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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Should Teachers Avoid Using Extrinsic Motivation ("Bribes") ?

School Days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick
(Music by Gus Edwards; Lyrics by Will D. Cobb, 1907)

Dear old golden rule days! Hah! The tune of a hickory stick was often accompanied by a crying soloist, or even a chorale of weeping. That's nostalgia!

My ideal school would be something along the lines of A.S. Neill's Summerhill: no compulsion whatsoever, students would attend classes when and if they find them intrinsically motivating, no adversive extrinsic motivators would be employed to "keep them in line."

Alas, in my 50 years of professional engagement (25 in public schools) with learners at all levels I regret to say that Summerhill was not even a remotely considered model of schooling to be found (or desired, especially by most parents who could afford it.)

Should extrinsic motivators be used in the classroom? Yes, if you know what they are and how long they will be effective; if you can afford them and if you need them.

There is no moral issue here that has not already been foreclosed on by parents or school boards. Kids come in to school having been trained with extrinsic motivators most of their young lives, e.g. "no TV until you eat your peas," or "Absences from school will lower your grades, no matter what your test average." What intrinsic motivators they might still have at entry will soon be disabled by the regimentation of school procedures, or for the convenience of their adult caretakers.

So before we start -- as many suggest -- proscribing the use of extrinsic motivators from schools let's consider the following issues:

1. (to repeat) students come to school acculturated to, indeed, expecting to be offered extrinsic motivators (and usually knowing how to exploit them);

2. Schools, especially public schools, are compulsory and regimented, no matter that the iron fist is usually concealed in the "humanistic" velvet glove of professional "attitude adjusters"; this affects motivation substantially.

3. People, including kids, are individuals with intrinsic interests that vary both in object, in intensity and in duration. Such interests are not easily summoned on command. But mass education demands uniformity and regularity.
Important to consider is that extrinsic motivators can be skillfully used to bring students to acquire new intrinsic interests if older ones are seen as inappropriate to the schoolroom. In addition, extrinsic motivators plug in the gaps where intrinsic motivation is too varied, too weak or too intermittant to carry students through the curriculum.

But eschewing extrinsic approaches -- as faddists would now have it -- would preclude learning teaching skills using such approaches.

Educators would not be in the schools for very long but for the extrinsic motivators they receive. Nor would many adults be in their places of employment lacking extrinsic motivation. (Even with extrinsic motivation, teachers quit their jobs at 12-13% per year.)

Why should children be denied motivators which adults expect? I suspect there is little more to the prejudice against extrinsic motivators than the unrealistic hope, usually hidden, that the kids can be made to walk paths straight and narrow to make up for the prodigalities of parents and community.

For references and to examine these issues further, see The Evils of Public Schools


Monday, November 19, 2012

Do We Really Need Better Teachers? What For?

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind. -- John Godfrey Saxe (1816 - 1887)
What is a better teacher? Better for what? What is the “improvement” supposed to aim at? These are primary questions. Secondary questions are whether it is worth the cost compared to other options, or to the status quo. Who gains what from “improving teachers “-- whatever that means? Who pays for it?
A recently retired member, a world-explorer, has offered a real live elephant to your organization, The Harmony Club. “How would we take care of this elephant?” you ask Sam, a member and, in life, a car-parts dealer. “First, you get a better steering wheel for your car,” he replies.

You are perplexed. “A better steering wheel?” you respond. “What for?” “Well,” says Sam, “you’re gonna be pulling that animal around in a trailer a lot and you’ll need more control and comfort when you do it!”

“A trailer? Why will we need a trailer?” you demur. Sam replies, “To get the elephant back and forth to the vet and to the state and county fairs.” “And to visit my kids’ schools,” adds Susan, also a member and, in life, a school board president.

“Harmony Club will need to hire an accountant, too,” breaks in member Stewart, a business school professor, “in case we decide to charge people money to come see the beast.”

“But what about food and shelter and clean-up and TLC?” you ask.

“Piffle,” says Susan. “That’s small stuff. Let the neighborhood kids come visit the elephant to keep it company. The rest you can get other members to help you with. At this juncture we’re trying to deal with the really important things.”
Do we really need better teachers for our public schools? Better for what? And will the improvement be worth the cost -- since “better” often means “more expensive?” And what kinds of things here are being assumed to be benefits? (See Dissecting School Benefits: a typology of conflicting goals)

Let’s revisit the questions, “Do we really need better teachers?” and “What for?” We can look to examine several possible answers. The first group I will call Student-Oriented Aims.

Do we really need better teachers? What for?
Student-Oriented Aims:
a. for better test scores
b. for more learning
c. to increase student interest
d. to increase student motivation
e. to reduce boredom.
Note that these aims each immediately in turn raise the important questions: For which students? What other factors affect the outcomes aimed at?

Do we really need better teachers? What for?
Economic-political Aims:
f. to create new jobs (assumption: they are pertinent, ultimately to student-oriented aims)
g. to open educational budgets to new entrepreneurs.
h. to placate powerful yet ignorant critics

The great pretense in all kinds of (not just public) schooling is that Student-Oriented aims take precedence over Economic-political Aims. The reverse is nearer the truth. This is a reality and diluting our beers with tears is probably a pointless endeavor.

For more than a century, Americans having been beating the drum for better public schools and better teachers. What they have not been doing is addressing our two basic questions. This is possibly very wise until that time is reached when a tolerance for variation, if not a congruence, in aims can be reached. Muddled thinking about educational aims is the cost we pay to minimize open social conflict on these issues.

For more references and to examine these recurrent issues further, see School Reform via Teacher Professionalization: Is it Cost-effective?

--- EGR

Monday, September 24, 2012

Good Lies, Wise Evasions

Tact: to lie about others as you would have them lie about you.
-- Oliver Herford

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.
-- M. Twain

One of the rituals we often go through as we gradually acculturate children to adult society is to preach, “You should never tell a lie.” The children, then, are left to figure out where there are exceptions to this “rule.” Moral educators avoid this complexity as “hypocrisy,” primarily because they rationalize that kids are too young to deal with it. Children, thus, learn on their own, sooner or later, when and how a demand for information is to be evaded, or satisfied with what they personally believe not to be true. (What the adults’ fear, realistically enough, is that their own kids will come to disagree with them on this matter.)

Truthfulness, that is, the disposition to reveal on request what one believes to be factual, is valued; not absolutely, as we would have our small children or subordinates believe, but conditionally. It is a matter of priorities.

What are some priorities? Here is a list of a very few, more or less in order: Tact, Personal Privacy, and Misdirection of Threat. Let’s check these out.

Tact is easy: unless one has an especially intimate relationship one does not remark to others -- no matter how true -- that, e.g. their breath stinks, their baby is ugly, their child is stupid; their home funishings, aesthetic horrors; or their relatives, deserving of prison.

Personal privacy is established by our claims to the privilege of rejecting requests for (what we believe to be) truth about matters we consider to be “no one’s business but our own.” However, court or police proceedings often redefine the boundaries here. So may one’s social or organizational status. One doesn’t put off answering a police investigator, or one’s boss, with e.g., “It’s none of your business what I was doing in the office last evening.”

The privilege of demanding truth from others, or denying their requests for the same, is not universally equally distributed. Lying and evasion are techniques (often justly employed) for frustrating claims to such a privilege which may avoid provoking sanctions against forthright refusal.

Misdirection of Threat is quite important. Immanuel Kant insisted that lies should be avoided even if, say, telling a known murderer the whereabouts of a potential victim would enable the latter’s demise. Lying under any circumstances, Kant argued, if it became a universal habit, would undermine the assertability of truth.

Kant’s profound Unwisdom rests on a rather peculiar attitude: that a condition, historically very rare (e.g. lying’s becoming a normal occurrence) would have what is likely a highly improbable effect (destroying all trust in assertions.)

(His perspective also assumes a general acceptance of his Categorical Imperative whereby each individual’s actions would be based on principles acceptable as universal law. But, in reality, few individuals are precedent-setters. And, few precedents apply to everyone universally.)

Pure laziness or disinterest, as Twain suggests, makes persistent, widespread lying unlikely given the personal and social sanctions against it, under present distributions of power to enforce them. Prohibitions against lying, (or against anything else) work not because they press for universality, but for normalcy.

The Moral Educator’s dilemma: woe to the moral educator laboring under conditions where the curriculum is universal and the learner population morally diverse, i.e. adhering to different, incompatible “sacred values.” If moral education is expected here to inculcate moral standards, then diversity conflicts might well make it impossible.

