All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


03 June 2012

The End of Need-Blind at Wesleyan: Loneliness and Acculturation

Wesleyan University, my alma mater and the only college in the nation to accept me out of high school, is ending its policy of universal need-blind admissions.  That's not to say that need-blind admissions is going away entirely... just that there is going to be a portion of the class that may not be admitted on that basis.

Before I start in on this topic, you should go read two other blog posts at Rachel Levy's education blog.  The first is by her; she's also a Wesleyan Alum, and we were there at the same time.  The second is by me.  Now our dialogue isn't about need-blind as such, but rather about the sort of student that Wesleyan should be pursuing for admission, and the opportunities that various people have to become that sort of student.  But the issues raised are important ones, and are indicative of the sorts of things that alumni think about.

With those arguments in mind, let's get back to the subject of need-blind:

In the face of financial pressures, Wesleyan University is moving away from its blanket need-blind admissions policy. Instead, the college is planning to peg increases in the size of its financial aid budget to the size of its overall budget. As long as that money meets need, it will consider students irrespective of their ability to pay. Once the aid runs out, however, the college will start factoring in family income and ability to pay. 

So there's a limited pot of financial aid money, and it gets doled out until its gone, and then it doesn't.  I have to say, this seems to be a pretty equitable solution, and I say this even though I can pretty much guarantee that I wouldn't have been admitted under the new system.  I had to be among the last people admitted in my class -- I was rejected from quite literally every other school to which I applied.  (The list was short and distinguished, true, but not all the schools were higher-ranked than Wesleyan.)  I was also pretty hard-up for cash.

The fact is that I seriously doubt that student quality is going to be hurt much; and in any event, as President Roth pointed out, the trade-off would have to come in terms of educational quality:
 Wesleyan President Michael Roth said there is a moral argument for a college like his to not accept students if they can’t meet their need, and not to compromise quality in the name of access.

“I’m willing to give up the label of need blindness in favor of giving students who are here the best chance of succeeding,” Roth said. “Our job is not to wear a badge of moral purity. Our job is to provide the best chance of success to the students we graduate.”

This all seems right to me.  There is a worry I have, though -- one that goes right to the heart of "providing the best chance of success to the students (Wesleyan) graduates."  I'm not sure it's well-founded, but since when do all of our worries have to be well-founded?  Let me start by saying a little about my time at Wes.

Wesleyan wasn't an easy experience for me.  It was a really, really nasty culture shock that took a lot of painful adjusting.  The interpersonal norms and social skill sets for New England/New York Middle-Upper Professional class life and Southern California Lower Working class life are very, very different (and I wasn't even that great at the latter, despite being something of a native).  The biggest help in getting me through it all was a lovely lady I fell in love with -- someone who grew up in the sort of academic/professional social circles that produce most of Wesleyan's students, and to which nearly all of Wesleyan's students aspire.  She was able to teach me a great deal.

But also of great help was my circle of friends, a substantial chunk (30-40% maybe?) of whom were also not really from that world.  There was a certain amount of comfort to be found there, a respite from the aggravating and trying process of acculturation.  There was also support: we sometimes talked about things in indirect (or very rarely, explicit) ways.  There was a certain humor to be had in being foreigners together in a world we were not yet quite a part of.

Now, to the degree that Wesleyan reduces need-blind admissions, they are necessarily going to be thinning the ranks of those of us who are by birth aliens to the elite social milieu.  And that, I think, is going to make it more difficult to adjust.

It's a bit of a tightrope, of course, if your goal really is acculturation.  I think it's the goal  -- perhaps unconsciously so -- of many of the students who come to Wesleyan "from the outside", as it were.  And despite all the very vocal talk about diversity and multiculturalism, I strongly suspect that, for good or ill, that what Wesleyan really "wants" -- as far as institutions want things like this -- is cultural and racial diversity in its students, combined with a very homogenous set of middle- to upper-class values.  So from a certain perspective, the goal of acculturation may be Wesleyan's goal as well.  (I am not passing judgment on this -- just pointing it out; though, from a certain perspective, education is by nature a process of acculturation.)

But if that's your goal, and if you want to be able to maintain a light touch and avoid heavy-handed indoctrination, then the mix of students is critical: too few people with whom to share the struggle and your students from lower-class backgrounds become isolated and withdrawn.  College is stressful enough.  Too many, though, and they start to aggregate and withdraw, and the social pressure to adopt the new values diminishes. There's a happy medium somewhere in there for the assimilation-minded, but the more you cut need-blind admissions, the more you move towards the "isolated and withdrawn" end of that spectrum, and the harder it becomes for those who are left.

While I am committed to equity and fairness, I don't see the end of need-blind admissions as a moral violation; as I said in my post at Rachel's spot, I was grateful that Wesleyan admitted me because they didn't really have to.  And President Roth has it right when he says that the University's moral commitments are to its students first and foremost.  But with those commitments in mind, I did want to try to tease out what I saw as a possible difficulty that the end of universal need-blind may pose to the very students who are supposed to be helped by whatever portion of need-blind admissions is kept in place.

Maybe there's no real choice, financially.   And maybe the "outsiders" who come to Wesleyan will just have to grit their teeth a little harder and suck it up.  Life's not fair, after all, and I still think it's simply amazing that a school like Wesleyan would admit people who couldn't pay in the first place.

