Thursday, June 30, 2011

Gaming the System: a Great Tradition Continues!

As I’m sure you know, even the hint of testing irregularities and misconduct in the test administration process could call into question school reform efforts and undermine the State accountability systems that you have painstakingly built over the past decade. --- Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education June 24, 2011, Policy Letter
Forty years ago, during the 1970’s, the Great Panacea for the ills of American public schools was “performance contracting.” Adventurers of all kinds, as long as they called themselves “entrepreneurs” and not “educators,” were invited by celebrities of various stripes, our “social and moral leaders,” to step into the public schools and mess with the kids in the name of educational reform.

And so they descended, with assorted gimcracks and geegaws (careful always to call them “curricular innovations” or “new programs”). If they could show improvements, they got paid. Their trick was to show results, take the money and run, before those results could be examined carefully to see if they were real improvements or not.

You can judge the success of these pioneer reformers by the fact that “ A Nation at Risk” was published in 1986 shrieking that American education was a disaster, a kind of “unilateral disarmament.” And only a few years later America 2000 was published with it own jumblebag of cures for ailing public schools.

Today, school people, parents and children continue to struggle with No Child Left Behind. Near magical results have been announced from this program. But there have been misgivings. Michelle Rhee’s contributions to the building of the American Intellect have come under suspicion. (See When standardized test scores soared in D.C., were the gains real?)

In Georgia, investigators are looking into the possibility of criminal behavior involving falsifying school testing. (See In Georgia, test-answer erasures triggered criminal probe)

It seems that some school administrators and teachers, rather than sit passively by and be fired because they can’t weave straw into gold, have gone so far as to doctor test results, to monkey with evaluation procedures. Imagine that. Such effrontery! Do they think they are Wall Street investment counselors? Do they imagine they are producing drugs to be reviewed by the FDA? Are they trying to avoid the costs of anti-pollution equipment?

Poor babies! Some such educators will likely confess, with a heavy heart, to having resorted to such underhandedness. (See The “Mea Culpa” Culture in Public Education) But why don’t they just take hint from college students they once upon a time gave inflated grades to: cheer up! You do what you have to to stay in the game. We understand. It’s just good business sense. It’s leadership for survival.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Contracting a Real Performance

--- EGR

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"The Stimulus” remains a Hypothetical Construct; or, Guessing At What Elicits Behavior

(Researchers) … have implicitly allowed their own behavior to define the stimulus… --- Blough & Millward, (1965) "Learning: Operant Conditioning and Verbal Learning," in Annual Review of Psychology, Volume 16

Our conclusions, even at the level of measurement and scaling (which seems such a firm foundation for theory building), are already a consequence of theory. A measurement or scaling model is actually a theory about behavior, admittedly on a miniature level, but nonetheless theory. -- Clyde H.Coombs (1964) Theory of Data, 5. New York. Wiley.
What “stimulus” is it that provokes anyone to harm, to kill, even, another human being? We are continually bathed in emanations from our sun as well as from distant stars. Are they part of our “stimulus environment”? Is it sunspots that cause felonies?

Parents, teachers, professors, law enforcers, juries and judges -- are all, not infrequently, profoundly self-centered. They judge the behavior of others on the basis of how they, each one of them, imagine that they personally would have or should have perceived, reacted, thought and responded.

So it is that they praise or punish, pass or fail, arrest or dismiss, convict or exonerate, commit or constrain persons under their domination to praise or to humiliation, to liberty or to incarceration or death.

It’s all too easy to talk about stimuli; after all, we’re educated, aren’t we? We’ve got the vocabulary! But it can be very hard to say what particular events, or aspects of events, constitute a stimulus.

Want to see if a rat can distinguish Mozart from Schubert? Put it into a Skinner box, starve it a bit and then feed it only if it presses the bar when an interval of Mozart’s music, not Schubert’s, is playing. The discriminatory behavior of the rat will help us identify whether or not, and to what extent, the music is a stimulus.

Having made the acquaintance of many an intelligent lab rat, I would bet its pressing responses would show a correlation with the snatch of music from the composer we have chosen to reward it for upon presentation. We will likely find out that some difference between the Mozart and the Schubert matters.

Is it color that matters? Not for us humans who hear only sound (but, perhaps so, if we have a rat with synaesthesia). Maybe one piece of music has a sound of a frequency that the other doesn’t. We’ll have to investigate that. The behavior per se doesn’t give us the answer. It just helps us focus the question: what precisely, if anything, is the stimulus?