But if moral education is mostly an intellectual excursion into ethical diversity it is unlikely to command much of a commitment (read “budget”) from a vehemently partisan citizenry. Perhaps reducing vehemence is the answer.

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

--- EGR

Monday, August 27, 2012

"I’m Not a Politician" ?! We're all politicians, sometimes ... often.

Faith is believing what you know ain't true. -- Puddinhead Wilson
Everyone’s a politician to some extent. If you need no one’s help to get what you want, then all your problems are technical. This doesn’t mean they are easy or honest. As soon as you need to involve someone else, then you must be political, that is, take into consideration what they want to do that might conflict with your goals. And you’ve got to talk to them so as not to scare them off. You must give up forthrightness for effectiveness. This is politics. And it doesn’t mean that what you are trying to get done is either technically difficult or underhanded.

Situation A: Who gets up in front of a crowd of people at a political rally and says. “I’m am not a politician”? Who believes it? Many political aspirants, it seems, like to say such things. And no one really believes it. And yet lthe audience goes along with what the speaker proposes. The speaker’s lie is politically productive.

Situation B: Suppose that same person had gotten up in front of the same crowd and said, “I’m a politician.” Most in that crowd would think, “Yeah, we know that already,” and boo him or her for saying it out loud. And few would go along with what the speaker would have to say. So it would be stupid to start off a speech saying, “I’m a politician” for this audience. The speaker’s forthrightness is politically unproductive.

Situation C: There is a third possibility. The speaker does not say anything about being a politician. He or she just gets up and says, “I want you to help me get elected so I can do something for you.” Doesn't this seem more honest and direct? Isn’t it better to ask for help without requiring people to first swallow a lie in order to do so? Would it be less productive?

It depends. Are these people who expect some kind of stroking, who demand some kind of emotional bribe to compensate their paying attention? Even more, do these people need to be lied to, placated, flattered, cajoled, made to "feel good" with what they know is less than true? Are they consciously aware that they are involved in a falsehood, a hypocrisy, before they are willing to be productive? It is for the sake of group solidarity, or just a tradition of good manners? A faith that overwhelms all veracity?

What kind of moral upbringing brings people to prefer hypocrisy? What kind of situation evokes this preference?

To examine these issues further, see Productivity, Politics and Hypocrisy in American Public Education

--- EGR

Friday, August 24, 2012

Getting Down to Facts: can we avoid making assumptions?

Education is not the piling on of learning, information, data, facts, skills, or abilities - that's training or instruction - but is rather making visible what is hidden as a seed” -- Thomas More (1477-1535)
A host of philosophers, scientists and scholars have long trekked after a mirage: presuppositionless knowledge, that is, knowledge not based on any kind of assumption. However, because we humans are limited beings with bounded capacities, constrained in space and time, whatever we believe about what we know rests upon important epistemological presuppositions.
These are not assumptions of the ordinary kinds that we commonly discuss. Rather, they are things we take for granted unless something unusual, even bizarre happens. Examples of epistemological presuppositions are assumptions that our senses, memories and understandings do not majorly mislead us; that they are at the very least, somewhat consistent.

Facts are knowledge. But what is knowledge? Knowledge is that honorific title we give to those beliefs we feel meet whatever criteria we are committed to for distinguishing (pronouncing?) what is true from what is false. This could range from a scientific procedure to a reading from a holy book, depending upon what it is we are committed to. (See Knowledge: The Residues of Practical Caution.)

However, these criteria for distinguishing true from false do not necessariy select out pre-existent truth and falsehood so much as they define what is true and what is not, bringing them, so to speak, into existence.

(Some philosophers might say that our "criteria" are supports for "performative acts of recognition".)

To examine these issues further, see Questionable Assumptions in Social Decision Making

--- EGR

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Intellectual Confection Is Not Necessarily Practicable Theory

Any imaginative "theory" can be confected, with few constraints, from the knowledge, purposes or imagination of an interested party. But if it is to contribute to developing a practical theory, a theory-in-use, it needs be constrained by the capacities and situation of its user. Possible practice limits investigation. This is why many scientific disciplines demand some empirical "backup" for a hypothesis striving for the status of theory.

A theory-in-use is an amalgam of an object-theory, which is a rather idealized construction of a theorist, and user-theory, which can be defined by identifying the epistemological requirements of any practitioner employing the object theory. It is generally useless to theorize about what one cannot know. (Of course, trying to determine what one can or cannot know is often difficult and runs the danger of foreclosing on possible avenues to new knowledge.)

The primary use of theory by a practitioner is to rationalize or enhance the outcomes of her undertakings. Certain types of theory can be determined a priori to be practically useless: any object-theory which is non-conformable to user-theory has no primary use.

In practice, however, idiosyncratic "adjustments" are made by the user to the object-theory which make it appear to be usable. Terminology can be bandied about, but this results in little more than poetry -- or ideology -- even from the lips of a recognized scientist: no little temptation in our culture of promotion and hyperbole!

However, the usability of such "adjusted" theory does not indicate anything about the object-theory from which it derived.

To examine these issues further, see Using Theory


Saturday, July 21, 2012

God, Church and Schooling for Democracy: American Faith in "Faith."

The key consideration for the conduct of interpersonal affairs is that the activities of people can harmonize without their ideas about ends and means being in agreement – Nicholas Rescher Pluralism p.180

Anybody who has remained in a marriage for any length of time recognizes the wisdom of Rescher’s quote on the basis of (often rudely awakened) experience. In his important book, Pluralism. Against the Demand for Consensus (1995. Oxford. Paperback) Rescher, in great detail, explains cogently why a democratic pluralism requires an acceptance of diversity and a toleration of the discordant views of others.

In view of Rescher’s argument, we each of us must ask how we can demonstrate “acceptance of diversity” and “toleration of discordant views” in our behavior. How ought schools, especially public schools, deal with this?

Let’s just focus our concern on a simpler question: What major impediments exist to achieving an acceptance of diversity and a toleration of discordant views? The answer is simple, also: Family, Church and School.

Every child picks up early that her family expects her to mirror the likes and dislikes of Mom, Dad and relatives. But there is so much evidence that outside forces, for example, popular (vulgar) culture, weaken family influence substantially, that we’ll skip over the family and go to Church and School, instead.

Many religious organizations encourage confusion in the minds of their congregations between God and the church leadership. Most, though not all, religious organizational functionaries discourage deviant expression of what they believe “defines” membership.

Yet most, again, if not all, encourage the ultimate expression of egotism: faith in Faith. The Common American Religion is Faith in Faith, which even atheists practice. Faith in Faith ultimately boils down into Faith in Ego.

If you ask most people, “Are there people who follow false faiths?” they will answer “Yes!” Then if you ask them, “How do you know you aren’t one of them?” the usual reply is something along the lines of “It is my Faith that my religion is not false!”

Pay attention to the phrase, “my Faith.” Once people are mature enough, it is their responsible decision to accept or reject that “Faith.” And their reasons for acceptance are seldom more than egoistic. Even, in the rare case, if they say they spoke with or heard the voice of God, it is usually their own personal judgment that they were not delusional or deceived that supports their decision. Whether you accept something on your own or others' authority, you have still decided to accept it.

Schools, despite lip service to the contrary, do their own share to undermine diversity and tolerance. Schools are commissioned to teach “standards.” But are these standards widely recognized as embodying practical means to widely accepted ends? Or are they only formalities serving to bolster the status of favored subcultures?

To examine these issues further, see Religion, Intelligent Design and the Public Schools: serving God to Mammon?

--- EGR

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

How "School Reform" Maintains the Status Quo

3 random definitions for status quo:
1. Heaven on Earth achieved;
2. the trade-off optima we have so far managed to achieve;
3. Hell on Earth accepted.
-- Mephistopheles(?)
Faith in God's revelation has nothing to do with an ideology which glorifies the status quo.
-- Karl Barth
An economist from another solar system, non-partisan, let us assume, on most issues that concern our peoples, might report on American Education in the following manner:
There are three major market interests supporting schools: Values, Skills and Social Control. Although there is no persistent agreement as to which is most important, most schools try to respond in some way to all of them, since one well-established constituency or another promotes them.
Values, also known, occasionally more specifically, as “Cultivation,” “Snobbery,” “Scholarship,” “Academics” or “Fine Arts” involves convincing most people that things that bore them should be honored, at least, for preserving (someone’s) important traditions.

Important means “allowing tax monies to be spent on them” or “showing the proper respect” – see “Social Control” below -- when one’s social betters demand it.

This “Values” product is often promoted as “Rounding Out the Individual,” or “High Quality Education” or “Developing the Mind.” Cascades of diplomas representing no specific achievement, as well as profusions of higher degrees, are the deliverables generated to support this interest.

