All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


16 December 2011

The Fundamental Choice in Education

I'm doing some thinking and some reading this morning. That's what philosophers do when we're unable to write coherently. And one of the things I've been thinking about is the problem of subsidization, namely, the iron-clad rule that if you subsidize a behavior, you get more of it.

We've got a compulsory school system. For all sorts of reasons, I think this is a terrible idea. But, following the rule of Chesterton's Fence (see McArdle's discussion here if you aren't familiar), it's not enough merely not to like the compulsory nature of school. We should attempt to understand why we have it before we tear it apart.

The easy (mostly false) answer is that we're in a quasi-facist state that wants to control its youth and brainwash them into service to the Leviathan. But that's only a very small part of the story.

We mostly have compulsory education because there are parents out there who won't send their kids to school otherwise, because some families would put their kids to work and deny them the supposed benefits of sitting in a desk learning from "highly qualified" teachers. So to prevent these kids from missing out on these opportunities, to prevent the sort of feudal social calcification that such behaviors breed, we institute mandatory schooling.

But now we run into the subsidization problem. You can think of mandatory schooling as a form of subsidy, a subsidy for the behavior of not valuing education. On average, if you don't value education, and your kids don't value education, your kids are going to have a less economically productive and, I think, less meaningful life. They may grow up with a narrower world view and a provincial focus. (That might have been an ironclad certainty in the days before the inter-tubes; now I think it's just a risk.)

But if you mandate education, you are taking away these penalties that normally attach to the failure to value education. You're subsidizing the attitude.

And that means you're going to get more of it.

And really, it's just common sense. Compulsory education is "free" (or appears so to most people), and you have to be there whether you want to be or not. Does that sound like something valuable? Something that's not just given away, but given away to everyone? Valuable things are usually kept locked away, with restricted access. Things like Harvard. Harvard gets locked away behind some walls and an admissions committee. Harvard's valuable.

It's a natural sort of thought to think that the schooling offered by your neighborhood public school isn't valuable. The subsidy creates more of the attitude whose effects it is designed to ameliorate.

Now, because we have compulsory schooling, you can't threaten to kick someone out of the school. Not really. Sure, there are the extreme cases involving guns, knives, and things like hugging or flying an American flag that might run you the risk of permanent expulsion, but by and large expulsion is a rare bird, and it's almost never EVER given for mere non-engagement, for absolute, total academic failure.

What if it were? What if we told students who were, say, 12 or older, "You don't want to be here, and you don't want to learn? Go ahead and get out of my classroom. Leave."

I've floated this idea with people before, and I generally get something along the lines of the following in response: "Too many kids would just walk away from school and we'd have hundreds of kids on the streets missing out on their best years for learning."

I have to say, that's a damn good point, and it gives me pause (which is why I'm not quite ready to fully endorse something like the idea I just sketched out). But I also think it overstates the case somewhat. Yes, there would be kids on the street. But we'd have stopped the subsidy of the poor attitude towards education, so there would (if my hypothesis is correct) be far fewer people who didn't want to deal with school. School would become something seen as more valuable by most people, precisely because you wouldn't have it by default. It would be something you'd have to work for.

Private schools don't have this problem, because they kick people out all the time. And the students are paying to be there. Expulsion is a credible threat.

It's sort of like nuclear weapons. If you have one, and people believe that you're going to use it, you almost never have to use it. Likewise, I think it's possible that once you've credibly tossed a few students out on their ears, the number of students who would seek or deserve such tossing is likely to decrease dramatically.

This strikes me as the fundamental choice facing American Education: to subsidize or not to subsidize the non-valuing of school and education. For the last century at least, we've come down firmly in the subsidization camp -- to the point where I'm not sure people (including me) are even able to clearly understand what would happen without the subsidy. It's affected our culture, our institutions, our views of what school is supposed to be.

Let me be perfectly clear -- or at least as clear as our President is when he says those words: I am not advocating ending the subsidy. I'm advocating that we look at the way we think about it, and ask ourselves the following questions:

1) How many of the panoply of woes currently afflicting (or at least supposedly afflicting) our educational system in this country is a direct result of this subsidy?

2) How bad would things really get if we ended it?

3) And finally, given the answers to the previous two questions, is it still worth it keeping the subsidy?

The answer may well be "yes". I'd just like us to think openly and clearly about the matter.

Gratuitious Repost: Practice, Failure, and Evaluation

(This is a wholly gratuitous re-post of something I wrote for Joanne a few months back. I'm putting it here because it's one of my better posts, represents some of my clearer thinking, and... I just spent 35 minutes searching around the internets trying to figure out where exactly I wrote it. I'd like to be able to find it in the future. So here it is.)

