Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Pathologies of Enthusiasm: cheerleading is not engineering

Throughout their history, American schools have been expected to take on responsibilities for which they were often unsuited. Public schools have been enthusiastically, though not too wisely, promoted as a cure for most of society's ills. When they have failed, it was usually because their leaders and their public alike had forgotten their real limitations as well as their real strengths.

There is an enthusiasm for “raising expectations” which has captured a generation of would-be school reformers. For example, Paul Krouse, publisher of Who's Who Among American High School Students, finds those students "undermotivated." His assessment? "I think everyone needs to raise his expectations and standards for these students to perform better."

Unlike teachers, doctors are not advised that raising their expectations will decrease morbidity rates among their patients. Nor is raising their expectations a technique by which lawyers plan to win more trials; or soldiers, more battles. Yet schoolteachers are importuned, with a straight face, to “raise their expectations” so as to cause greater learning in their students.

To continue this train of thought see “Fat-Free” Foods and Schooling Options


-- EGR

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Faking Know-How With Sloganeering

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made. — Julian Henry Marx

People often find it hard to admit they don’t know how to deal with a problem; especially, when a question about it is put to them publicly by a subordinate. After all, admitting ignorance might provoke disdain or insubordination. Or the situation might be seen to threaten humiliation, particularly by people who lack experience in cooperative dialogue.

What often happens in such situations is that the person being posed the problem produces an ambiguous response, full of sloganistic buzzwords that, practically, indicate no testable approach to solving it. Skill with such responses can be both a face-saver and an obstruction.

For example,
A teacher complains to her principal, “My students seldom come to class with homework done. How should I handle it?”

The principal replies, “You’ve got to lay down the law and make them understand the consequences of their failures to complete their assignments!”
Blah, blah, blah! Can this advice be followed to get the homework done? Not likely; what specific things is the teacher to do? However, this sloganeering does make the principal sound like the he is in charge and that he knows something.

What he might do instead is to turn the question back to the teacher; for example, by asking, "What do you think interferes with the kids getting their homework done? Have you asked them? Which impediments am I, as principal, in better position to deal with than you? Have you asked any of your more experienced colleagues how they would handle the situation?", and so on. If these questions were brought up in a non-threatening way, they might stimulate both a productive conversation and better principal-teacher relations.

For references, examples and to investigate this mode of response further, see Pseudo-Solutions: Three Disciplinary Slogans

--- EGR

Monday, August 22, 2011

Why Are Some Schools Worse Than Others? Answers Carefully Disregarded by Reformers.

Punishment is now unfashionable... because it creates moral distinctions among men, which, to the democratic mind, are odious. We prefer a meaningless collective guilt to a meaningful individual responsibility. -- Thomas Szasz

Why are some schools social hell-holes? Why do some schools have low academic achievement?

The obvious answer -- to anyone who has tried to teach in such schools -- is this: the students’ behavior is so bad that it interferes with their learning.

The “disruptive” children, before they are old enough to become self-trainers in sociopathy, lack help in developing self-regulation
. Bad parenting as well as neighborhood poverty may be the reason. Heaven knows that violent public schools have little recourse to any effective punishment for children inured to violence.

Such considerations are uncomfortable for those whose making a living requires ingratiating themselves to people who are too self-important, ignorant, or incompetent to admit their contribution to the dysfunctions in society. If you serve a master, you can’t afford to serve truth.

And so it is that school people worry more about the self-esteem of bullies, than about their victims. The courts and the politicians push for equality of treatment despite special focussed treatment being needed. Or, they push for special supportive treatment, even if it handicaps those who are considered too “normal” to require it.

School board candidates, by and large, always discover the budget to be too big, teachers to be uncooperative and parents irresponsible. Businessmen wash their hands of the whole situation complaining that the have done their duty by overpaying their taxes and criticizing the the schools. Education professors dismiss complaints about their disengagement with the mention that they have contributed order and insight to the educational process by concocting profound metaphors.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Public School Reform: Mired in Metaphor

--- EGR

Friday, August 19, 2011

Should Kids Be Taught to Think Like Computers?