And has the rat learned anything about Mozart or Schubert? Or even that one interval of sound or the other relates to them? What do you think? Wouldn't you have to put this to a test?

How much education, intellectual, physical or moral, is so much Schubert in a Skinner box?

For references and to examine the issues raised in this article further, see Can a Consistent Behaviorist Finish an Experiment?

Cordially -- EGR

Monday, June 27, 2011

Socrates’ Café: encounter group or catechism class?

"When we think well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy."
-- Carl Sagan
Wrinkled brows & Pursed Lips. I hope my experiences with two different groups, each calling themselves a “Socrates Café,” are not typical. My report will not be encouraging. In both groups there was an attitude, almost, of vehement reverence toward the idea of “doing Philosophy.” Solemn demeanor on the part of many participants, especially the moderator-facilitator dampened any attempts at levity: wrinkled brows announced that this was serious business. (Forget Sagan, forget Nietzsche’s Froehliche Wissenschaft -- the joyful science.)

Nibbles & Sips. No one seemed to have read the basic text of "the movement", Christopher Phillips’, Socrates’ Café. A Fresh Taste of Philosophy, very carefully. The common perception was that three items were to control the discussion:
a. “deep” -- read here “highly abstract” or “esoteric” or “of no practical consequent” -- questions were to be addressed;
b. striving for a solution or common conclusion was to be avoided;
c. personal beliefs were not to be challenged.
I was not surprised to hear of previous members having quit the groups after protesting that what was being done was not philosophy. As far as those remaining were concerned, “good riddance to hairsplitters.”

Pre-Censorship for Peace. One group, call them the “Alphas,” were affluent professionally trained upper middle class Americans. They switched weekly among members to “moderate;” they had agreed at their first meeting not to discuss politics or religion, in order to avoid creating “unfriendly feelings.” They settled on a procedure of nominating single words, or short phrases, for discussion. Everyone would be asked to say what he or she thought the words meant. Any challenges that arose would normally be countered with the phrase, “That is what the word means to me!” There was some attempt to offer case examples to sway opinion. At the finish of each session, they used a dictionary to check for an “objective” judgment.

The second group, the “Betas,” were generally all college educated or self-made persons of comfortable means. It was lead every time by the same person, a physics and engineering professor. His rule for settling disagreements was: “every individual knows what he or she means and what he or she believes. This is not to be challenged.” Discord, indeed, any demand for justification, was stifled in the name of “civility.” The professor talked about 50% of the time -- this may be an underestimate.

Both Alphas and Betas never got to realizing that “it ain’t the content: it’s the procedure.” But even Christopher Phillips in his book seems to overlook the fact that since Socrates lived 2500 years have passed. Phillips recooks the myths about the ease and productiveness of the “Socratic Method” that Plato first foisted off on his readers in a different language, in a vastly different culture two millennia ago.

Some Real Practice Items. If you want to get started in philosophy you might try beginning with a simple set of exercises. You and your group members will consider very general statements about people, society and the world. For each statement you will be asked to think of a case which supports the statement and one which undermines or contradicts it. Be prepared to explain your answers and justify them. If you can’t do this, just admit it and pass to the next person. Follow up discussion of these exercises will be much closer to doing philosophy that what either the Alphas or Betas described above will be doing. See Everyday Theories : Epistemological Folklore

Learn More About What 'Philosophy' Is. An arena where most Americans feel free to "philosophize" ad libitum is in discussions about education: what is it?; what is a good school?; what should students accomplish?; and not least, what should it cost? However,the only philosophical residues that public discourse about education tends to maintain into this 21st century are narrowly either economic or religious. Practical considerations tend to be treated as a kind of engineering, as if there had been established some kinds of educational science other than those found in the imaginations of assorted psychologists and curriculum theorists.

In fact, there are deep connections between philosophy and education, generally disregarded or unknown by planners and practitioners in the schools whose decisions are founded primarily on political pressures, economic blandishments or personal tastes.

To find out what these connections are and how to deal with them practically, see PHILOSOPHY AND EDUCATION: What's The Connection?

--- EGR

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sustaining Illusions of Leadership

The appearance of moral authority and even a sacred aura at the top of the hierarchy is essential to sustain the privileges of leadership. -- Jeffrey S. Nielsen, (2004) The Myth of Leadership

I find it depressing that we would want to discuss the state of leaderhip in organizations from the perspective of what feels good and uplifting, rather than what the evidence shows to be true. -- Jeffrey Pfeffer (2015) p. 194 Leadership BS
In all-too-many an organization in this U.S. of A, there is often little more that shouts “Leadership!” than a big, big salary. This is like confusing a rectal syringe with a thermometer.

