Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Educational Policy Reform: wishes or delusions?

Oh, the buzzin’ of the bees and the cigarette trees,
The soda water fountain
Where the lemonade springs and the bluebird sings
In that Big Rock Candy Mountain. --- Traditional
A fundamental fact: funding for public schools in the United States is controlled through the political system. The political system is strongly constrained by the agendas, the likes and the dislikes of people who very often have minimal personal investment in the public school system. School board members, for example, tend not to send their kids to public school.

“Reformers” of all stripes have long looked to “education” and its institutions to “reform” society. And they look to “society” to “reform” education. (This normally amounts to little more than fiddling with the public schools.)

There is a vicious logical circle here: education is to reform society, which is to reform education. How do you break into this circle? By using political means? Then how do you expect it to succeed if the politically adept people don’t want a change that might threaten their own interests?

George S. Counts, a professor of education at Columbia University, 1932, asked, “Dare The School Build A New Social Order?” A prior, more important question is whether the (public) schools can build a “new social order.” (If wishes were horses …)

Cynthia Brown, vice president for education policy at The Center for American Progress*, proposes that we “fundamentally redesign our teacher workforce system.” Who, what, where, when, how? Our teacher workforce system is very much like many another workforce system; although, the political barriers to changing public education are much less permeable than those of, say, farm workers or lawyers.

“Promote school choice,” opines Lance T. Izumi, senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.* School choice will enable parents to switch their kids from the “unsatisfactory” schools their kids are in to ones that are better. And how will they know which ones are better? By word of mouth? By advertising? Will they risk their kids’ discontent by sacrificing the kid’s friendships and comforts of the familiar merely to pursue will-o’-the-wisps of distant future rewards gotten, supposedly, through something called “academic achievement”?

The competitive conditions for school choice that Izumi proposes are not likely -- to tell from past experience -- to provide what Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust,* proposes: to provide “strong” teachers with the kinds of salaries they deserve.

What is this “strength” we are looking for? Who will judge what they “deserve”? Our present legislative committees? Our present commissioners of education? Our present school boards?

Being serious about policy means not dodging facts or hard questions.

To examine the basic issues further, see Body Counts and Standards-Based Reform

Cordially
--- EGR
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* See New York Times, Room for Debate 3/28/2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011

What is Superstition? Why Does It Matter?

… a superstition is nothing other than a supposed natural correlation that is supported solely by convention and is unverified by controlled observation. --Stephen C. Pepper, Ethics, (1960) p. 55.
Is Pepper right? His attempt at defining a superstition seems to be an improvement over our everyday notion, which goes something like this:
If you and I both believe or disbelieve something, then it’s an example -- we assume -- of knowledge.
If I believe something you don’t, then that is an example of your ignorance.
But if I don’t believe something that you do, then that is an example of your superstition.
Nonetheless, there is less to Pepper’s definition than meets the eye; it raises several questions:
1. Who is doing the supposing? Doesn’t that matter?
2. How can we tell if the supposition is “supported solely by convention” ?
3. Need we verify everything “by controlled observation”?
Here are some beliefs we are not likely to dismiss as mere superstition, if superstition at all:
A. Ice feels cold.
B. The language you are reading this essay in is English.
C. What you see with your own eyes is not 100% illusion or hallucination.
Have you ever remarked, "I suppose that ice is cold"? Do you have to carry out a series of “controlled observations” to justify believing A or B or C above as something other than superstition?

If I have persuaded you that Pepper hasn't got it quite right, and if you still think it is an important matter to distinguish between knowledge and superstition (After all, which should we teach our children?), then see Questionable Assumptions in Social Decision Making


Cordially
--- EGR

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Does Public Education Support American Democracy?

…there is a need to redefine democracy, making it consistent with what people are able and willing to do and to know in the complex modern world. Jefferson’s model of “government by consent of the governed” is much more realistic in such a world than is the classical definition of “government by the people.” -- E. E. Schattschneider (1969)
Dewey’s primary public message was that public schools, in order to prepare their students for life in a democratic society, should replicate that democracy within themselves: the schools, making allowances for student intellectual development, should be democratically run. Throughout his lifetime John Dewey was lionized, honored and seldom listened to by “practical people.” His opponents said aloud what his followers guided their practice with: he has got to be kidding!

In Philadelphia recently, a public school teacher was removed from duty for having provided carfare to high school students so they could participate in a protest over the closing of their school and the transfer of their teachers. The same administrators who were unable to predict a $400,000,000 budget shortfall for the coming year, who awarded contracts in a questionably unofficial manner to persons they favored, apparently ascertained in a very short time that the teacher’s behavior threatened the health and welfare of the students she gave bus tokens to.