I wanted to take a few minutes to ruminate more deeply on something I said in passing in a comment thread a few weeks back. Here’s what I said:

When a student has not been allowed to fail, they will learn that failure isn’t something that can happen. When a college professor gives them an F, the result is confusion.

Unfortunately, failure *is* something that can happen, regardless of the attitude one takes towards it in primary and secondary school. It happens with devastating results, sometimes. Now, school is supposed to be a place where you can fail without devastating consequences, where you can learn from your failures and become better at things, but failure in school is often seen these days as a devastating consequence itself. (e.g., YOU RUINED MY CHANCE TO GET INTO HARVARD!)

That’s a problem. Certification should be the secondary mission of schools, not the primary mission.

There are really three different points here.

First, there’s an assertion that failure is always a possibility. That’s probably true: one can avoid failure only by never attempting anything not guaranteed success, which is itself a sort of failure… at life. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Second, there’s an assertion that school should be a place where failure is constructive. That’s a much dicier proposition. We all know the old saying: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” If you don’t know it, you should learn it, because it’s a good saying. But there’s another saying, too: “Insanity is trying the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” If you consider both of these sayings together, the resulting imperative seems to be something like “If at first you don’t succeed, keep altering your approach until you do.” And that’s really great advice.

Of course, there are times when you don’t want to have to try again. Operation Overlord comes to mind this time of year. No one wants to fail when they’re invading Europe; it’s too expensive, too much is on the line. Failure isn’t an option in such situations; if Eisenhower was pushed back into the sea and tens of thousands of soldiers died for naught, well, it would take great presence of mind to say, “Let’s try this again, but put the seventh division over here this time.” No, you drill and practice as best you can before the big invasion, and try to work out the possibilities of failure in a low-consequence environment.

Whether success is a must or merely a goal depends on the consequences. That last-second three-point shot isn’t a laboratory for experiment because the game rides on it; if you’re a professional NBA player, you’ve already had all the consequence-free practice money can buy. Now’s the time to succeed.

School, I’d like to argue, needs to be a place for consequence-free practice. My favourite analogy for academic education is martial arts; it’s not actually an analogy, because I think they’re the same thing. Schools essentially are (or, I argue, should be) kung-fu academies for the mind. When you walk into a martial arts dojo, you practice. That’s not to say you don’t get hurt: people get hurt all the time in practice. That’s how you can tell that the practice is really good practice: you’ve got all sorts of bumps and bruises. But they aren’t the sorts of bumps and bruises you get when you’re on the ground in an alley doing your level best to drive your elbow through someone’s temple before they choke you to death.

So I’m not saying school should be completely consequence-free — but the stakes need to be lower than they are in the environment for which one is training.

And oddly, they aren’t. They’re higher. Yes, it’s true that how you do in college, say, matters more than how you do in high school. But that’s only half the story, because where you do how you do in college depends on how you did in high school. If you get a 3.9 at Yale, then yes, that makes up for your 2.1 in High School. But good luck getting in to Yale. And that’s because high school (and, let us be frank, to a great extent college) is a certification system, which brings me to my third point.

High schools have three jobs, really. First, they need to keep the kids off the streets, corralled, and out from underfoot. I personally find this role of the high school to be both demeaning to the teenagers, counterproductive to actual learning, and immoral.

Second, High Schools need to instruct their students in a certain body of knowledge. Now, this body of knowledge is schizoid in the extreme, and it’s created substantially by committee, so it’s not what anyone would call a “coherent” body of knowledge. But there needs to be some teaching going on, some imparting of skills, some training for the rest of one’s life. This is the function I consider absolutely primary.

Finally, High Schools give diplomas: they certify a certain level of competence. Just how much competence they certify and how worthwhile their certifications are will vary from school to school and is the subject of many an essay, op-ed, and book. But that’s the third job, and it’s the certification that is driving all the consequences that I was talking about above. I want to argue that the certification mission is substantially interfering with the education mission, precisely because it is causing the practice itself to be less practice and more real-performance. That “F” on your English essay should be a signal to try again, to rewrite it with a new technique, a new approach. Instead, it’s 20% of your grade, which is 4% of your final GPA. In other words, that ONE essay that you just wrote is .8% of your final GPA in high school.

