Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What is a Fair Grade? Should Effort Count?

What's sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander. -- Proverb
Instructors at even “top-rank” universities report that their students fuss and fume if they get anything less than an A on an assignment. They expect that just putting out the effort – or claiming to have done so – merits a B so that anything more should bring it up to an A. A professor’s insisting that there may be standards that should influence judgments of quality is dismissed as some kind of cranky, outmoded elitism.

The retorts are obvious. The easiest one is to ask students if they would want to go to a doctor who had “put in the effort” during his or her studies, but never really learned the material. The students see the point but somehow continue to believe that their work should be exempted from conclusions drawn from such examples.

So far as most students are concerned, grades are competitive prizes, to judge from their comparison and boasting about GPA’s. However, everyone’s entitled to the honor of a diploma. This is a benefit that must be fairly shared quite independently of its use as a marker of accomplishment

To examine these issues further, see Fair Share vs. Fair Play: 
Two Competing Conceptions of Justice

-- GKC (EGR)

All Schools Are Little Wheels: the J. Fred Muggs Effect

updated 12/27/20

The little wheel run by Faith…
…(W. Guthrie, Ezekial Saw the Wheel}

Many of us were shocked, -- shocked, I tell you, -- to read (more likely, see on TV) that chimpanzees, affectionately known as "chimps," were not just the cute buffoons we had been seeing all our lives in the media. In the wild, they warred against other clans of their own kind and hunted and fed on the fresh kill of Bonobo monkeys; you know, those even smaller, cuter, gentler primates whose main pastimes merely mimicked those of a typical college undergraduate population. (See also 7 Adorable Animals That Could Kill You In An Instant.)

Faith in the docility, the sociability, of “pets” has brought it about that Florida is overrun by snakes of foreign origin. You flush ‘em down the toilet down there and they end up in the Everglades. (In the North, it’s alligators; elsewhere, it’s boars and cats.)

Americans make a big deal about the distinction between religious and public schools. But both rest on some kind of Faith. The great myth is that the public schools – accused dim-wittedly of being “secularist” – put their faith in Science. Not so.

A group of psychological researchers have reviewed the literature and determined that the following beliefs – often fanatically held by many public school personnel and university trainers of teachers-- are false or lack verification:

--There are left-brained and right-brained people
--Intelligence tests are biased against certain groups of people
--Students have learning styles. Teachers can teach to them.
--Heritable traits cannot be changed.
--Low self-esteem causes psychological problems.

A recent book, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior, by Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio and Beyerstein explains the 50 myths and actually mentions 167 more.

How much so-called education, not to mention educational reform, is carried on assuming that these either downright false or unproven ideas are true? How many so-called Best Practices are based on these myths? Perhaps reform doesn’t take in schools because too many people would rather hold on to their chimps – pardon me, “faith” -- than be effective educators.

To examine these issues further, see The Pop-Psych Schoolhouse: Educational Reform Mired in (Inspired by?) Scientific Misconception


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Schooling Practice: ignoring power-nurture conflicts

“Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing -- Thomas J. Peters
New teachers worry about professionalism. They worry whether their peers, their superiors and even their students and their students’ parents will take them seriously. It’s a worry about being accorded the respect they think they deserve.

Why do they worry about respect? Because it gives them the authority they need to bring their students into the paths specified by the school’s curriculum. So they bolster that authority by following and preaching policies, rules and methods. And, behold, it generally works. They are acknowledged to be “the teacher.” And the students do “school activities” as they are bidden.

But teachers face, every day, day-in-and-day out, young, needy, human beings. The teacher’s inclinations are to slip into the role of counselor, parent, older sibling, friend. But then they would have to loosen, to give up on emphasizing policies, rules and methods. This undermines their authority, little enough as they have, and distracts from the stern demands of curriculum.

There are just too many individuals in their classes. And they confront, perhaps for the first time clearly in their lives, that fact that the idea of an “average student” is less a reality than an abstraction. Abstractions don’t have needs. Real kids do. The amount of individual attention parents want for their individual children is just not a possibility given even a small group.