But let's also be mindful of what might be going on, beneath the surface, and what the unintended consequences of our policies might be.

Gratuitous Repost: Give me 6 benches, a stick, and a clear patch of dirt.

This is another gratuitous repost of yet another one of the posts I put up during my recent spell of blogging over at Joanne's most excellent blog. This piece was called "Give me 6 benches, a stick, and a clear patch of dirt". Only minor edits have been made, primarily to the penultimate paragraph.


I was reading this earlier today…
Two schools in the Washington DC area are taking a completely opposite approach to technology in the classroom. One, the Flint Hill School in Oakton, has classrooms filled with latest electronics, and equips all its students with Macbook Air laptops. In the other, the Washington Waldorf School, classrooms look about the same they might have looked at the turn of last century, where pens, notebooks, and a chalk-wielding teacher in front of a blackboard still play the starring roles.
…and it got me to want to blog.  Not about the little article, really, but about the subject of educational technology in general.

My purpose in writing this post isn’t to valorize one model over the other (though I have a marked personal preference for the Washington Waldorf model).  I’m sure that both schools are scrumdidiliumptiously wonderful places for students to learn.  What I want to try to articulate is a series of thoughts about the role of technology in education.  This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit in the last year or so… enough that I feel like taking a stab at setting down some thoughts in writing, anyway.

First, the obvious.  People really like to talk about technology in education.   Just look at the journals:  Technological Horizons in EducationJournal of Educational Technology and Society, Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, etc. etc..  Educational Technology Review.  Etc. etc. etc.  When’s the next conference on Educational Technology?  EDUCAUSE is going on right now.   ISTE is next month, as is ICEITGaETC is in November.

Technological fluency (or at least passing a class in educational technology, which isn’t the same thing) is a requirement for most teacher certification programs — as if to say that a teacher cannot be competent at his or her job unless he or she knows Glogster from Twitter, a PDF from an e-Book, Voicethread from Prezi, or a BBS from a Blog.

And let us be frank: if education is to prepare a student for living a flourishing life within his or her society, then that education should probably include — inter alia — the development of an understanding of and an appreciation for the technology that helps create and maintain the society’s infrastructure and economic success.

Yet I have heard, on multiple occasions, people offering lavish praise to their best teachers in something of the following form:
“The best class I can imagine is a log with Mr. (insert name) on one end, and me on the other.”
I haven’t just heard this once or twice… I’ve heard it almost verbatim well over half a dozen times from different people about different teachers at different levels of education.  It’s a lovely thought, and one of the things that is most lovely about it is that the focus in such an imagined scenario is exactly where it should be: on the interaction between the teacher’s mind and the student’s mind.

Teachers are not a necessary part of all education; much can be accomplished in isolation (although even reading a book is a sort of conversation with the author).  But teachers are (or can be) valuable, and to the extent that they have a role to play in learning, it’s an inherently interpersonal one.  I’m not saying you have to like your students, or care for them; you don’t.  (I generally do, but one need not.)  Nor am I saying you need to be empathic and give them hugs.  But you do need to acknowledge them as people, and create a conversation of learning if you want to be a successful teacher of anything.

Technology can make this task much easier in a lot of different ways.  A chalkboard allows a teacher to schematize his or her thoughts on the fly, to put an idea up where it persists long after the echo of his or her voice has faded into the classroom carpet.  A video projector allows the teacher to, with a little planning, instantly display complicated graphs, maps, movies, and important points in much the same way.  Grading software frees up teacher time to focus on teaching. allows the policing of academic integrity in a quick, relatively painless way and also gives the teacher insight into some of the writing process.  Clickers can get you instantaneous classroom response that isn’t colored by the social pressure that goes along with shows of hands.

But a classroom without clickers, or without a smartboard, isn’t going to be inherently inferior to one loaded with all the latest gadgets, because it’s not the gadgets that do the teaching: it’s the teacher.  And the teacher should use whatever technology he or she thinks will improve what he or she is up to vis-a-vis the students — no more, and no less.  Whether a piece of technology will be useful and fruitful is primarily a question of how a particular bit of technology relates to that teacher’s methods, personality, and style.

This is the big problem with technology mandates (e.g., “All teachers will use software platform X in their classes…”): not all technology “fits” every teacher’s individual style.  All too often, technology is treated a lot like curriculum is: as a way to standardize teaching and education to such a degree that the teacher becomes just a generic component of some set of committee-approved best practices.

I would love to listen to a lecture by Aristotle, or Avicenna, or Anselm, or even Neitzsche.  But it would be stupid for me to require that they use Powerpoint. (Though I doubt any of them would have trouble picking it up if they thought it would help.)

I worry about the razzle-dazzle of technology when it comes to teaching; I worry about it a lot.  I worry that it gets used for the sake of using it, and not to make things better: a sort of fetishistic totem, the product of a cargo-cult mentality.  I worry that students learn to become dependent on it in ways that undermines their ability to develop the very capacities that  teachers are charged with cultivating.   There is understanding to be had in doing things the old fashioned way, understanding that cannot be obtained if we allow our capacities to atrophy from disuse.  Technology can be an amplifier of our capacities, or a substitute.  I prefer the former.