Bruises acquired in a martial arts dojo during practice heal, and the students emerge stronger, wiser, and more skilled. The bruises stay in the dojo, and in the mind of the student. We need to figure out a way to keep students’ failures inside the school, to give them more opportunity to practice — just practice. How many ungraded assignments that get substantial feedback have any of you given in the last few weeks? In my entire high school career, the only ungraded practice I had was in French. Everything else was graded, it went on the record, it became part of my certification.

That’s super-useful if you’re the person depending on the certification, and you just want people with natural talent who pick things up right away. But it’s horrible for the student who might need a little practice.

Of course, you might question (as many of my students do when we discuss these things) whether students would actually do any ungraded practice assignments. That argument — that grades are primarily about motivation — seems to me at once to be a good one and to prove my point. The reasons that grades motivate is because they matter. If they didn’t matter, they wouldn’t motivate. But the fact that grades matter (and that everything is graded) is precisely why I think there’s a problem.

I’ve gone on long enough for a blog post. Too long, probably. But I wanted to try to get my head around some of these ideas and I think it’s helped.

11 December 2011

"Students' Mastery of Learning Outcomes"

I read that phrase today here.

I want to point out something: students master skills, games, texts, the weather (if they're divine), and all sorts of other things.

But people don't "master" "outcomes". It's just not the sort of thing that gets mastered, because outcomes are just the results of mastering other things.

Some might say that I'm being nitpicky. But words mean things. And if you can't speak/write clearly about what it is you're doing, odds are high that you don't really have a clear idea of what you're doing in the first place.

30 November 2011

From the Archives: Teaching History

I probably don't blog enough to warrant titling a post "From the Archives", but I was re-reading some comments by an Anonymous commenter to my post about History which, oddly, is by far the most trafficked post on my blog since I started it up again earlier this year.

Anyway, here's the relevant portion of the comment:

The whole business of studying history is to upset everything we reflexively believe.

* * * *

And the job of educators is to bring unreflective practice into line with more current, sophisticated research and thinking.

The comment itself is mostly on a tangential issue to the original post, and I'm not really interested in its substance, anyway. I'm concerned with the underlying view of "education" that I see represented in the two excerpted sentences. If it were just one sentence, I'd think, "Eh, whatever. Off the cuff writing." But two sentences makes it seem like something the writer actually believes.

And I think he's wrong.

You see, I tend to think that it is the job of educators -- history and otherwise -- to do their best to speak the truth. And sometimes the truth is what we reflexively believe. (Actually, this is true a lot more than it is false -- we've got VERY good instincts about the truth.) I also think that sometimes the truth is not in line with the "more current, sophisticated research and thinking" and various subjects, even assuming that one could come up with some objective measure of which thinking is more 'sophisticated'.

We have a saying in Philosophy that I've heard at least five different ways, but it always boils down to the same thing: say the true things, and try not to say the false things.

Lots of very smart, sophisticated people think that Rawls' Theory of Justice is right. If it's right, then it's right. But if it's right, it's right because it accurately states the truth about morality and social governance. It's not the fact that lots of smart people think it is right that makes it so, and in fact -- as a very smart person myself -- I happen to think it's mostly malarkey. Well written and thought out malarkey, but fundamentally mistaken.

One problem with some of our teachers might be (is that enough qualification?) that a lot of them see the study of various subjects as the mastery of a body of dogma rather than an excursion into the truth. Some history teachers are teaching a body of facts. Some English teachers are teaching points 3 through 7 of the Style Guide. Some teachers would be incapable of giving a cogent explanation of why what they are teaching is important. (Which is why students love asking that question so much -- it's so often a stumper.)

Our only concern in education should be the truth. Not being "current" or "sophisticated", not being revolutionary or upsetting our reflexive paradigms. And not meeting some political agenda, he mutters wearily.

Defining "Success" and Graduation Rates

Today, over at Joanne's, there is (by way of Joanne's other blog, Community College Spotlight) a link to a somewhat disturbing story:
At its final meeting on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., the 15-member Committee on Measures of Student Success (CMSS)—which includes several community college leaders and individuals who have served public two-year colleges—voted to approve its 26-page report. Among the recommendations: including part-time, degree-seeking students in the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), and collecting data on federal student aid recipients and students who are not academically ready for college.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) was especially pleased that the committee urged the Education Department to calculate and publicize a single completion rate that includes students who receive degrees and certificates, as well as those who subsequently enroll in another higher education institution. The combined graduation-and-transfer rate would vastly improve the student success rate, AACC said in a statement, noting that the combined rate is required by federal stature but has not been implemented.

“The community college completion rate would immediately increase to 40 percent from the current 22 percent if this single recommendation were adopted,” AACC said. .

