Monday, November 29, 2010

What Can Public Schools Teach?

What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
I learned that Washington never told a lie.
I learned that soldiers never die.
I learned that everybody's free,
And that's what the teacher said to me.
-- Tom Paxson (1964)

The last lynching in the U.S., involving victim Michael Donald, happened on March 20, 1981 in Mobile, Alabama. I was 38 at the time and never heard of it. In fact, until I looked it up in order to write this blog, I never knew of it. I was a school teacher at that time in the Philadelphia School District, working in an inner city junior high school. I never heard a peep about any lynching.

While I was growing up, attending public schools, I never heard in school of Japanese American internment during WWII, or of Pogroms in Europe, or of Harriet Tubman, or of the Trail of Tears, or of the Homestead Strike or of attacks on Catholics in Philadelphia by “Nativist” Americans. Why?

American public schools developed in a culture in which the following values were considered superior by most of those who supported the schools:
Whiteness, Maleness, Christian, Protestant, European, (particularly English-speaking), and Being of wealthy or professional parentage.
These values defined a group of people who were taught – as many still are -- to consider themselves innately superior to those outside the group, even to the point of using civil and military power to subjugate and even annihilate resistant outsiders. Superiority justified even brutal domination. (Of course, lacking power and being White, male, Christian, etc. in other parts of the globe would have likely made one receive, rather than give abuse – since brutal domination has never been unique to the U.S.)

Times have changed. The voices of former “inferior people” cannot be so easily suppressed. We, those of us historically privileged who have the guts to look and see, have recognized that our esteemed forefathers, our beloved parents and relatives, were mere humans, also. No more or less greedy, hateful, brutal, grasping and hypocritical than many of us are today.

And yet there is a vast disagreement on particulars: both about facts and about values. Who provoked the Battle of the Little Bighorn? Who massacred whom? Who was rightfully defending themselves?

Where there is profound lack of consensus, the public schools have no place teaching as though that consensus existed. To insist otherwise is also to practice domination.

To examine these issues further, see Trading-Off "Sacred" Values: 
Why Public Schools Should Not Try to "Educate"

--- EGR

Sunday, November 28, 2010

What? No More Brownie Points! It’s … It’s UnAmerican!

The Sunday November 28th, 2010 New York Times, Week In Review p. 3 reports that because some kids with B+ and A averages cannot pass standardized tests, and because other students with F, E, and D averages do pass them, that awarding grade points for homework done (and other not directly academic activity) will be tightly curtailed in certain school districts.

This is dangerously revolutionary! It threatens to invert the pyramid of scholastic honors by giving top rank to hard-scrabble, lower-class NERDS, (and too many Asian students)! Such a policy fails to appreciate the social graces hard-won by students from Middle Class and Elite families who know how to show appreciation for the (often, very subtle) humor, insights and wisdoms of whoever is in charge. A “Yes, sir!” or an “Of course, ma’am!” is worth a hundred solved quadratic equations.

Mere technical skills are not what move a person up in the corporate world. Technicians, accountants and engineers are just hired help. A head full of facts is not necessary, or even desirable to achieve even the highest political office! Schools that serve the fetish of skills and facts are schools that will graduate workers destined to suffer resizing!

To examine these issues further, see Productivity, Politics and Hypocrisy in American Public Education

--- EGR

Saturday, November 27, 2010

What Does a Diploma Mean? Just Another Sheep Skinned?

Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple. --Barry Switzer, US football coach (1937 - )
We’re very proud of ourselves when we, or those we love, earn an educational certificate or degree. It’s just so coooool, great, wonderful, awe-inspiring, etc, to parade up onto a stage to be handed a diploma – or reasonable facsimile thereof – whilst wearing a medieval gown with accompanying mortarboard or tam and multicolored hood. Even kindergartners do it.

The diploma is supposed to represent skills achieved, attitudes inculcated and knowledge acquired – or some reasonable facsimile thereof. We don’t really look too hard.

But would you choose to go to, or take your loved ones to, a licensed physician who got through school by cheating, sleeping through classes, copying other’s notes, and memorizing test preparation booklets the way that a large minority – I am being optimistic here about numbers – of students in higher education do? (In ancient times when I went to high school we read Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis: a source, no doubt, of my worries.)

