Sunday, October 31, 2010

Trust: Disease or Drug? The American Tragedy

In an election year we find many parallels between how Americans deal with “the schools” and how they deal with their “government.” Americans suffer from a persistent ailment: Untargeted Suspicion. This free-ranging suspicion then gives rise to free-ranging Doubt, an almost universal symptom. They then try to “cure” the Doubt with overdoses of Faith, either Faith in a System; or, Faith in a Person, or ultimately, Faith in Themselves, individually. This “Faith” is generally as well-founded as the “Doubt” that gave rise to it. And by focusing treatment on the symptoms, the basic causes remain untouched.

You can’t really blame most of us for our habits of suspicion. We grow up in a culture where we learn early in life that the following are very practical advice:
a. caveat emptor, i.e. Let the buyer beware!
b. Don’t give a sucker an even break!
c. Life is Struggle.
d. Charity begins at home.
e. Everybody’s in it for himself.
The daily experiences of many, if not most, adults bear these “wisdoms” out, while opposite opinions, such as “Love Thy Neighbor,” or “Blessed are the peacemakers” are encountered only in special, sheltered situations, for example, ones in which we told to look to a future after-earthy life for their realization.

It is hard to evaluate the information that confronts us on a daily basis. It takes some education to do it consistently well. But if we reject the value of what we learn in schools, or what we get from other information sources, for example, private as well as governmental media, how can we address our doubts, or allay our suspicions?

Most people I have ever met do it this way: they rely on those they trust; and ultimately check it out against their own experience. But those whom we trust can disappoint us; and our own experience is normally very narrow. So it comes down to this: we go towards (anticipated) Pleasure and run from (anticipated) Pain and rely for guidance on what “insights” pop into our heads: ultimate, hard-kernel Individualists, like every creature on Earth, down to the very viruses.

To examine these issues further, see Personal Liberation Through Education: do public school – religious school differences matter?

--- EGR

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Consensus is Like Orgasm: soon dissipating, leaving no guarantees

Tonight the light of love is in your eyes
But will you love me tomorrow?
-- Carole King (1971)
How we Americans love our leaders and hate our politicians. What’s the difference? Leaders are public servants, legislators, whom we esteem, even, trust, maybe, perhaps, amen. Politicians are those legislators who pretend to be public servants. We DO NOT LIKE them. We know anything they say is a lie, lie, liar; pants on fire!

How can you tell them apart? Learn from Yoda, “Trust your feelings, Luke”: every spasm is an orgasm, a guarantee of true love.

The New York Times of Thursday, October 28, 2010, reports that the “Coalition That Vaulted Democrats Into Power Has Frayed, Polls Find.” Coalitions form by the often momentary consensus among people who are otherwise adversaries. They may evoke deep feeling; for example, “Yes, we can.”

The coming elections in November 2010 are not about facts: who can accept as fact something that leaks through the lips of a politician. The elections seem to devolve around philosophical issues, to judge by the vocabulary being used, “socialism,” “free market,” “liberty,” “liberal,” “conservative” and the like. And the average (even, above average, college-educated) American citizen seems to be about as adept at examining philosophical issues as the average American squirrel. A louder voice does not mean a truer statement. Enthusiasm is not a substitute for logic.

When “I am not a witch” becomes as important to a voter coalition as the traditional smoke-and-mirrors of “liberal” versus “conservative”, it not only shows that our educational system has long been substandard, but that any “leader” or “politican” who depends on such consensus might as well have gone into the business of school reform.

Love’s pleasures last but a moment;
Love’s sorrows, your whole life long.
Plaisirs d’Amour, Jean Paul Égide Martini (1741-1816).

To examine these issues further, see The Pathologies of Enthusiasm

--- EGR

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Links: Wishes,Visions, Illusions, Delusions

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. --- English Proverb

In the teacher-training programs I taught in for more than 20 years, I would ask the students in my classes what they thought they would be doing 10 years hence. Almost unanimously – and overly vociferously, to my mind – they would answer “teaching!”

I would mention that a high (thirteen per cent per year in 2001) drop-out rate seemed to indicate that teachers are not well-prepared in college for the reality of their jobs in schools. (See Richard M. Ingersoll, (2001) Teacher Turnover, Teacher Shortages and the Organization of the School )

I pointed out that at that rate of loss, it would take a little over five years to vacate the profession, were it not that new, eager faces were funneled into the breach.

Their unhappiness at my observation provoked a great deal of discussion, lead some students to articulate interesting insights, and undoubtedly lowered my ratings at the end of semester student evaluations.

