Monday, January 31, 2011

Public Opinion Is Like A Public Bathroom: universal entitlement suppresses quality

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” -- Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003)
You use a public bathroom, since you may, if you must. But you expect a stench. In recent years lot of people have lost a lot money investing based on what “everybody knew” was going to happen.
The stench of the generally casually used (if not deliberately misused) bathroom facility is, in many places masked by the liberal application of some eye-watering chemical. So, too, the off-putting qualities of “what everyone thinks” are covered over by official or celebrity testimonial.

Missed by both the hasty-pudding economics of public opinion and liberal-versus-conservative political ideologies of professional pundits are these points:
1. Entitlement does not by itself create demand. Just visit the great emptinesses of our underutilized public libraries, museum and parks. Or the low attendance at many public schools, even when bullying is minimized and facilities are good.

2. Consequently, suppliers of repeatable services for entitlements run a higher risk of loss, which they tend to compensate for by providing items of the lowest quality that avoidance of imagined “bad publicity” allows. (Whence the saying, “Take the money and run!”)

3. Entitlements may in fact reinforce group conflicts, for example, among those who
a. don’t need or use them and resent paying taxes for them;

b. those who use them regularly and develop an attitude of caring for them, e.g. a library, a park, a garden, or a monument; and

c. those who might use them but tend to abuse them when they do. (Consider the litterbug, the graffiti “artist,” the disruptive pupil, in general, the Tragedy of the Commons.)
This is not make an argument against public works or for universal privatization. Civilizations have learned the sad, hard way that some social functions, especially those involving high degrees of concentrated power, e.g. police functions, use of lethal force, or massive wealth transfers, are ill-trusted to individuals or very small groups, especially in a culture glorifying specific individuals or their offspring.

The content of public opinion generally ranges from moderate BS to pure myth. (Recall that January 1st, 2000 was supposed to be the year when all the computers in the world crashed. Some have it that in 2012, as foretold by the Aztec calendar, the world will end. ) For over a hundred years public opinion has had it that American public schools are terrible, getting worse; thus, today, more than ever, threatening the demise of American Civilization.

The growing public opinion, even mouthed by high officials, is to convert public schools into what they imagine are factories, something more “business-like.” The present reform movement seems to be serious. Is it merely stench?

To examine these issues as they relate to public education, see What Works? Under What Conditions? And Who Really Cares?

--- EGR

Saturday, January 29, 2011

School Reform: High Cost, Low Yield. Why is this?

“..the formal structures of many organizations ... dramatically reflect the myths of their institutional environments instead of the demands of their work activities.” -- Meyer, JW & Rowan, B*

It is what people expect, with good reason or not, that influences their ideas about schools and school reform. Lack of knowledge or competence has seldom been a barrier to participation in school reform efforts.

This is not so strange. Most people who drive cars cannot explain why they work the way they do. Some imagine that just using higher octane gasoline will give them better performance. Others scream at their car when it doesn’t do what they expect. But unlike many a would-be school reformer, few of these drivers imagine they are competent to redesign automobiles just because they can find fault with their own.

Why does the discrepancy persist between the way schools actually work and how they are generally expected to work? Because our expectations line up with how we pay for schools and whom we give the big bucks to.

Basically, in education, as in corporations, government and, to a scary extent in the military, we bribe those higher up in the chain of command to pretend they know what they are doing. It not only helps us keep calm in times of distress, but saves us the trouble of getting too involved ourselves.

To examine these issues further, see Controlling the School: Institutionalization

--- EGR

*Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony Am. J. of Soc. 83, 2 p.341

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The First Teacher-in-Space: remembering a pointless tragedy serving questionable purposes.

It has been some 25 years since the space shuttle Challenger rose from Launch Pad 39B to carry to their deaths Commander Dick Scobee, experienced Mission Specialists Judy Resnik, Ron McNair and Ellison Onizuka, along with Pilot Mike Smith and Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis. Also aboard for no really good reason was the newly-designated Teacher-in-Space, Christa McAuliffe, a novice.

