith mean anything then
a. why is the Bible Belt plagued by “acts of God” so very much more than the Sin Cities of this country; and
b. why are many of the previously unsuccessful “prophets” of the End Time still pushing their wares?
Why do even “the best” hospitals and universities closely guard data as to their successes and failures? Why does the popularity of our political, economic and psychological pundits contribute directly to the failure of their predictions? (See Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment)

What is the difference between a magician (an illusionist) and a technician? It is not, merely, that one wears stage clothes and the other, "scientific" garb, e.g. a stethoscope, a loupe or a sheepskin. The important difference is whether the causes and effects they believe to be at work are, in fact, at work.

People everywhere show a desperate willingness to believe in some kind of causal connection, a hope that somebody, somewhere knows what and how to do something. Many sincere people, possessed by one or another blinding Faith, stumble about in search for answers. But their very Faith often makes it impossible even to carefully examine the “answers” they encounter.

If private and parochial schools are so much better than public schools, why don’t the better students of the former consistently beat out those of the latter? Why are schools, already crammed full of gimcracks and geegaws from a thousand different manufacturers and universities, nonetheless perpetually in “need” of reform?

How many school "reformers" turn out to be little more than illusionists? How much talent, hope and money has been wasted pursuing their illusions?

For references and to examine these issues further, see The Teacher as Technician

--- EGR

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Why Accreditation Doesn't Work: a policy analysis

“Without cultural sanction, most or all our ... beliefs and rituals would fall into the domain of mental disturbance.” -- John Schumaker
This Policy Paper from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni gives insight into the all-too-typically wasteful rituals and philosophical orthodoxies imposed on those who blunder into seeking the imprimatur of many an accrediting organization.

-- EGR

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Success in College: what might influence it?

A lot of effort and money has recently been poured into bringing high school students up to some kind of par, “reducing the achievement gap,” as it is called. The point of this undertaking is to get kids into college. But what happens once they’re there? Except at the schools with the highest acceptance standards, the drop-out rate is astounding. What’s to be done about it?

Perhaps the more sensible question might be “Why should we expect anything else, when we consider the non-academic factors that influence college success?"

A 2007 publication by ACT, The Role of Nonacademic Factors in College Readiness and Success* lists three important kinds of non-academic factors:
1. Individual psychosocial factors, such as academic self-discipline, or commitment to school, and self-regulation, for example, emotional control, and academic self-confidence.

2. Family factors, such as attitude toward education, involvement in students’ school activities, and geographic stability

3. Career planning that identifies a good fit between students’ interests and their postsecondary work
Let’s get real here! Only the third item, career planning identifying a “good fit” – if such planning existed and were financially feasible for schools to utilize -- is something schooling could address with any hope of effectiveness.

Shooting at closing the high school achievement gap seems to be really off-target aiming, if eventually producing college graduates is the goal.

To examine these issues further, see The First-Year College Experience: Strategies for Improvement

--- EGR

* available at http://www.act.org/research/policymakers/pdf/nonacademic_factors.pdf

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Preaching Against Violence: Band-Aids on a Dirty Wound?

We are apt to forget that children watch examples better than they listen to preaching. -- Roy L. Smith, American clergyman

The sincerity and urgency with which a proposal is promoted is no indicator that it will be useful and lasting. Indeed, one may suspect the contrary to be true.

If you’re an educator who has worked for some years, you might remember some items on the following list: teaching machines, 4-MAT, mastery curriculum, Writing Across the Curriculum, Transcesence, Chisenbop, Values Education, Behavioral Objectives, Life Adjustment, Great Books, Competency-Based Learning, Teacher-Proof Curriculum, the Junior High School, Performance Contracting, Industrial Education, Suggestopedia, the Project Method, Computer Literacy, The New Math, The Paideia Proposal, America 2000, or the Open Classroom.

They came and they went, leaving little trace but crippled or wasted school budgets. These items were, in their day, promoted with a zeal and a printed output that required the sacrifice of vast forests to support that literature.

Educational reform has, like a 20-year locust, crawled once again to the surface of the public consciousness. Americans have been “reforming” the public schools cyclically for over a century. The list of “fads” given above is some indicator of the past successes enjoyed.

There is a scene in an Agatha Christie mystery where Hercule Poirot ponders the meaning of the various clues he has gathered when his client thunders impatiently, “Don’t just stand there thinking, do something!”

There’s the rub! Americans, (and Brits, apparently, too) especially those considered to be “leaders,” are so imbued with being “proactive” that they and their supporters imagine that quick action, any random flailing out, will make up for shoddy thinking, misapprehension of the problem, and sloppy communication. Dealing with “violence,” in the schools, in the streets, or among nations, provides more than ample example of these faults.