So, to avoid the appearance of favoritism, or neglect, teachers -- often with heavy heart -- learn to apportion their attentions among their many students, knowing that some will find the teacher’s help hardly -- if at all -- nurturing; and others, almost an imposition.

Complicating this basic tension are official importunities that professionalism requires that teachers concern themselves, simultaneously, for special needs, gender, bullying, ethnic, cultural and personal differences among students. Missing any of these issues might result, during a professional observation by administration, in a less than satisfactory evaluation.

And there is also, the inescapable, often deep, moral dilemma: How much of the individual student’s comfort, freedom and self-esteem should be sacrificed, when necessary, for the good of the group?

For references and to examine these issues further, see Power in Schooling Practice: 
The Educational Dilemmas

--- EGR

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Name-Dropping Is Not Enough: faking it with buzzwords

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. -- Matt. 7:21 KJ
A graduate student asked me to recommend him for admission when I was an advisor in a university doctoral program. He was in his regular life a businessman as well as a long-term elected official in a nearby township where he was expected to decide on such things as policies and contracts.

I asked him, “Considering you’re already fifty-seven, why do you want to go to the trouble of studying to get a doctorate?”

He said, “Because I want to speak with authority on how our school district should be run, and not always be suspected of just trying to feather my nest with contracts.”

I said, “Anyone can appear to have authority if the audience is ignorant enough. And if they use impressive buzzwords. You know, both academia and the business world are full of them. I’ll recommend you with the understanding that – as much as possible – you'll convert those buzzwords into meaningful ideas and use them in a well-reasoned way. Your authority should be based on knowledge; not, BS!” He accepted and eventually became my dissertation student.

Schools and businesses are remarkably similar in many ways. Both in education and management, whether it occurs in the classroom or office, in a school system or in an entire corporation, lack of understanding, of resources, or of consensus is masked with buzzwords.

Words expressing the most profound of concepts can be reduced to a buzzword when they are used unthinkingly or merely to impress the ignorant. (Or to pass licensing examinations!) Some big concepts typically misused as buzzwords in education or business are, among many others: synergy, constructivism, team-player, reinforcer, measurement, accountability, win-win, knowledge, reward, market, research, post-modern, Foucaultian, Lacanian. (See Living in a Cloud of Buzzwords? Two possible remedies.)

If you don’t know what something is or isn’t; or, where it might work, or won’t; or, what difference knowing about it makes, you are merely faking authority.

To examine these issues further, see

Analyzing Buzzwords, Slogans & Mottoes: Exercises.


Using, Rather Than Merely Alluding To, Theory

--- EGR

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Naive Reform Proposals: Suggesting Uncertain Means

The little things you haven't got
Could be alot if you pretend
-- "Pretend" by D. Belloc, L. Douglas,
F. Lavere, C. Parman
We expect that almost every experienced adult can talk easily about means and ends, methods and goals. And so they do. We ask a friend,
“What big item do you want to buy this year?”
“A new car.” (end or goal)
“How are you going to get it?”
“Take out a loan.” (means, or method)
Sounds reasonable. Certainly a big enough loan ought to enable him to buy the car he wants. But we might have information that makes the means (the method) less than certain. For example, we reply,
“But you’re out of work, and you already have a lot of debt. Who’s going to lend you much more money?”
Let’s call the means or method in such a situation, “uncertain means” or “uncertain method.”
A new teacher might complain
“My students don’t seem to be finishing their homework. What can I do?”
“Consider the following three suggestions:
1. Keep them after school until 7 PM. That’ll give them time to complete homework.
2. Give them partial lunch detentions for homework purposes. (But let them eat lunch in your room.)
3. Stop giving them homework.
Now, any of these could work, but whether or not they are feasible may depend upon factors beyond your control. Maybe school bus service is not available beyond 4PM. Or maybe there are policies prohibiting eating in the classrooms. Or policies that require giving homework.

Proposed means are only as certain as the resources, the policies and the practices available to support them. Someone might offer to take you on a trip to Mars. If you ask how they’ll do it, they reply, “In a vehicle that will make the round trip.” It’s not likely you’ll take them seriously. (Logically, it makes sense, if there were such a vehicle, then it would be a certain means for going to Mars -- all other things being equal.)