Teenagers are consistently impressed by the fact that, given a minute or so, I can multiply two three-digit numbers together in my head without using pen and paper.  They think it’s a sort of magic.  This is not an impressive skill, but rather a very basic one that one gets after doing enough pen-and-paper-algorithms.Seeing the structure of the algorithm a thousand times lets you start to understand exactly why it works.  And once you understand why it works, you don’t need to use the mechanical algorithm any more.  You can just break it down in your head. But it’s not something you develop if you have used calculators all your life.  (Some of my critics have said that not everyone would acquire this skill after the same amount of practice, and that I'm being unfair in thinking of myself as a good example; there may be some truth to this.  But even if the effect is less dramatic for other people, I feel certain there would be an effect.) 

I worry that students are allowed to use technological tools to produce elaborate projects that shine and impress, but which have extraordinary little substantive content in them.  Students are often charged with things like creating powerpoint presentations, with huge chunks of the grade depending on the use of pictures, sounds, and video.  (Here’s an example of a rubric that gives 6 our of 27 points for aesthetic design, and here’s one that gives 50%.)

I worry that living in a digital world is, at base, incompatible with living in a world of medium-sized physical objects, and that we’re elevating a pseudo-Cartesian view of the self as a disembodied intellect to a station that far exceeds its warrant.  We might be thinking things, but that’s certainly not all we are.

I saw one of my students writing a paper out by hand once.  Without ever having seen anything she had produced, I knew that her writing would be better than average, though that probably has a lot to do with the student population I work with at UCLA.   You have to think more about what you’re writing when you’re putting ink on a page than you do when every mistake is just a backspace or an update from oblivion; and if you're handwriting, you're actually writing and not simply cutting and pasting from Wikipedia (which in some situations is enough to make the paper above average all by itself). 

I like technology.  I have lots of ideas (most of them none-to-original) on how to use technology in teaching.  But when I hear education professionals talk about it, when it becomes a matter of best practices, policy, professional development, and all that other institutional claptrap, more often than not I yearn for what seems to me at times to be the perfect classroom: a handful of students, 6 benches, a stick, and a clear patch of dirt.

Gratuitous Repost: Education and Rights

This is a gratuitous repost of one of the posts I put up during my recent spell of blogging over at Joanne's most excellent blog. This piece was called "Education and Rights". Only minor, cosmetic edits have been made.


I was working through some ideas for a paper I’m sketching out, and I thought I’d share a little bit of what I’d been thinking about. Now, we’ve all heard about inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And most of us have probably heard (ad nauseum) that education is a right. We know because, among many other organizations, the United Nations tells us so.
Education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It promotes individual freedom and empowerment and yields important development benefits. Yet millions of children and adults remain deprived of educational opportunities, many as a result of poverty.

Normative instruments of the United Nations and UNESCO lay down international legal obligations for the right to education. These instruments promote and develop the right of every person to enjoy access to education of good quality, without discrimination or exclusion.

 Article 26. 
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit. 

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. 

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children. 

There are manifold state Constitutional provisions, and a small host of legislative statutes and court decisions establishing various rights to education here in the United States, as well.

So what, exactly, is the extent of this right? There’s an obvious legal-realism sort of answer that I want to put aside for now: I’m not interested in hearing how the extent of the right is whatever the courts say it is. My question is aimed at the right not as a legal phenomenon, but as a moral one. Let’s assume there’s a moral right to an education, a right that one holds against one’s parents, or against one’s society. How far does such a right go?

Well, it’s not absolute, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those rights are inalienable — partly because they’re negative rights. It’s pretty clear that a right to education is a contextual sort of right,and that it varies based on the situation. (This is true of many positive rights.) You don’t have a right to a molecular biology class in 1450, because there’s no such thing. Likewise, you don’t have a right to be trained as a warp-drive technician here at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

I suspect that the “right to education” is really reducible to a specific manifestation of right of social inclusion — a right to learn the sort of things that one needs to learn in order to be a functional, flourishing part of one’s social milieu, whatever that may be. To exclude someone from education, on this view, is to exclude them from being able to participate in society without built-in-limitations. (When you do not teach your slave class to read, for instance, they really do become “unfit” for civic life; that’s a big part of why people don’t teach their slaves to read, historically.)

But what about limitations to the right to education? Can we simply take away a student’s rights to a public education? That seems fairly extreme, but it certainly doesn’t seem fantastical to talk about limiting a child’s right to an education.

If a student insists on attempting to murder all of his or her classmates at every opportunity, for example, we’d not keep that student in the classroom. That student would have forfeited his or her right to at least the typical sort of publicly funded education. That’s an easy case. Maybe we could afford such a child some sort of education in their rehabilitative facility, but it’s something of a joke to think that we will be able to provide that child with a reasonable chance to be a productive, integrated part of society. And even if that is what we’re trying to do, we’re not giving him unlimited opportunity anymore. The quality of instruction he’s likely to receive is significantly lower.

So it seems that we’re OK with fairly harsh limits on the right to an education.

But if this is true, this means we’re line-drawing. At what point does a child lose their right to participate in the sort of mainstream educational opportunities available in our society? Well, like most positive rights, it seems like it’s going to run up against other people’s rights and be limited in that fashion. We seem to give the right to education an awful lot of leeway, though. Kids seem to keep their right to education even when they’re pretty clearly impairing other students’ rights to education, by being disruptive in the classroom, soaking up an inordinate amount of the teacher’s attention, etc. We give second, third, fourth, and fifth chances — maybe because we’re OK with hurting a few people’s rights to avoid destroying one person’s. We’ll let a classroom or two get a marginal, substandard education if it means not having to totally exclude someone else.

