Thursday, February 24, 2011

To Improve the Schools, Hunt for Witches!

How can you tell who’s a witch? It’s sometimes difficult: they seldom wear pointy black hats anymore. However, in education you can spot them because they talk about – in public even – what everyone already knows and disregards. They mention and hold up for inspection, even, the “elephants in the room.” They must be silenced because, as every “politically sensitive” person knows, Truth Does Not Help!

Those of you who are considering going into education might well look into the case of a Bucks County, Pennsylvania teacher, who, so to speak, “violated the secrecy of the confessional”: she published a blog criticizing the failings of her students (and, by implication, the failing of their parents), although not identifying the students themselves.

If you’ve got to toe the line on secrecy that tightly, you bloggers – or letter-writers, even -- might as well go into an occupation or profession that gives you far more in pay and perks and far less abuse, e.g. the NSA or CIA or Special Forces. Even now, the principal of her school is adding his own bundle of faggots – she "debased the disabled" (Phila Inquirer 2/24/11, B1) -- to the bonfire preparations expecting to immolate the sorry, indiscreet wench at the next school board auto-da-fe. Just remember, Truth Does Not Help!

Public schools, far from being a powerful reformative influence, reflect the basic advantages and disgraces of their communities. If you, personally, don’t have the inclination – or the guts – to struggle with this, don’t go into teaching.

To examine these issues further, see Public Schools: Our Face in the Mirror

--- EGR

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Racial or Gender Achievement Gaps: the Result of Basic School Conflicts?

The school is a complex organization. By their complexity alone, schools run up against four basic internal conflicts. These are
• following policy vs. sensitivity to individual differences, e.g. the conflict of teaching a class according to a standardized curriculum vs. making adjustments according to the readiness of individual students

• delegating authority vs. pursuing authorized goals, e.g., Teachers change the curriculum at will to reflect their personal tastes and priorities.

• process vs. product, e.g. Standardized testing and curriculum vs. the concern for the "specialness" of students.

• power vs. morale., e.g. Student enthusiasm for school sinks as "discipline" is tightened up.
Dealing with these school conflicts is not merely a matter of more dedication or self-discipline on the part of individuals. Nor is it a matter of patience or forbearance or charisma. What must be addressed is the structure of relationships that constitute the organization.

To examine these issues further, see Basic Internal Conflicts

--- EGR

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Teacher Tenure Bogeyman

A common misstatement of “teacher tenure” is repeated incessantly by certain politicians and in the media. Supposedly, past a certain probationary period, public school teachers cannot, come Hell or high water, be dismissed.

This is nonsense. From my experience, as a union member, a building-level union counselor and, later, an administrator, neither statute nor accurate practice supports this misapprehension.

About all that tenure assures is the teacher’s right to a process of review established to justify, if necessary, his or her dismissal. Tenure is the fair alternative to being dismissed merely because of administrative dislike or political expedience. It is not tenure that prevents bad teachers from dismissal; but, "politics."

I have participated in getting teachers dismissed. It is, in fact, extremely difficult to remove teachers from their positions, no matter how abominably they perform in the classroom, if they have friends or relatives in high places. Nor is it likely they will be touched if there is a teacher shortage. Law requires, not a competent teacher, but a licensed adult to “cover” a class. Licenses are cheaply obtained.

Administrators are busy people, almost always “putting out fires” in their school community. It is really too much to expect them to be able to fairly and consistently evaluate the teachers – often many teachers – in their school.

And then there is the third issue: careerism. Administrators make substantially more money than teachers, in general, and, at retirement, receive substantially higher pensions. In Pennsylvania, a superintendent who averages $150,00 a year (a low salary) in any three years of his or her career and has put in 30 years service in any capacity in a public school system, receives a base monthly pension of approximately $90,000/yr for life. (Variations may occur depending if transfers to other funds outside the state pension system are made at the time of settlement.)**

A classroom teacher whose highest three years of salary during 30 years of service average $65,000 will receive a base pension of $39,000 – less if withdrawals are made. The point? Teachers who “rock the boat” threaten not only an administrator’s possibility of promotion; but, also their retirement income.

Principals get promotions if they don’t rock the superintendent’s or other local politicians’ “boats,” or if they step on those teachers who might rock the boat for them. Promotion in public education administration is substantially political, rather than based on clear, widely accepted technical criteria.