One of the counterproductive habits my students would develop in their program was an inclination to link any two items of interest to them into some kind of cause-and-effect chain. Are students doing poorly in school, provide them with breakfasts! (Pay no attention to the fact that the kids dump the eggs or cereal and eat only the sweet buns!)

Is there too much loitering in the hall? Adopt a school rule which forbids loitering! Or, even better, adopt a hall pass system. As everyone knows, kids with hall passes can’t possibly loiter; just as people who swear oaths cannot lie; nor, people who wear uniforms, commit crimes.

Actually, this kind of “controlled-permission” thinking is nigh universal. In my township people have to pay to get a permit to fix their sidewalks. Rather than ‘fess up that selling permits is a source of income – perhaps necessary, or not – for the township, official documents would have us believe that “ a permit is required so that Township specifications are met and uniformity is assured.” (The contractors who do the work ignore the specs, so the inspectors who check it out ignore the lack of uniformity. Sounds like every school I ever worked in.)

A common experience that drives away teachers from schools is so-called “Staff Development.” Its purpose seems to be to take enthusiastic, intelligent, skilled people and make them listless, stupid and incompetent. Staff development works not infrequently to strain their credulity, stultify their normal critical abilities and undermine their capacities for reasoned judgment. When staff development becomes a ritual – Wednesday afternoons, 1:30 to 3:00 PM – then you know there is little shared thought on how the school is supposed to be productive. Have you ever heard of engineers, farmers, or orchestra musicians holding “staff development” sessions?

Much staff development in education is dedicated to the examination of mission and vision statements, such as Empower each student to succeed in life and contribute to society -- from an affluent school district just outside of Philadelphia.

There’s an image for you! Educator as Omniscient and Omnipotent:
O! Beautiful! For Teacher’s dream
That sees beyond the years.
Thy high school slackers faces gleam,
Untouched by sweat or tears!

For more on this see Mission, Vision & Delusion in Schooling

--- EGR

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Can Excellence in Education Be Achieved in a Democracy?

It is by universal misunderstanding that all agree. – Baudelaire
Suppose money were no problem. Then what could we do? Could we fulfill the aspiration expressed in the education codes of many states: “… to provide each child with a thorough and efficient education”?

Certainly we could have schools, seminars, and (in the language of Ed Biz), “information delivery systems,” that bring some children to be adults with high degrees of skill, or who have stored within them piles of facts which they know how to make use of. If people would be satisfied with this much – and even this is a lot – we could very likely approach some reasonable standard of excellence in education.

But some children are still not all children. And, more importantly, what about nurturance and values? Aren’t these crucial elements in what we understand to be “education” as opposed to “training” and “indoctrination”? We might want our daughter to grow up to be an architect, but not at the cost of her sanity or health. Our son we might envision as a medical doctor, but not at the cost of his religion or morality.

And how much agreement do you think Americans from all walks of life, from all religions or none, from all kinds of commitments to conflicting philosophies and values, will be able to find when it comes to supporting a common school in the hope of promoting a common education?

But isn’t there already a lot of consensus on basic values? Or is it just the sloganeering of those oblivious to their mutual misunderstanding?

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

--- EGR

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tracking in Schools: myth and rhetoric

…with work which you despise, which bores you and which the world does not need… This life is hell.
-- W. E. B. DuBois (March 2, 1958)

In every kind of organization, failed expectations tend to be disguised and buffered with a kind verbal magic, formulations that express the triumph of hope over experience.
A nation's "Department of Justice" may have little to do with justice, being occupied merely with the enforcement of laws that many see as unjust.

A school's "disciplinary" procedures may have little to do with developing discipline in the students, relying mostly on incarceration in a special room or expulsion to maintain order.

"Tracking," too, is an example of such educational rhetoric, sometimes a façade for social class or racial segregation. Where goals are uncertain or indeterminate, the term, "tracking," gives the appearance that someone, somewhere, knows something about where the whole show is going, or, even, that it is going somewhere.

Some people like to say that study in school is "work" for kids. But aimless, boring "work" is indeed hell.

To examine four fallacious arguments for tracking, see Tracking in Public Schools


-- EGR

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Social Promotion Scarecrow:
Feeding the Convenience of the Machine.

At Harvard College, founded 1636, social promotion was the rule. Students were admitted in groups (classes) and they graduated with their classes. “Deficiencies” in learning were dealt with by private tutoring and if the tutor -- paid directly by the student -- said you passed, you did. You were not expected to be a scholar; but, a “gentleman.” Universities today try to maintain this tradition since it makes for “classmates” who are more reliable donors.

