Friday, November 8, 2013

The Costs and Risks of Education: exempting the traditional.

“We are double-edged blades, and every time we whet our virtue the return stroke straps our vice” -- Henry David Thoreau
Scalpels. If you were to give scalpels to toddlers, you wouldn’t be surprised if they cut themselves. But you wouldn’t -- you shouldn’t, at least -- jump to the conclusion that every person with a scalpel is a toddler.

Toddlers lack foresight and are ignorant of many a cause-and-effect-connection. So, what would you do with toddlers and scalpels; especially, if apparent grown-ups had the minds and emotional development of toddlers?

For example, some people claim to be advocates concerned about “what’s good for the environment” and they feel it necessary to, at least, remonstrate with gardeners or farmers who use weed control compounds, even such as Roundup, which leave no toxic residues in the soil. Toddler-minded dilletantes with weed-killers can create substantial collateral damage. But carefully applied they can help gardeners and farmers reduce otherwise unnecessary weed-control costs.

Gun Control. In the USA an issue paralleling that of our scalpels' example is gun control. With a major difference. Scalpels are not as readily available or as sought with as intense avidness as are guns (or weedkillers).

Toddlers, or toddler-minded people would be, indeed, are, dangerous with guns. But not everyone who has a gun need be a toddler, or toddler-minded, or dangerous. This is simple logic. Partisan fussing and fuming over the controversy does not change that. For stentorian voices to invoke “liberty” or “2nd Amendment Rights” does not practically address the issue of the high rate of death or injury facilitated by easy access to guns.

But neither does the suggestion that laws be passed and enforced to reduce or prevent access to guns: short time gains here may well generate longer term ills. Also, we have to consider the immediate costs of training personnel to enforce such laws and prosecute their offenders. (And who is ready to exacerbate our already overgrown penal crowding situations by adding to the prison population?)

The pass-and-enforce-laws-and-prosecute-offenders proposal comes up in this context, too, with opponents apparently willing to disregard real damage as inconsequential, e.g. merely a cost of having a “free market.”

It is at this point in the public argument that proposed restrictions are modified to suggest that education can play a role. Just as scalpels are generally restricted to those whose education has prepared them to put them to proper use, so, it is suggested, could guns be made available to those whose education in the proper use of guns has qualified them to be trusted with them. (See Gun Fun or Safe Kids? Must we make trade-offs?)

Overlooked Pachyderms. One elephant in the room is cost. How much would it cost to “educate” all those who want guns, or any potentially dangerous item, to use them carefully? This would obviously be a major expenditure. Would anyone want to have their taxes raised to provide it? And how likely is it that enough people would want to forego using these “scalpels?”

The second bigger and consequently even less talked about elephant in the room is that the possible harms risked to life and limb are, to judge by the behavior of our population, of lower priority than the convenience of maintaining ready “scalpels.”

At this point, usually, some people, holier, in their own opinion, than others, stand up and start wagging their fingers at gun-owners, particularly. Or, they may indulge in berating gas-powered lawn-mower users or loggers or fishermen for despoiling the environment; or, for being unwilling to “reduce their carbon footprint.” (Surely, it is the practice of lemmings to reduce their carbon footprint to the absolute minimum.)

But are these same people willing to give up highways, bridges, sewers and electric lines, automobiles, airplanes, inoculations and police protections to forestall the injuries and loss of lives which are typically, although inadvertently, consequent to their construction and maintenance?

An easy example is that of a highway on which occurs a certain number of deadly accidents a year. No doubt this number could be reduced using additional safety devices and surveillance methods. But as the cost per life that might be saved goes up substantially, the interest in raising taxes to pay for it does not. This explains the common practice of many a township’s avoiding installing traffic lights demanded by worried parents until and unless some critical carnage occurs at the intersection.

Similarly, it has been the practice in some public school districts, if students show persistent high rankings on SAT’s, to try to induce new teachers to leave -- usually by burdening them with extra duties or less attractive facilities -- before they get tenure and merit substantial salary increases. Who need pay for experienced teachers if the kids do just as well with greenhorns? (See Do We Really Need Better Teachers? What For?)

On the other hand, in schools, “scalpels” frowned on by outspoken community members are often categorized as instruments of “violence.” And “violence,” it is preached, has no place in schools! So, for example, karate or riflery classes, as well as certain kinds of shop classes are unlikely to be found even in high schools. Can’t trust those teen-age tots with such “scalpels!”

But traditionally esteemed activities, as risky as they may be, are OK! Just think football, basketball, wrestling, hockey, lacrosse and even rugby and fencing. Such sports are not even readily characterized by their enthusiasts as violent. After all, they are traditional, school-approved activities! They can’t be violent! (See Permissible School Violence)

Nonetheless, it remains a feeble moral position, indeed, hypocrisy, even, to complain about the collateral damage brought about by the practices of other people while disregarding the risks of one’s own collateral inflictions.

To examine these issues further, see Pursuing Educational Targets: 
What is the Collateral Damage?

