All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


22 October 2011

Why college-mania could be hurting our high schools, and so on down the line.

A thought experiment I was having this morning:

1. Assume that you've got a population with varying levels of natural academic/intellectual ability. Hard to imagine, I know. But bear with me.

2. Assume that N% of the age-appropriate members of that population attend college.

3. Let x be the number of Professors needed to teach classes to that N%. Within certain variation limits, we can imagine that x is a function of n that is not inverse in any way, so that the more students you have, the more professors you require.

4. Now, while there will be some latitude, generally x will be drawn exclusively from some definable upper reach of the population in terms of academic/intellectual ability. Let's define that reach as the top Z%.

5. This population will also want high school teachers. But while some of those high school teachers will come from the top Z% (remember, there's some latitude there because not all smart people become professors), the range from which the high school teachers is going to be drawn is going to be much larger. Let's call that the top Y%, where Z>Y. Now because teaching college is, in general, such a better lifestyle choice than teaching high school, HS teachers are generally going to be drawn from the range between the top Z% and the top Y%. So the two general rules are (with exceptions, of course):
1. Professors come from the top Z%.
2. Teachers come from the top Y%, but generally from the range between Y% and Z%
6. So that's our baseline. Now let's assume that somewhere along the line, it is decided that everyone should go to college. That's unrealistic, of course. But let's imagine that the push results in a tripling of n. So now we're sending 3N% of the age-appropriate population to college.

7.An increase in n is going to require an increase in x. So x will go up as well.

8. The relationship between x and Z%, however, is going to be inverse in some way or another. The more professors you need, the "deeper" into the intellectual bullpen you need to go. So as x increases, Z% is going to DECREASE by some amount, call it B.

9.As Z% decreases, the number of people in the gap between Y% and Z% decreases. So unless more of those people start teaching high school (and why would they? they've got other jobs already), in order to keep the same number of high school teachers, Y% is going to have to drop as well. Because the distribution of academic/intellectual ability is somewhat normal, the decrease will be smaller than B. Let's call it A, where (A < B). So two new rules:
1. Professors come from the top (Z-B)%.
2. Teachers come from the top (Y-A)%, but generally from the range between (Y-A)% and (Z-B)%
Conclusion: The more college professors you employ, the lower the range of academic/intellectual ability from which you must hire your high school teachers. In other words, as college demand expands, it eats up the good instructors who would otherwise be teaching high school.

We can plausibly imagine that similar effects take place with respect to junior high school and elementary school teachers.

So am I crazy?

21 October 2011

Two Different School Systems

I think we've got two different school systems, and I don't mean in the sense in which there are (supposedly) two Americas.

I spend a lot of time talking with people about education, and something I've noticed is that -- in general -- the more well-educated someone is, the more they are concerned with high school (and perhaps junior high school) rather than with elementary education. I myself am quite guilty of this, despite the fact that I've actually worked in an elementary school.

I was thinking this morning, as philosophers are prone to do, about why I and others that I know have this tendency. And I came to a hypothesis that I think might actually be true: students with strong family educational backgrounds don't really need elementary school. Their parents can teach them to read, and can expose them to basic history and math. What those students need is high school -- subject specialization and teachers who know Chemistry and Calculus and more advanced literary theory.

"At risk" kids, on the other hand, kids whose families don't have an academically infused environment, really need elementary school to succeed academically. And they need the elementary portion of their schooling -- reading, writing, 'rithmatic -- to be done right; there's not a lot of margin for error. When it doesn't get done right, junior high and high school turn into remedial programs.

So from one point of view, the elementary school is a nice safe place to store your kids until they're old enough to start studying more complicated subjects. From that point of view, elementary school doesn't matter so much, and the focus of school reform needs to be on how to best deliver advanced content at the high school level. So long as the elementary school teachers are nice, supportive, and don't screw things up too badly, all is going to be well.

From another point of view, elementary school is where the hard, important work is. once the fundamentals are mastered (if they are), then junior high and high school become the place to store your kids safely until they're ready to work. Elementary teachers need to be engaging the students and shaping them. As I said, there's not a lot of room for error.

These two school systems often inhabit the same buildings, and employ the same teachers. But there are two very different systems at work, and in discussions about school reform, I think it's important to bear in mind which system you are talking about.