Much of what is suggested quite seriously by presumed “experts” to reform public schools is if this type: uncertain means. For example in a column in USA Today, named “3 ways to improve the USA's teachers,” Wendy Kopp and Dennis Van Roekel (http://usat.ly/uu8mDG) suggest the following methods (means):
A. Use data to improve teacher preparation.
B. Bring new talent to the teaching profession.
C. Give teachers opportunities for continuous professional development.
“Data,” “new talent,” “professional development,” are all very popular phrases, slogans easily bandied about by the experientially challenged. But these are clearly uncertain methods.

What data are we supposed to get? At what cost? Over what period of time? Requiring whose permission? And is there any consensus on the possible answers to any of these questions?

New talent? Talent for what? How will it be identified? With what certainty? And how would such “new talent” be attracted to the profession? And is there any consensus on the possible answers to any of these questions?

Professional development? Actual informative, non-soporific activities? To be done when? In place of what present activities? Who will give it? How and by whom will they be identified and determined to be appropriate to the prospective audiences? And is there any consensus on the possible answers to any of these questions?

To examine these issues further, see Best Practices? Don’t Bet On It!


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Is School Still Educational?

Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind. -- Plato
Legislation was proposed in 1995 in Colorado to do away with "compulsory education." I was interviewed by Colorado Public Radio regarding my position on the issue. I asked for clarification: What was the proposal? Was it to do away with state-mandated educational requirements, thus reopening the door to the child labor abuses that abounded in the last century? Or was it to do away with compulsory school attendance?

My interviewer wasn't sure. He said he thought the voters of Colorado were tired of seeing more and more of their educational tax dollars go to dealing with kids who make trouble because they don't want to be there in the first place.

I said that I thought that noncompulsory school attendance was probably a morally preferable situation to the present practice. But the Colorado proposal would be like scratching an itch with a scalpel.

Unless schools can reject students whose parents want them to attend, the problem of undermotivated, distracted students would not necessarily be addressed. In any case, it is not clear how student-on-student abuse will be affected by even a change to non-compulsory schooling so long as educators persist in avoiding moral commitment.

To examine these issues further, see Fear in the Classroom 
Is Schooling Still Sufficiently Educational?

-- EGR

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is Your Child Really At Risk? Lessen Your Worries.

The sky is falling, the sky is falling. -- Chicken Little
So your kid doesn’t do homework regularly, or cuts class, or doesn’t seem interested in school. Think of the kids from your own school days. How many did the same? Perhaps, you slacked off, too. And yet many of these same kids pulled it together later in life and are doing OK right now. Why I bet you could even name a former President of the United States (or two or more if you really know your history) who goofed his way through school, even through college!

There is a lot of money to be made by getting parents to worry that their children are “at risk.” Some parents are seduced into believing that poor grades predestine their adolescents to a life of crime or poverty. Others are more concerned with bragging rights in comparing their offspring with their neighbors’ brats: Mom or Dad really would like an Ivy League window sticker for a car.

Luckily, we live in a society where school success and life success are only tenuously related, despite the efforts of panting pedants to make a high school diploma the only door to human happiness. There are many more paths to adult success than might be considered by a middle school guidance counselor, or parent -- for that matter.

To examine these issues further, see Identifying the ‘At Risk’ Student

--- EGR

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Do Public School-Religious School Differences Matter?

“Religion which requires persecution to sustain, it is of the devil's propagation.” -- Hosea Ballou
It is the mission of religious and many secular organizations, e.g. the State, to convince, persuade, seduce, coerce or dupe us to concede authority to them over certain aspects of our lives: these are then called duties and obligations. As children, dependent and ignorant, we willy-nilly concede authority to those who importune us. However, as adults we ought to question -- as Thomas Aquinas reminds us -- whether the faith we concede as a child is appropriate as a free adult.

In a democratic country where custom and law maintain Church-State separation, it is more likely that secular institutions, especially the public schools and those that promote and administer them, will undermine freedom in pursuing the fads and fashions the flesh is heir to.