The first, most disturbing aspect of the story is this: there's an organization in the government (in the Dept. of Education, specifically) called "The Committee on Measures of Student Success". You can read a little about it here. Their sole job, as far as I can tell, is to write reports about how to help clarify for implementation the provisions of another law. All hail the regulative state, I suppose. When I was young, I was under the impression that the courts were the ones who interpreted the law when it wasn't clear. Silly me.

That's not really what I wanted to write about, though. I want to write about success.

Anyone with a pulse should be able to spot the logical problem with a statement like, "The completion rate would immediately increase from 22 to 40 percent." It's not the same rate if you change what you're measuring. Now, I don't mean to say that the people at the AACC are stupid -- they mean "the rate measured by law", and they're just using the word "completion rate" somewhat inartfully. I didn't come here today to pick on perfectly smart people speaking casually. That's allowed.

But this concern over how to define completion rates bring up an interesting set of issues. In this case, the concern seems motivated by the reporting requirements of federal legislation. Those requirements are in turn motivated by an apparent belief that measuring "successful outcomes" at a school is how to determine if a school is doing its job.

Which is sort of true, I suppose, but problematic if you don't look outside the school's own standards for determining "successful outcomes." Let me explain what I mean.

Naval SEAL training is a school. It's an excellent school. We can tell it's an excellent school because its graduates go out and proficiently defend their country in a wide variety of extremely difficult situations. Their "outcomes" are damn good. But their outcomes are measured in terms of actual, real success -- not just success at school. Indeed, the success rate at the school is somewhat abysmal, something on the order of 20%.

But here's the interesting thing about SEAL school failures: they're mostly "successful outcomes", too. If you put someone into a high intensity combat situation who isn't ready for it, and they slip, miss, stumble, or just choke and get people killed, that's a failure for the school. It's not a success at all, despite the fact that the school's graduation rate might be higher because they passed.

If you take a community college and judge its success by its graduation rate, something entirely within the control of the school, then a perverse situation develops. The school going to be able to increase its number of "successful outcomes" (as we use the term officially) by lowering its standards and shuffling more people out the door, diploma in hand. More graduates, yes, but they could be less skilled than otherwise might be the case.

In other words, the schools will be able to increase their official success rate by decreasing the number of real successful outcomes. Which isn't to say that they would do that -- but if that's even a possibility, it's a pretty strong clue that our way of measuring success is all messed up.

But, you might say, schools like Naval SEAL training "weed out" people. That shouldn't be the job of second grade!

Well, yes. It should. Second grade should "weed out" the people who aren't ready for third grade. And third grade should "weed out" the people who aren't ready for fourth grade. And so on.

The reason for this is that at some point the school system is going to have to weed people out, and it's not fair to put someone in twelfth grade and ask them to demonstrate high school academic proficiency if they weren't ready for the training in the first place. The lower grades are supposed to prepare you for the upper grades, which are supposed to prepare you for "life" or something like that. That's the theory. And if people are going into sixth grade unable to do sixth grade work, then the fifth grade teacher is failing to generate "successful outcomes", no matter how blisteringly high the graduation rate is.

If you look at graduation rates to determine success -- or even transfer rates, which while a little better, can similarly be affected by academic fraud on the community colleges' part -- you're not looking at anything substantive at all. You're looking merely at process: how many people are being approved by this school? The answer, of course, is always going to be "As many as the school approves of." Think about that for a second and ask yourself what substantive standard is involved there.

We could, of course, look at the schools themselves and what they are actually doing. Are the classes filled with interesting, useful, and challenging information or are they busywork? Do the professors/teachers demand excellence or are they just marking time? Is failure of various academic sorts frowned upon or cavalierly tolerated? Is the environment supportive, competitive, combative, or apathetic? These are all substantive questions about what the school is doing and how it is doing it. And they have no necessary connection whatsoever to graduation rates. A graduation is only a "successful outcome" if it's an accurate signal for a certain kind of competence.

Let me distill my thoughts down to a short paragraph, something you can take away and quote:

Success might be its own justification, and it might have many fathers. But when you're teaching in a school, your success is your students' success. And their success is out there, not in here with you.

09 November 2011

Hugging in School: The Power of the Inter-Tubes

From Professor Volokh over at the Conspiracy, we are treated to a blog post devoid of comment and linking us to an article which informs us that
[Nick Martinez, age 14,] said he quickly hugged the girl, whom he called his best friend, between classes. The principal saw it and hauled them off to the dean for an in-school suspension. The principal even told WKMG Local 6 that the hug was innocent....