So it is that teacher tenure impedes the expedient, not-to-be-reviewed dismissal of whistleblowers, or of academically demanding teachers, or of targets of some vehement though likely evanescent community unhappiness.

The fourth issue is cowardice. Some people want to be leaders and bask in the deference accorded them by their subordinates. But they cannot discipline their troops when needed. So the most glaring incompetence will be tolerated, especially if it is accompanied by obsequiousness.

To examine these issues further, see Teacher Evaluation: Educational Process for Pedagogical Improvement Or Punitive, Political Tool?
** The general formula is this: Base pension per year = 2% x (years of service) x (average of three highest yearly salaries). For example, 2% of 30years = 0.60 If superintendent's three highest paid years whenever they occurred were $130M, $150M, and $170M, averaging $150M, then 0.60 x $150M = $90 before transfers, deductions and adjustments. Many retire with both 40 years service and higher salary averages.

--- EGR

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"What Does That Word Really Mean?" -- The Misleading Dictionary Ritual

When we Americans disagree, as we often do, whether something should be called "socialism" or "education" or "excellent" or "conservative," we sometimes consult our secular Holy Book, the Dictionary.

But dictionaries are like a magician’s sleight of hand that gets us to look for things where they are not. People are trained to treat dictionaries with deference, as if they were treasure chests with gold coins, meanings, hidden within them. That mere configurations of ink on paper carry meaning is a fundamental superstition of our, and of many another, civilization.

Meanings are much more like paper money. If the cash is Confederate States of America bills, it’s worthless as legal tender. Only currently recognized cash works, unless there are special practices within a community of users, a consensus where, for example, coupons, Green Stamps, and other non-standard media of exchange are recognized.

Even the value of gold, or other hard metal, rests on a consensus that it should be used as a medium of exchange. In many cultures this consensus does not exist. Rarity is not the issue. Many rare substances could serve as a medium of exchange, but there is no consensus, hardened by tradition, that they are to be considered as money.

Dictionaries are basically history books, the history of one tradition or another of language usage. They mention what at some time was the exchange value of a word, which may or may not be usable today in some communities. Just think how such words as "gay," "cock," "bud," and "mother" have changed over the years. (Ask your grandparents, if you are under 30.) It is the consensus that exists in a community of users on how a word may be used to assert, describe, command, imply, question, etc. that gives that word meaning.

This is a disturbing thought for many people. After all, there are so many different communities and so many disagreements among them. Printed words in dictionaries seem ever so much durable than the ideas that people carry about in their heads. But we’re not talking about neurons firing in heads – which we cannot observe – but consistent practices in communities, that is, consensual behavior.

Ask yourself, “Is ‘lko6m*\B" a word?” “It might be,” you say. Suppose it is. What, then, does it mean? Could you possibly say unless you could get some idea how it is or was be used, by a human or a machine, to assert, describe, command, imply, or question?

And wouldn't it make a difference if some one person made it up for himself alone to use, or, on the other hand, if there existed a community of people who lived their lives using it among themselves in a consistent, practical manner; in other words, if there was a consensus about its use?

To examine these issues further, see The Nature of Consensus

--- EGR

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Living in a Cloud of Buzzwords? A possible remedy.

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. – Thomas Jefferson
More and more American students are getting college degrees. However, according to recent studies, fewer and fewer develop critical thinking skills along the way. But, can they ever stumble through the polysyllables!

Public political discourse in the universities and legislatures over the years appears more and more intensely to permit screaming epithets and insults, “liar,” “fascist,” “communist,” “pervert,” and the like, as though they were adequate rebuttals to proposals offered by people the screamers disagree with.

Is there a connection here? Have the tight education budget policies of most states, together with ever more lax admissions and graduation standards, finally paid off (for whom?) by producing an ever-increasing swarm of schooled ignoramuses satisfied with the empty paper they regard as a diploma?

Don’t imagine this is only a public education issue. Embarrassments can be found in both parochial and private educational also. Buzzwords and shallow thinking are standard fare not only on TV “talk” shows, but in op-ed columns of the “great” newspapers and journals.

Even many trained scientists, once they wander out of their specialty and into the areas of public policy, economics or ethics, tend to drift back into the cloud of buzzwords they were exposed to during earlier years in their development.