Remember what we’re up to here: we’re trying to get children integrated into society in a meaningful way, and through a process that doesn’t place prior limits on the scope of their achievement. That means we don’t want bakers’ sons to only be able to grow up to be bakers; if they want to be biologists, actors, or philosophers, we want them to have that opportunity. To that end, it makes sense that we’d be willing to take smaller harms by the dozen to avoid really big ones like cutting off a student’s future entirely.

 But do we want to avoid just placing prior limitations on their opportunities? Or do we want to avoid placing limitations at all?

It’s an undeniable fact that not everyone is going to be a doctor, and even further -- not even everyone has the “right” to study to be a doctor. (That’s why there are admissions committees for med school.) We could very easily go into second grade and start sorting: you guys here, you are going to be doctors. You girls over there, you’re going to be seamstresses. But that’s not what we’re up to at all; that’s antithetical to the project in some important way. We want to give everyone a fair chance.

Yet at some point, we start to think of the limitations that get imposed on a student’s life as no longer “prior”, but rather as the result of their own choices, aptitudes, and behaviors. At some point we say, “We’re not limiting you anymore by telling you that you can’t go to college; you’ve limited yourself.”  They've had their fair chance. And then it becomes OK for us to take away their “right” to education, or to simply say that it doesn’t exist. It would be needlessly cruel, though, to spring this on someone one day by surprise.

Age 6: You have been a really bad student and you mistreat your classmates. But you have a right to an education, and we want you to be all you can be. You can keep on learning. No limits for you.

Age 9: You continue to disrupt the classroom and underachieve. But you have a right to an education, and we want you to be all you can be. You can keep on learning.

Age 15: You’ve got a petty criminal history, and you spend three days a week in detention. You hate your teachers, and the feeling’s mutual. But you have a right to an education, and we want you to be all you can be. You can keep on learning, because we don’t want to limit the sort of opportunities that you’ll have in your life.

Age 18: Screw you. You’re on your own. There’s a job at the local car wash. 

 That, of course, isn’t really what happens. It’s more gradual than that. We start everyone out in the same classrooms, then we start sorting. We foreclose certain opportunities to certain students because of choices they’ve made, or aptitudes they have or don’t have. By high school, some students really have been completely cut off from the possibility of being a nuclear engineer. They no longer have a “right” to such an education. You don’t have a right to AP Calculus unless you’ve taken Trig. You don’t have a right to AP Chemistry if you failed General Science 2.

We accept that children have a right to an education, that is, a right to assume some sort of integrated role in society. But that right is not absolute and inviolate. It’s a highly qualified right.

It’s probably a violation of that right, and thus immoral, to tell a first-grader that you won’t teach them how to read because they’re going to grow up to be a gum-scraper and reading won’t do them any good. You’re seriously impinging on that first-grader’s ability to join society in a meaningful way (not that being a gum-scraper isn’t meaningful, mind you, but the joining of society under those conditions would not be).

At the same time, it’s probably not a violation of the right to education to tell a student they can’t sign up for AP classes if they failed every single class in junior high except Remedial General Pre-Basic Reading Skills I, where they earned a C-minus. The student has, by choice or performance, in some way vitiated his own right to an education, his own right to an open future in society, and made it OK for us to narrow the bounds of his future in important, far-reaching ways. (You may want to think of this not as a narrowing, but as a withholding of assistance for the broadening of his future; negative and positive rights are tricky things and our language is sometimes geared to blur the distinction.)

The upshot of my discussion is this: talking about ways in which we might institutionalize the limitation of educational rights is not, therefore, in and of itself talk of violating those rights. It can be — and, I maintain, often is — an effort to pin down and articulate the frontiers of those rights, to understand what is right and what is wrong. And because it’s not necessarily violating those rights, but rather can represent an honest attempt to establish their legitimate limits, it’s not always immoral to talk about tracking, or separate schools for special ed students, or any of a whole host of other practices that run counter to the modern prevailing wisdom among the educator class and which regularly draw scorn and shocked glances.

The moral principles at issue aren’t unqualified or absolute, and they aren’t without inherent limitations. Even the most ardent defenders of these rights, if pressed, would have to admit this (despite their rhetorical protestations to the contrary).  And because they’re “fuzzy” in this way, it’s understandable that we’re going to disagree about exactly where they begin and end.

We should all try to remember that.

09 April 2012

Bullying: A Thought Experiment

I was, just this morning, reading this excellent blog post by Dana Goldstein. Now, one of the things I learned while reading that post is that at least some schools think that one form of bullying is, supposedly, excluding students from lunch tables. This seems consistent with some of the other things I've been reading lately on the subject.

This got me thinking about bullying rules, the recent anti-bullying crusade, and whether what we're really trying to control is conduct or attitudes. Anyone familiar with my thinking knows that I'm presumptively against any attempt by government organizations to institutionally control attitudes. I don't personally mind people who don't like me because of my race, so long as they aren't allowed to beat me up, and I'd rather have somebody hate me because I'm Latino (which is true) than because I'm a socialist (which isn't true).