The armchair is thinking to itself... Where? In one of its parts? Or outside of its body in the air around it? Perhaps not anywhere? But what is then the difference between the internal speech of this armchair and that of another standing by it? -- Wittgenstein
Might children just as well be taught to think like armchairs? Or cuckoo clocks? Or tigers?

These might be interesting questions to try to answer provided we knew better what it is kids do when they think. We pretty well know what happens when computers process information. But is this thinking? Or just wishful thinking by Artificial Intelligence buffs?

What is it to “think”? Does the attempt to explain Mind as Machine inform or enlighten us?

To examine these issues further, see "Thinking" Like Computers Do

Cordially --- EGR

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Choosing a School for your Kids: Public? Parochial? Private?

The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
There are all kinds of good schools. And there are all kinds of bad ones. The educational mission of the wealthiest, most religious, private school can be corrupted by a student, parent or staff culture of special privilege, bullying, or worse.

But aside from the sloganistic blather found on “mission statements” -- public schools lack a practicable consensus on what they are about, and provide unique opportunities for corruption for five reasons:
  • a. they are schools of last resort in a compulsory system;
  • b. this makes them susceptible to constraint by underinformed courts to institute procedures often contrary to good educational practice; for example, housing students awaiting trial for even felonious offenses;
  • c. special interest groups can gain control over school practices by combining vociferousness with legal ingenuity;
  • d. not only naive idealists, but the weak-minded and pathologically sentimental are seduced into assuming teaching positions which they -- often with good reason -- abandon at the national rate of 13% per year; consequently
  • e. most surviving educators do not possess sufficient sense of profession to take risks. They shy away from speaking out against parents, administrators, board members or politicians whose efforts distort the school’s educational mission.

Choosing a good school can be hard, even if you have the money to afford options.
For more on this topic see “The Evils of Public Schools.”
-- EGR

Saturday, August 13, 2011

For Better and For Worse: Public Education in a Democratic Society is Political

Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber. -- Plato
It is quite common to hear educators and other would-be school reformers express the desire to "rid education of politics." But politics should not be seen as a contamination. Rather, we should understand any decision as political if it is based on something other than considerations of efficiency within a framework of a consensus on goals.

Thus, most public decisions in a pluralistic democracy -- where consensus on any issue is normally narrow or more apparent than real -- will be political. (See G.K. Clabaugh & E. G. Rozycki, "Getting It Together (the nature of consensus)" Politics is the art of reconciling disparate ends to common means. It is not an excrescence on education; but, in a democracy, its very soul and substance. However, politicizing of educational method is likely to produce the following:
a. the most politically viable methods will tend to low efficiency; this may lead, in times of scarcity, to a rejection of the goals they are instrumental to;

b. "excellence" will tend to be perceived either as an empty slogan, or as an elitist, undemocratic pursuit; 
c. teaching will tend to "deprofessionalization" in any politically sensitive arena; 
d. expertise will be seen as antipathetic to an increasingly popular concern for "sensitivity to human differences."
Given highest priority to a goal of maximizing social harmony, the following student characteristics may be pursued as efficient means: ignorance, incompetence, impotence and irrationality. (This provides a structural explanation for public school failure.)

Such trends may, in the long run, enable non-democratic elites to gain or to maintain disproportional influence. Schools in a democracy, may not -- contra Dewey -- best serve that democracy by being run democratically. --EGR

To examine these issues further, see Pluralism and Rationality: the Limits of Tolerance. Why public schools fail.


Friday, August 12, 2011

What Benefits Should Schools Promote? For Whom?

People learn something every day, and a lot of times it’s that what they learned the day before was wrong. -- Bill Vaughn
School reformers point to the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on basic education and complain that we are not getting our money's worth. They may be right. But we will never know for sure if we continue our habit of vague, contradictory and hopelessly optimistic expectations regarding what schooling can accomplish.