Come back down to reality by learning how to operationalize the contents of everyday items of contention. See Operationalization

--- EGR

Thursday, February 10, 2011

“Expert Advice” You Can Do Without

A bunch of kids will be playing together in a schoolyard. Suddenly, a newcomer appears and chants, “Oooooooo. Watch out or you’re gonna get in trouble! You’re gonna get in trouble.” What frequently happens next is the children who were playing stop and leave for other places.

If the children are older, one might challenge the newcomer, “How’re we gonna get in trouble?” The newcomer replies, naming a teacher, “Mrs. Smith doesn’t like people doing that. She find out and you’ll be sorry.” This will disperse all but the most rarely courageous – generally characterized as “obstinate” -- children.

Take note that the “what it is” that would supposedly get them into trouble was never identified. Neither was the “why” it was unacceptable. Nor was any evidence given that Mrs. Smith in fact would disapprove. And even if she would have, the mysterious “what it is” might be quite acceptable to other teachers and parents.

But these were kids, after all. We wouldn’t expect them to act like little detectives and lawyers. But do adults handle such situations any better?

In a column called “Legal Talk” in the Winter 2011 issue of Educational Horizons the columnist, co-author of a book called School Law for Teachers gives advice to teachers to report suspected child abuse. What is abuse? Physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect are given more or less clear examples. But the category, “Emotional or Psychological Abuse” sounds more than a little bit like “Watch out! Or you’re gonna get in trouble.”

Emotional abuse “is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-esteem.” I have seen many an educator or parent sweat at the presentation of such a definition. I don’t think it was guilt. Rather, it was frustration at the prospect of having to fake a vaguely defined decision.

Is there any science behind this notion of emotional or psychological abuse strong enough and so widely accepted that a jury could determine that
1. a child’s emotional development had been impaired; and
2. the behavior of an accused individual had been the primary cause of that impairment?

And how about the child’s “sense of self-esteem?” Even children can misjudge things. Is this "sense of self-esteem" anything firmer upon which to base a legal argument? One’s “sense” of things, say, of acceptance into a group, can be inaccurate, as proven by later treatment received from members. Self-esteem fluctuates in some people depending upon the advertisements they happen to be watching on TV. Again this brings up difficulties in proving that one or more persons are primary causes of such fluctuations.

Educators are reluctant to intervene in circumstances vague or ambiguous enough to permit their own higher-ups to reverse a decision (for whatever reason.) Nor are educators trained -- as a matter of professional development -- to justify their intervention in the face of such a reversal.

Mere administrative or parental objection will disperse all but the most rarely courageous, or trained – generally characterized as “obstinate” -- teachers.

As a practicing educator, do what thoughtful consideration recommends; but, in order to learn how to construct strong reasons for your intervention, see Rationales for Intervention: From Test to Treatment to Policy

--- EGR

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Dangers of Diplomas

If you ask adults going for a degree the question, “Why are you going to school?” they tend to respond in these ways:
1. In order to make more money;
2. In order to raise my station in life, that is, gain respect;
3. In order to speak with authority, that is, more easily persuade others to accept what I say;
4. to learn more about things I am interested in;
5. to improve my character or acquire wisdom.

Educational institutions of all kinds focus their advertising on such goals, emphasizing them in the order given above, particularly items 1, 2 and 3. Items 4 and 5 are left for faculty, counselors and late-night campus bull sessions to address informally, if someone appears to be receptive to them.

But although recruiting advertisements proclaim there is a correlation between higher degrees and life-time income increases (With which degree? In which field?) events have shown that for the randomly selected graduate student (you, me or our friends) the link between degree and well-paying job is tenuous.

I began taking graduate courses because, as a public school teacher, state and school district requirements mandated that I take courses to maintain my licensure. Contract incentives moved me to enter a Master’s degree program. It took me more years to make back the money I spent on tuition than I received by my salary increase for the higher degree.

However I did learn some interesting things and meet some interesting people as I worked at the university, but mostly, by luck: by just being around when things came up. That meant I had to spend substantial time away from my family to take advantage of such opportunities. The short-term tradeoff was not encouraging. Long term advantages were post-schooling circumstances: things happened.