Now, some anti-bullying advocate are probably very frank about the fact that they're out to control attitudes. But some might think that they're just trying to control conduct. I offer the following thought experiment, designed to let you know where you stand.

Let's say we have some fairly specific anti-bullying rules in our school, bordering on the ridiculous. Among the rules are the following:

* Students may not exclude each other from sitting at lunch tables
* When a student sits down at a table with you, you must smile at them and greet them.
* When a student sits down at a table with you, you may not get up and move to another table.
* Students are not allowed to insult each other at the lunch table, and should be polite, kind, and respectful to each other.

Now, given these rules, I want you to imagine the following scenario:

Sarah, a somewhat shy, unpopular girl, comes out of the cafeteria line and decides (perhaps because it's the only open seat) to sit down at the table with Megan, Madison, Cassidy, and Jackie -- four popular, somewhat cruel girls. As Sarah sits down, all the girls assume obviously fake smiles, and fold their hands in front of them in uniform fashion. Megan says the following to Sarah:

"Hi Sarah. The rules say that we're supposed to smile and greet you, and that we can't exclude you from the table, so on behalf of all four of us, we welcome you to the table. The rules also say that we're not supposed to get up and move to another table to avoid you. We want to, but we can't. So it looks like we'll stay sitting right here until we're finished with our lunch. The rules also say that we're not allowed to insult you; isn't that interesting? Could you please pass the salt?"

Sarah -- traumatized -- bursts out crying, drops her tray, and runs out of the cafeteria.

Now if you think that what Megan (and perhaps the other girls) did was something that should be punished as bullying, ask yourself what they should have done differently, and for what -- exactly -- you'd like to see them punished.

Are they being punished for pointing out the rules and the fact that they're choosing to comply with them? (Probably not.)

Are they being punished because Sarah took it so hard? (That would be an odd rule.)

If so, are they being punished because Sarah's not stupid enough to believe they were trying to be nice? (Again, an odd outcome.)

Are they perhaps being punished because they didn't do a good enough job in pretending to like Sarah? Might things have been different if they were still all "in" on the joke, but managed to convince Sarah that they really appreciated her presence?

Or are they being punished because they failed to genuinely be nice to Sarah?

Perhaps because they don't like Sarah?

If you think Megan should be punished, and if you can answer the question of why, you'll have gone a long way to finding out what you really think of bullying.


For my part, I'm inclined to punish Megan, and it's on the basis that she didn't do a good enough job of pretending to like Sarah (the fourth question, above). Indeed, she doesn't even seem to have tried to pretend. Now that might seem to put me in an extremely odd position. Some might say that I'm rewarding and encouraging deceptive behavior. And perhaps they have a point.

But my response is that it's only "deceptive" if you think that your not liking someone must be a reason to treat them poorly in order to be genuine, if you think that somehow your every whim and caprice must find obvious outward expression.

If one group of students doesn't like another individual or group -- I confess that I'm not interested in forcing them to like each other. I mean, it's a nice goal to work towards, but not something that warrants punishment as a coercion.

I'm satisfied if they learn to act genuinely civilly towards each other. And being genuinely civil -- which Megan was certainly not -- does not mean liking the person. It doesn't even mean pretending that you like them. It means learning how to be impartially pleasant. That can sometimes feel like it's deceptive -- but I think it's really just polite, and I think there's a difference. As a (future) member of civil society, Megan has a job to do: to put forth a reasonable effort to make Sarah feel welcomed at the table.

I'm concerned with student conduct, not student attitudes. But I am also concerned that students learn to divorce their conduct from their attitudes.

And if despite reasonable efforts at genuine civility, Sarah still feels left out, isolated, and alone, if she despairs because she knows that Megan and the others don't really like her... well, that's on her. I don't think Megan has a duty to like Sarah, and I strenuously object to any sort of rule that would seek to mandate it.

10 March 2012


So the last few days, apropos of a class I'm taking, I've been thinking about rubrics as a way to grade student assignments, particularly papers. I'm generally against them. The following is a copy-and-paste job from a class discussion, and represents my current thinking on the subject. (Subject to change, of course... like always.) I've only modified it very slightly to make it more bloggy and less class-specific.

Let's start with admitting a portion of the case for rubrics: rubrics seem to allow students a certain degree of certainty and predictability. They act as a signal to students, a sign (or reminder) of what the teacher is "looking for" in a good quality bit of writing. Advocates say that rubrics are supposed to signal to the students "what is required" and in so doing "take the mystery" out of grading.

The problem is that they don't. Not really.

Here's an example of what might go into, say, a high school writing rubric:

* Main idea (thesis) is clear.
* Each paragraph has a clear, effective topic and concluding
* Supporting details clearly relate to topic sentences in a meaningful,
significant way.
* Content in body paragraphs is appropriate.
* Transitions are used effectively.
* Introduction, body, conclusion provide logical sequencing of ideas,
leading to understandable, appropriate content that is free of
superfluous information. Attention to audience is evident.

So we know from our rubric that the student has been told that each paragraph should have a "clear, effective topic". But notice: nothing in the rubric actually helps the student know how to write a paragraph with a clear, effective topic. It merely tells the student that this is what they should do. And herein lies the problem. Let's call this the Lopez Principle:

If a student actually has learned and thus knows how to write a paragraph with a clear and effective topic, the student will already (simply by virtue of understanding that skill) understand that this is what one should do when writing paragraphs.