Had Christa McAulliffe died in a a genuine effort to highlight the importance of teaching and schooling it would have been different. But the whole Teacher-in-Space effort was just bad faith public relations -- eyewash for an administration that had gotten itself into political hot water by giving nothing but empty platitudes and slashed federal budgets to teachers for four long years.

The death of Christa McCauliffe is a metaphor for all the phony pronouncements of lofty schooling goals that no one takes seriously. The death of Christa McCauliffe is a metaphor for every conscientious teacher working without resources who is piously told that he or she could, if they only tried, do better.

To examine these issues further, see Late Night Thoughts on the Death of Christa McAuliffe

--- GKC

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What You Don’t Learn in Teacher Training: Effective Student Motivation

Everybody’s talkin’ at me.
I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’.
Only the echoes of my mind.
– Harry Nillson Aerial Ballet (1969)

Can you imagine anyone’ s attending a course called, “Controlling Your Smoking Habits” in a “school” called “Tobacco Growers' University?” How about attending a course called, “How Used Car Salesmen Lie” at the “Automotive Dealers Institute?”

I had a graduate student complain to me once that the facts and considerations that I presented in class tended to diminish her “enthusiasm” for entering the teaching profession. I asked her in response if she would go to a doctor who was enthusiastic but barely skilled rather than someone like the TV character, House: little charm, little optimism, but with a ton of competence and no b.s. Her choice was clear, and wise.

Suppose you had been explicitly trained in what might motivate kids of all ages to perform on command – “on command,” because this is what your supervisor, your principal, your school board members and your kids’ parents will expect you to do. (Not that they themselves could do it!)

If you had such knowledge of motivation you would soon discover how infrequently you could use it, because the behavioral foundations for its success were lacking both in the students and in the school environment. Kids who don’t try to read, or can't play without bullying, or are unwilling to pay attention to anything that doesn’t deal with gossip, toys, games, or movies – and for teenagers, sex and violence – are difficult to get involved consistently in classroom activities. (Let’s not even get into the typical class interruptions your administrators believe it to be a matter of life or death to make at any time of the day!)

Just as a skillful doctor could tell whether you have been not taking your medicine or straying from your exercise plan or diet, so would you, a motivational expert, be more likely to recognize the many outside influences that undermine a student’s motivation for school activities.

Just think about who and what those outside influences might be. Would they welcome your observations on how they interfere with or fail to support student motivation?

And, by the way, would the course you took called something like, “Classroom Management,” have been more honestly labeled, “Keeping Up Your Teacherly Enthusiasm While Your Class (and Career) is Going to Down the Tubes?” Would any university or college permit their "cash cow," the Department of Teacher Preparation -- or something similarly named -- risk rocking the boat by teaching its students how parents, politicians, school administrators and college professors all contribute to stultifying student motivation?

To examine these issues further, see Motivation: why is this a worry?

--- EGR

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dealing with Controversy: dodging the bullets, if there are any

We live in a culture of controversy, the media shout out at us: Obamacare, School Reform, Global Warming. But are they real controversies, or just ploys to keep us focussed on advertising?

Three things make for a controversy:
1. Those who control resources, powerholders, perceive what they take to be a threat;
2. The powerholders disagree what to do about it; and
3. Publicity
The obvious way to “handle” a controversy is to squelch the publicity, hush things up. This doesn’t handle the threat but it keeps those who “have nothing to contribute” from putting in their two cents.

It also prevents non-powerholders, who may also be threatened, from realizing it and getting involved. (After all, there is always TV for distraction!) This is why hushing things up – in this Home of the Brave and Land of the Free – is so common a practice. Just think of the fuss raised by WikiLeaks – Do you really believe that everything a government agency marks as “classified” deals with a threat to national security?