Some of this cockeyed optimism is understandable. When it comes to children, our hopes for a better tomorrow encourage a particularly nutty breed of optimism. Even life's most grizzled veterans find their hopes triumphing over their experience.

But schooling has become far too important and expensive to be totally given over to wishful thinking. At least some realism is required. To that end we would like to clarify what schools can and cannot reasonably be expected to do.

To continue the discussion see Dissecting School Benefits: a typology of conflicting goals


-- EGR

Thursday, August 11, 2011

High School Diploma or Doomed to Poverty? Is that the only choice?

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. -- Robert Frost
In 2008 Lansing, Michigan school officials instituted new, tougher graduation standards and predicted that would increase the number of kids dropping out of school.

Rebecca Rocho, an assistant superintendent with the Calhoun County Intermediate School District, no doubt hired for her clairvoyance into the even more distant future opined, “By having them leave high school without a diploma you doom them to a life of poverty, and doom their children to a life of poverty."

In education, nonsense begets even more nonsense. On the one hand, clearly, you don’t make students who are failing less likely to fail by raising graduation requirements. On the other hand, dropping out of high school is not like dropping off a high cliff.

Fact: many top rate colleges do not require a high school diploma. If the student "shows promise" ($$$?), they may be accepted.

Fact: There is no consistent way used to determine the number of dropouts in any given year. Students drop out, come back, switch schools, get GED's etc.

Fact: There are many opportunities for people to pursue further education when and if they want it; for example, through community colleges or on the job training.

For more on this see Identifying the "At Risk" Student: What is the Concern? -- EGR

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Motivating Kids? Not to Worry!

The true teacher defends his pupils against his own personal influence. He inspires self-distrust. He guides their eyes from himself to the spirit that quickens him. He will have no disciple. -Amos Bronson Alcott
I know how important motivation is, and I know exactly how unmotivated N percent of the population is. I'm not arguing against motivation, but that perhaps we shouldn't worry so much about motivating the kids.

First of all, there may not be too much teachers can do about motivating some kids. There are some kids who have perfectly good reasons not to like school -- those who've been savaged by previous classroom experiences; those who have been told in X ways that they're stupid Y times per day for Z years of schooling; and finally, those who correctly see school as irrelevant to their problems. Let's get real: school is not the solution for all of life's inadequacies (and the way many legislatures, administrators, and professors operate, it soon may not be the solution for any of them).

Another reality check: in trying to get and hold little Johnny's attention, no matter how interesting, entertaining, and motivating I am as a teacher, I still will have trouble competing successfully with little Britney's chest. Sometimes, in fact, motivation just boils down to making it more unpleasant for the kid not to learn than it is for the kid to learn. Certainly we must be careful here: this sort of reasoning has been used far too often to excuse cruel teaching practices by lazy incompetents.

To examine this issue further, see Motivation: why is this a worry?
-- WAC

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Should Public Schools Be “Student-Centered”?

Self praise is ridiculous. If you flatter yourself for some inconsequential thing, you are foolish; if for some wicked thing, you are mad. And if you praise yourself for a good thing, you are ungrateful. -- Erasmus
Student-centered schooling can be profoundly undemocratic, if it puts the interests of the kid first to the neglect of the interests of the people -- the 250 million or so voters, taxpayers, parents, et cetera, who are also legitimate stakeholders in education. Public schools are just that -- public -- owned by the people, not just by pupils and professionals.

On the other hand, student-centered learning can be terribly unkind, if it means silencing the teacher's voice. Why on earth would we want to? "Teacher-talk" is not a dirty word. On the contrary, there is a much-needed beauty in the elder sharing knowledge and skills with the younger. Any version of "humanistic education" that devalues the teacher can hardly be humane at all. Most teachers are living worthwhile lives and gaining worthwhile learning. For the teacher not to share that learning whenever it is curriculum-appropriate is misguided, and a misguided guide on the side is not likely to be going on the right road!