Everyone “knows” that where you go to college gives you a status advantage in the competition for jobs. But do you really get more from third-base universities? Does status indicate anything more in the practitioner in skills achieved, attitudes inculcated and knowledge acquired?

To examine these issues further, see Educational Assessment: 
confusing status with achievement.

--- EGR

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Productive Schools? Who Will Judge?

What is mathematics? Professional mathematicians disagree. For schools, school boards decide the question.

What is history? Professional historians disagree. For schools, school boards decide the question.

What is political science? Professional political scientists disagree. For schools, school boards decide the question.

What is language? Professional linguists disagree. For schools, school boards decide the question.

Questions that the most practiced and learned professionals have difficulty agreeing on are usually decided in the United States of America by the least practiced and least knowledgeable of people.

This is crucially important in understanding a major development in American schooling: institutionalization.

Efficient productivity requires agreement on clearly defined goals and an organization’s activities must be prioritized to serve these goals.

Institutionalization occurs when concern in an organization shifts from efficiency to formality. From another point of view, institutionalization is the sacrifice of productive activities to political pressures.

To examine these issues further, see Controlling the School: Institutionalization

--- EGR

Monday, November 22, 2010

Poor Teaching: What Is It Exactly?

Both Arne Duncan and Bill Gates seem to agree: an important cause of student failure is poor teaching.

Some advocate higher education for teacher candidates. Does this make sense considering that Ph.D.’s don’t seem to make university professors better teachers?

Bill Gates, as well as Arne Duncan, doesn’t think teachers should get bonuses just for getting higher degrees. Such bonuses, comments Gates, “don’t help kids.” But will kids be helped if the incentive of such a bonus, when removed, dissuades people from going into education in the first place? The dropout rate of teachers, even given the bonus, is high enough to vacate the profession in six years.

What is a poor teacher? Was it my 10 Grade English teacher who failed us mercilessly for minor, academically unrelated infractions? Or was it my 10th-12th Grade Spanish teacher who never tested us and gave us A’s for chatting amiably with her?

Many an elite private school has poor teachers; boring, daydreaming, off-topic chatterboxes. But there is little complaint so long as the kids get acceptable grades.

But there are many cases in public schools where teachers tried to enforce standards and were penalized by administrators as “poor teachers” when parents complained. (See postings on this blog on Plagiarism or Cheating, for example.)

As a private-school headmaster, I refused to renew the contracts of persons I considered to be poor teachers. (Members of my governing board were irate: after all, these teachers were such "nice people" and gave free tutoring to the board members' own kids!)

As a public school teacher I have seen zombies, ignorant, inarticulate, scared stiff, unresponsive, standing in front of classrooms – zombies certified by major universities to be worthy of teaching credentials.

But sometimes “poor quality teaching” is really (Dare we name the elephant in the room?!) a matter of “poor quality students.”

To examine these issues further, see Highly Educated Teachers: is this what we need?

--- EGR

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Diagrams: Show me how you think schools influence on-the-job success

In the United States of America educators have been told for years and years that it is they who have to prepare students for the “World of Work.” It is they who have the major responsibility to get kids ready for a job.

Unfortunately, educators have accepted this burden without thinking it through. It is clearly nonsense! What responsibility does your ninth-grade English teacher have for the fact that you got laid off 25 years later because your company is "resizing" because it overexpanded?

In a world of commerce – “free enterprise” it is misleadingly called – in businesses that can’t even keep track of legal records, that can’t and won’t police its own pirates, whose stock markets are vulnerable to arbitrary manipulations, exactly how is a first, or second, or for that matter, an eleventh or twelfth grade teacher supposed to influence his student’s future success on the job?

Diagram it! Let A -> B be read “A influences (causes) B.” What in-school-A's influence on-the-job-B’s? Watch out here that you don’t step in any fresh cowpies! There are two basic rules to follow:
1. Every effect, B, has more than one (contributing) cause.
2. Every cause, A, has multiple effects.

When you start diagramming all the possible causes influencing any B, you soon see that school influences may be a weak contribution to the total.

To examine these issues further, see Moral Responsibility in the Education Industry: 
how much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness?

--- EGR

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Counterfeits, Forgeries, Fakes, Shams:
How Are They Possible?

That person over there. He looks like someone from your fifth grade elementary school class, but older. Is he that person? How would you find out? What can you tell from just observation?

