Thursday, May 19, 2011

Control in the School: illusions and realities

We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom. -- Stephen Vincent Benet (1935)

Back in those many years when I was teaching public school and studying nights to get a doctorate -- I was investigating procedures for predicting human behavior -- an old college chum of mine, an up-and-coming Philadelphia lawyer, asked me why I didn’t go into school administration.

I asked him why he thought I should do that. He replied, “So you can have more power, more control and influence.”

He was almost insulted when I replied that power, control and influence -- in public education, at least -- were only likely randomly related to administrative position.

One of the most boring jobs I ever had was as the headmaster of a putatively academically focused, private school. The most important thing I had to do -- which ate up time, futilely -- was to “lunch” with rarely interesting people whose only claim on my attention was their potential for donorship.

I was supposed to be agreeable to each individual member of a governing board who, in depth, differed greatly among themselves what the school was about. (It was all “hale, fellow, well met” at the slogan level, e.g. “Excellence in All Undertakings.”) Each individual board member tried to enlist me as an agent working for him against his less-insightful fellow board members.

Power, control, influence? Not much of that when the friends of board members could act as solicitors for special interests to have my quite ordinary decisions subjected to time-consuming review and reversal.

Teachers who have difficulty with difficult students are often criticized as “lacking control” or other presumably “normal” teacher skills. This criticism comes not infrequently from administrators who escaped the classroom so their own “lack of control” would not be subject to easy criticism.

Teachers who do have control, on the other hand, have to listen to administrators and fellow teachers tell them how “fortunate” they are to have “such good students.” No doubt such statements are intended to help skilled teachers to maintain a proper humility.

For references and to examine these issues further, see My First Classroom Teaching Experience

--- EGR

Monday, May 16, 2011

Does Schooling Help Develop Conscience?

Everything that a teacher does … to enhance formal operational thought is also … enhancing the development of principled morality.
-- Michael Schleifer "Moral Education and Indoctrination" Ethics, 86,2, 154-163
Complaints from Kids about School:
In public school you can’t pray when you want to. (My Mom worries about this.)

Big deal! In most schools you can’t even pee when you need to! (Besides, it’s not that anyone much wants so much to pray; other things are funner.)
What’s going on here?
Any kid can tell you: school is about learning rules, even if lots of them don’t make much sense. (Some nasty kids even say the rules they tell us are for our own good are really to make life easy for teachers!)

You can get into trouble for doing things that are not wrong, like coming in a little bit late, or forgetting a book. (Oooh! You’re gonna get in trouble!)

You can even get into trouble for doin' what is right, like fightin' back against a bully.
What’s going on here?
And we’re supposed to read and memorize what is in the books they give us. But my dad says it’s a load of crap! (Oooh! You said “crap!”)

But my parents say I should do what they tell me to and I’ll be OK. I’ll even get good grades!
That’s what they learn in school.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Moral Education: Indoctrination vs. Cognitive Development?

--- EGR

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Caveat Emptor: The Coming School Voucher Disaster

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. -- Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations
Book I, Chapter X, Part II
Americans in the education business, like most peoples who work to maximize their personal benefits for minimal cost, are much more like poker players than like philanthropist saints. Gaming the “free market” pays far better than does supporting it.

Of course, it has always been the practice of those in the “uplift” biz, educators, clergy, social workers and the like, to pretend to an almost otherworldly disregard of their own needs and benefits, while pushing the idea that they sacrifice in the service of others.

The business world is a jungle. Genghis Khan is a role model. Relatively few people accept a morality as strict as that preached by Adam Smith to be the backbone of a free market economy. Bullshit and fraud are the language of daily discourse, even though the Nicespeak promoted by advertising is the politically correct dialect.

It is really little different in the education business. Only wishful thinking blinds us to the malfeasance that is far from rare and that serves as an incentive to much institutional development. Vouchers for education will provide the economic wheelers and dealers, who already loot the public treasuries, one more easy entrance to pillage.

Our kids, our hopes and dreams, are involved in education. Therefore, let us permit hope to triumph over experience. Let us, resolutely, continue to believe that, someday, in the not too distant future:
a. no child need be left behind;
b. all adults, educated thoroughly and efficiently, will participate in the processes of self-governance;
c. most kids, and adults, will be math whizzes, and champions at Jeopardy;
d. all Americans will be financially schooled, intelligent consumers -- particularly of education; and
e. America, the New Jerusalem, will finally achieve “alabaster cities” whose gleam is undimmed by human tears.

All this from the viking of Genghis Khan and his Poker Players, pretending to the priesthood of the Free Market.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Adam Smith Goes to School

--- EGR

Monday, May 2, 2011

Testing Fraud in School?!!! Is It Even Imaginable?!!!

If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. -- Thumper’s Mommy
I won’t mention any names or locations, lest enthusiastic casino owners with enthusiastic hair-dos label me a terrorist, but I read recently in my local papers that accusations have been tendered that standard test results in a local school district have been “adjusted” to raise the averages.

Of course, school officials deny any such manipulations, invoking Brotherly Love to attest to their righteousness. That doesn’t impress me, you see, since I, personally, witnessed, on several occasions during my career in that school district, the “reconfiguration” of data to avoid “negative interpretation” by “outsiders.”

More than one principal has recounted to me how their appointments and promotions were contingent upon “re-evaluations” that satisfied their superiors. Teachers, too, told how they were instructed to fill blackboards with test-relevant information in the very rooms where standardized tests were given.

But, of course, I and my confreres might have been mistaken: it’s hard to keep your head clear when alarms go off at random during the school day and fluorescent bulbs buzz, blink and wriggle incessantly, year in, year out.

If you wish to pursue these delusions further, see CONTRACTING A REAL PERFORMANCE

--- EGR

The Functions of Schooling: to Deaden the Mind, to Weaken the Will?

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. …
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains.-- Shelley
Power has many sources: among them, wealth, fear, luck, tradition and knowledge. For those powerful people whose relationship with knowledge is minimal, power is all too often a precarious, fleeting thing.

Despite what the familiar slogan says, knowledge, in and of itself, is not power. It takes the Will to use it to make the transformation.

People in power have long feared knowledge and its dissemination. Will is even more feared. Will can be transformative, damaging, even where knowledge is lacking, although less likely to cause lasting change.

This is why education for the masses tends to stultify two of the main human impulses to the development of Knowledge and Will: curiosity and assertiveness. Schools, by their very structure, reward narrow focus on “approved goals” and obedience within a hierarchical framework.

To enter the school curriculum, simple ideas have to be made complex, made onerous with pointless memorizations, or castrated of any threatening application. Can you imagine what it might mean if the Declaration of Independence were used by students and applied to the governance of the schools?
You can think and think and think/
Till your brains are numb, 
I don't care what teacher says, 
I can't do that sum. -- V. Herbert & K. Baker
A majority of Americans suffers from a school cultivated fear of mathematics. Ritual and obscurantism are used hide its potential for the experiences of beauty, and of insight and its suggestive indications of power. Only those who have suffered long preambles of tradition, who have shown themselves willing to subject themselves to the arbitrary discipline of academic, i.e. politically safe, pedants, get to see the treasures of the inner sanctums of the discipline.

The goals of constraining knowledge and suppressing will is what makes “science education” in K-12 education less than science, more like a magic show with much preachment, and little critical thinking and interesting exploration.

Are schoolkids -- are adults -- sufficiently curious and assertive to make the most of the knowledge available? Many are. The others might be, if they didn’t live on the brink of economic disaster and ill-health; or in communities of self-perpetuating debilitation.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Evaluating Learner Strengths and Weaknesses: 
the Impediments of Formalism

--- EGR