Putting this requirement in the rubric doesn't actually take any mystery out of grading at all, because to the extent that there is any mystery in the grading process -- to the degree that the student genuinely doesn't understand what the teacher is "looking for" -- the rubric merely gives that mystery a name. It doesn't explain anything.

But if a teacher has taught how to write a paragraph with a "clear and effective topic", at least if it has been taught properly, then the students already know that this is what they are supposed to do. The teaching is in the teaching, not in the rubric. Put another way, rubrics shouldn't be shorthand substitutes for textbooks or good articles about writing. They're not really suited to the task.

So the value of the rubric can't really be educative, its value must be as an assessment tool.

Now, perhaps there is some value in having a predictable, established set of grading criteria. I'm willing to entertain the idea that it's a good thing, for instance, to let students know that they'll lose a point for each spelling error, up to a maximum of 10 points. That might seem "fair" in a way that simply giving an otherwise A paper a B+ and writing "too many spelling errors" doesn't.

But this sort of discussion is all about seeming fair, not being fair. A teacher who uses an undisclosed rubric that the students never see is still "being fair" in the sense that all papers are being treated equally and according to a uniform standard. People who argue that grading of papers is arbitrary have never graded any significant number of papers; grading is very rarely arbitrary. It might be mysterious to students who haven't been taught about quality, and there may be elements of subjectivity to it, but it's not arbitrary.

What I suspect is that rubrics are really used as a way to avoid conflict over grades (both with parents and students), to give teachers something to point to and say "Bobby didn't set forth a clear and interesting thesis, and it's obvious that he was on notice that this was required because it's right here in the rubric." Never mind that the reason that Bobby didn't set forth a clear and interesting thesis is that he doesn't actually know how to. That you, the teacher, failed to teach the principle is irrelevant; you put it in the rubric, so the student is responsible!

That gets the moral principle backwards, though. The student is responsible not because it's in the rubric, but because you taught him how to write a paragraph with a clear and effective topic. (Again, unless you're using the rubric as a textbook, a task for which it seems ill-suited.)

What's more, I think that rubrics pose a danger: students can come to see the writing of a paper as a sort of checklist of things to accomplish, rather than an organic process that involves first the birth and development of ideas, and then the translation of those ideas into writing, and finally the hard work of editing. The rubric expressly sets forth the paper as a grade to be gotten, and focuses student attention even more on the grade than it is already, rather than trying to shift some of that (entirely natural) grade-focus onto the act, the process, of writing itself.

On top of that, many pre-generated rubrics are, insofar as they are normative statements asserting that one should engage in a certain type of writing, utterly false. I've seen a lot of rubrics that promote some very, very bad writing.

Rubrics can be convenient for teachers, mind you. It's easier to put a frowny-face mark next to "Clear and effective topic" than it is to explain in notes to your students' papers what about their topic is either unclear or ineffective. But teaching writing is hard work, and the rubric shouldn't be used as a substitute for that work.

So... I'm not a big fan of rubrics. I can see their use, maybe, as a sort of "before the fact" syllabus in a series of writing lessons. But the sorts of writing that one engages in outside of school just doesn't have rubrics. Students need to learn to write for a purpose, not to a rubric.

08 January 2012

Horrible Multiple Choice Questions

People often complain that standardized tests are "culturally biased." In a textbook I've read recently, there's the following anecdote:
It seems every teacher who has worked in Alaska's rural school system has a story of the cultural ignorance of standardized tests. A question that stumped a student in my wife's 2nd-grade class asked for the best choice on how to get to a hospital: boat, ambulance, or airplane. Since the nearest hospital is 300 mile away, the student circled the logical, yet "incorrect" answer: airplane.

The problem isn't that the question is "culturally biased." The problem is that the person who wrote that question is as lazy as they are incompetent.

I've spent a lot of time writing multiple choice questions for quizzes and exams during my time as a philosophy graduate student. It's something of an art form for me. And the number one principle that I adhere to is that a multiple choice question should have a clearly and unambiguously right answer. There should be no wiggle room: any interpretation that might make one of the other answers even arguably right should be eliminated by the structure of the question. Here's a good example of a bad question:

William Ockham thought that a term in spoken language represents real objects:
(a) Alternatively
(b) Primarily
(c) Secondarily
(d) None of the above

There are numerous problems with this question. First off, it's asking what someone who is dead was thinking, which is a stupid thing to do, and it doesn't even provide a timeframe for that thinking, which might have changed over the course of Ockahm's career. Even if it were the "correct" answer (which it isn't) "None of the above" could arguably be a poor choice here because in selecting it, you're endorsing the idea that terms in spoken language represent real objects, which isn't necessarily the case. (In fact, it is the case here, but only contingently.) There are at least two other things wrong with this question, but they're minor quibbles at best.

Anyway, here's the question, written much better:
In the first book of his Summa Logicae, William Ockham states that when a term in spoken language represents real objects, it does so:
(a) Alternatively
(b) Primarily
(c) Secondarily
(d) The question includes a false premise: Ockham denied that spoken language represented physical objects.

Now some "test bias" is real; the old stand-by of the tale of the "Regatta" question is a good example of that. But a vast amount of it is, I think, just awful test-writing.