For example, non-sectarian university teacher-training programs routinely indoctrinate prospective public school teachers with questionable theory as though it were incontrovertible fact, e.g., All children can learn, Protect self-esteem, Consider learning style, Education for Democracy, International Competitiveness, etc.

Because such indoctrination is not based on religious sectarianism, public schools are not protected from, indeed, have become inundated with, dogmatic ideologies imposed with totalitarian rigor.

To examine these issues further, see PERSONAL LIBERATION THROUGH EDUCATION

-- EGR

Friday, December 9, 2011

Are Students a Teacher’s Clients?

updated 2/3/21
“You are rewarding a teacher poorly if you remain always a pupil.”-- Friedrich Nietzsche
Our advertising-saturated culture invariably slops over into education. Houses are offered for sale as "homes"; amusement parks as "great adventures"; life insurance as "protection."

Some suggest that a student should be thought of as a "client." Perhaps what is at work here is the thought that people who deal with clients are more "professional," more worthy of respect, than those who deal merely with customers, wards, dependents, charges, inmates, or students.

Is reconceptualizing student as client just harmless ego bolstering for the practitioners of our traditionally underprized occupation? I think not. Students are not their teachers' clients. Nor should we aspire to our students' someday achieving such a relationship with us. Client is a term both too pompous and too shallow to characterize the special relationship that under the best of conditions exists between teacher and student.

No teacher gains an increment in prestige by referring to his or her students as clients. That deep commitment to (one might say, "obsession with") students' well-being found in many, many teachers -- a commitment that leads them to spend energy, time, and money far in excess of any compensation they could hope for -- is miserably served by the characterization of the student as "client."

To examine these issues further, see The Student as "Client"

-- EGR

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Who Can We Trust to Raise Our Children?

“A village is a hive of glass, where nothing unobserved can pass” -- Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)
Does it take a village to raise a child. To be what? Village idiot? Village prostitute? Village drunk? Village ne'er do well? These are not failures of village education but roles integral to certain kinds of community life. Without the fallen, the at-risk, the tempted, those we celebrate as moral leaders would have little to do in a village. Comfortable educators purveying their wares to an increasingly comfortable clientele sentimentalize beyond historical recognition the outcomes of village life. These outcomes were usually not very good for the majority of village dwellers. The motto of village life is not "Thrive" but "Just survive."

Did my village raise its children? Yes, in some sense. Any adult felt free to tell a child what to do. Children were expected to obey. When an adult told me to hand over my mother's grocery money to him for safe-keeping, I, at seven years old, was not considered at fault for obeying. The presence of the thief was the neighborhood scandal. He was an outsider; he had to be. Only outsiders did really bad things in our neighborhood. What our neighbors did, e.g., bloodying their wives' noses, breaking their child's arm, wasn't really bad. For “our own kind,” the quality of mercy could not be strained.

To examine these issues further, see School and Family: A Partnership for Educational Success?

-- EGR

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mentors for New Teachers: just another fad?

Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction. -- John Crosby
Mentoring -- one might think -- is just the most wonderful thing to come along in education for ... centuries, almost. Everybody seems to be talking about it; why, you can tell how successful it's going to be because just about every other educational conference you see advertised has loads and loads of presentations on mentoring. Or used to. Who knows? Perhaps it will even achieve the stunning success enjoyed by such innovations as open classrooms, or programmed learning!

Student teaching, we know, has long attempted to provide mentors for the fledgling educator by pairing him or her up with an experienced teacher. But the reality is often that each school principal picks the sponsoring teacher for reasons other than any concern to help the student teacher.

The colleges, generally competing with each other for scarce placements, have little control over how their students are placed or what is done with them should they be lucky enough to secure a placement.

To examine these issues further, see Mentoring: Are We Serious?

-- EGR

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Providing Services for Children in Special Education: what should they be?

Handicapped kids and those who care for them have pretty consistently ended up losers in the public schools. Neglect didn’t work. Special education didn’t work, either. Will our efforts to fully include special children in regular classes do any better, given our insatiable desire to raise achievement and measure it by test scores?