The school has a strict no-hugging policy and is the only school in the district where hugging is not allowed. Under the policy, there is no difference between an unwanted hug, like sexual harassment, and a hug between friends....

In the former version of this blog, I wrote extensively about zero tolerance policies and my natural antipathy to them. I may do so again, but that's not what I want to do here. What I want to do now is talk briefly about the Internet, or the "Inter-Tubes", as I sometimes call them in moments of mirth.

Here's a comment from a Conspiracy reader:
Steve: I realize everything is stupid today, but way back in the Golden Age when I attended public school, I recall fairly strict policies against “public displays of affection,” as they were known.


(I)n the cable and Internet age when every local story is shared with a national audience, the fact that one kid somewhere in a nation of 350 million got sent to detention for a hug is obvious proof that everything is going to hell.

And here's another:
We weren’t even allowed to hold hands in public at my high school.

This is a normal thing. But the fact that Eugene blogs it, and in the context of other things Eugene blogs, it seems like some kind of damning indictment school administrators.

And two more:
Back in the early ‘50s when dinosaurs roamed the elementary schoolhouse halls, we played football with real tackling, mumblety-peg with real pocketknives, and marbles and tops for keeps. Some girls played these games too. We had no idiotic rules against “touching” either.

At the public school I attended there were always kids hugging, giving kisses, and even feeling-up each other alongside the lockers between classes.

I didn’t think it was such a great idea at the time because it seemed that the kids who engaged in this behavior were less academically successful, less likely to participate in extracurricular activities, and were less achievement oriented in general.

My own high school experience (I talk about high school despite the fact that the story is about a Middle School because the kid's 14, which means 9th grade; 9th grade is high school out here) is filled with a lot of memories. Leaving out names to protect the innocent, one of the starkest is noticing how sorta adorable two of my fellow classmates were kissing between classes. (I was also a little jealous/in awe of their relationship, which didn't last, btw.) I also recall being vaguely bothered by the intensity of the touchy-feeliness of another couple. In other words, there very clearly was hugging, kissing, and even some groping going on in my high school, even between 14-year old freshmen.

So let's go back to that first reader comment. Steve (the commenter) says with just the right amount of snark that it's silly to get worked up about a single failure of judgment in a nation of 350 million people. I pretty much agree with him -- that's a silly reason to get worked up. But as I read through the comments, I started to muse that even if this incident was a single lapse in judgment, and the fact that only one school in the district has such a policy suggests that it is, it needn't be thus. There could, conceivably, be districts where this sort of treatment of hugging is an every-day occurrence and there are social norms about such things that differ dramatically than what I grew up with.

And so I started to think about the Internet and the constant deluge of information we get these days. Perhaps, I wondered, the Inter-Tubes might be allowing us to see what happens all the time in other parts of the country, and perhaps this isn't always a good thing. I wonder if one of the reasons our country was able to survive so well for as long as it did wasn't that we didn't always make every local policy choice a national issue.

That's sort of abstract, so let me bring it down to the level of the concrete. I think policies on no hugging are silly and stupid, and I would argue against them in my community. But they also would be exceedingly unlikely (I hope) to happen in my community, because that's not how we roll. In other communities, as we can see in the comments above, that is how they roll. But with the Inter-Tubes, we get to read about it all the time.

In other words -- and I'm speculating wildly here -- people like me could have gotten just as upset about what those weird no-touching schools were doing back in the 50's, or back in the 80's and 90's. We just didn't know what was going on because we didn't read about it with our morning tea. It was happening on the other side of the hill.

So I'm wondering if having this sort of accessibility to "foreign" practices, that is, understanding all the things that your neighbors in the next town or next state are really up to on a micro level, is such a good thing. People don't go to war over nothing. But they often go to war because those godless heathens in the next town eat lamb, or something like that. I wonder if perhaps we weren't protected against stirring up that sort of inter-cultural nastiness -- at least to some extent -- by the relative paucity of information we used to have about what occurred elsewhere. We know those folks on the other side of the hill vote for President, just like us, and that's good enough for us!

But now, with the Inter-Tubes, we have 24-hour access to the happenings of the Edgefield school board in Posterior County, Egyptia. We get to see what they do as a matter of course, and we have the opportunity to get upset, and to make it an issue of national culture. The internet enables the little cultural facist lurking in all of us, who wants everyone to do things like we do. (Truly being a libertarian about things is hard work, and anyone who tells you it is the natural state of mind is lying to you.)