A second method for dealing with controversy is to convince power-holders that what they perceive as a threat, is not “really” a threat to them or their interests. This explains why many of our legislators show less interest in promoting legislation dealing with unemployment than opposing legislation raising taxes to extend unemployment benefits.

Then, of course, there is actually dealing with the threat. But this takes skill, time, energy and money. It upsets people. So many of them go back to alternative one and practice it on themselves: they hush up their own misgivings and hope for the best.

To examine these issues further, see Controversy Analysis Worksheet

--- EGR

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Reading and Language Instruction: science, ideology or …?

Which is the superior tool? A hammer or a screwdriver?
Which is the superior medicine? Penicillin or aspirin?
Which is the superior vacation place? The mountains or the seashore?

These are misleading questions. Don’t jump to answer them. Before they can be addressed, you have to have a good idea, at least, about:
a. what the potential user intends to do with the tool or with the medicine or in the vacation place;
b. whether the condition of the recipient of the user’s action is appropriate for the item chosen, for example, is it an eye infection or a headache that is being treated?
c. whether there are other tools, or medicines or vacation places available besides the two mentioned.

For years an apparent debate has been going on in schools between aficionados of two “methods” of teaching reading, the proponents of “phonics” vs. the proponents of “whole-word” reading. In English and “foreign language” classrooms, fans seem to have settled into “reading-translation” versus “audio-lingual” camps, although recently these distinctions have become blurred – no doubt reflected in the success of methods such as Rosetta Stone.

Reading people, however, still keep churning the waters, some, at times, bandying labels such as “Progressives” – to demonize the “whole-word” camp – or “Conservatives” -- to impugn the phonetics people. (This "warfare" may have more to do with commercial competition among their publishers than any personal enmity among reading theorists.)

Maybe -- as they used to chant back in the Age of Aquarius -- the rule should be “different strokes for different folks.” If so, the real sticking point is probably the school budget (or school board ignorance).

Which is the superior method? Phonics or Whole-Word?
Which is the superior approach? Audio-Lingual or Reading-Translation?

These, too, are misleading questions. Don’t jump to answer them.

Answer these questions first:
1. What outcomes are you looking for?
2. Who are the students and what languages are involved and what learning traditions have they been exposed to?
3. What other methods, or amalgams of methods are available?

To examine these issues further, see Language Ideology in Schooling Practice

--- EGR

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cheating Well

"Winning isn't the most important thing. It's the only thing"
-- Vince Lombardi
If desired things are scarce, there will be competition for them. If there is competition, there will be winners and losers. If winning is the only thing, or even just the most important thing, then cheating is just another technique.

But there is stupid cheating and there is intelligent cheating. Stupid cheating is almost universally despised: superficially as an affront to morality; but more deeply as an insult to intelligence.

Intelligent cheating is universally, albeit sometimes begrudgingly, admired. Elite private schools and other leadership programs, for example, ROTC, construct strong inducements to engage in intelligent cheating. “In-groups” are particularly good at rationalizing the morality of cheating: it means bending the rules – even breaking them – “for the sake of” your in-group comrades. It seldom is merely a personal, “selfish” thing.

Another difference between stupid vs. intelligent cheating rests on a cost-benefit analysis: did the violation risk a cost greater than a potential payoff? If so, then it was stupid. (Getting caught is generally taken to be a prima facie indicator of lack of planning skill, i.e. stupidity.)

In sports, business, politics and the military, to name obvious blatant examples, all sorts of rules are ignored, if the payoff promises to exceed the costs of being penalized. Taking risks here, especially when successful, is called “leadership.”

By third grade schoolchildren recognize the hypocrisy preached at them by their teachers when they are told that cheating is always wrong. They understand that their elders are just trying to avoid having to deal with one sticky school problem or another, e.g. inadequate teaching, lack of control, favoritism, special privilege, and the like.