Skills involves training people how to make money (for someone) by acquiring the narrowest possible knowledge about and dexterity in producing whatever geegaws, jimcracks or whizbangs are selling at the moment or predicted to sell in the near future. High levels of skill development skills may be tolerated, even praised; but, seldom seen as cost-effective. For example, economic institutions, i.e. the Stock Market, are run by perfunctorily skilled persons who rely mainly on consumer faith to support their deliverables – which often fail to materialize.

Social Control involves teaching the great masses of people how to obey. Even in the United States, which imagines itself a multicultural Land of the Free, “obedience” means learning that procrastinating, bad-mouthing, objecting, moaning and groaning are all OK so long as one conforms in the long run to what “society” – read,“values controllers” -- expect of you.

Schools of all kinds do a pretty good job in satisfying all three markets. (This often involves some sacrificing of one market, usually Skills, to maintaining the others.)

School Reform concerns involve the pretense that Academics, a superficial hodgepodge of often unmarketable skills, is the primary, if not the sole, point of schooling. This, market strategem enables the promoters of school reform materials and processes to plausibly hawk their wares in the face of much opinion that real follow-through, which might damage other educational markets, is unlikely.

To examine these issues further, see How much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness?


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Your Authority is an Attitude in the Minds of Others

I have as much authority as the Pope, I just don't have as many people who believe it. -- George Carlin
Authority of any kind is ultimately based on a consensus, an agreement to acknowledge the validity of that authority. This consensus may based on traditionally shared beliefs, values and attitudes, or be merely expedient acquiescence or outward conformity.

Mentally disregarding authority while outwardly conforming to it is no weird, esoteric practice only carried out by bald monks in mountaintop monasteries. It is exactly what we do to a great extent when we visit other countries and cultures: we acquiesce in behaving so as to keep ourselves out of jail, or to avoid social opprobrium; even though we accord no real respect whatsoever to other concerns a native of that culture might have. Sight-seeing in a church does not mean you are a convert.

The authority we exercise often distances us from others, making ordinary forms of social intercourse strained, if not impossible. Yet, it does not in and of itself, protect us from brute force, as any battered spouse with a restraining order knows full well.

All new teachers discover that the reputation of those who bestowed authority upon them may matter very little. Kids are not impressed with State issued teaching licenses. People raised in one religion are not very impressed that a religion different from their own has ordained the missionary.

Not acknowledging as authority what others do is what makes the differences between families, religions, cultures and nations. It also is what makes teaching and preaching an uphill battle. Especially where power is lacking.

To examine these issues further, see The Indeterminacy of Consensus

--- EGR

Friday, June 1, 2012

Cloning Citizens: mission accomplished … mostly.

The main product of the newsmedia has been and continues to be … anxiety. – Eric Sevareid.

Remember the fuss raised by religious and political personalities (generously referred to as “leaders”) when cloning first made it appearance in the media? Why has it died down? Who worries about cloning anymore now that new forms of life have been created in the lab?

We have been cloning “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.

What do educators lust after? Cultural, informational, and behavioral clones. Even "deviant" or “revolutionary” educators try to self-replicate: self-actualized clones, EST clones, inner child clones, Iron John clones. And how those miserable humans do resist! In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword. In spite of morality, patriotism, and rationality!

Forget Rousseau; educators look to clone. We pursue not the noble savage, nor do we indulge the feral child. We clone; not, genetically (yet), but much more effectively: mentally, intellectually, emotionally. Our cloning is the incarnation of our “ideals” into the recalcitrant flesh of homo sapiens.

To examine these issues further, see Cloning Student Voice

-- EGR

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tracking vs Differentiated Instruction: company stew or smorgasbrod?

Jack Spratt could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean.
And so, betwixt the two of them, they licked the platter clean.
-- Nursery Rhyme
It makes a big difference in cost, preparation, and meal timing whether you serve the same mixed dish to everyone or have each person choose from a selection of offerings. School curriculum tends to vary from stew, for example, 11th grade English or geometry, to smorgasbrod, band, AP Calculus and astronomy.

Except to save time and money, it would not make sense to serve stew, if you knew some people would pick out the carrots; others, the meat; still others, the potatoes and everybody left the string beans. So we might try differentiated instruction (DI), instead.

SmorgasBoard by bigmick - flickr

On the other hand, very many varied foods may not be necessary, since people have tastes in common. In addition a smorgasbrod is likely to generate more garbage, as jalapeno-stuffed olives and raw oysters are passed over. It all depends on the clientele and the biggest constraint is cost.

Differentiated instruction (DI) is an attempt to serve each person his or her own special meal, a controlled smorgasbrod, if you will, based on curriculum theory. If, for example, the curriculum model for the school assumes are 4 ability levels, 7 “cognitive styles,” and 3 levels of subject development, then a teacher in a pure DI classroom would have potentially 4x7x3 = 84 basic models of preparation. Taught simultaneously! For a 45 minute class?!

Know-it-all pundits are always carping that education is not rocket science. No, it is harder, so far as the practice is concerned.

Pure DI is not practical. Kids get lost with only a few variations going on. And then there is the grading. How does a teacher give grades based on even three kinds of differentiation without seeming to parents and kids to be unfair? Because no matter how many times and with what sincerity you intone your mantra, “Equality is not necessarily fairness! Fairness is not necessarily Equality!” you will not convince the kids with the lowest grades – nor their parents. And why sweat the grades? What's the point? College, career, salvation? Will your smorgasbrod get you there?

So, suppose we de-emphasize DI and go back to tracking: put potato eaters together; and, also carrot munchers; and, meat grinders, etc. We say they are in different “tracks,” each with its own shared “curriculum stew.”

But where do these tracks lead? To the same place? Or, perhaps, we don’t know for sure. Then the word “tracking” is something of an illusion; at best, a schoolhouse distinction only vaguely mirrored in the outside world.

Did Steve Jobs study computers in school? Did Warren Buffet study stock investment in school? No and no. Do you know college-graduates working at retail selling? Have you heard of doctors or dentists who have dropped out to become painters or farmers? Probably yes and yes.

So where does all this tracking lead? College, career, salvation? Will your portion of stew get you there?

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

For some notes on constructivism and DI see Constructivism: the new scientism?

-- EGR

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cheating & Plagiarism: Rational? Often So! Immoral? Maybe not.

"The rational incentives to cheat for college students have grown dramatically, even as the strength of character needed to resist those temptations has weakened somewhat,"
--.David Callahan, author of "The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead" (Harcourt, 2004)

Holy Hypocrites, Batman! Who with any knowledge of history can delude themselves believing that strength of character in this Land of the Free and Home of the Brave has weakened somewhat over the years since our Founding Fathers ….blah, blah, etc.

Strength of character, if it means doing what is morally right at the cost of ignoring what is expedient, has always been rare. The extirpation of Indian nations, slavery and Jim Crow proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

I’m not sure what it is in the education of teachers that develops such strong feelings against cheating and plagiarism since:
a. so many of them did it themselves in college*; and
b. they have been for so long blind to bullying, both physical and mental; and
c. they go along with the stupidest “educational innovations” with seldom a peep of protest; and
d. they set up or support the “rational incentives” that present their own students with the choice of either being stupid or being “of low character.”
It was Aristotle, I believe, who suggested that justice for a group was achieved when the ends of the group and the ends of the individuals in it were compatible.

Justice is rare, especially in schools.

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

--- EGR
* On the other hand, the low college GPA for education majors may indicate that, compared to the rest of the student body, they are less likely to cheat. Whether this is from fear of being caught, or "strength of character," I don't know.

Friday, May 4, 2012

School Reform: It’s not bricklaying; it’s juggling.

Policy is not made once and for all; it is made and remade endlessly. Policymaking is a process of successive approximation to some desired objectives in which what is desired itself continues to change under reconsideration.

... A wise policymaker consequently expects that his policies will achieve only part of what he hopes and at the same time will produce unanticipated consequences he would have preferred to avoid. -- Charles E. Lindblom, "The Science of 'Muddling Through'", Public Administration Review, 19, Spring 1959, 79 - 88.

Lindblom's comments are highly pertinent because school reform depends importantly on policy-making, on the goals we set for schools. But goals, themselves, can be reached only when consensus on three basic items stays put long enough to get things to “gel.” Consensus itself is an often short-lived thing, especially in a culture where so many different opinions claim our attention.