Two not uncommon results of acquiring higher degrees are
a. overblown self-esteem, a pride that outstrips capability, even in one’s speciality; and
b. a sense of entitlement based solely on possessing the sheepskin.
Everyone vaguely associated with a college or university knows some pompous twit with a doctorate who constantly complains about being underpaid. But there are corporations that will not hire from certain highly reputed business schools because “all their graduates really know how to do is expect a beginning six-figure salary.” (People in basic education can look forward to the likelihood that wherever they are hired, a large number of people will treat them as overpaid ignoramuses.)

If you have acquired a higher degree, ask yourself, “Did it make a difference in who you are? Can you honestly say you’re a better person for it? Or did you just learn to keep your opinions to yourself unless you could flatter someone higher up on the food-chain with them?”

There is a bizarre correlation to consider: cheating and plagiarism in high schools and colleges are reputed to be at an all-time high. So are applications for admission to all kinds of higher education. Has someone found the real road to success?

To examine these issues further, see KNOWLEDGE IS GOOD: some misgivings

--- EGR

Monday, February 7, 2011

Avoiding Controversy: a survival necessity?

What’s the connection?
1. Students, particularly (shockingly,) college students, do not learn, or learn well, critical thinking skills; (NYT)
2. High school teachers do not teach, or teach well, Evolution; (NYT)
3. College students are seldom invited to examine the assumptions on which their professor’s course material is based; particularly, not graduate students.
Exceptions are more likely found in religious colleges than in public ones. Why is this?

Here are some possible answers:
a. the teachers or professors don’t know their subject matter.
b. Students, who don’t know how to handle controversy, evaluate their professors for promotion and tenure.
c. Professors have not studied formal logic.
d. Neither students nor professors know how to reason well on their feet.
Let’s dismiss a and c as unlikely. This is not a matter of knowing something, but of being able to teach it, especially, if it provokes debate. Merely studying formal logic does not help here.

Option b is close to the matter. Evolution and other controversial items are perceived by students to threaten their “sacred values.” They strongly dislike the apparent threat. They get their revenge by giving their instructors low ratings. (I have noticed during my 17+ years as a college professor that the same person, teaching a basically “technical” course would get higher ratings from his or her students than in a course where controversial material was dealt with.)

Option d is crucial. Teaching, if it is a face-to-face encounter requires either suppressing questioning, or having argumentative (or debate) skills to use. Except in religious environments where boundaries are clear – you still risk skating on thin ice --, secular, pluralistic schools and universities have disregarded argumentative and debate skills so long that few now command them to the degree they can be used for teaching purposes.

More than once have I heard professors at professional conferences declare that “There are, without exception, no absolute truths.” When asked about the truth of that very statement, which if true, is false, they shrugged it off with the retort, “You’re just playing word games.”

To examine these issues further, and avoid intellectual lobotomy, see An Introduction to Models of Reasoning

--- EGR

Sunday, February 6, 2011

School Administrators: caught between rocks and hard places.

School administrators are expected to act in accordance with Federal regulations, State and Local Law, and School Board Policy. In addition they are supposed to work efficiently and with regard to public relations. On top of that they must be seen as caring and ethical, showing appropriate concern for faculty, student and parental concerns.

But what are the priorities when push comes to shove, as it frequently does in times of tight budgets or social change? Where do they learn and practice rationally prioritizing competing interests? Nowhere but on the job. Too, little; too late.

How do they learn to distinguish real problems from panicked misunderstandings, or political manipulations? They often don’t, except through painful on-the-job humiliations.

What training do new and even experienced administrators normally get for rationally justifying their decisions so they can rationally defend them, if necessary, in a variety of venues? Usually, none.

Can you really understand and practically apply the differences between what is or is not legal, ethical, reasonable, expedient or tactful? Many working administrators cannot.

I taught a course for more than ten years at Widener University called “Ethics and Values in Education.” My students were mostly practicing public school administrators working on their superintendency certification or a doctorate. Over the years the frequency with which my students were being dragged into court increased substantially.

They came to class with sad stories of embarrassment and humiliation at the hands of opposing council for things which they had done in good faith and in accordance with many of the constraints they were aware of. But they discovered they were clay pigeons even when school district counsel argued to protect them.

However, it isn’t too difficult and it doesn’t take years and years of study to prepare yourself to be assertively rational about why you decided to do what you did. The resources given below give examples of ethical, legal and other conflicts that could be handled with careful thinking.