There is a two-way superstition at work here. When organizations are successful, their leadership gets the most of the credit, even when luck plays a major role in that success. (See Marshall Goldsmith on The Success Delusion.) When businesses do not succeed, their leaders are not infrequently sacrificed -- especially in professional sports -- to the misfortunes that have befallen them. (See also, G. I. Kolev, Pay for Luck in CEO Compensation: Evidence of Illusion of Leadership?)

Some theorists have emphasized subordinating purely internal goals to integration into the community where the organization is located. Many business leaders and even leaders of public institutions disagree, emphasizing that the business of their business is their own business: even after they have asked for public assistence.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Philip Selznick, LEADERSHIP IN ADMINISTRATION

--- EGR

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Should Colleges Be Made Responsible For Their Graduates’ Earnings?

What’s the first question that college graduates learn to ask on the job?
”Will you have fries with that?”
-- A sad, current joke.
Many college students go into substantial debt to pay tuition. Yet, they graduate unable to find jobs that pay enough to permit them to live in poverty, even, and pay back their education loans. Education Week reports,
Students at proprietary colleges represent 12 percent of
higher education enrollment, yet they take out 26 percent of
all student loans and represent 46 percent of all student loan
dollars in default. -- Education Week, June 10, 2011
The same article in Education Week, announces new regulations by the U.S. Department of Education that require college degree programs to disclose information about loan repayment rates and graduates’ earnings. The expectation is that if college programs fail to graduate students who can avoid loan default, they will lose federal funds to support student tuition loans.

Is it fair to the colleges and universities to make them responsible for economic outcomes of student career choices?

One argument has it: Yes! Make them accept the burden. Students are strongly encouraged by university personnel into programs on the basis of their “personal interest” with little consideration when they choose a major as to how they will support themselves afterwards. If earning potential were to become a touchstone of desirability, universities might have to, for example, dip into endowments or provide special scholarships to support the faculties needed to maintain certain traditionally highly esteemed programs with low graduate earnings potential.

A counter-argument has it: No! It is a basic moral principle that the burden of one’s responsibility ought be constrained by the range of one’s control. The requirements for and the availability of employment outside the educational institution are not controlled by those educational institutions. We live in a society that has a more-or-less free market economy. This introduces a certain whimsy into the existence and size of job markets.

There is a good argument for exempting K-12 education from later-life employment responsibilities. (See below) However, a college education is not compulsory the way basic education is. And, unlike basic education, it is strongly correlated with a person’s level of economic success.

To examine the argument against basic education’s economic responsibility, see Moral Responsibility in the Education Industry: 
how much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness? Can higher education offer the same kind of defense?

--- EGR

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Do as I say! Not, as I do!: Learning From Bad Example

updated 11/8/19
You've got to be taught
Before it's too late
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
To hate all the people
Your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught
-- South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein
Supposedly, kids learn morality from example or precept. That is, by watching others behave as they should; or, by having it drummed into their heads through merciless repetition.

There must be a third way, since precepts are generally ignored because they are taught mostly by people who are perceived not to practice what they preach. However, children have it hammered into them that it is “good manners” or “mature behavior” on their part not to call attention to hypocrisy.

It is particularly hard to forgive clergy and basic educators for their “lapses” from the moral standards they promulgate. (Business, military and show people, like college professors, are already -- it is generally assumed -- well beyond the pale.) What must kids think when their teachers of morality, be it ever so secular a morality, are just thought to be mouthing words to suit their own convenience?

I remember what I thought. I remember what the other kids I knew thought, also. Some of us were dismayed. Others were empowered.

For many years I taught a course in ethics to university students. I would get back many a knowing smile when I would remark, as I often did early in the course, that one reason they might have to study ethics was to be able to tell people they had studied ethics. There were far fewer in that course, year after year, who were dismayed than who felt empowered.

(The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake those, you've got it made. -- Groucho Marx)

Public educators, in particular, are under constant pressure to satisfy the wants of powerful constituencies in their communities regardless of what is good for their students. However, not only are educators seldom taught how to handle such pressures, they are given to understand that their concessions are prerequisite to any recognition, award or promotion they may pursue.

For references and to examine these issues further, see The Ethical Miseducation of Educators

--- EGR