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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Testing Our Patience

Back when the latest group of saviors embarked on their mission to rescue education from itself, one of the things we were told was that injecting more and higher stakes tests into the system (anyone remember tests to determine high school graduation, regardless of the student's final GPA?) would produce more rigor and lead us all to that academic nirvana of Total Student Proficiency by 2014. Parents, who were rightly concerned about the quality of education their children received, were sold on the idea that "educational experts" had found the key and it was just a matter of getting around those pesky teacher's unions, and the public school bureaucracies.

Turns out those parents--as my old daddy used to say--bought a pig in a poke. Now here we are knocking on the door of 2014 and we are no closer to 100% proficiency than we were when these educational Harold Hills rolled into town to sell us the academic equivalent of band instruments and uniforms. In fact, if you put any stock in international comparisons, according the the latest PISA results, we've gone backwards.
Teens from Asian nations dominated a global exam given to 15-year-olds, while U.S. students showed little improvement and failed to reach the top 20 in math, science or reading, according to test results released Tuesday. American students scored below the international average in math and about average in science and reading.
Personally,  I think a lot of these international comparisons are nothing more than educational beauty contests, but even if you accept that view, the latest makeover given to American schools has not only knocked us out of the running for the crown, we don't even have a shot at Miss Congeniality. No less a testing poobah than Arne Duncan, who never met a test he didn't like, was forced to admit the bloom was off the rose.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the results a "picture of educational stagnation."
Now remember, Duncan is the guy who recently said, when confronted by criticism of his testing plans by a group of white suburban moms, that the real problem was the tests were showing the kids weren't as smart as their moms thought they were. In other words, the problem isn't dumb tests, it's dumb kids. So with that attitude in mind, you'd think he could come up with a more positive spin on the results of his apparent efforts to test kids into being smart than "stagnation." And also remember, we're less that a year away from when this latest educational reform was to carry us across the threshold to blissful proficiency.

But never one to let the results get in the way of ideology, Mr. Duncan falls back on the tried and true method of ignoring the issue by stating the obvious as if it were an epiphany that suddenly appeared before him:
"We must invest in early education, raise academic standards, make college affordable, and do more to recruit and retain top-notch educators," Duncan said.
 One might ask Mr. Duncan, as the titular top educational expert in the country, why it took so long for him to discover this truth, and as a followup, now that he has discovered it what he intends to do considering Plan A (test the dumb out of those less than brilliant, overly coddled little hellions) has apparently gone down in flames.

Well, we're sure the answer will have something to do with tweaking because the alternative would be for the Secretary, as emperor of education, to realize he's been running around the country naked for the last four years.

And it may not matter anyway because if you look around the landscape, events are moving in a way that indicates the test it 'till in bleeds crowd may be on the road to irrelevancy. To wit:

In Florida

In New York

In New Jersey

In Massachusetts 

In New Mexico

In Virginia

If I may borrow my analogy from the civil rights movement (because I believe education is a civil right) these are the people who are refusing to get to the back of the bus, and out of their actions a movement is being born. I think Howard Zinn said it best:
The good things that have been done, the reforms that have been made, the wars that have been stopped, the women's rights that have been won, the racism that has been partly extirpated in society, all of that was not done by government edict, was not done by the three branches of government. It was not done by that structure which we learn about in junior high school, which they say is democracy. It was all done by citizens' movements. And keep in mind that all great movements in the past have risen from small movements, from tiny clusters of people who came together here and there. When a movement is strong enough it doesn't matter who is in the White House; what really matters is what people do, and what people say, and what people demand.
I am excited and encouraged by what's happening in the country now, but at the same time I am saddened and shamed because as we move to reclaim education from the  testers and the profit mongers we leave behind an entire generation of children for whom school was a sweatshop of irrelevancy and needless suffering.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Spock v McCoy. Coming To A School Near You

Full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of the Common Core. Standards established by corporations and politicians have always raised suspicions in my mind. Even if done with the best of intentions, the educational outcomes valued by business tend to be centered on producing employees that are literate, compliant and able to follow orders. This conflicts with another purpose of education—a higher priority for education in a democratic society in my view—and that is to produce citizens who are literate, independent and who question everything.

As you can see, there’s a built in tension between the outcomes desired by business and those demanded for a just and vibrant democracy, much like the uneasy marriage between Capitalism and Democracy itself. We are, of course, both employees and citizens so the competing claims to educational outcomes both have merit, but lately is seems business outcomes  have been taking over more and more of the territory that used to belong to democratic outcomes.