Suppose, when you ask him, he says he is your fifth grade classmate and excuses himself from further conversation because he is in a hurry. Would you be satisfied that you have identified him?

Suppose, instead of walking away, he says he has lost his wallet and asks to borrow some money to buy a train ticket home. Are you willing to lend him $20? How about $200? Are you still feeling good about his identity? Would you ask any further questions?

Is every watch a Rollex? Is every Picasso an original? Is every “friend” a real friend?

What makes things the same? Or different? Is every difference significant? How do you judge that? Where do we learn such things? Does schooling improve the process?

To examine these issues further, see The Things We Recognize

--- EGR

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Treadmill. Why Not Just Forget About The Public Schools?

A lot of people can’t just forget about them. Why not? There are three obvious answers:
1. Parents are compelled by their State – not by the Federal Government -- to provide some kind of education for their kids.
2. So, parents worry because they have kids in those schools.
3. Different people, who may or not be the parents of public school kids, have different expectations about what schools should be doing and what they should cost.
School people make an effort to deal with the different expectations people have of them. These expectations often conflict with one another. This conflict is a major source of school controversies. It motivates most of the school reform efforts that break out every fifteen years or so in the United States.

To examine these issues further, see School Image: Expectations & Controversies

--- EGR

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Knowing What You Don’t Know. Is It Possible?

What do you know that has never entered your mind? Quite a lot, it seems.

Consider some thoughts that have never entered your mind: Pythons in yellow tutus cooked into a devil’s food cake! Obsidian nostril hairs that vibrate to the frequencies of your favorite R&R radio station! I’d bet these ideas have never before entered your mind. But just thinking about them doesn’t mean you “know” them. They’re just strange thoughts.

But consider this: have you ever thought about George Washington’s grandmother? (If you’re a historian who has, pick a grandmother from the 18th Century you haven’t thought about.) Think about this, too. Washington’s grandmother was born before yours! You know this to be true! In addition, you know that Julius Caesar’s grandmother was born before both grandmothers already mentioned. But it is highly unlikely that you have ever entertained such thoughts before in your life.

Isn’t it true then that there are billions, possibly, of things that have never entered your mind but nonetheless you know them?

To examine these issues further, see Conditions of Knowledge

--- EGR

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Student Teaching: Just Another Hoop to Jump Through?

The student teaching experience is a real mixed bag. If you are lucky, your supervising teacher will be a real mentor, who not only passes on skills, but gives you insights into the crucial social and political factors in your school building that can impact on your ability to be a good teacher.

If you are unlucky, it is a different story. You can tell if you’re one of the misfortunate ones if your supervising teacher disappears after your first meeting. That teacher will tell you something along the lines that the best way to approach teaching is by the “sink or swim method” which you can only “work out for yourself.”

Actually, the sink or swim approach is good for people who already have the skills and enough strength of character to deal with a classroom full of kids. Few do.

Student teaching, like mentoring, are two ideas which sound good in theory. However, in practice they are easily subverted into something else. Student teaching becomes, for example, free time for the "supervising" teachers. Mentoring becomes ingratiating oneself with the principal who “needed” to find “someone” to take on student teachers.

Principals often take as many student teachers as they can get because they themselves are taking courses for the superintendency and the student teachers come out of the same department the administrator’s professors are in. Getting student teachers placed has higher priority than making a good student-mentor match.

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

--- EGR

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Who Benefits From School Reform? A Trick Question.

Who does benefit from school reform? Don’t say, “Everyone.” You don’t know everyone. And even if you mean that everyone should benefit, that is a different story. If should’s were does’s, we’d all be rich, happy and beautiful.

Who benefits from school reform? Don’t say, “the kids.” This may make you feel warm deep inside, but that’s where the warmth stays. Expect to be asked, “Which kids?” “Whose kids?” “Where, when, how?”

Does this mean that the idea of benefits from school reform is romantic nonsense? No. It just means that it is highly relative. And in our pluralistic democracy, “highly relative” means “politically difficult to achieve” and when publicly talked about, “likely little more than B.S.”

Certainly, nothing is a reform unless it is a change. And no change is a reform unless it is for the better, that is, the ratio of benefits to costs increases as compared to the status quo.