Working with less-fortunate kids in academic classes might help the “included” kids a bit, and it will undoubtedly make the “including” kids better people. But let’s also admit that it will take time away from kids’ test preparation, and we all know damn well what really counts.

Teachers all know what suffering we create when we neglect the needy. But we should also consider the grief that follows when overzealous service is provided. Maybe it’s time to explore alternatives when public providers are not satisfactory, for example, private, even religion-based experts, more aggressively ...but with more care than enthusiasm.

To examine these issues further, see Special Education: misgivings and reconsiderations

-- WAC

Monday, December 5, 2011

Schooling: from the trifling to the trivial

It is one of the maladies of our age to profess a frenzied allegiance to truth in unimportant matters, to refuse consistently to face her where graver issues are at stake. -- Janos Arany
C'mon, let's be honest. How many taxpayers really care whether no child is left behind in the quest for the intersection of east- and westbound trains? How many administrators really care what percentage of your students understand the deep significance of Brother Lawrence's character in Romeo and Juliet? How many presidential candidates really care whether the kids from the hood or the barrio or the trailer park can list the steps in meiosis?

Education, alas, is of interest only to the educated, and in Georgia, that limits our constituency (and in your state too, in case you hadn't noticed) — but everybody is interested in success, and the first step in achieving success is avoiding failure. And since NCLB, all schools are obsessed with avoiding failure.

For many years I've told my teacher education students that the primary letters in teaching are not A, B, and C, but C,Y, and A. That has never been more true. Avoiding unfavorable publicity and unpleasant litigation is the principal worry of every principal, and a smart principal will make sure you are correspondingly principled.

We all want our statistics and portfolios and accreditation reports to be flattering, or at least not shameful. That in itself is human, but nowadays, I hear about little else, and that is anything but humane.

To examine these issues further, see The Public School's Sorest Need: ToTransfigure the Trivial

-- WAC

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Curriculum for the Soul

A just laicism allows religious freedom. The state does not impose religion but rather gives space to religions with a responsibility toward civil society, and therefore it allows these religions to be factors in building up society. -- Joseph Ratzinger
There are areas in which public schools cannot do well but public school teachers succeed, and dealing wisely with the soul of a child is probably one of them. Be patient here, please: I am aware of and endorse the constitutional restraints on religion in public schools. I share with my separationist friends a distrust of religious activity by the state and many doubts about government’s ability to deal adequately with issues of faith and morals.

But we should remember that not only do the courts forbid any action by government schools not prompted by a “secular primary purpose” or which would “principally and primarily” aid religion; they also forbid any that would inhibit it, and they further require that these conundrums be resolved without creating “excessive entanglement” of government and religion. Much of religious parents’ dissatisfaction with public education undoubtedly arises from concern about the possible negative impact of public schooling on their children’s faith and morals.

Teachers may want to reconsider practices that could inhibit the development of faith in their children, and consider practices of general application that would accommodate grace without overstepping the bounds of law.

To examine these issues further, see Jacob’s Children and Ours:
Richard of St. Victor’s Curriculum for the Soul

-- WAC

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Should Schools be Clone Factories?

The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to an uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. -- James Madison

Many of us seem to long for the deep excitement, the sense of mission, the pervasive invigoration that was provided by the Cold War. Lacking the imminent threat of "mass participation in that Grand Incineration" that gave such cogency to our duck-and-cover drills, we miss the struggle against a world Communism that gave so much meaning to life and so much federal funding to U. S. industry and education.

So we dig up Frankenstein, Body Snatchers, and the Manchurian Candidate! We worry about WMD’s, terrorists, polygamists, militias, and other harbingers of the apocalypse. And we fuss and fret about cloning. We express apprehension, vexation, or reservation about the possibility of creating genetic duplicates of humans.

In reality, we have been cloning, or at least, trying to clone, educated minds for millennia. What do religious leaders want? Doctrinal clones. What do political leaders want? Political clones. What do ethnic leaders want? Ethnic clones. What do parents want? Clones of themselves.

To examine these issues further, see Cloning Student Voice

-- EGR