This is particularly on my mind because I had cause to run into a really, really awful test question just the other day. I'm reproducing this from memory, so some of the minor details might be wrong (in fact, I'm rounding the numbers to make it easier to solve in your head). But I'm confident I've got the structure right.
Mary is taking a road trip. She will be driving from San Diego to Marin County, a 520 mile trip. She plans to refill the tank when it is only 1/4 full. She will travel at an average speed of 50 mph. Her car gets 25 miles per gallon average gas mileage, and has a 20 gallon tank. Assuming she starts with a full tank, how long can she drive before she has to refill?
a) 5 hours
b) 10 hours
c) 7.5 hours
d) She won't need to refill

This is an terrible question. What does it mean when it asks how long can she drive before she has to refill? Does it mean how long till her tank is empty and she MUST refill? Or does it mean how long until she reaches the point where, according to her plan, she SHOULD refill?

On a purely technical level, it must be the former (and the answer should be (b)), because that's what "how long can you drive before you have to refill" actually means. But in the context of the question, it seems obvious that the question's author wants an additional step in the calculations -- how long till she gets to a quarter-tank, in which case the right answer is (c). In fact, I'm inclined to think (and I marked down) the correct answer is (c). My job on a multiple choice test, after all, is not to get the right answer.  My job as a test-taker is to get the answer that the test designer/grader thinks is the right answer.

After all, why would there be useless information like that bit about her plan in the question, right? Well... why would there be useless information like the names of the cities? Questions have useless information in them all the time.

My point is just this: a lot of test questions really are no good. And we shouldn't necessarily scream "bias" when, in fact, the problem is incompetence.

Threats and The School-as-Family

Last week I wrote a little bit about a proposed law governing online threats made off-campus, pointing out what I thought were some ambiguities and incoherencies (is that a word?) in the statute's language. Today I just wanted to rattle off a few brief thoughts about the notion of schools' exercising control of their students' lives while off-campus in general. My apologies... this is sort of jumbled and confused, and I'm too lazy to tighten it up.

What I find really interesting about the thinking behind the move to regulate students' off-campus behavior is that it often coupled with the mindset that schools should be tolerant and welcoming of all cultures, and shouldn't be in the cultural missionary/assimilation business. Yet it seems to me that if you are going to make a moral (as opposed to a legal) argument for being able to punish students for off-campus behavior, you have to accept that one of the missions of a school is to shape its students into a certain type of person, with a certain type of values.

Some of you reading this are probably thinking to yourself, "Of course school is about shaping values. Duh!" But not everyone agrees with this; some reject it vehemently. Still others think they disagree, but what they really think is that schools shouldn't attempt to instill values that they don't believe in themselves.

A private school can kick a kid out for off-campus behavior, because they can have a code of conduct that says, "If you want to be at this school, there's to be none of behavior X, period." (There may be difficulties in enforcement, but that's another matter.) The key difference between a private school and a public school, of course, is that the family is (usually) paying for the student to attend the private school. Attending is an option.

Attending public school is also an option, in the strict sense. But it's also often the only "costless" alternative to meeting a state mandate that your child be formally, officially observed during business hours. In other words, for many families the choice is send the kid to public school or go to jail/pay fines under truancy laws. And that's the reason, I think, that some people -- especially people on the left -- get intellectually or emotionally bothered when public schools get into the character-moulding business: there's no easy way to escape it. The normative commands of the public school are, ultimately, the normative commands of the state, which has a monopoly on force.

In other words, when the public schools can tell you that there's no making online threats, it's really the government telling you that there's no making online threats. And that's probably not a big deal, as long as we're talking about threats, right? I mean, threats are bad, right?

Yet people could reasonably be worried that if a school can ban online threats, then it can expel a student for not going to Mass, or not saying his five daily prayers. Now, you might say, "Wait a second... that's a first amendment issue!" But threats are a first amendment issue, too, and many of the sorts of "threats" that get kids suspended and expelled these days in no way pass the true threats doctrine, which is the test for determining when speech can be regulated by the government because it's a threat. (Typically, a threat is only a true threat if the “speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals" and "objective observers would reasonably perceive such speech” to be a threat.) Most incidences of fiction-gone-wrong and online venting about teachers and principals aren't really intended as a "serious expression of an intent" to work violence.

"But we can't be too careful in this post-Columbine world," some people say. Well, yes, actually -- for the purposes of the First Amendment you can be too careful. And it's especially egregious when the speech in question isn't even occurring on campus. The student didn't make a statement on campus; the fact that other students are disrupting the school environment by using their phones and computers to access the students' writing isn't grounds for punishing the student.

My point is just this: either you think that schools are in the character business, or not. And if you do, either you think that the First Amendment actually matters, or you don't. Unfortunately, I think that there are a lot of people out there on the left who claim that schools shouldn't be in the character business, but really think they should, and a lot of people on the right who think that the First Amendment matters, but are willing to toss it under the bus when it doesn't fit their policy agenda.