Ancient wisdom cautions us against charging ahead armed only with good intentions. It also counsels us to moderation, because all actions produce costs as well as benefits.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Doing Violence to 'Violence'

Cordially -- EGR

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Perplexing Educational Decisions: what you'd like vs what you must

You can do anything, but not everything. — David Allen
Why aren't the best teachers assigned to teach the worst students?
Why do many schools spend more money on landscaping than on salary increases?
When school budgets are cut, why is it more likely that a music teacher rather than a football coach will lose his job?

The answers to these questions are all cut from the same cloth: it depends on the distinction between what a community can agree that:
a. it would be nice to do; and,

b. what needs to be done.
Like many organizations, schools are run by decision-makers who are very concerned with who pays the costs, and who gets the benefits. And what keeps them, the decision-makers, employed.

For more on this see Mission vs. Function: Limits to Schooling Aspiration
-- EGR

Friday, September 23, 2011

Top School Leadership: fooled or fools?

Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with the important matters.
-- Albert Einstein
Is there any more telling evidence of the failure of American education than the blather promulgated by Harold O. Levy, New York City school chancellor from 2000 to 2002 and trustee of several colleges (New York Times, 6/8/09)?

Every child should attend school until age 19 because, Levy says,
The benefits of an extra year of schooling are beyond question: high school graduates can earn more than dropouts, have better health, more stable lives and a longer life expectancy.
This is a clear confusion, at best, of correlation with cause. Besides, Levy compares kids who might take an extra year of school with dropouts, when the much more important comparison should be between those who graduate with the present limit of 18 years and those who might take an extra year. Why incur the costs of an extra year of school if it makes little difference as to who graduates?

Is this so deep that even a chancellor can’t understand it? Or is another agenda at work here?

To examine these issues further, see Illogic and Dissimulation in School Reform


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Must Conflict Be a Negative Process? Sometimes, it’s all for the better.

Happiness is a byproduct of function, purpose, and conflict; those who seek happiness for itself seek victory without war. -- William S. Burroughs
Reflective people are often dismayed that the leaders of opposing factions profess the desire for peace, even as they wage war. Union and school board leaders express severe misgivings about closing down the schools as they wrangle themselves, inevitably, it seems, into a strike. To the uninformed eye, this looks like blatant hypocrisy. It is not.

Public expressions of desire are not merely a method of disseminating information. "I sincerely wish to put an end to this conflict" is not meant to inform the public about some leader's state of mind. Rather, it is a move in a negotiation process that may well result in peace. But there is a hidden proviso.

What "I sincerely wish to put an end to this conflict" has to be understood as saying is "I sincerely wish to put an end to this conflict provided that the costs of ending it do not outweigh the benefits of prolonging it." (And all parties generally want to avoid examining who it is that benefits, or who it is that pays the costs for either alternative.)

Wars could be avoided if one side would agree to accept the aggression of the other. School strikes could be avoided if teachers would accept lowered salaries, staff cut-backs, increased class sizes and arbitrary administrative decisions. But wise negotiators understand that every unresisted encroachment on the prerogatives of a group invites additional ones. Conflict cannot long be avoided by capitulation expediently rebaptized as “cooperation.”

To examine this issue further, see The Functions of Conflict in the Context of Schooling



Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sacrificing the Kids. For What?

Do not permit any of your children to be offered as a sacrifice to Molech, for you must not bring shame on the name of your God. -- Leviticus 18:21 (New Living Translation ©2007)
There are public elementary school principals who have cut recess out of the schedule so their pupils can spend more time on the things that really give them joy: test preparation and eating kale.

Actually, kids hate both testing and kale. But the adults in their lives, whose convenience governs all, push the kids to it. Why? To enhance National Competitiveness! Or to meet those all important program goals: “Every Child a Scientist!” or “Every Child a Candidate for a Harvard medical degree!” Elementary schoolkids lose recess and high-schoolers are tracked, so that the Children who are Not being Left Behind don’t infect the rest with whatever it is that prevents the NCLB-ers, too, from being a Left Behind. Ambitious parents could hardly be more supportive.

The New York Times of February 24 2009 (D5) reported research supporting the notion that recess is as important for a child’s learning as are test-taking drills. To quote an ancient maxim, “Ipso est, du-uh!” (See also School: It's way more boring than when you were there)

No adult would put up with the boredom and pointlessness – especially if they received no pay for it -- of much of what adults inflict on school kids. When it comes to thinking things through many, many people, adults as well as kids, find themselves in dire straits. In that case, how can you tell the adults from the kids? A simple rule of thumb: inflictor → adult; sufferer →kid; good sense →none.

To examine these issues further, see "Tracking" in Public Education: preparation for the world of work?

-- EGR