So, can we recast our “trick question” as “Who receives an increase in benefit/cost ratio when schools are changed?” That’s getting somewhere.

Now we have to tackle the reasonable distinction between benefits (or costs) as perceived in contrast to actual benefits (or actual costs). And who makes those judgments?

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

--- EGR

Monday, November 8, 2010

Granola-Bar “Knowledge”: a healthy diet?

You can bring a horse to water, but he’ll only drink it if you add Kool-Aid
– Boethius, Jr.

Preparing for the Scholastic Aptitude Tests has long been a big business. Twenty years ago 1 in 9 high school students paid for private SAT coaching. And almost half of all high schools back then offered SAT preparation. It has grown into even more of a frenzy.

What is knowledge? Some item is knowledge if it is being tested by the SAT’s.

Is this item true? Is it useful? Does it really matter? Will it change your life? Can you build on it? Will it expand your perspectives? … Is someone asking a question?

Some item is knowledge if it is being tested by the SAT’s. Regurgitating it will help you get into college where you will acquire a degree of questionable market value. And unless your parents have a lot of money, you will also acquire a huge debt needing to be paid off.

Once you are in college, you will learn that knowledge is whatever items professors put on their exams. Or whatever state boards will test you on. Are those items true? Are they useful? Do they really matter? Will they change your life? Can you build on them? Will they expand your perspectives? … Is someone asking a question?

To examine these issues further, see Knowledge as a Commodity

--- EGR

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Academic Formalities: Just Making Teacher Clones?

A pedant is someone – often a teacher – who insists on form, whether it helps or not. I had an elementary teacher who insisted that we pronounce the word, piano, as pee-ah-no. She gave up on that one once a couple of boys started pronouncing it as a question and answer: “Pee?” “Ah, no.” Or as a command and refusal: “Pee!” “Ah, no!”

But it is not unusual to judge a performance in different ways depending on the situation. That is why people who are generally competent outside of the classroom can appear so inept inside it. "Can you read this text?" is not merely a demand to make some sense of it, but often, in school, to identify plot, and character, author intent, etc. in the manner of a “schooled” that is to say, academic, person.

Another example of academic formalism doing dubious work is this: kids who can solve math problems in their heads are told they are wrong unless they can “show the work,” that is, pretend that their brain works the same way as their math teacher’s. That is probably why the majority of American adults suffer from mathematical phobias.

Any individual competence can be recast as a display of weakness if we restrict the manner in which it is performed. Formalisms are the “manners” we display when we present our individual achievements. Some formalisms may be necessary. Many are controversial. Others are pernicious.

To continue this discussion see Evaluating Learner Strengths and Weaknesses: 
the Impediments of Formalism

-- EGR

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Can You Trust Yourself? Searching for certainty, a needle in a haystack.

Suppose you are listening half-attentively to a speech. Suddenly the speaker says something that catches your full attention. It sounded like, “I’m for every school child learning to practice cannibalism.” Wouldn’t you ever ask someone, “Did I hear him right?”

If you were absolutely sure of your senses, our most basic means of connecting with the world, why would you ask such a question? It’s because we know from experience that even our eyes and ears can fail us. We are not infrequently unsure of what we have seen, heard, felt, tasted smelled. (Remember that first time you smelled something you found out later to be cheese curls spilled into your sofa?)

The situation gets worse when we have to rely on another person’s eyes and ears (or tongue, skin or nose). Our senses can’t literally lie to us. But other people can.

And as the group gets bigger, the more a message gets garbled, unless we take great care to set up a method of verification. Most of the time we get our information from whispering down the lane, or newpapers, TV and other contaminated sources.

Here is where a lot of people make either of two mistakes:
1. They shrink back from action for fear of doing wrong; or

2. They confuse the very useful distinction between intellectual doubt and commitment.

It is one of life’s many tragedies that we sometimes, quite unintentionally, do wrong. But, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, the only good thing is a good intention. So intend well, and act!

Intellectual doubt is the main tool of the intelligent person. Doubt because you can. It can help you avoid the common, everyday kind of mistake. But don’t let it contaminate your commitments, if overall you find them to be of value to you. The best of commitments allows you your doubts and offers you more to come back to. Nothing’s perfect.

To examine these issues further, see Questionable Assumptions in Social Decision Making

--- EGR