Please bear in mind that I'm not saying that this sort of hugging suspension happens all the time in the county in question. I'm merely suggesting that it's possible, and that the internet age has had a profound effect on how we relate to manifestations of that possibility, or possibilities like it. Finally, I want to caveat that I think the district policy on touching is a separate issue from the obvious ramping-up of penalties that has occurred in the last few years. That, I suspect, really is a national concern and not merely a case of differing local sensibilities finally coming onto each others' radar.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking this morning and that's what this blog is for.

04 November 2011

Some Lighthearted Frivolity

Via Althouse, I came to a fascinating little photo essay at the Daily Mail online. It's a side-by-side of some modern celebrities, and the Old Skool celebrities that they resemble. The headline asks, "Do today's icons measure up to their classic lookalikes?"

Just for S&G's, let's find out. No politics. No nostalgia. Let's just see who looks better -- as a combination of beauty and style -- because appearance is what really matters, right?

George Clooney vs. Cary Grant: This seems to me like a no-brainer. Clooney's good looking on his own, but next to Grant he looks like an over-surgeried boy-man. Point for the old guard. 0-1

January Jones vs. Grace Kelly: I have to remind myself that we're not judging talent, interview skill, or choice-of-roles here. It's just pure looks and fashion. Jones actually has more of an old-style, low-cheekbone classical look. That picture also gives her more of a pouting-19th Century painting look. In fact, if you made her picture black and white, you might think that Kelly was the modern day actress -- there's a little more vivacity there. This is a close one, very nearly a tie. Based on these pictures, it's Jones. 1-1

Penelope Cruz vs. Sophia Loren: Seriously? 1-2

David Beckham vs. Errol Flynn: This is almost an apples to oranges comparison. Beckham and Flynn are two very different kinds of style and face structure. Were I choosing someone to put up against Flynn, I'd probably pick Sean Penn. Still, a choice is a choice. Beckham has a really great Clint Eastwood vibe going in that picture, so we'll give it to the Tyros. 2-2

Brad Pitt vs. Robert Redford: When both were in their prime, this would be a much closer contest. But it looks like they're comparing the older versions of these two actors. That's Redford's territory, hands-down. 2-3

Carey Mulligan vs. Mia Farrow: This gets my vote for the picture that started this column. Someone (Claire Cisotti) probably saw the picture of Carey Mulligan... who is... I'm not sure exactly.... and said, "WOW she looks like Mia Farrow." A column idea is born. These two are, in this picture at least, basically twins. But Farrow looks like she'd be more fun. 2-4

Keira Knightley vs. Audrey Hepburn: This match-up seems to be the result of, "But it's Audrey Hepburn. We have to include her. Who can we credibly put up against her?" A hair cut doesn't do it. Neither does being thin. I would have picked Natalie Portman for the Hepburn match-up myself. They're much closer in terms of their style and the "type" of beauty they have. But with that said, I've always been a fan of Hepburn's acting rather than her looks, and I think Knightley's earth-scorching drop-dead hotness comes out on top here. 3-4

Scarlett Johansson vs. Marilyn Monroe: Marilyn Monroe is typically thought to be better looking than she actually was, in my opinion. But I'm evaluating the beauty of a person (or the picture of a person), not a concept. Johansson has the worse picture, but they probably had to pick a bad picture of her to make it seem like a fair fight. 4-4

Catherine Zeta-Jones vs. Cyd Charisse: That sound you just heard was Cyd Charisse scraping Zeta-Jones off the bottom of her shoe. 4-5

Hugh Jackman vs. Clint Eastwood: Physically this is a dead tie, as near as my woman-oriented libido can tell. But I try to imagine Hugh Jackman saying, "Just because we're holding hands doesn't mean we're going to take long, hot showers together till the wee hours of the morning," I choke on my coffee because he doesn't have the mystique to pull that off. Personal style is part of this competition, so Clint takes it. 4-6

James Franco vs. James Dean: Like the Farrow competition, above, this is like comparing twins. One of whom is strung out on meth and drinks too much. But that's like the worst picture of James Dean on the first page of the Google Image search, and a strikingly good picture of James Franco. Victory is officially out of reach of the new guard with our first tie. 4-6-1

Katie Holmes vs. Natalie Wood: The caption says "Katie Holmes and Natalie Wood captivate with a glance." There are some things missing from that sentence. It should read, "Katie Holmes. (pause) And Natalie Wood captivates with a glance." 4-7-1

Old Skool wins. As my friend Russell once said, "It's a (bleep) when those twentieth level fighters come out of retirement."

And that's my frivolous, superficial opinion for the day.

03 November 2011

The View From the Bleachers

There's a fight going on. Depending on who you ask, it's a fight between the New Class Elites...