Perhaps this goes back to the struggle between what John Rury in his book Education and Social Change called administrative progressives and pedagogical progressives. Administrative progressives were “more concerned with issues of efficiency and carefully aligning the purposes of schooling with the needs of the economy.” (143). Pedagogical progressives on the other hand, people like John Dewey, were concerned with “making education more responsive to the needs of children and integrating the school more closely with its immediate community.” (ibid). 

Unfortunately the administrative progressives won, and that brings me back to the Common Core, which, say whatever else you want about it, is certainly concerned with “efficiency and carefully aligning the purposes of schooling with the needs of the economy.” There are a couple of problems with educational standards based on business premises though, the first of which has to do with the raw material. Businesses produce quality products cheaply because they can rely on consistency of the ingredients, yet there is nothing more inconsistent than a class full of students, all with different levels of talent, motivation, interest, experience, language and backgrounds. To apply an external standard to as heterogeneous a collection of raw material as this and expect to produce a common outcome is ridiculous on its face.

The other problem is with procedure. No one cares how the car feels as it moves along the line and has nuts and bolts attached to it, but children are another matter. When emphasis is moved from the individuals in the class to the process applied to them it becomes dehumanized, sometimes to a critical level, where students become educational input vessels who are quality checked at certain stages along the line and, if deemed acceptable are passed on, and if not are shunted off to the scrap heap—sometimes with their teachers and their schools.

It’s possible at this point that some readers have come to the conclusion that I’m against standards. It seems to me the real argument made by those people is that if you aren’t for my standards you aren’t for any standards, which is simply dumb and I’m not going to address it. What I am for are standards based on a flexible model instead of a rigid one. Standards that don’t come from a manufacturing philosophy, but from one that takes in to account the reality of this human endeavor we call education. Standards that reflect the wisdom in the Confucius saying there are many paths to the same destination.

And who better to guide students than a well-trained, engaged teacher who has the vision to see the destination and the wisdom to help students choose the best path. Currently, teachers are viewed as no more than adult versions of the aforementioned educational input vessels who, if they respond appropriately to the methodology are deemed acceptable, and if not, are shunted off to irrelevancy. In actuality though, teachers—just like students—are a heterogeneous collection of raw material containing myriad mixtures of talent, motivation, interest, experience, language and backgrounds and I suspect the efforts to produce a homogenous teacher profile reflective of the Common Core priorities will meet with the same success as the effort to produce a common student outcome—which is to say not much.

So I see the current push back to the standards by parents, teachers and students as the inevitable outcome of what happens when  industrial control inputs are applied to human beings engaged in that very human activity we call educating children. People are funny that way.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Dogs Have Been Telling Us This For Years, And We're Finally Able To Listen

There is an interesting bit of research coming out of Emory University about dogs and what is really going on inside their heads.  Neuroscientist Gregory Berns has been successful in training dogs to tolerate having an M.R.I. and the results are very intriguing, but totally unsurprising to those of us who share our lives with a canine companion.

In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

Now there is a scientific underpinning to arguments made by people like Peter Singer and more recently Tom Regan to name just two, plus, as Berns points out these results may have value that goes beyond the scientific in determining the lawful rights of dogs: 

I suspect that society is many years away from considering dogs as persons. However, recent rulings by the Supreme Court have included neuroscientific findings that open the door to such a possibility. In two cases, the court ruled that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As part of the rulings, the court cited brain-imaging evidence that the human brain was not mature in adolescence. Although this case has nothing to do with dog sentience, the justices opened the door for neuroscience in the courtroom.

I agree that we are many years away from facing the implication of what science is beginning to show us because to do so would call into question some of the fundamental tenants of western Christian culture, particularly the idea that we have been given “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1: 24-26). To paraphrase Darth Vader, the hierarchy is strong in this one.

More to the point though, I don’t think the “because they’re like us” premise of Berns', Singer’s, and to a lesser extent Regan’s arguments go far enough. It seems to me the determination of what kinds of rights are given to an animal should not be based on how much they are like us, but the fact that they are. In his book Animal Rights and Moral Philosophy Julian Franklin pushes beyond the arguments of Singer and Regan in particular to a reframing and expansion of Kant’s categorical imperative that provides an ethical argument for the treatment of all sentient creatures.  I’m drawn to that argument, but I know the issue is still unsettled philosophically (see J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals)

I would like to make the case for sympathy, which I know is a term in some philosophical disrepute. Luckily I’m not a philosopher so I direct the reader to John Fisher’s Taking Sympathy Seriously: A Defense Of Our Moral Psychology Towards Animals (pdf) for a more extensive discussion. As humans we have the capability for sympathy, but that capability is not limited to other members of our species. Who hasn’t been affected by Sarah Mclachlan’s ASPCA commercials, or stories about the suffering of pets after a natural disaster, or felt that momentary heaviness in the heart when we see an injured animal?