According to Sheena Dooley in the Des Moines Register of October 18, 2010, local middle school principals are considering, pondering, even, adopting a proposal to end social promotion, that is, the practice of moving students along from grade to grade regardless of their academic performance.

For those who think that academic performance is the end-all and be-all of school, this must be a welcome prospect. Such adults have usually forgotten how very individual kids can be. But if academic performance is so important, why aren’t kids admitted to school initially, whether kindergarten or first grade, or in later grades, on the basis of scientifically established academic predictors?

They aren’t usually: not in public school, seldom elsewhere. They are put in grade on the basis of their age. (Sometimes on the basis of their size.) Why? Because its suits the convenience, not to mention the illusions and the pocketbooks, of parents, teachers, administrators, board members, and general public.

Here we meet the great machine: Politics, that is, competing public and private demands, which constrain state and local budgeting. Budgeting constrains school governance decisions. School governance constrains curriculum and resources. Curriculum and resources constrain academic demands. No constraints, so long as they are not physically or behaviorally very obvious, are considered if they come from the kids.

Many kids are misplaced by age. Astrology would do a better sorting: after all there are twelve signs of the Zodiac, but usually only two “admissions periods” for schools.

Age placement creates many false positives, that is, kids who are assumed to be academically prepared for “grade level work” but who are most likely not. The so-called “failure of the public schools” is most likely to be the consequence of traditionally promiscuous admissions practices as anything else.

To examine these issues further, see Classification Error in Evaluation Practice: 
the impact of the "false positive" on educational practice and policy

--- EGR

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mental Meringue: conjecture as educational theory

edited 5/21/20

Two groups (among others) abet the destruction of our public schools as educational systems: boards of education and professional educators .

Board members -- pursuing megalomaniac visions and frequently not understanding what it takes to run a real school with real warm bodies in it -- are too often ready to sell out to any political interest that assures them continuity of office.

Professional educators -- through their formal and in-service education -- have been so stuffed with flatulent conjecture, minimally substantiated, often contradictory, sketches of theory, mental fluff that passes for science, that they cannot deal effectively with simple organizational and classroom problems.

Undisciplined conjecture, expanded through leaps of logic and magnified by fear or fervent hope generates the bulk of topics of discussion not only in Education, but also in the world at large.

Public schools, especially, are vulnerable to political meddling, to intrusions by ideologues of all kinds, for whom conjecture is a way of life, so long as others bear its consequences.

To examine these issues further, see Conjecture Pollution: Poisoning Educational Practice

-- EGR

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Teaching, Parenting and Learning: what are the connections?

You have probably seen the cartoon about a teacher-parent conference:
Frame 1-- Teacher and parent think about their successful student’s achievements.
Teacher: It’s good teaching.

Parent: it’s heredity!

Frame 2: -- Teacher and parent think about their failing student’s failures.
Teacher: It’s heredity!

Parent: it’s bad teaching!
How does what teachers and parents do connect with what students learn? Do teachers really influence the future like the slogan has it? Is parent influence really so important?

Bad teaching, so we are often told in the mass media, has helped bring about the trade deficit, increase in juvenile crime or other calamities. And parents are to blame as well.

But why not blame someone or something else? Why should educators, and parents, even, be held even partly responsible?

Can we clarify what it is reasonable to hold teachers and parents accountable for? A clearer idea of what notions like cause and effect are might help.

To continue this discussion see Causal Fallacies in Education



Monday, October 11, 2010

C’mon, Charlie Brown, Kick the Ball!
School Testing, a Disappointment

Charlie Brown, the protagonist of most of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts cartoon strips, allows himself, time after time, to be duped by another character, Lucy Van Pelt, into trying to kick a football she is holding in place for him. Inevitably, she snatches the ball away at the last second and the momentum of his failed kick dumps Charlie Brown on his back.

Two practices in United States Education have gone on for a long time, leaving mostly disappointment as their residue:
a. new school superintendents are hailed in the media as saviors and their possible future school successes are treated not as aspirations but as fait accompli accompanying the superintendent’s arrival.

b. People in high places accept and celebrate, even, school self-reported gains in school test results even though external testing experts caution all not to make too much of what they are seeing. (The New York Times, A1 (10/11/10) reports on another set of footballs snatched away before they were kicked. See “Warning Signs Long Ignored On New York City’s School Tests.”)

These two habits are no more than another manifestation of an in-grained American cultural tic: the triumph of hope over experience. And these persistent attempts to kick the-football-that-wasn’t-there may be the best explanation why the kids’ achievement in school seems so low.

To examine these issues further, see Justice Through Testing

--- EGR

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Secret of a Successful Charter School? No Secret!