In social theory, OWS is best understood not as a populist movement against the bankers, but instead as the breakdown of the New Class into its two increasingly disconnected parts. The upper tier, the bankers-government bankers-super credentialed elites. But also the lower tier, those who saw themselves entitled to a white collar job in the Virtue Industries of government and non-profits — the helping professions, the culture industry, the virtueocracies, the industries of therapeutic social control, as Christopher Lasch pointed out in his final book, The Revolt of the Elites.

... or a fight between the haves and the have-nots.

As the police in Oakland, California, breaking up the occupy protests there, "Occupy Oakland." Part of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement is for economic justice. This one in California, the police moved in with batons swinging, they tore down tents and smashed signs.

They sent tear gas grenades into the crowd. The cops are also alleged to have fired rubber bullets, something they are denying, despite injuries to protesters that look like they were caused by rubber bullets. And police admits to firing bean bag rounds, though.

It might even be a fight between the taxpayers and the government dependent class.

America is engaged in class war, but not of the sort one reads about in the mainstream press. The truly indigent - young African-American men, for example, most of whom are now unemployed - have little to do in this war. Large corporations for the most part are bystanders as well; they will make their peace with the victor. This is a war of survival between the productive middle class on one hand, and the dependents of the state on the other.

But those fights seem to me to be mere power struggles, purely economic and political in nature. The fight between the haves and the have-nots is not -- despite the rhetoric -- grounded in a moral complaint. The fact that someone has a lot of stuff doesn't make them evil, no matter how much you shriek that it does.

That's not to say that the possible outcomes of these fights can't be talked about sensibly in moral terms. I'm merely pointing out that the conflicts themselves aren't really about moral complaints.

But there's another way of looking at this conflict that does make it a moral issue -- one that I, frankly, find compelling. Via Joanne, we are given a number of arguments by Alex Pareene over at Salon about why it is that the 99% has gotten such a raw deal. On the whole, the piece is excremental and its litany of broken promises can be refuted simply by pointing out that adults make choices, sometimes things don't work out, and ultimately the only person responsible for you is you.

But there is one line of argument that Pareene raises which can't be dismissed this way:
For the young, higher education was said to be a ticket to class mobility, or at least a secure career. Instead, middle-class students have taken on billions of dollars of inescapable debt during a prolonged jobs crisis. Lower-income students are blatantly ripped off by usurious scam artists working for educationally dubious for-profit schools. Even those seeking to join the professional class, through medical school or law school, find themselves with mountains of debt and dwindling job prospects.

This is a real complaint. It's one thing to be misled by political leaders as adults. No one put a gun to your head and forced you to vote democratic, or forced you to purchase that home that the laws of mathematics said you couldn't afford.

But it's another thing to be misled as a child, to be given a false vision of the world, and to take your first steps into adulthood in trust of that vision. I think the "broken social promises" complaint Pareene presents is a valid one when it comes to the young. They're adults now (maybe), but they weren't really fully autonomous when they made the decisions that they did. Indeed, we've been structuring society precisely to make them less autonomous. (Stay on your parents' insurance till your 26???).

This complaint is, morally speaking, much more grounded and coherent than the disorganized class warfare blather that generally comes out of the Occupiers/99 percenters as rhetorical cover for their praxis struggle.

Indeed, and this is where the title of this post comes in, as a member of Generation X, what this moral conflict looks like to me is a fight between the Boomers and the Millennials. "Our parents lied to us about life!" seems to sum it up nicely.

And the millennials are right. The Boomers really screwed up. They should be ashamed of themselves, and if they had any sense of shame, they'd do what they could to make things right.

Unfortunately, as a generation, they don't. Have shame, that is. So what sort of redress can be given for this moral wrong that has been perpetrated against the Millennials?

Well, just because you're correct that your parents were horrible and lied to you doesn't mean you get compensated for it. You just have to deal. Yes, you have the moral high ground -- it was wrong for your parents and their friends and coworkers and the others in their generation to lie to you about the efficacy of the college degree, just like it was wrong of them to destroy its value at the same time by beginning the transformation of college into a high school extension program in order to subvert the Draft and establish a wider political power base.

So to the extent that their complaints actually reflect a genuine, grounded moral outrage, I have great sympathy for the mis-named "99%". I genuinely feel bad about how they were misled and saddled with unsustainable personal debt to pursue worthless degrees... all because they had faith in what the Boomers told them. It's an awful place to be and it's unjust.

That doesn't mean there's compensation coming. Not by moral implication, anyway.