I think there are important implications to the fact that we are able to extend our ability to connect with living creatures beyond our fellow humans, and when, through tradition, or expediency, or denial we ignore that connection we are ignoring a vital part of our nature—the part that tells us we are of this planet, not simply on it.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

If Only I’d Known This In Grad School I Wouldn’t Have Had To Read All Those Books

Stand aside Aristotle. Have a seat Cicero. Isocrates, Gorgias, Bacon, Richards, and the rest of you who spent your lives studying, thinking and writing about the art and science of Rhetoric, chill. We don’t need your services anymore. The psychometricians will take it from here. Not only have they discerned the eternal essence of rhetoric sought by writers from Plato to Kenneth Burke, they have found a way to measure it so now we can finally tell if students are writing well or not. Let's see what they came up with:

Rhetorical Skills
    Strategy (16%). Questions in this category test how well you develop a given topic by choosing expressions appropriate to an essay's audience and purpose; judging the effect of adding, revising, or deleting supporting material; and judging the relevance of statements in context.
    Organization (15%). Questions in this category test how well you organize ideas and choose effective opening, transitional, and closing sentences.
    Style (16%). Questions in this category test how well you select precise and appropriate words and images, maintain the level of style and tone in an essay, manage sentence elements for rhetorical effectiveness, and avoid ambiguous pronoun references, wordiness, and redundancy.

The first thing you may notice is the phrase “questions in this category” which means that we will be measuring how well students write not by asking them to write, but to identify.  Robert Pirsig wrote about the educational outcome of this approach:

“As a result of his experiments he concluded that imitation was a real evil that had to be broken before real rhetoric teaching could begin. This imitation seemed to be an external compulsion. Little children didn’t have it. It seemed to come later on, possibly as a result of school itself. That sounded right, and the more he thought about it the more right it sounded. Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. “
Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values 

Another reason this approach makes sense is since the testers have come up with a testable definition of rhetoric that is both scientific and objective, that is free from the subjective biases of previous attempts by people like Walter Ong, or Erasmus it’s only logical that they use an objective test to measure student skills.

Personally, I’m glad the testers have finally put these issues to rest. Take the section on style for example. This issue has been contentious since before the time of Cicero.  What constitutes eloquence? What is the correct style? Cicero had his ideas, but Seneca had some very different ideas. For those of you who may not be familiar with this debate, The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought, edited by C. J. Rowe, Malcolm Schofield sums it up this way:

[U]like Cicero, who used a leasured, periodic style suitable to the balanced tone of a skeptical academic, Seneca expounded…in a nervous, epigrammatic style suited to the passionate tone of a committed Stoic . 

If fact, in one of his writings, Seneca said “style has no fixed standard.” Cicero would disagree and for over 2000 years the battle would go back and forth.  As the editors of Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia Of Literature write:

His[Cicero’s] influence on the Latin language was so immense that the subsequent history of prose in not only Latin but European languages up to the 19th century was said to be either a reaction against or a return to his style.

Well, until today that is. So, what have the testers discovered in the last couple of years that philosophers and rhetoricians haven’t been able to discern in the previous 2000?

[S]elect precise and appropriate words and images, maintain the level of style and tone in an essay…

 Now, some of you may wonder who gets to define “precise and appropriate” but we say that’s a meaningless quibble because the degree of sophistication and expertise that went into the development of this instrument is such that—for mere teachers of rhetoric anyway—if they had to explain it to us, we wouldn’t understand. Besides, it’s what the testers tell us at the end of their definition that I find most intriguing:

[M]anage sentence elements for rhetorical effectiveness, and avoid ambiguous pronoun references, wordiness, and redundancy.

The sudden jump from general terms like "appropriate" to specifics like "ambiguous pronoun references" has to be significant. Are the testers giving us a clue? Sentence elements and ambiguous pronoun references are usually terms used when discussing grammar. Does good style equal correct grammar? It’s true grammar is the easiest part of writing to measure, but it also means if there are any potential F Scott Fitzgearlds in school now, they aren’t getting out. The manuscript of This Side Of Paradise that Fitzgerald sent to his publisher was full of grammatical and spelling errors (the man spelled disappointed “dissappointed” his whole life for crying out loud). He assumed the publisher would correct them and when they published the first edition cum errors he was completely chagrined.

I guess that’s no big deal though. After all, we’ve already had one F. Scott Fitzgerald. Why would we want an educational system that might encourage another? 