Student-centered learning can also be unwise if it devalues the parents. True, there are plenty of dysfunctional families out there. But to assume that parents and guardians are ignorant or brutal is simply arrogant. As politically exploited as the concept is, a cavalier dismissal of "family values" in favor of educational bandwagons is the mistake of either a new teacher or of an old professor! There is very little evidence that the parents or the public want the children to be running things.

Student-centered learning can be unwise if the promotion of “critical thinking” undermines respectful living. Respect for parents, for other adults, and for one another all go hand in hand. Of course we should teach the kid to think well, and not to follow every pronouncement of authority nor every appeal to sentiment. But reason and venom have very little in common. An ultracritical theory that assumes sordid motives of "the other guy" isn't critical at all; it is just prejudice in a new disguise

For references and to examine these issues further, see STUDENT CENTEREDNESS: reconsiderations

--- WAC

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Raising Test Averages: is this good?

Put down six and carry two. ... Gee, but this is hard to do.
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.
-- Victor Herbert & Kenny Baker

Suppose we find that over time more and more kids in a school have test scores above average. Is this good? Not necessarily, even though most people would jump to the conclusion that achievement was going up.

Suppose we find find that over time more and more kids in a school have test scores below average. Is this bad? Not necessarily, even though most people would jump to the conclusion that achievement was going down.

Find out how a common misunderstanding (even by so-called “authorities”) makes schools look bad. -- EGR

To see the details go to Every Child Above Average
-- EGR

Friday, August 5, 2011

Indulging Power, Denying Nurture

Power never takes a back step
-- Only in the face of more power.
---- Malcolm X
(See How New York City Beat Crime in Scientific American, Aug 2011)
My nephew, a psychiatric nurse, once worked for several years in an institution that housed child murderers; that is, children who had intentionally brought about the death of another human being. I asked him how the job was and how he got along with the kids. He answered that they were mostly OK but very occasionally one would try to stab him. I asked my nephew what he thought those kids needed most. He replied, “They need a father.”

One of the most pernicious confusions ever to infect thought and theory in education, psychology and psychiatry is the idea that hurt and harm are inextricable. The current dogma is that to hurt is to harm and to harm is to hurt. (See Hurt, Harm & Safety)

Commonsense examples from the real world disestablish this doctrine: an inoculation, dental surgery, hard exercise and criticism may hurt; they needn’t, indeed, often do not, harm. Radiation, pollution, inattention and gluttony often do not hurt; yet they may, and, not infrequently, do harm.

Recently in Philadelphia gangs of teenagers have been running through Center City streets and attacking uninvolved bystanders, apparently for the excitement and fun of it. They are likely learning -- or know already -- that to the extent no one will or can control you, to that same extent do you have the free exercise of power.

There is a lot of excited babble among the governing classes and pundits as to what to do about it. Because of the hurt-harm dogma, some possible solutions will not even be brought up for discussion.

For references and to examine this issue further, see The Singapore Solution

--- EGR

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Student Debt and Graduation Rates: mislinked indicators of value?

If forecasts were certain and wants, precious stones
We’d eat beef and chicken and never see bones.-- N. Fulano de Tal
In 1975 I interviewed for a position with a major private “educational research corporation.” My task would be to develop a description of a vocational-education project so that it could be replicated across the country. The already-in-place federally funded ($3 million) pilot project had a 100 percent job placement rate for its graduates. The corporation hoped that with an adequate description, a substantially larger grant ($41 milion) could be obtained.

I asked how it was possible to get 100 percent placement. My interviewer told me that this was done by offering prospective employers a stipend to offset future wages to be paid. No student was accepted into the program unless an employer had been found who had accepted the agreement.

When I asked how such arrangements could be replicated across the country, given that we did not control our economy the way the Soviets did, I received the reply, "Ed, that is the one question around here that we never ask."

I did not accept the job. Someone else did. The description was written up. The large government grant was secured. That late 1970’s project left has no traces. Its perpetrators have advanced in reputation and position.