In addition, with the advent of superquick communications like Twitter and Facebook, consensus on an issue may be here today and gone tomorrow. (Will the hordes of enthusiasts who chanted “Yes, we can!” in 2008, show up at the polls in November 2010?)

Three “balls” need to be juggled, kept aloft at the same time:
a. expectations – what do (which?) people (think? say?) they want? Is there sufficient consensus on this? Will it last?

b. resources – how much money (whose?) is available to pursue these (which?) expectations and for how long will it be available? Is there a different consensus, on this item also?

c. tasks – what actual productive skills (whose?) have to be exercised and how long will they be available? Is there a different consensus needed here?
You can guess why its easier to get small, private things done with small groups than big, public things done with big groups.

Much of American political talk attempts to paper over this difficulty.

To examine these issues further, see POLITICS, CONSENSUS AND EDUCATIONAL REFORM

--- EGR

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Teacher Bashing: Wolves Judging the Farm Show.

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. -- Matthew 7:15 (KJV)
In my almost half-century in the field of education I can remember more than a few horrible teachers. But I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of administrators, board members and politicians who were also, at some point in their lives, good teachers.

Teachers are almost, in general, a different species from those who settle into the more competitive, avaricious and self-regarding occupations and professions. Not that teachers don’t know how to compete and pursue their own self-interests. I think, however, they are less inclined, unless pushed to the wall, to do so.

In 1972 I served as an assistant strike captain in an AFT action against the School District of Philadelphia. We ringed a school building to block traffic in and out. The teachers – most of them -- hated this. Being directly confrontational was something that went against their grain. What happened in fact was that anyone who wanted to enter could just ask to get by. So long as we thought their action was not “strike-breaking” we let them in. The administrators in our building brought us out coffee and doughnuts – they believed that it was a recalcitrant superintendent and board that provoked the strike.

The teachers even permitted one of their own, a very religious man who claimed that in good conscience he could not disobey civil authority, to enter and leave the building everyday unmolested. He gained this privilege with the promise that any money he earned during the strike would be given to charity.

But the public schools, in general, are run by wheelers and dealers, showpeople and clowns. They don’t care if Jimmy crack corn when it comes to what really nurtures the relationships between kids and adults. It ain’t spendin' the school day preppin' for standardized tests, or firin' teachers reluctant to do it.

Parents know this. This is why in Washington, D.C. they voted against a mayor who supported the efforts of Michelle Rhee to “reform” the schools.

To examine these issues further, see Teacher Accountability And The Pathology Of Domination

--- EGR

Friday, April 27, 2012

Formal Education as Stultification

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. -- Albert Einstein

Einstein much disliked school regimen and rote learning. His interest in physics was initially extracurricular. He was working as a clerk in a patent office when in 1905 he wrote the papers that would lead to his winning a Nobel Prize in physics in 1921.

Benoit Mandelbrot, although an established mathematician, was ridiculed for “wasting time” on “useless, non-traditional mathematical monsters,” which Mandelbrot called “fractals.” Like Einstein, he lived to see his insights come to be accepted as major contributions to his field.

Formal education can be stodgy and stultifying, both in process and product. I suspect, from my own experience, that that is true for most people a good portion of the time.

Have you ever thought about why the “Books for Dummies” is such a well-selling series? The answer is obvious, if you’ve ever used them. They get to the point. They give you reasons for the theory by showing applications. They don’t go into detail for its own sake. They even use humor to illustrate a point. They are written for the customer, most likely the student!

In contrast, junior and senior high school texts are written to pass review by school system book reviewers on the lookout for anything local politicians might consider offensive to their constituencies. Neither student interest, nor even usefulness to the teacher, is of high, if any, priority. The texts may be filled with factual errors, for which the publishers will pay a fine, if caught. But the errors needn’t be corrected afterward. School boards treat the fines as a discount. (See Beyond the Textbook.)

College texts are written for professors, who will have their students buy them, even if they are scarcely used in the course. For this reason, the writers of college texts worry more about the response of their professional colleagues, than about what the students might think.

In general, school texts are careful to avoid controversy, to seldom, if ever, offer criticisms about the disciplines or about those who practice them. Publishers tend to dissuade authors from leading learners to think “outside the box”: it may put off prospective buyers. (See Reason and Authority in Education)

University life is filled with quaint traditions and cultural practices. Knowing your place and acting accordingly is are two of the more difficult ones to acculturate oneself to. But it is most dismaying to realize that conformity in the pursuit of knowledge is a major desideratum.

For references and to examine these issues further, see Evaluating Learner Strengths and Weaknesses: 
the Impediments of Formalism

--- EGR

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Reforming the Schools: Who is willing to sacrifice for it?

He who gives what he would as readily throw away, gives without generosity; for the essence of generosity is in self sacrifice.-- Henry Taylor
One of the most common and apparently pleasurable distractions for Americans has long been to jump on bandwagons. Nothing warms the heart and expands the self-regard more than to promote “reform” of one kind or another, especially if you, personally, don’t have to pay much for it.

Commitment is a problem. That sometimes means using up personal resources, time, money, attention, patience, to make things happen. But if you are particularly concerned to promote reform, then you might want to have a way to judge how much a person is willing to stand by you if things get sticky.

You may not ever expect someone to be willing to break the law for the sake of the reform, but you may be surprised, occasionally, at the enthusiasm for this that you encounter. (Gung Ho, we call them.) On the other hand, it’s not to much to ask someone who is willing to bother you with complaints, to put up or shut up: help, or don’t interfere. (Better yet, use The Little Red Hen’s Rule: no help, no bread.)

It is a long-standing American tradition to complain about the public schools. But it is a rare occurrence for anyone employed in them to resign his or her position over an issue of reform. Most are disinclined to personally confront a colleague even when they believe that person’s behavior to be unprofessional to the point of immorality or criminality.

What you need is a checklist, a survey of items ranging in intensity from very to minimally disruptive, which will give you an idea whether you, personally, or your colleagues, are sufficiently committed to change to bring it about.

For such an assessment instrument, see Assessing Role and Commitment

--- EGR

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Politics vs. Efficiency: the realities of American public schools

Confidence in golf means being able to concentrate on the problem at hand with no outside interference.-- Tom Watson

Imagine how you would feel if you had to get the approval of a committee for every little thing you did. Don’t you remember how it felt in school when you had to raise your hand to get permission to go to the bathroom? Did you ever have to wait? Did you ever have an “accident?” Do you wonder why many kids think of being in school as being in prison?

On the other hand, have you ever watched shoppers crash through the doors of a supermarket or department store to be first at a sale? People sometimes get trampled and hurt, but a lot of people get bargains, too.

Both of these approaches, tight control and free-for-all have benefits and costs. Tight control favors the group (generally, its “leaders”) over the individual. Free-for-all favors lucky individuals over the group.

American public schools are caught pulled in two conflicting directions: trying to efficiently deliver services to individual children and trying to work within constraints identified by democratically elected officials, whose main concern is not, and cannot (officially) be, individual children.

To examine these issues further, see Two Faces of American Public Education

--- EGR

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Public School’s Real Mission: Inculcating A Common Faith?

Faith is believing what you know ain't so.
 -- Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar

The reason bad public schools are bad is that they badly governed, from top to bottom. Happily, bad public schools are in the minority, despite what some newspapers and other lickspittle TV pundits have to say about them.

“Badly governed” does not mean “governed with bad intention.” What it does mean is that school leaders seldom are willing to face facts which threaten their piece of mind. These school governors, -- state and local administrators, superintendents and principals -- are brim full of ideologies and nostrums they’ve inherited and which they insist on foisting off on the vulnerable.

Part of this is their not unreasonable belief that that much of the general public is in the same delusional state. No parent wants their kids learning things which would disturb the parents’ peace of mind. (This is why so-called “critical thinking” gets many a salute, but has yet to make any headway into the public school curriculum.)

In the olden days of kings and princes, the Established Church of a nation saw to it to inculcate the belief in their congregations that their ruler, as malignant as he might be, sat in power by the Will of God. Subjects were to accept their lot in life and forswear violence as an instrument of change. (See In Days of Yorengore)

In today’s United States of America, where both aristocracy and religious sectarianism in government are purported to be absent, it is the role of the Public Schools (and many a private and parochial school) to teach little more than that our “citizens” -- never “subjects” -- are obliged to accept their governors as the Will of the People.

As good citizens, they are to reject any attempts at governmental change which might involve “violent” activity -- no matter what Thomas Jefferson ever advocated. This "Citizen’s Faith" is what is most important; the recently tediously advocated knowledge-and-skills-focus on the schools has always been given little more than lip-service.