And when it comes doing well on school-wide standardized tests, or in intramural sports, the Disapproving Moral Eye tends to blink if a student’s laudatory zeal occasionally overcomes concerns for regulations.

To continue this discussion see Preventing Cheating: transforming educational values

-- EGR

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Dreams, Luck and Too Many Cooks: American Higher Education

edited 3/28/19

Vivat academia
Vivant professores
Vivat membrum quodlibet
Vivat membra quaelibet
Semper sint in flore.

Long live the academy!
Long live the teachers!
Long live each male student!
Long live each female student!
May they always flourish!

-- Gaudeamus Igitur (vers. C. W. Kindeleben 1781)
Is Facebook a tool, or a distraction? Millions of people would disagree with me on this, because I would vote, “It is a distraction - generally a waste of time.” My productivity is cut into by every minute I spend examining my Wall.

But what is productivity? Which activities are worthwhile? Which are a waste of time and money? If you check to see how people vote with their time and money, you can only come to one conclusion: there is no universal agreement on this issue. What productivity is depends on the kind of life you aim at having. Excepting those who are pathologically envious, people tend to dismiss as “wrong,” or more accommodatingly, “not right for them,” the competing alternatives others have chosen.

What about organizations? Which is more productive? One that focuses only on making PCV sewer pipes, or a typical college or university? There is no easy, if any, answer to this question. The university, unlike the PCV pipe producer is multifunction. There is no one basis of evaluation for it.

Much more important, since the PCV factory is focused on one narrow outcome, it is easier for its management to prioritize activities and respond to market pressures than it would be at a college or university. Colleges and universities, due to accidents of history, contain within themselves a pluralism of competing goals and missions. Power is seldom held by one faction, not even by the trustees.

In colleges or universities near desperation in seeking applicants, market fluctuations provoke not only much face-saving ceremony, but a variety of myths and behavior that strive to maintain internal harmony. Just listen to faculty members chortle, chuckle or giggle at a president’s or trustee’s very lame jokes as they consume a tuition’s worth of food and drink at an annual welcome-to-new-staff party.

Just trying, no doubt, to help out American higher education, ACTA has jumped on the bandwagon of worrying about undergraduates who take longer than four years to complete their degree. But, why should anyone want to rush through college if they can afford to take a longer, more leisurely time to do it? And if they can’t afford it, why isn’t that the issue?

To examine these and other strongly related issues further, see Productivity, Politics and Hypocrisy in American Public Education: 
school organization as instrument and expression

--- EGR

Friday, January 7, 2011

Education without Indoctrination: is it possible?

Training. Schooling. Education. Indoctrination. All related, but not the same. Does it matter? Only if you care about getting what you want, knowing what you have, and who pays for it.

I regularly read the ACTA updates and often sympathize with their policy positions. ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, is hardly a rabidly liberal organization. Their slogan is “Promoting Academic Excellence and Accountability.”

Yet in their Update January 6th 2011 they reveal one of their resolutions for American education:
Bringing a robust exchange of ideas in the classroom. Schooling should be for education, not indoctrination.
I suggest that some careful thought shows their resolution to have some problems.
Let’s consider a contrary idea: Education is Schooling together with Indoctrination. However, indoctrination is not one simple kind of thing.

What is Indoctrination? Indoctrination is:
any attempt to teach (or anything taught)
a. without justification, or

b. without justification understood (or accepted) by its recipients as having a reasonable basis.

There are two kinds of indoctrination schools might engage in:
a. that which supports organization functioning, e.g. study your lessons, pay your tuition, come to class on time, do what your professor assigns you, and the like.

b. doctrines and practices relating to school function externalities, eg. religious, political or social doctrines.

It is practically often difficult to keep these things separate. If you can identify an ideology, that makes it easier. But what about beliefs in the desirability of higher education? Or in the desirability of certain curriculum? Or that certain achievements, e.g. degrees and publications, are worthy of recognition? Or that degreed people are worthy of respect merely because of that degree?