Which is the better school?
a. Grumbling U which graduates 20% of its original freshman classes who then regularly find good jobs that enable them to pay off their student loans; or
b. Pensyl U which graduates 98% who afterward cannot find a job that enables the grads to pay off their tuition debts.?
Barring fraud in the recruitment process, wouldn’t you pick Grumbling?

Open admissions policies have long been promoted as providing opportunity to more people for higher education. But the graduation rates tend to be lower because many more are unprepared for college demands. Should colleges, or other schools be expected to do something about this? Do schools and colleges control the market for their graduates?

Reported in Education Sector’s Biweekly Digest of Aug 2, 2011, some are suggesting using a borrowing-to-credential ratio as an indicator of college value: the student-loan debt they have to repay after graduation divided by the percentage of students graduating. But this is like defining wealth (value) as currency on hand (diplomas) rather than asking what that currency might buy (access to high paying jobs -- or, maybe, something else). This overlooks systemic effects on the costs and benefits of credential attainment.

On the borrowing-to-credential ratio measure, if we assume their tuitions are pretty much the same, it seems that Grumbling is ahead of Pensyl. However, don’t a lot of other factors have to be evaluated? ? Would it matter if it turned out that with another year or two, the great majority of all students graduated?

How should any schools prepare for something, especially when it is not clear what they are preparing for? Our society changes quickly and there is little consensus on both specific ends and means in education. Why are schools to be held responsible for market outcomes they do not control?

For references and to examine these issues further, see

How much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness?

--- EGR

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Destroying “Middle Class” Education

… how many times can a man turn his head
pretending he just doesn’t see?...
… how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
-- Bob Dylan
It’s all too easy to make kids hate school. Cutting back on music, art and recess, and drilling incessantly for special examinations will more than suffice. Inflicting boredom on the naturally curious and open minds of children is cruelty, and worse.

But which children have been singled out for this treatment? Public school children. The children of those who aspire to upward social mobility but who lack the money for private schooling. Perhaps they expect too much from the schools, but they support them nonetheless. Getting their kids to hate school will definitely undermine their expectations and support.

Our legislators and political leaders have long pushed the idea that public schools can provide a “thorough and efficient education” for every child. This is a pipe-dream. This is a damned, blatant lie. Public schools do a passable job in neighborhoods where parents have the wherewithal to prepare their tots for kindergarten, to clothe and feed them adequately, to socialize them out of random aggression, to engage them in group activities, to support their older kids in their studies and to give them the love they need.

Public schools can’t do much with the severely disabled, the abandoned, the underfed, the abused and the perpetually impoverished. This is not to say that these kids should be thrown away. But pretending that public schools are the institutions that can address social, psychological and growth impediments is to throw those children away. And it is to inculcate in “normal” kids a blindness to suffering right under their noses and an easy hypocrisy in believing that mere declarations of sympathy and concern count as real help.

Do public schools cost too much? Pare them back to doing what they can do reasonably well. Get rid of the sham of a universally applicable, “thorough and efficient” education. Public schools, for social purposes,  could continue to admit all kinds of children. But it is to everyone's disadvantage to hold them accountable for universal academic achievement.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Cutting Public School Costs . . . Intelligently. Can It Be Done?

--- EGR

Monday, August 1, 2011

Educational Choice: why not?

Most of us who are parents would pay an attorney a lot of money to prevent the unjust incarceration of one of our children in a confined space with psychopaths, wouldn't we? So just why are we paying the government a lot of money to unjustly incarcerate nearly all of our children in confined spaces with psychopaths?

Most of us try hard to stay well clear of thieves, dope addicts, gangbangers, maniacs,and fools, don't we? So why then are we forcing our children to associate with them in institutions run by politicians?

While most of us don't mind voluntarily helping a stranger injured on the highway, or mediating between friends who are arguing over a misunderstanding, or cleaning up after our dog has messed on our carpet, most of us resent being forced to contribute our fair share, or to take a pay cut when management is giving itself raises, or to clean up when someone else's dog has messed on our carpet. So why do we think it's a right to be schooled, and a kindness to require it?

To examine these issues further, see School Choice: reconsiderations

-- WAC