If getting knowledge and skills were really the mission of the schools, then there would be a far more careful preselection of students than our governors and their clients, including parents of schoolchildren are prepared to pay for. Kids are put in grades by age. This is a traditional and cheap sorting method. If some don’t do so well on their report cards, everyone who does not work in a school knows at whom to point the finger of blame.

Here is a method for raising test grades substantially in just two years:
a. for the next school year, retain in grade every public school student who does not have B+ average on standardized tests;

b. any student who is failing this year should be held back for two years;

c. make age 7 the beginning year for first grade; and

d. pull back the curriculum so that any intellectually rigorously formal curriculum is not encountered before 9th grade.

If these steps were to be taken, students would encounter the present high-stakes testing almost two years later in their academic careers and more likely do far better in them, especially in the middle schools.

I don’t expect the above steps to be even considered. Why? Because our school and political leaders, along with many, many parents of school children, just have too many mental impediments -- myths, misinformation, and narrowly focused esteem issues -- to deal with providing their students, their children, with an appropriate, humane, invigorating education.

For references and to examine these issues further, see The Capacity to Benefit from Formal Academic Schooling: 
two ideologies of distribution 

--- EGR

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Are “Best” Practices Really the Best? What is the evidence?

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. -- Anne Lamott
Imagine walking into a Cadillac dealer and saying, “Don’t waste my time with long-winded explanations, just tell me: what is the best car?” If the dealer responded, “The best car is a Cadillac,” would you be surprised?

Educators are more subtle. Ask an eighth grade science teacher what the best teaching method is and she will likely reply, “For what kind of student.?” You pull out your list of pigeonholes and say something like, “A middle class, eighth-grade, male student not in special ed.” If the teacher responded, “The best method is the one I use,” would you be surprised?

Interestingly enough, you will occasionally get the reply, “The best methods are ones we are not permitted to use in this school.” This happens especially in foreign language or math where parents or school board members insist that the kids be taught as they, twenty to fifty years earlier, were taught; educational research, or whatever, be damned.

Why do we lust after “best” practices? Why not be satisfied with ones that are “generally good,” or “adequate” and the like. After all, to be literally a “best practice” something has to be proven to be better than all alternatives for a particular kind of student, with a particular kind of learning history, in a particular schooling environment studying a particular subject.

Consider this: if there were only 5 possible kinds of students, with 5 possible kinds of learning history, with 5 possible kinds of learning environment, studying one of 5 possible subjects, then for a single subject we would have to test and compare 5x5x5x5 = 625 possible situations to determine the best of the 625. Being too costly and time consuming, such research is not being done. Given parental concern that their own kids always get what they consider "the best" the school has to offer (Test new methods on someone else’s kids!), it is unlikely it will ever be done.

If you are interested in pursuing this further, see

Are "Best Practices" Good Enough?

-- EGR

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Politics in Schools: does it affect productivity?

When any organizational entity expands beyond 21 members, the real power will be in some smaller body.-- C. Northcote Parkinson
Politics is practically inevitable in most organizations.

Politics is the accommodation of individual interests by means not normally sanctioned within an organization. Needs often arise which cannot be handled within given rules and practices, so "adjustments" are often made with an eye to "discretion" and the avoidance of "setting a precedent."

But productivity, too, is far from being an absolute good. Productivity narrowly conceived and overenthusiastically pursued, particularly where resources are scarce, may cripple important organizational capacities.

To examine these issues further, see Productivity, Politics and Hypocrisy in American Public Education

-- EGR

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Perpetual School Reform: an American Insanity?

Striving to better, oft we mar what's well. -- William Shakespeare, King Lear
Efforts for perpetual reform rests on the belief that all good things are compatible: that ever more of everything desirable is sustainable. Overlooked is the possibility that good things may be competitive: to pursue one may undermine our ability to obtain another. Yet most people can understand that you can't drive fast and at the same time save gas -- the shorter trip in time may not offset the gas wasted in fighting wind resistance. Athletes know that you can't build up for extreme strength and endurance at the same time.

The basic mechanism of perpetual reform is easy to understand. It takes a disregard for history and unending complaint about the present situation proclaimed in newsmedia much more concerned to attract the greatest attention than to report fact.

The costs of the present, since they are with us, look so much worse than the costs of any future alternatives, which, being future costs have the benefit, at least, of not existing, yet.

The benefits of the present, taken for granted and oh! so boring!, look much less attractive than the benefits of some alternative future. And so we blunder into yet another here-today-gone-tomorrow “revolution.”

So it goes with teacher certification efforts. On the one hand we hear much talk about the need to upgrade teacher training. This concern to "improve the quality of teachers" generally comes from those seen as having a “vested interest” in extending and complicating the certification process, e.g. teachers' unions, universities, professors of education and certification organizations. In the scandal mongering that characterizes many editorial columns "vested interest" easily becomes "selfish desire to exploit" therefore something any upright citizen ought to oppose and undo.

Yet this undoing is blindly pursued by school boards who, for example, facing teacher shortages, look for ways to put warm bodies in classrooms. Or, by the legislators who assist the downgrading of teacher preparation by allowing, even recommending, alternative routes into teaching. Seldom, however, do the media suggest that such school boards or legislatures are merely self-serving.

To examine these issues further, see The Dynamics of Teacher Certification: mythologies of competition


-- EGR

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Abetting Fraud in School Systems and Universities

In a state where corruption abounds, laws must be very numerous.-- Tacitus
School systems, colleges and universities across the country get billions of dollars from the federal government on the strength of their accreditation by various professional and state organizations. Accreditation is taken as assurance that the school has met certain standards.

Federal false claims legislation has been used to penalize colleges and universities who have acquired accreditation by hiding their failings from accrediting organizations.

But often, the accrediting organizations are in cahoots with the institutions they accredit. They overlook severe deficiencies, if they even bother to note them. Members of accrediting site-visiting teams are colleagues, even friends, of faculty and administration of schools which are candidates for accreditation.

The track to accreditation has been greased by all of the following:
a. schools providing luxurious hotel rooms demanded by visiting teams well-stocked with expensive liquor;

b. six week’s advance receipt of the examiner’s questions so that “spontaneous” answers might be prepared, and skeletons locked away in hidden closets;

c. visiting team members who were students or friends of faculty in the candidate schools;

d. faculty threatened with dismissal or non-promotion should they bring up program violations of the schools under consideration for accreditation;

e. interference from local politicians to ward off disaccreditation when malfeasance was discovered;

f. direct interference in state-level agencies to block disaccreditation because of felonious activity by school administration, e.g. selling drugs.

Faculty in candidate schools seem to be (or pretend to be) unaware that their personal efforts in disregarding published school procedures, or hiding embarrassing violations, will have abetted a fraudulent claim when -- seldom, if -- their institution makes application for federal funds.

This misfeasance at some of the country’s biggest universities persists unchallenged by federal authorities for two apparent reasons:
1. many schools are seen to have formidable legal protectors, especially universities with law schools;

2. many investigators do not understand how responsibility is situated in the university and what might be indicators of violation -- often overlooked by otherwise highly competent lawyers with organizational experience only in the business world.
To examine these issues further, see Combatting Educational Corruption


-- EGR

Friday, March 2, 2012

Sacrifices to Parental Ambition and Pride: the new molechs?

And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech… -- Leviticus 18:21 (KJ)
Many parents, feeling that it puts their kids on the "fast track," support school policies that turn the children’s education into counterproductive drudgery. How much more convenient it is to have the school dump hours of homework on our kids than to have to deal with them ourselves in our otherwise ever more scarce "free" time. Why not rid the curriculum of art, music, drama and recess in order to prep the students for standardized testing?

But what is a kid’s childhood worth if it pleases our own ambition to destroy it? The kids, of course, resist our subversions by cheating, plagiarizing and turning off in even the “best” schools. So far as their education is concerned, they are “burned out” before they finish adolescence.

In Genesis 22, Abraham is commanded to, then restrained, from offering Isaac as a burned sacrifice. Some biblical scholars take this story to indicate the renunciation by Israel of the ancient practice of child sacrifice, commonly done in times of extremity by a variety of peoples.

We have reverted to that ancient practice of child sacrifice; not physically, perhaps, but psychologically and spiritually. But the gods we sacrifice our children to are unworthy ones: our own ambition, our own self-aggrandizement, our own reputation.

To continue this train of thought, use this hyperlink Tracking in Schools


--- EGR

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Do Most People Really Want Power and Freedom?

Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me
And before I'd be a slave I'll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free -- Lucy Kinchen
Do most people really want power and freedom? A common answer to this question is offered by a rule of thumb:
The more power and freedom a person enjoys, the stronger that person’s belief that those with less power and freedom “really” desire neither.
But is this "rule of thumb" just self-delusion, a hope to stifle competition? After all, unless you have followers, you’re not much of a leader.

Or is it likely true that unfree people seek even less freedom?

To examine these issues further, see Leadership as Usurpation

--- EGR

Friday, February 24, 2012

Policy “Reversals”: the Bane of “True Believers”

“We need creativity in order to break free from the temporary structures that have been set up by a particular sequence of experience.” -- Edward de Bono
Poor President Obama. He wants to get things done. He strategically accommodates the opposition when his own forces cannot overwhelm it. At least for the moment.

This drives his “purist” supporters crazy. Surely, they insist, you can fertilize the fields without getting your hands dirty! Surely, there must be some way of making an omelette without damaging an egg!

American public education has long served two incompatible but desirable goals: providing equal educational opportunity to all students and providing each student with an education suited to his individual needs.

At different stages in its development, America’s educational system has emphasized one or the other of these goals and generated ideology which served to celebrate the emphasis, e.g., "a thorough and efficient education for all children.”

Not too long after, a big switch happened. We were bombarded with “individualizing instruction”, that is, “different strokes for different folks,” or “fair is not necessarily equal.”

Is such “flip-flopping” as sign of weakness; or, of wisdom?

To examine these issues further, see Mechanisms for Policy Reversal


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Romantics and Idealists Promoting Service Learning: a road to civic engagement?

There's no such thing as second class citizenship. That's like telling me you can be a little bit pregnant. -- H. Rap Brown
The majority of educators I have worked with have been optimists; even more, they have been – much in the traditional literary sense of the word – Romantics.
Romantic n. A person who, rather than seeing the glass as half empty, insists on seeing it as half full; even when it is only a quarter full.
This is probably the source, not only of their optimism, but of the substantial nurturant generosity they possess.

Many, many educators are also – in common parlance – Idealists.
Idealist n. A person who is willing to forego the appreciation of a job well done for the right to complain that it was not done perfectly.
The virtue of Idealists is their continual striving for betterment.

The promoters of service learning tend to be both romantic and idealistic: service learning will bring our now apathetic students back into civic engagement. And what is “service learning?” Though there seems to be some general sense that it supports citizenship education, there is little agreement on the many variations discussed. And, in addition, there are the political problems.

Service learning is as likely to help revitalize civic commitment on the part of our children as is health education about diet likely to reverse obesity. Not that it's a bad idea, but a lot is against it.

To examine these issues further, see Romantics, Idealists and True Service Learning

-- EGR

Monday, February 20, 2012

Enthusiasm: the Devil’s Brew

Enthusiasm: a distemper of youth, curable by small doses of repentance in connection with outward applications of experience. -- Ambrose Bierce
Those practitioners of that Ol’ Time Religion weren’t too far off the mark trying to ban alcohol. It’s dangerous stuff if overindulged. But moderate use is, for many people, both physically and psychologically benevolent.

The social disasters Prohibition brought about, for example, the rise of criminal empires, the corruption of public institutions, were in many ways as severe as the problems of alcoholism. How did the good intentions of the Ol’ Timers run amok? The Prohibitionists succumbed to their own narcotic: enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm of all kinds is America’s most addictive substance. Every shyster with a hidden agenda invokes our enthusiasm; but so does almost every honorable, well-intentioned public leader.

Why just a few years back (to the strains of Ebony and Ivory) Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich, a perfect Yin and Yang, stood up in public and together came out in favor of reducing the Achievement Gap. Just what the public schools need: more enthusiasm generated by politicians who haven’t a clue as to what the problems are and are even less likely to sacrifice any of their pet projects to spend money on it.

Aw, shucks, how can I be so mean? Their hearts are in the right place, aren’t they? Forget where their brains are. Drink up!

To examine these issues further, see The Pathologies of Enthusiasm


Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Bigger the Bolus, the Better the Brain: education as Trivial Pursuit

“Many a man fails to become a thinker only because his memory is too good.” -- F. Nietzsche
In the name of school reform, millions of students spend more and more of their life swallowing down and regurgitating ever larger masses of "fact." To what end?

If our knowledge of the world distracts us from our knowledge of ourselves, what good is it? Really, other than a university medievalist, who cares that Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, A.D. 800? If our abilities at problem-solving enable us to "construct a reality" that is merely self-aggrandizing or self-flattering, what good is it?

Really, other than railroad engineers, who gives a damn about where one train starting in Chicago and traveling east at sixty miles per hour meets another starting in New York and traveling west at eighty miles per hour? In and of themselves, neither answer nor process nor "deep meaning" has any meaning at all.

To examine these issues further, see KNOWLEDGE IS GOOD: some misgivings

---- WAC

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Are You A Free Individual? Or Just Deluded?

But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.-- Edmund Burke
“If only I didn’t have to work!” is likely said a million times a day.

The reality is that you don’t have to work, if you are willing to accept the consequences of not working. You don’t have to do anything, if the consequences of not doing it are no concern of yours. This is an obvious kind of freedom we all have. This is why some religions preach giving up all connections to other things to achieve Nirvana. But what "sane" person can just stop being concerned about all consequences, all connections?

If you think you can, just try this practice for a day. Deal with your bodily functions the way you did as an infant. See if you can keep that going for very long.

Now, suppose you don’t want to give up connections. Someone might say, “I’m free. I can do what I please. I can just follow my whims and impulses!” This is another kind of freedom, perhaps, but what if other people or things can control what you please? What if things like advertising, or expressions of approval, disapproval, like or dislike, can be used to constrain your whims or impulses? Would you call that “freedom?” Or is your “freedom” a delusion that makes your obedience, your submission to external authority, tolerable?

You have been through years of schooling. You have probably forgotten most math, foreign language and social studies. But you have not forgotten how to raise your hand, to keep your opinions to yourself, to stand in line, to wait until a person in authority is willing to recognize you, and to not contradict what that authority says.

Can you control these responses? Can you extend your internal locus of control over those things that you respond to as authority?

To examine these issues further, see PERSONAL LIBERATION THROUGH EDUCATION

--- EGR

Friday, February 17, 2012

Correcting Error? Or Manipulating Opinion?

Party Doctrine: War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. -- G. Orwell, 1984

Andrew Butler, a post-doctoral researcher in Duke's Department of Psychology & Neuroscience, led a recent study (2012) of how students “correct” their opinions. In an article called ”New insights into how to correct false knowledge” he comments, "Errors that are deeply entrenched in memory are notoriously difficult to correct. Providing students with feedback is the first step because it enables them to identify the error and learn the correct information."

Actually, there are three prior steps Butler missed. Students should have been assessed on issues of Care, Trust and Power. Butler should have grouped them according to their responses to the follow questions:
For each item of information presented students should have been asked
a. Do you care whether this item is right or wrong?
b. Are you willing to accept what the experiment leader says is right or wrong?
c. Do you have the power to publicly disagree without fear of reprisal with what the experiment leader tells you.

Butler’s experiment is about the efficacy of techniques of persuasion. It offers no guarantees to the subjects of his experiment that what he is giving them is knowledge.

For references and to examine these issues further, see PERSONAL LIBERATION THROUGH EDUCATION

--- EGR

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Misleading Attractions of Competency-Based Education

Between falsehood and useless truth there is little difference. As gold which he cannot spend will make no man rich, so knowledge which he cannot apply will make no man wise. -- Samuel Johnson
I bought a PC in 1985 that had 256K installed memory. As I was about to leave the store, the salesman asked what I would use the computer for. I mentioned an array of tasks I would be needing it for as headmaster of a private school.

He suggested I get more memory, since my usage would be heavy. In fact, he suggested that I, at least, triple it to be “safe.” At substantial cost, I had the memory quadrupled, and picked up the machine for work the next day.

It was several weeks dealing with beginning of the term issues before I could get around to use the computer to automate record keeping. It was with no little dismay that I turned on the computer and got a message that it could only access 512K of memory that was installed. The extra turned out to be a wasted investment.

Education Week reports that New Hampshire Schools are embracing Competency Based Education (CBE). Students will only “move on” if they demonstrate competency in what they’ve studied. This sounds good on the face of it, but is the school system willing to accept the costs of adjustment to take full advantage of what it promises? Or will it just be “unaccessible extra memory”?

For example, will students be able to “move on” not only IF they show competency, but WHEN they show it? If you’ve never done rostering, you can’t imagine the headaches involved with changing schedules in mid-flow of the school year. But if you don’t change schedules, what do the students do? Stay physically in place and get harder material and additional instruction? Or sit around bored? Ask yourself which of these options are cheaper, and you can predict what will likely be the default response.