Well At Least He's Being Honest

There's an illuminating and fascinating opinion piece over at EducationNews this morning. Why College Is Always Worth It. Kevin Wolfman comes right out and admits why college is great. I've got some thoughts on some of his reasons, so let's go through them, briefly.
As a group, people with a college education are more supportive of the right to free speech and public assembly, even if they personally disagree with the positions of the speakers.
I'm actually not convinced that this is true. But if it is, well... great. College teaches people about how the Constitution works. That's probably a good thing. If it's true.
They are more accepting of the idea of a female president, as well as being more committed to gender equality in general.
OK, so the value of college is that it generates certain substantive values. This seems like a pretty good value to have, all things considered -- but reasonable people could be worried that perhaps the purpose of college isn't to instill values. I'm not saying it isn't the proper purpose of college, merely that reasonable people might wonder.
They consume more news, and as a result are more informed about current events.
I have serious suspicions that this is a correlation-causation problem in the making. I doubt very much that college gets people to read more news. Rather, I suspect that both college and news-reading are symptoms of a certain type of intellectual engagement with life. Now, as a brief aside, Mr. Wolfman addresses this issue in the comments:

Correlation does not PROVE causation, but it does IMPLY causation if the correlations are statistically strong and numerous. The evidence for the link between higher ed and the values listed above is everywhere in the research literature. It’s common enough that we can assume it’s valid and true, in the absence of other contradictory evidence that is even stronger.
That's just silly -- he must have mispoken (mistyped) because even a bright high school student knows that a super-strong correlation's strength isn't what does the explanatory work. Statistical strength doesn't imply causation no matter how strong it is. What implies (in the loose, non-logical sense that Wolfman is using here) causation is strong statistical evidence and a plausible theory of how the causation supposedly works.

Example: Every time I leave the kitchen, I'm less hungry. 100% statistical correlation. This does not mean that it's reasonable to think that my leaving the kitchen relieves my hunger. And the reason it's not reasonable is that there's no plausible theory for how that might work. Now, we might be able to come up with something strained: the kitchen smells like food, and when I leave the smell of food, I become less hungry. That's not completely ridiculous.

But a better theory is that I'm eating in the kitchen, and that my eating means that I'm no longer hungry and I have no reason to stay, so I leave. Both are caused by my eating. Now we've got a plausible theory. That's still not a proof; scientists don't "prove" things in the technical sense.

Let's get back to his article.

They are more knowledgeable about the political process.
Not necessarily a great thing (see Rational Ignorance theory), and again, there's a serious correlation-causation problem at work here; I'd want to hear the theory. This also runs into the values-instilling issue again.

They are less approving of the use of violence to achieve political and social ends, by governments and citizen groups alike.
I'm not even sure that this is a good value to be teaching, even if it's true that colleges cause people to be less approving of the use of violence.

Violence, like everything else, has a place in the world. We'd be hard pressed to live without it; a ready preparedness to inflict devastation on our enemies is vital to our continued existence as a country, and a ready preparedness to let loose great injury on criminals is vital to our continued existence as an ordered society. So let's not be too quick to praise the devaluing of violence. If everyone went to college and ended up disapproving of violence, who would hold the gun in the guard tower in the prison?

I once again suspect a correlation-causation issue here, though. Pacifists like their books.

Speaking of politics, they are more skilled at articulating and defending their political beliefs in sophisticated and factually sound ways, rather than resorting to half-baked sound bites and unsupported “gut feelings” to back up their positions.
Is it true? Maybe. Good argumentation doesn't need to be "sophisticated", though. I have plenty of friends who didn't go to college who can argue a LOT better than my undergraduate students (and who could do so at that age, too)

Frankly, I think that this particular reason is just collegiate chauvinism at work. All those bumpkins out there... they just don't know how to argue. It's probably more an issue of the bumpkins not sharing all the same sorts of premises that the college grads hold -- premises that aren't necessarily true because they're held by more educated people.

They are more likely to vote and be politically active in general.
Not clearly a good thing. I need to be convinced that indifference isn't its own special sort of virtue.

They are more ideologically consistent...
What does that even mean? Consistent with what?