Most of the people I went through twelve years of public school with were intelligent enough to dodge being dragooned into service as a student council representative. After all, as Class Representatives, we would be intimidated by our teacher sponsor to “discuss” at length what everyone knew were unimportant things, e.g. what rooms could be used for holiday parties, what color the balloons would be, etc. Certificates at graduation were no recompense for hours of boredom.

What public school students’ experiences with such “democracy” seems to inculcate is, on the one hand, something obvious: there is no “real democracy” in public school.

But what is bizarre is that a second thing manages to be planted in their brains: “real democracy” means “everyone should participate and make important social decisions in order to exercise their rights as citizens.” John Dewey put it that the more people we can interact with, the more democratic our society becomes. This seems to be the classical model that Schattschneider in the epigraph above mentions.

The total population of the United States in July 2009 was 307,006,550. When we take into consideration this number along with time, energy, money and opportunity needed for interaction with even a small fraction of Americans, how are we supposed to make such a democracy work? How many people will you be able to discuss any given issue with?

Perhaps Jefferson’s idea is more appropriate. And then we wouldn’t need to feel, in school or out, so hypocritical about making necessary decisions for others; or to feel so irresponsible for allowing others to make the decisions for us. And we would come to understand that, but for their compulsory nature, public schools fit right in with American democracy.

To examine these issues further, see Democracy vs. Efficiency in Public Schooling


Cordially
--- EGR

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Knowledge, Freedom, Wisdom: Are These the Point of Schooling?

Who are a little wise, the best fools be. – John Donne
It is not accidental that we speak of sending our dogs to “obedience school.” Show horses, too, are schooled. Indeed, any circus animal that that is to perform in public receives “schooling.”

Such training is necessary since the natural impulses of dogs, horses, elephants and tigers are not attuned to cooperating with or supporting human social purposes believed to be desirable. So must it be thought to be the same with human children, to judge from our practices of compulsory schooling.

“But unless they go to school, kids would run wild and grow up to be, at best, anti-social ruffians.” Perhaps. But does this mean that incarcerating them for ever-increasing periods of time -- think of the movements to do away with recess, summer vacations and free Saturdays--, will make them (and us) healthy, wealthy and wise?

So what if they do learn a little math; and less writing? And even less history? Whose benefit is served if they learn to spout scientistic slogans about human nature and the universe? For example, “All human behavior is generated from the brain according to the laws of nature.” Or, “According to the latest research the universe is finite (or infinite, or multiple -- pick one or more).” How is it possible to take seriously supposedly “scientific” pronouncements about “all” of anything from individuals who inhabit a mere speck of dust in a remote corner of the (or “a”) universe during a minuscule interval of time?

The previous statement is not an attempt to beat up scientists: just the popularizers and propagandizers of “science” whose overextended conjectures end up in the schoolbooks students are exposed to (usually in textbook chapter summaries, or supporting materials).

For good reason, public educators in our pluralistic society attempt to distinguish between religion and science in constructing curriculum. What they often miss, however, is that being skeptical, or anti-religious, does not, in and of itself, qualify an idea as being scientific.

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


Cordially
--- EGR

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

“Cat” is NOT a Cat. “Reform” is NOT a Reform.

"The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized; the word is NOT the thing; … -– S.I. Hayakawa (1949)

We live in a society where a “Going Out of Business Sale” sign on a store probably doesn’t mean that the store is going out of business after the sale is over. “Reality” shows on TV are far from reality, the confections of TV writers and producers. Brand names, too, are not infrequently assurances of quality that is non-existent.

Even our schools promote their own form of BS -- think only of the all-too-vagrant usage of such words as “challenged,” “basics,” “excellence,” “diversity,” “needs,” and “standards.” Unfortunately, BS, like other forms of S, can be infectious: it can produce a mind-set that borders on pathology.

Sean Cavanagh in an article, “In War of Words, 'Reform' a Potent Weapon,” (Education Week, 3/2/11) writes
A set of stock phrases, sound bites, and buzzwords has come to dominate the public discourse on education, summoned reflexively, it often seems, by elected officials and advocates who speak a shared, accepted language.
In other words, Big-Wig BS: on such rests the fate of our school populations.

To propose what you call a “reform” is to do two things:
a. it is to propose a change; and
b. it is to recommend that change as desirable.
Here is where the fight begins.

Not every possible change will be seen as a change for the better. Death is a change. It is not a reform. It is because people disagree on what is desirable that the controversy about school reform exists.

To examine these issues further, see The Need for and Possibilities of Educational Reform


Cordially
--- EGR