Also, see Buffering: Enhancing Moral Hazard in Decision-Making? .

--- EGR

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Is It Really a Test? Or Just Another Task?

Per aspera ad astra. Through difficulties, to the stars.

From a test-taker's point of view every test is a task. But not every task is actually a test, even if it looks like one. What is it that makes a task a test? This is a question of great practicality. State governments allocate funds to school districts on the basis of efficiency. This efficiency is determined by tasks-activities provided by state departments of education and imposed on local school districts. But what is necessary if this procedure, this task-activity, is to be anything more than a charade?

To avoid overlooking assumptions built into a widely accepted notion of testing, let's use a substitute concept: rank-task. We begin our investigation by talking about "rank-tasks" rather than about "tests." A rank-task is a type of activity some outcomes of which can be ranked, as, for example, better, the same, or worse. Think of a rank-task as any procedure which assigns someone a number. This can be interpreted as a rank to compare that person to others involved with the procedure.

Cinderella's Prince, looking to fit the glass slipper, would be undertaking such a rank-task. Some feet are too small; others, too large; only Cinderella's, just right. But trying to sort football players by the numbers on their jerseys is not a rank-task because there is generally no significance to the comparison of any two numbers other than that they indicate a different wearer.

Tests are, at the minimum, rank-tasks. They can be performed with more or less skill. But the skill demonstrated may not be what it is we wish to measure. For instance, Students take SAT preparation courses to learn test-taking skills, not the information the tests are designed to measure. Often these test-taking skills can be as crucial to a good score as actually knowing the material covered in the test.

For example, The Princeton Review has for many years provided materials and training in simple test taking procedures which seem to be able to raise SAT scores significantly. The SAT's are intended to measure scholastic aptitude. But the effectiveness of the Princeton Review's materials suggests that the SAT's are also measuring something else, namely the ability to take standardized tests of this type.

This observation illustrates the very practical nature of our seemingly theoretical observations about testing. Among the readers of this article are certain to be individuals who did not get a scholarship, or who failed to get in to the college or university of their choice because of the score they received on the SAT. And there is a fair chance that the reason they did not get a higher score was not because they lacked scholastic aptitude, but because they lacked certain test-taking skills.

To consider other things that make a rank-task a test, see Justice Through Testing

--- EGR

Saturday, November 2, 2013

More School Reform Follies

Well, it has happened again. Would-be “reformers” have just made public schooling even more reliant on high stakes testing. Pennsylvania policy makers have decided that before granting high schoolers a diploma, they must pass a quota of standardized tests supposedly measuring, “the skills crucial for the work force and college”.

A total of 10 state-designed exams will be administered as students complete corresponding high school courses in: algebra I, biology, literature, composition, algebra II, geometry, U.S. history, chemistry, civics and world history. To receive a diploma, students must pass at least 6. (Pennsylvania officials decided not to wait until graduation to do the testing. Perhaps they fear students will forget the “vital” skills they are supposed to have “learned”?)

One wonders why knowledge of these particular subjects is so “crucial for the work force and college.” Why, for instance, is chemistry more crucial than physics, geometry more crucial than statistics or world history more crucial than world geography? All three of these options are included in the standard high school core curriculum required for college. Perhaps state officials just resorted to eenie meenie miney moe.

Then there is the matter of goal priorities. Why do “work force and college related skills” trump everything else? Other goals might be more worthy. For instance, they could have emphasized strengthening democracy. It sure could use a shot in the arm. How about skills related to being a happier person, fostering greater compassion, aiding self-fulfillment, encouraging clearer thought, making better decisions, or even learning how to detect insincerity false piety and general bull shit? These goals seem far more worthy than fulfilling the imagined needs of some overpaid corporate executive or taking courses that college officials have decided you must take because of status concerns and faculty politics.

Of course, when school “reformers” glibly emphasize making “America” more competitive, they studiously avoid specifying which Americans will actually benefit and which will pay the costs. All boats will just float higher.

There is another difficulty that troubles all school “reform.” Often, one reform goals cannot be realized without relinquishing another. In fact, the pursuit of one goal can actually undermine another. Pursuing international competitiveness, for instance could actually undermine democracy, sabotage compassion and/or chip away at individual self-fulfillment. Yet “reformers” never address these, or any other, possible goal conflicts. Perhaps they actually believe we can have it all. Perhaps they just want us to believe that.

The truth is this high stakes test based “reform” business — and it truly is a multi-billion dollar business — has gotten completely out of hand. It is distorting instruction, intimidating and demoralizing teachers, disempowering school administrators, placing ridiculous burdens on special needs youngsters, demanding miracles from kids who are just learning English, putting private corporations in charge of public policy, boring bright kids and both dehumanizing and devitalizing the entire educational process. Despite all these negatives, though, it still is growing like crabgrass.

Elite schooling is exempt from all of this. One wonders why? Perhaps what suits future sheep is not thought appropriate for future shepherds.

To examine these issues further, see Power Failure: 
Why U.S. School Reform Persistently Misses the Mark

--- Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D.