See Ethical Argument, Practical Proposal

--- EGR

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Schooling Entitlement: an unwanted gift, a deadweight loss?

The only gift is a portion of thyself.
 ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
I went to high school with a young man who was a marvelous pianist and who performed at our graduation for an admiring audience and proud relatives. At the end of the ceremony he remarked to us, ferociously, as we returned our caps and gowns in the gym, “Now I’m done with high school and those damned piano lessons, too. I’ll never touch that damned instrument again.”

Suppose, your rich Uncle Jack calls to tell you he has paid a non-refundable $50,000 to a Brazilian tour company. They have reserved a non-transferrable place for you in their 6-week jungle survivalist training program several hundred miles up the Amazon river. Uncle Jack wants you to leave at your earliest convenience to, he assures you, gain self-confidence, learn important skills and strengthen character.

You are hardly eager to endure six weeks of heat and humidity, mosquitoes and piranhas, pythons, leeches, athlete’s foot and crotch rot. If Uncle Jack had just given you the money, you could have arranged three-weeks of your own expeditionary sallies observing the flora and expecially the fauna from your own base-camp in the Acapulco Hilton. It would have cost only about $30,000 and you would have an extra $20,000 left over for possible night-life investigations.

Uncle Jack’s Amazon expeditionary entitlement for you does not address any of what you consider your wants or needs. You would reject the offer out of hand, if you weren’t afraid of being written out of his will entirely. You might go down in the Winter out of curiosity – you could always fake illness to get out of it early -- but you would never pay more than $1000 yourself for the experience.

Because he failed to consult with you in advance and, indeed, is more or less trying to intimidate you into the Brazilian experience, his gift suffers what economists call a “deadweight loss,” the difference between what he was willing to pay for it, and what you value it for (or, at best, the difference between the costs of the Brazilian and the Acapulco alternative.) Many economists take deadweight loss to be an indicator of value destroyed.

This may seem like an abstract application of economic theory, but just consider how such a dead-weight loss affects your own motivation to participate. Consider, also, the long-term educational outcomes of the piano lessons my classmate was forced to endure.

Think, now, about how many children, intimidated into accepting schooling entitlements, react with seeming indifference to whether they achieve or not. And if the school they are to attend is less than a benign, welcoming environment, is there little wonder that they resort to vandalism or other forms of overt rebellion?

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

--- EGR

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Academic Carnival: A ticket to the good life?

Fifteen years ago I asked a college graduate working for a moderately-sized company how she found the corporate life. She remarked that while it was engaging, the surprising thing was that 90% of the work was done by 20% of the people. She couldn’t figure out what the rest contributed.

There used to be a bank in Pennsylvania that appointed the sons of its wealthiest depositors as “directors” of sorts for one particular branch office. These “directors” were paid not insubstantial salaries despite their almost continual absence from work. Residents in nearby communities knew better than to go to that branch and expect service. The depositors whose often fully-grown “kids” were “working” and “titled” were happy the bank could provide their scions with a “respectable” occupation.

John Kenneth Galbraith once remarked that the most philanthropic of institutions in American society was the corporation: for a select group of “employees” few other institutions rewarded low productivity so handsomely.

In the colleges and universities that nowadays claim to prepare students for life in our greater society, certain traditions and practices have existed among a select few students almost since that fateful day in 1636 when Harvard College was founded: slacking off, plagiarism, cutting class, cheating, intimidating faculty, vandalism and social promotion.

As higher education continues, year by year, to cost more, the plebeians have caught on. They have come to the conclusion that the purpose of college is to get a certificate of entitlement to the “good life.” And you can avoid a lot of drudgery – e.g. reading, writing, thinking – if you know how to game the system.

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, report that in their broad study of American colleges a large proportion of students showed no improvement in reading, writing and critical thinking skills for their first two years, and very little afterward.

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) is a comprehensive survey for freshmen and seniors in which they report the number of books read, papers written, hours spent preparing for class, as well as provide indicators of student collaboration, student-faculty interaction, and the overall campus environment. Although many top-ranked universities participated in this study, those institutions have blocked the general public from access to its results. Are they worried about invasions of privacy?

But the source of many of these problems may well reside with those who criticize them most severely: the public, corporate leaders and their legislative representatives.

To examine this and related issues further, see Fiscal Policy Effects on Grade Inflation

--- EGR