...meaning they are less likely to be swayed or duped by the disingenuous spin and outright lies that dominate today’s cable news outlets and anonymous Internet forums.
Hmmm. This is proof that just because a clause starts off with "meaning" or some other word indicating an explanation, does not mean that an explanation is actually in the offing. I don't see how being impervious to bad argumentation (let's assume that he's right about the bad argumentation in various media formats) is a mark of ideological consistency. It's more a form of rational intractability.

And "ideological" is such a strange word to use in this context. Or maybe it's not so strange after all.

.And they are less supportive of both authoritarianism and dogmatic thinking.
Not clearly true at all. Though if it is true, I can hardly complain. That's a pretty good value to instill.

Nevertheless, the original problem with instilling values is still on the table.

As for personal values...
See, this is where I think Mr. Wolfman has tipped his hand. He doesn't actually see any of the things listed above as personal values; for him, they are just truths. Violence is bad, and college is a place where you can learn that fact. Political activity is good, and college is a place where you can learn that fact.

You might think that maybe the values described above aren't, on Wolfman's view, "personal", but rather universal in some sense. But the rest of the sentence pretty much lays that theory to rest. Americans are more aware of the needs, perspectives, and feelings of others. They are more willing to associate with and befriend people outside their own ethnic group. They are more altruistic. They are also less self-centered, less racist, and less homophobic.

The list of virtues goes on and on.
I seriously question the "more altruistic" and "less self-centered" claims (or at the very least I think he owes his audience the technical definitions and findings of the studies on which he is relying), and I don't think that any intelligible sense can be made of the claim that college-educated Americans are "more aware of the feelings of others". Maybe they care more about those feelings, but it's not like college teaches you how to be empathic any more than working in a job or sitting in a museum watching people or reading a good book.

But, according to this author, college is good because it instills virtues. Very specific virtues.

I'm not saying that these are bad virtues (well, except the violence-attitudes which I'm willing to suggest are problematic). But one might be forgiven for thinking that Mr. Wolfman likes the idea of college because it supposedly turns out people who hold substantive values that are very similar to his (regardless of whether his descriptions of those values are accurate).

At least, though, he's being honest about it. And that's why I think that this is such an interesting article. Usually, people who hold this position try to hide it.

11 October 2011

Flip, Flip, Flip

For the third time in just a few weeks, Joanne's got a post up about "Flipping". (The previous entries are here and here, with my initial reaction to this in the comments here.)

The upshot seems to be something like this:
The model—in which teachers introduce lectures online for students to access at home and then use class time for group practice and projects normally relegated to homework—is not unique to Khan Academy, however. Advocates of the approach say it allows students to work through meat-and-potatoes background on their own, giving teachers more time to go in depth through discussions, projects and other activities in class.

Critics, though, argue the model is too reliant on online materials and will prove difficult to use in schools without major technology infrastructure.

I was thinking about this some more this morning, and there was something nagging at the back of my head. I couldn't quite figure out what it was -- but this "flipping" thing seemed awfully familiar for some reason. I was getting an intense sensation of deja vu.

Then it hit me: books. The "video lecture" is absolutely NOTHING more than an animated, talking textbook. That alone might make it superior to the textbook, mind you -- and it might save some trees in the process. But my purpose in this post is not to debate the relative merits of books and video. Rather, I want to make a point about this "flipping" stuff.

Flipping is a return to the traditional method of instruction: student goes home, student reads book, student comes in and grapples with the material with teacher support.

What changed in the interim, what makes flipping seem like it's something new, is that students who aren't in honors classes often aren't actually expected to read anything: instruction, practice, and assessment all takes place in class. Based purely on anecdote and conversation, the practice is, I take it, supposed to help "level" the academic playing field by not giving any curricular advantages to those who don't have the resources/time/support to do extensive homework in their somewhat dysfunctional home environments.

But if that's the case -- if that's why we don't just give the student a book and say "READ" -- then how do we imagine that the student is going to sit through the video lecture?

It seems like we're returning to the old ways because the old ways worked, but we're going to find, I think, that the old ways don't work for everyone.

My only slightly-tongue-in-cheek prediction: six to seven years out, educators will abandon "flipping" and will have students watch videos on their own in class, with the teacher providing (1) custodial supervision; and (2) academic support in the limited time available.

07 October 2011


I've been light on posting the last few weeks because I've been preparing for my oral examinations and advancement to candidacy in my PhD program.

I've passed.

Life will now return to something like normal for at least a while.