But there are many practices and programs that will need modification (read “incur increased costs”) if CBE is to be “embraced.” What about Special Education or instruction attempting to meet the individual needs of each child?

But even more fundamental is the long-established practiced of age-grading. This ignores competencies altogether and places kids in classes according to their birth-dates. By imagining that kids are developmentally and intellectually more or less equal, it addresses the social and disciplinary needs of the school organization that are the primary concerns of the community, parents and school administration -- pious lip-service to “academics” to the contrary notwithstanding.

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

--- EGR

Saturday, February 11, 2012

GoodSpin: The Basic Rules of Public School Hype

The secret of success is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake those, you've got it made. -- Groucho Marx
Because public educators must deal not only with their students and colleagues, but also with parents, reporters and assorted busy-bodies, in other words, with the wishful thinking, the ill-informed and the near-delusional, they, the educators, tend to adapt that maxim so eloquently articulated by Thumper's mother in the movie, Bambi: "If you can't say something nice, don't say it at all." In the name of motivation, tact or good publicity, we become casual liars.

There is, in addition, an aspect of advertising culture that has been picked up by the hyperbolists of American public education: the reversal rule, parts A and B
The Reversal Rule, part A is this: if it's true but unpleasant, treat it as false. Better yet, don't even mention it.

The Reversal Rule, part B: if it's false but pleasant, say it anyway.
Thus rather than recognize the ancient maxim, "Impossibility negates obligation," we are encumbered with "All children can learn!" or "No child left behind!" The santimoniousness of this blather is supposed to make us forget, perhaps, that the concerned public servants who have foisted off over-exacting special education legislation on the schools are the very ones who have reneged on their promises for adequate resources.

To examine these issues further, see What Works? Under What Conditions? And Who Really Cares?

-- EGR

Friday, February 10, 2012

Forget Vision, Forget Mission: the Devil is in the Details!

Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny. -- Thomas Jefferson

The fish rots from the head down. -- Proverb of contested origin.

A basic tendency of organizations is to fulfill the rule: “The Organization Comes First! Long Live the Organization!”

A second basic tendency within organizations is to fulfill the rule: “The Leadership Comes First! Long Live the Leadership!”

There is no organization so dedicated to benevolent goals, so committed to sacred purposes that it cannot be corrupted from within by the very persons trusted to keep it, day-to-day, on the paths of righteousness.

The leaders of the great institutions that strongly influence our lives, School, State and Church, instead of pursuing Nurturance, Openness and Truth, can hide behind their organizations’ noble façade to pursue Hugger-Mugger, Skull-Duggery, and Buggery.

There are those dedicated people within the organization who recognize these bitter truths and struggle against them. The great remainder of others, the naïve, wishful faithful, if not cannoneers, are just cannon-fodder.

To see how these tendencies work in public and religious organizations, see Religion, Intelligent Design and the Public Schools: serving God to Mammon?

--- EGR

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The University as Rumpelstiltskin

And when the girl was brought to the King he took her into a room which was quite full of straw, gave her a spinning-wheel and a reel, and said, "Now set to work, and if by to-morrow morning early you have not spun this straw into gold during the night, you must die." -- Rumplestiltskin, Brothers Grimm.
David Leonhardt in “Colleges Are Failing in Graduation Rates” (New York Times of September 9, 2009 , B1) tells us that universities are failing in their “core mission”: to turn teenagers into college graduates, (straw into gold?) The evidence? Highly selective, usually private, universities have a higher graduation rate than open-admissions or non-competitive, usually public universities. As a result, Leonhardt claims, social inequality has “soared” and productivity growth has slowed down.

But is “turning teenagers into college graduates” really “the core mission" of universities? And has social inequality increased since the beginning of the 1900’s when very, very few of middle and working class students were able to get into college?

A third question: has economic productivity over these last 110 years fallen also?

Answers: no, no and no.

Leonhardt based his column on an article by Mark Schneider, a political scientist who is a tad more circumspect about making broad claims. (See Schneider,M. The costs of failure factories in American higher education. Educational Outlook. No. 6. October 2008. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research)

Although Schneider’s title contains the rock’em-sock’em hype, “failure factories” to characterize public universities, he hedges his bets: what he actually says is, if we worry about students not graduating from high school and attempt to coerce high schools with low graduation rates into doing something about it, then why ignore the public university “failure factories” whose graduation rates are significantly lower than our public high schools?

Why, indeed? But why hold high schools, with their compulsory attendees, more responsible for outcomes than are public universities? Those that attend public universities are not forced there by law.

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


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Moral Hazards in Teaching: inculcating irresponsibility

Here is a link to a blog by a public high-school teacher who is a law school graduate. It makes a lot of sense. Just click HERE
Why do many teachers permit, even support the moral hazards mentioned in Jay Braiman's article? It begins with their training and the pressures of getting a job.

Undergraduate teacher candidates are commonly unself-possessed, befuddled by pedagogical catchwords, and often all-too-ready to abandon what few ethical precepts they have for the sake of a job.

By contrast, the increasing number of mature change-of-career entrants coming into education have a sharpened critical sensitivity that often leaves them dismayed upon first exposure to the ethical and political morasses not infrequently encountered in today's schools. That there is a ethical dimension to education need hardly be argued to this experienced group. Inexperienced undergraduates, on the contrary, generally only want to talk about technique.

Undergraduate teacher candidates tend to dismiss ethical concerns. They expect that their principal or their school's policies will give them ready answers. Older change-of-career teacher candidates can hardly get enough discussion of such questions. They know that policies are one thing, but in-the-trench-decisions are quite another.

For more on this see The Ethical Miseducation of Educators

--- EGR

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Must Schools in a Democracy be “Democratic”?

Proverb: Too many cooks spoil the broth. Is this true?
During the 1975 - 76 school year I helped coordinate a parent-run private pre-school in Philadelphia. We shared a building with an experimental private K-12 school, call it Walden, whose fundamental premise -- the headmaster told me -- was that everyone, staff, administration, parent and student, got to participate in decision making: everyone had a voice. And they all had a single vote in the community.

In September, I would see large numbers (over 100) of adults and children going daily into a commons room to discuss what was to be taught, and how. During the year I noticed many, many students playing in the schoolyard at all times of the day.

By the next May I saw far fewer people assembling in that same commons room. I asked the headmaster how things were going. “We have made some progress toward a general idea of what the curriculum might turn out to be; but we have yet to have classes. The students can’t seem to agree with their parents and the kids can outvote the adults.”

Considering that the State of Pennsylvania recognized Walden as a replacement for public schooling, I often wondered what the parents thought they were paying for and whether they got their money’s worth.

To examine these issues further, see Democracy vs Efficiency in Public Schooling

-- EGR

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Prosecuting Fraud in Education

The Department of Justice and four states on Monday filed a multibillion-dollar fraud suit against the Education Management Corporation, the nation’s second-largest for-profit college company, charging that it was not eligible for the $11 billion in state and federal financial aid it had received from July 2003 through June 2011. -- New York Times August 8, 2011
A bitter though old lesson has had to be relearned by the complacent citizens of 21st century America: blind trust in our financial, religious and educational institutions, the sacred cows of our society, yields disappointment and scandal.

But when it comes to dealing with chicanery in higher education, there is a means for correction. For example, if a university receives federal funds because it is accredited, or has professional programs that are accredited, and if the conditions for accreditation are in fact not met, then those funds have been fraudulently obtained in violation of the Federal False Claims act.

The funds will have to be returned, fines are likely to be levied and the "whistle blowers" who provided information leading to successful prosecution under the act will receive a substantial percentage of funds recovered. This is not a rare occurrence.

Many law firms advertise their willingness to represent whistle-blowers in such cases, -- called qui tam cases, since the whistle-blower represents the interests of the government as well as himself or herself. But qui tam cases are far less frequent than those of us in higher education might expect: law firms seem to be hindered by their lack of knowledge as to how a university works.

Compounding all this is that accrediting organizations are often in cahoots with the programs they are supposed to examining, since accreditation brings in large fees or provides employment to the accreditors. (Law firm members, themselves, often are reluctant to take action against their alma mater or prospective university client.)

What might be done? First of all, law firms might adopt a more entrepreneurial attitude: it will take some upfront money and knowledgable consultancy to obtain evidence of fraud. But both the promise of substantial sharing in the fines leveled by the federal government, as well as the widespread fraud that takes place each year -- I would estimate that in the Philadelphia area alone a potential for several billion dollars in fines exists -- should make the risk worthwhile.