Such beliefs are generally taken for granted, institutionalized in the structure of the school. But the fact that they are disputable is indicated by the existence of course electives, for one example; or by any variation from a lock-step curriculum.

A professor may invite challenge and debate on the desirability of various economic systems. He is unlikely to invite challenge or debate when it comes to the syllabus content, or classroom or grading procedure.

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

--- EGR

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Believer vs Atheist, Conservative vs Liberal, and other distracting frauds.

In 1961 I met the American high priestess of Rugged Individualism, Ayn Rand, at a social gathering after her general lecture sponsored by the Philomathean Society of the University of Pennsylvania.

This Rugged Individualist, to judge from her comportment, was a monarchist, who apparently knew, every time Nathaniel Brandon or retinue lit one of her cigarettes and placed it into a holder for her, just who would be best suited to receive the obeisance of all the other Rugged Indivualists of the world.

She was pure Theatre – which the adulating masses of Rugged Invidualists who attended her lecture took to be Philosophy. She rattled off slogans and pronouncements, articulated with a – supposedly – heavy Russian accent that decades of living in our Citadel of Rugged Individualism seemed not to have diminished.

She feigned engagement with a specialist in Russian history when he attempted to discuss some events in the struggle between Red and White Russians that he thought she had gotten wrong. Her response to his comments, “Vas you dere, Charlie?” (His name was not Charlie.) “Titter, titter” arose from the Ruggedly Individualistic plebs.

American media pundits, straining, each one of them, to stand out from the crowd of talking heads who toss around vague and ambiguous terms such as believer, atheist, conservative, liberal, socialism, capitalism, etc., are more than just wasting our time. They are distractions from real issues.

One real issue is this: is there anyone speaking to our concerns as citizens who doesn’t believe he or she has been specially anointed to lead us into the Promised Land? Or is vision just another cover term for ambition?

To examine these issues further, see LEADERSHIP AS USURPATION: 
the Grand Inquisitor Syndrome and Morality in Rank-Based Organizations

--- EGR

Monday, January 3, 2011

College Graduation? No Guaranteed Ticket to “Success”

If you’re going to college just to party, you’re wasting your money – or your parents’ money – but perhaps you’ll end up with some fond memories from it.

If you’re going to college to find a job to make yourself wealthy, you should aim to graduate other than into an economic recession. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, graduating into a down-turning economy badly affects a job-seeker's income for years. ( See WSJ, May 9, 2008, The Curse of the Class of 2009: For College Grads Lucky Enough to Get Work This Year, Low Wages are Likely to Haunt Them for a Decade or More)

That article goes on to state
…for each percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate, those with the misfortune to graduate during the recession earned 7% to 8% less in their first year out than comparable workers who graduated in better times. The effect persisted over many years, with recession-era grads earning 4% to 5% less by their 12th year out of college, and 2% less by their 18th year out.
So, in 2011 with a 9% unemployment rate, you should, roughly calculating, expect a minimum of 10.5 to 12% less in your first year of employment, than you would have in, say, a year with an unemployment rate of 7.5%.

You might as well party your way through college, it seems. Or do something better: learn what really interests you. (A little partying won’t hurt, either. Neither would picking up saleable experience or a skill during summer vacation.) But take advantage of college to study something you really enjoy, something that lights up your life. Just don’t expect to earn your living at it. It may happen; it may not.

A common strategy among graduates is to stay on in school and get a higher degree. This costs more money, usually borrowed, and offers no more guaranteed a result than the undergraduate degree.

You, I and a lot of other people, have been brought up on unrealistic expectations: school success does not have the influence we imagined on our chances for job success. An A, B, C or D in calculus, or English, or chemistry, whether we get it in high school or college, is likely all the same to a future employer, whose future needs will be far more important to the decision to hire us than any of our past academic pains and glories.

To examine these issues further, see Moral Responsibility in the Education Industry. 
How much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness?

--- EGR