03 January 2012

Some Off-The-Cuff Legal Analysis

So it seems that the Illinois state legislature has gotten it into their head to pass a law that allows schools to expel kids for online behavior. Here's the summary from the legislature:
Provides that a school board (including Chicago) may suspend or by regulation authorize the superintendent of the district or the principal, assistant principal, or dean of students of any school to suspend a student for a certain period of time or may expel a student for a definite period of time if (i) that student has been determined to have made an explicit threat on an Internet website against a school employee, a student, or any school-related personnel, (ii) the Internet website through which the threat was made is a site that was accessible within the school at the time the threat was made or was available to third parties who worked or studied within the school grounds at the time the threat was made, and (iii) the threat could be reasonably interpreted as threatening to the safety and security of the threatened individual because of his or her duties or employment status or status as a student inside the school.

So there are several elements here, and I want to talk briefly about each.

1) There must be an explicit threat.
This is the most interesting, because the incident that is being reported as the catalyst for this law apparently didn't involve an explicit threat. The 2005 Oswego district incident was a student who apparently posted the phrase, "I'm so angry I could kill." Even if what was actually posted was something like, "I'm so angry I could kill Mr. X, that son of a (bleep)", that wouldn't be an actual threat. Maybe if it were said in Mr. X's presence, while you were holding a knife and twirling it menacingly... but then the bulk of the threat would be the knife twirling.

My suspicion is that this law is going to run into problems about what is and is not a threat, and that districts are going to have to resort to a "disrupts the school environment" defense for their expulsions, a la Tinker vs Des Moines and related cases. I predict that these attempts will be successful. In other words, I predict that the "explicit threat" requirement of this law is going to essentially be written out by judicial interpretation and that this will just be a law that extends the school's power over student speech on campus to govern speech on the internet as well -- but I'm a pessimist. Maybe the courts will actually enforce the statute as written and will require an explicit threat.

2) It must be against school-related personnel.
I'm not really sure what that means, other than employees and students -- maybe they're talking about PTA moms or something. Maybe they're talking about guest-speakers who come to campus? No real problems here.

3) It must be made on an internet website
I'm not an Illinois lawyer, but this might be problematic because there's much more to the internets than "websites", at least how that term is used in a technical sense. Presumably this is an easy thing for courts to ignore, though. If it's on the internet, I bet they'll consider it a "website" because it's a site on the web.

4) The site must be school-accessible:
This is an interesting requirement -- that someone at the school (even, presumably, office staff sitting at networked computers) -- must be able to access the website at the time the threat was made. There are three problems that I can see.

First, it's hard to determine when an online threat is "made". Is it when it is typed? When it is posted? When it is read? This isn't like me walking up to you and saying something, after all. What if a threat is posted to a secure website that is not school accessible, and is only accessible to certain non-campus IP addresses, but then those protections are removed? When was the threat made? There's probably case law on this sort of thing, which I'm too lazy to look up. But it seems like a thorny issue.

Second, I wonder if the access from school can count someone violating school policy. Let me explain what I mean. Let's say the threat is posted to a Facebook page that is only viewable by "friends". Let's also say that the school has a strict no-internet policy, but that some students violate that policy by bringing smartphones onto campus and using them. Does that count as a website "accessible within the school"? What if students are not supposed to use school computers for Facebook, but do anyway? Does a student have a right to rely on school policy to protect him from expulsion for making threats?

Third, I'd want to know what "accessible" means. If a page can be reached, but is password protected, is it "accessible"? Does it matter who knows the password? Does it matter that the password can be hacked, or that doing so is a violation of law?

I'm imagining that something like the following rule is going to be followed: if it shows up on someone's computer or wireless device, it must have been accessible. But you might think that a student should be able to tell whether his or her behavior is going to get him or her expelled before some super-hacker at school goes to work on the website in question.

5) The threat could be reasonably interpreted as threatening to the safety and security of the threatened individual because of his or her duties or employment status or status as a student inside the school.
I won't lie... this last bit has me confused.

Presumably, if we're taking the "explicit threat" portion of this proposed law seriously, there's already a requirement that the threat "threaten the safety and security" of the threatened individual. So that can't be what this section is about; the important part really has to be the "because" clause. But I have absolutely no idea what it means for someone's safety or security to be threatened because of their relationship to the school. The most common-sense interpretation is probably a sort of motive-analysis: is this threat being made because the threatened person is a student or employee?

But the answer to that is almost always going to be "no". Threats get made because people do things that make people angry, not because someone happens to be a student or a teacher. So is the real question whether the underlying antagonism had its genesis in the schoolyard, or in the principal's office? So maybe it's not OK to threaten the teacher online if you're threatening her because she gave you an F. But it would be OK to threaten her because she cut you off in traffic? That seems like a weird result. Would it matter if she cut you off in traffic on the way to school?

If a fellow student eggs your house, and you threaten him online, are you threatening him "because" of his status as a student? Well, on the one hand, no. He egged your house, and that's why you're threatening him. But on the other, he wouldn't have egged your house if you hadn't mouthed off to him in school the other day...

One could imagine that this provision is taken VERY literally, but then we get ridiculous situations where the only actionable threat looks like this:

"If you don't unenroll from school immediately, I'm going to box your ears in."

That's silly. No one makes threats like that. But I'm really at a loss to understand exactly what's supposed to be being required here.

So those are my thoughts on the specifics of the proposed law. I've got some more general concerns... like if this law is being passed because of concerns that off-campus online activity is currently protected by federal law, how is passing a state law going to change that, exactly? There's still this thing called the Supremacy Clause, and you can't take away federal protections through a state law. But I've gone on long enough for now.

I'll have some more abstract thoughts on this general topic in a day or two.