Secondly, …

------ For more on this, see "Combatting Educational Corruption"

-- EGR

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Pursuing Common, Rigorous Curricular Standards: a perpetual cycle in American public schooling

Researchers Urge E.D. Effort to Define “Common Core.” Bennett’s Advisory Group Reviews Research Agenda at First Session -- T. Mirga, Education Week, April 24, 1985, p.9

In April of 1985 a panel of nine prominent educators advised the National Institute of Education to devote a greater percentage of its dollars to “define” a common core of knowledge for American students. Members of the panel expressed displeasure with what they said was an overemphasis on research on the cognitive development of students. More emphasis, they said, should be placed on subject matter.

Michael W. Kirst of Stanford said that the focus should not be on process orientation, but rather “on what needs to be taught in these institutions.” His proposal presumes, it appears, that curricular interventions directly affect learning outcomes, bypassing, somehow teaching and other presentation difficulties.

Joseph Adelson of the University of Michigan concurred with Mr. Kirst, adding that he was “amazed at how little students know.” Perhaps he expected that if NIE research emphasized “defining” a common core, his own future encounters would be with more knowledgeable students.

Chester Finn -- at that time of Vanderbilt University -- among others, questioned the need for a proposed Center for the Study of Writing. “The thought that this is major terra incognita strikes me as blarney,” said Mr. Finn. “People know how to teach writing; they just don’t do it.”

It is somewhat amazing that in the world of 1985, where it was a commonplace that academics were barely competent teachers, such hidden riches, a plethora of writing and teaching talent, lay ignored or unexploited! On Mr. Finn’s account, the academic -- who averaged (and still averages) four published articles in his/her lifetime -- is merely withholding his/her gifts from students. Perhaps, secondary and elementary teachers, who suffer no pressure to publish, are endowed with a proportionally even greater ability to write and to teach writing!

Imagine a seed salesman who occasionally visited a grocery store and recommended to the grocer changes in the kinds and amounts of seeds farmers should be offered on the basis of the produce the salesman "saw missing"in the store. It's very much like how these curriculum interventionists, Kirst, Edelson, Finn, Bennett and the others at that meeting, relate to the actual classroom learning of elementary and secondary students.

Rigor, in curriculum, is an aesthetic criterion, a matter of taste. It is seldom a causal criterion, touching on effectiveness. Physicists, for example will do all sorts of things with mathematics that mathematicians find “unrigorous.” Who benefits, we should ask, when the call for rigor is heeded? The curriculum interventionist is not unlike the proverbial man with a hammer who tries to fix everything by hitting it, until it is formed (or deformed?) to suit his preferences.

For references and links to cited articles and to examine these issues further, see ON THE VIABILITY OF A CURRICULUM LEADERSHIP ROLE 
Avoiding Confusion of Role and Function

--- EGR

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What is Cheating? By Whose Rules?

All oppression creates a state of war. -- Simone de Beauvoir
Cheating is not playing by the rules. Whose rules?

In 1796 at age 22 Oney Judge, Martha Washington’s personal slave attendant, fled the President’s mansion and traveled to New Hampshire. The Washingtons were angry at her “ingratitude,” because Oney enjoyed privileges in the Washington household that many free whites could not. Oney offered to return on the condition she be granted freedom. Sending agents out to capture her and bring her back, her masters refused her terms. Escaping capture, Oney remained in New Hampshire swearing she would “suffer death rather than return to Slavery.”

Was Oney Judge a cheater? Cheating is not playing by the rules. Whose rules? Were they agreed to by all participants? Were they freely accepted? Or were they imposed on those lacking power to reject them? Clearly, sometimes not playing by the rules, “cheating,” is not merely excusable, but desirable.

But what about kids in schools who cheat on tests? Cheating is not playing by the rules. Whose rules? Were they agreed to by all participants? Were they freely accepted? Or were they imposed on those lacking power to reject them?

“But it’s for their own good!” you say? Who determines this?

In the United States basic schooling is compulsory. What makes it morally different from slavery? This is not meant to be a rhetorical question, but an invitation to reflection.

To examine these issues further, see Preventing Cheating: transforming educational values

-- EGR

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Stupid Opinion, or Free Speech? Which Should Teachers Have a Right to?

Should public school teachers have “the right to free speech” in their classrooms?

It is more likely nearer the truth to state flat out that no teacher at any level, whether in public or private education, is immune to reprisal for expressing to students (or colleagues) any opinion, however, well-founded or reasonable, that can be interpreted by his superiors as contrary to the “commonly accepted” beliefs of the institution he or she works in. Both so-called “liberals” and “conservatives” raise an easy cheer to “free speech” so long as it means “speech I don’t disagree with.”

Teachers have “free speech” so long as no one higher up objects. In public schools, “higher up” includes parents and general public to the extent that they can harass superintendents and school board members about it. In the name of good public relations “curriculum” becomes doctrine and “professionalism” becomes censorship.

This generates a stomach-churning reality, a deep hypocrisy, in the context of the concerns – often strongly expressed by the censors, themselves – for developing “critical thinking skills” in students. Critical thinking skills, by all means, but not any that subject my nearest and dearest to examination.

Public schools are in a peculiar position. Private and religious schools are assumed to come with a certain amount of ideological baggage: you can always go elsewhere. But, by some miracle of human nature, public schools are supposed to be free of it.

Too many communities define themselves in terms of events of questionable facticity, in terms of esteem rendered to persons of questionable repute, in terms of expectations of questionable justice. Critical thinking, and the freedom of speech that supposedly supports its development, awaits still, in this United States of America in the 21st Century, an educational forum that supports it.

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

--- EGR

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Achievement-Gap-GDP-Gap Myth: Selling Diet-Pills.

(I)f ...(student)... achievement gaps were closed, the yearly gross domestic product of the United States would be trillions of dollars higher, or $3 billion to $5 billion more per day -- Javier C. Hernandez (2009)
Would it were so. But this wishful thinking, on which many reform proposals have been based and marketed, is highly misleading. Most people with a poorly performing automobile would take it to be a joke, for example, if someone said,
Buy just one new replacement tire, and your gas mileage will increase, your engine will stop missing and the accident rate in your city will go down 50%.
A much cited slide presentation report by McKinsey & Company (2009) that detailed findings on the economic impact of the achievement gap in America's school beats on this same drum. A crucial item buried in slide 88 of McKinsey's 119 slide presentation is this: the difference between the actual GDP and the hypothesized GDP is "determined by assumptions about the ability to make use of higher skilled people and the quality of economic institutions."

Although some economists believe that cognitive and economic development are linked, they recognize that public school classrooms are not the only, or even the most important influences that affect this relationship. For example, Hanushek and Woessmann (2008 ) write,
Overall economic institutions ... can be viewed as preconditions to economic development. And, without them, education and skills may not have the desired impact on economic outcomes.
For example, the so-called "overeducated" often find themselves misfit in their economy, so that even high levels of their particular cognitive skills fail to provide "human capital," i.e. skills that translate into economic payoffs.

But what has been dropped from reform propaganda is the critical condition that appropriate, healthy economic institutions must be available so higher skills acquired can be put to use. (Since the 2008 report that Hanushek co-authored, he has said little about this condition, preferring, it seems, to take the easy ride on the school reform bandwagon.)

The present school reform undertakings, like the many that have preceded them in the past 100 years, represent little more than the triumph of hope over experience.

For references and links to cited articles and to examine these issues further, see Moral Responsibility in the Education Industry: 
how much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness?

--- EGR

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Too Many Broths Ruin the Cook

Too many cooks spoil the broth -- Proverb
There is only so much time in a teaching day. There are only so many things a teacher can do. Adding to the already overstuffed schedule doesn’t get more things done, unless they are done less than well.

Teachers classroom activites fall into three main groups: instruction, organization and discipline. If one of the groups expands, one or two of the others must suffer. This is not nuclear physics.

If kids have not been sufficiently socialized at home to contribute, or at least, not to interfere with instructional or organizational activities, then the teacher must waste the instructional time of the cooperative students on disciplinary action. This is not nuclear physics.

If school districts insist on dumping more and more faddish items into the curriculum, then less and less gets done. The essentials suffer. The kids miss out or do not develop those skills needed for their later years. This is not nuclear physics.

If administrators interrupt classes with non-urgent public address messages, or with special un-preannounced assemblies, it wastes teacher time in helping along his or her charges. This, also, is not nuclear physics.

What is so hard about applying common sense in schools?

------To investigate this issue further see See "What Can a Teacher Do?"


-- EGR