The secret of running a “successful school” -- known by all “successful” private and parochial school administrators -- is very much the same as running a “successful” business. It is not necessarily superior teachers (technicians), superior curriculum (planning) or superior administration (management) -- although these all may help. Rather, it is quality control over the raw materials: the ability to turn away or get rid of those students not up to or who interfere with school procedures. It is also control of the evaluation processes or of the subsequent publicity.

Show me a charter school that is academically “successful,” and I’ll show you a charter school whose staff knows how to persuade, seduce, intimidate or coerce students (and their parents) to fall into line; and, which, blatantly or surreptitiously, rids itself of “problem” children. It is also a school which doesn’t wash its dirty linen in public.

There is no magic to Charter Schools, just less oversight to interfere with doing what is necessary to achieve school goals – or the personal agendas of the proprietors.

Running a school of any kind is often tough, thankless work; work with little economic yield in the short run. The appeal of charter schools to the entrepreneur is much reduced oversight by governmental agencies.

To examine these issues further, see Deregulation and Charter School Swindles

--- EGR

Monday, October 4, 2010

Attention, Earthlings! How Strangely You Educate Your Young!

I have sent agents to observe your activities. Particularly interesting were those things you Earthings call “the elephant in the room.” Since our cultures differ greatly – “culture”... I am being extremely gracious -- our observers were directed to follow the Objective Observers Handbook for Earth Explorers. Here is a peek into that handbook:
HandBook for Understanding Observed Earthling Behavior:
a. what Earthlings do is more important than what they say they’re doing: effects impact more than do intentions.

b. The discrepancy between what’s said and what’s done is a measure of reliability: perfect overlap measures sincerity. Its inverse is hypocrisy.

d. Look for what serves the personal interests of Earthling individuals. Note whose interests get sacrificed: this establishes a kind of “food chain.”

c. observe if individual Earthlings consider other individuals’ concerns;

d. note how Earthlings talk to give the appearance of community.

e. If you can get Earthlings to discuss any of these rules, note who is most “offended” by mention of the “elephants in the room.” Is there a correlation with their position on the food chain?
Many interesting observations were made.

If you wish to examine further a report from our agents,
see Schooling vs. Parenting on the Third Rock

--- Big Giant Head

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Are There Experts in Education? Should There Be?

edited 100119
In the Land of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King. -- Erasmus.
What makes an expert? Two things: Can-Do and “Proper” Interest.

Interestingly enough, Can-Do is not necessary. In a community of ignorant people, the least ignorant might be identified as an expert, provided someone has sufficient and “proper” interest in what the “expert” supposedly can do. The dilemma of expertise is this: only a real expert knows enough to recognize others as real experts. The “experts” of everyday life are usually those whom influential ignoramuses designate as such.

“Proper” interest is most important because “really trivial, disgusting or shameful” things – things your Mom and Dad warned you against – are supposed not to invite us to admire “expertise.” For example, there are, amongst “well-brought-up” people, no recognized experts on sniffling, or on growing toenail fungus. Nor are there “experts” at musical flatulence.

The 'gator hunting expert of Flamingo, Florida is an almost nobody in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Schlegel expert from Cambridge is not anyone special in Flamingo. Such are the joys of diversity.

An important corollary: people seen as threats are not usually recognized as “experts” by those who feel threatened. Annoyers, disrupters and damagers are usually not bestowed with the honorific title, “expert,” no matter how skillfully they annoy, disrupt and damage.

Should schoolteachers strive to be experts? Maybe not. Let's just focus on the teachers, who, because of their skills, actually cause the learning they intend. In the minds of some, such truly expert teachers would have a potential for disruption. They could affect the demand for goods and services. If they convince their students not to smoke or to watch less TV, in the long run they might undermine whole industries. Such teachers might expose children to "dangerous" knowledge!

Students might come to realize that their sex appeal is not enhanced by imbibing quantities of Coke or Pepsi, or by paying twice as much money for designer labels sewn conspicuously on their clothing. Profits might fall and jobs might be lost.

In addition, truly “expert” teachers would be in a position to communicate radical ideas, for example, respect, or concern, for persons different from oneself, that might -- in someone's opinion -- "take us down the path to (whatever)ism." In short, the more expert teachers are, the greater the possibility for both economic and social upheaval. So many people might want to forget about developing teacher expertise. It is safer to let them muddle along and leave the real world to its own devices.

"Education is a weapon whose effect depends
on who holds it in his hands and who is struck with it."-- Joseph Stalin

To examine these issues further, see What Can a Teacher Do?

--- EGR