The testers also admonish students to avoid “wordiness and redundancy” which, if you think about it is a kind of redundant statement. Perhaps they are trying to teach by example. 

But it’s all good as the kids say. Now that we’ve got these thorny issues wrapped up in nice little packages we can get on with the real purpose of school--selecting the best answer to questions like the following:

Which author uses the most precise and appropriate words and images, maintains the level of style and tone in his or her essay, and manages sentence elements for rhetorical effectiveness, avoiding ambiguous pronoun references, wordiness, and redundancy:

       A.      Thomas Jefferson in “The Declaration Of Independence”
       B.      Montaigne in “Of The Education Of Children”
       C.      Linus Pauling in ”How Long Can People Live?”
       D.      Dave Barry in “A Journey Into My Colon—And Yours”
       E.   bell hooks in "Ethos, Pathos, And Logos In Keeping Close To Home"

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Of Fish, Ducks And Schools

Time for a little civics lesson. Capitalism is an economic theory. It’s concerned with things like the means of production, cost control and profit. Democracy is a political theory. It’s concerned with things like equality, justice and freedom. Capitalism is great at making affordable, efficient toasters, not so good at creating a just and vibrant society. Democracy can lead to a just and vibrant society, but affordable, efficient toasters…not so much.

In America these two systems live side by side and theoretically Capitalism’s resource exhausting hunger for greater and greater profits at lower and lower costs is mitigated by Democracy’s boundary setting functions, which we commonly call laws. These laws theoretically protect the most vulnerable in our society, both people and resources. They assure fairness in the dealings of capitalistic enterprises and monitor the quality of its products.


The reality is that you don’t have to look very far in America today to see that the relationship between Capitalism and Democracy is, at best, dysfunctional. From home lending practices to food safety requirements market driven values have invaded and replaced democratic ones, so instead of justice for all we get buyer beware as a national motto.

Democratic values contain a concept called the common good. The common good is what everyone in the society benefits from whether they are directly affected by it or not, like the fire department, which, hopefully, most people will never directly benefit from. To maintain the common good everyone is asked to throw some money into the pot and we call that process taxation. The important thing to remember is that in a democratic society the people get to decide what the common good is, and how important it is to the overall function of the society. This requires a literate and aware citizenry which is why the fundamental democratic common good is education. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Wherever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Capitalistic values have a common good too, it’s called profit and it’s arrived at by any (hopefully legal) means necessary.

Which brings us to charter schools. On the surface, charter schools are schools in which public money (taxes) is given to private entities (school management companies) but more fundamentally what this means is that schools based on the democratic value of the common good are replaced by schools based on the capitalist value of profit. Democratically based schools attempt to educate all students with an eye towards the development of individual potential. Capitalistic schools value cost containment, operational efficiencies and standardization. Some results of the change in value systems are immediate and unsurprising. There are whole web pages devoted to the scandals and failures of school management companies—some have been accused and/or convicted more than once. These companies have caused students to be discriminated against, schools to close with little or no warning, and money to disappear.

All of which calls into question the central selling point of charter schools which was that being organized like a business, they were in a better position to improve educational outcomes than the “dinosaur” public school system.

So, are they better? We’ve had charter schools since the mid 90’s and according to the most recent study done by CREDO, the Stanford University based research organization,  Charter Schools are no better than public schools (pdf):

CMOs on average are not dramatically better than non-CMO schools in terms of their contributions to student learning. The difference in learning compared to the Traditional Public school alternatives for CMOs is -.005 standard deviations in Math and .005 in reading; both these values are statistically significant, but obviously not materially different from the comparison.

Translated from the edu-speak what that means is there are good charter schools and bad charter schools but when you look at them as a whole, not much difference between charter and public. Here’s my question: Where is this promised nirvana of education that was supposed to be brought about by applying free market principles to schools?

We started down this path in the 80’s with the Nation At Risk report which told us our economy was in trouble if we didn’t improve our schools. Then came the boom 90’s, but no one tried to attribute that to the schools. Now the economy is a mess again. Is it the schools? Well, if you accept that Hedge Fund Managers, Bankers and their political enablers all presumably went to school, then yeah, I guess the economic mess is the schools’ fault. Truth is the whole business does it better mantra is code for we’re looking for new markets to exploit. America has never needed business values to make its schools better.

Saying Capitalist values can lead to better schools is like saying because fish can swim, ducks should be able to play violins. Education in a democratic society isn’t about profit—neither making it, nor providing it for others—it’s about seeing that the next generation has the tools to build a better democracy.

Schools that don’t respect democratic values can’t be expected to do a good job educating students in a democratic society, but schools that don’t respect education as a value in itself can’t be expected to do a good job at all.