Though there may well be compensation coming. As I said above, in addition to the valid moral complaint, there's also a pure praxis struggle going on -- a raw force fight for political and economic power. There's even odds, I think, that the Occupiers are going to win this fight, so they'll probably get their compensation for their parents misleading them -- it will just be because they took it, not because they morally deserve it.

And, knowing how history works, it's going to be us Gen-Xers in the bleachers who are going to have to pay it.

Pass the mustard. I'm going to enjoy this hot dog before someone down there tries to take it from me.

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.

22 September 2011

In Which I Remind Elizabeth Warren of Her Benefit in the Social Contract

Elizabeth Warren said the following, in case you haven't heard:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody! You built a factory out there? Good for you! But I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You, uh, were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did.

Actually, Professor Warren, you didn't have to worry that the rich guy with the factory over there was going to hire marauding bands of "private security" to protect his investment.

YOU got to sleep comfortably at night working in a university without worrying that the rich guy with the factory over there was going to use his superior resources to turn you into his serf.

The guy with the knowledge and gumption and wherewithal to build a factory is the same guy who could build a castle and enslave you in another world.

So how about you cut him a little slack, and stop pretending that he's the one really benefiting from our bargain?

It is the weak, the unambitious, the unskilled, and the unlucky who benefit most from our arrangements. That we provide roads and police and so forth has the additional fringe benefit of allowing any of us who wish to to make our own fortunes.

UPDATE: My ruminations on the ability of the social contract to bind power reminded me of one of my favourite examples in the movies of someone speaking from a position of power:

Really Powerful Person: "It may seem like we have each other over the same barrel. But it only seems that way."

Less Powerful Person: "I want..."

Really Powerful Person: "You want?"

Less Powerful Person: "May I... May I have the first question?"

Bonus points if you recognize it.

14 September 2011

Value-Added Analysis and the Really Real World

The Wall Street Journal just claimed that value-added measures of teacher quality are utterly useless.

OK, the Wall Street Journal didn't quite say that. They didn't even really mean to say that, and would probably deny it if you asked them. But if what they say is true, then they pretty much delivered what I think is a death blow against value-added analysis.

If I were running a wrongful termination lawsuit on behalf of a teacher who was dismissed on the basis of value added metrics, I'd send the WSJ a Godiva gift box for telling me what me strategy should be.

Here's what they say, in an article that I found through a link at Joanne's site:

For the first time this year, teachers in Rhode Island and Florida will see their evaluations linked to the complex metric. Louisiana and New Jersey will pilot the formulas this year and roll them out next school year. At least a dozen other states and school districts will spend the year finalizing their teacher-rating formulas.

* * * *

Janice Poda, strategic-initiatives director for the Council of Chief State School Officers, said education officials are trying to make sense of the complicated models. "States have to trust the vendor is designing a system that is fair and, right now, a lot of the state officials simply don't have the information they need," she said.

* * * *

For states and school districts, deciding which vendor to use is critical. The metrics differ in substantial ways and those distinctions can have a significant influence on whether a teacher is rated superior or subpar.

(Emphasis added.)

Let us assume that we live in the really real world and that, in addition to its being the case that there ain't no coming back, whether a teacher is good or bad is a matter of actual fact. Let us further assume that we have just such a teacher.
Let us also assume that we have just two metrics -- one of which tells us that our teacher is "superior" and the other of which tells us that the teacher is "subpar".

How are we to tell which metric is right? They can't both be right. ("You are also right!")

Well, obviously, we can look at the teacher's teaching with our own eyes and tell if she's doing a good job. We can then go back, look at our metrics, and know which one of them is getting it right in this case.

But people are using these (untested) metrics to attempt to determine who the good and bad teachers are in the first place. In other words, the way to prove the metric's efficacy is to... consult the metric.

You can't do that. You have to test these metrics first, scientifically, to determine their efficacy in determining teacher effectiveness. Because teacher effectiveness isn't what they measure: they measure student test scores and how they compare against statistical projections. That the test scores themselves are imperfect proxies for student learning (I've tanked more than one test in my life just out of spite) only compounds the problem.

I hate to sound like a stick in the mud, but if you want test scores to serve as a PROXY for (rather than merely as a definition of) good teaching, then you have to take a group of recognizably good teachers, and a group of recognizably bad teachers, and run the various metrics across the two groups to see if the results bear any semblance to reality. So who wants to volunteer their kids to be in the recognizably bad classrooms for this experiment? (Would that even be legal?)

Districts aren't doing this, as far as I can tell. And neither are the statisticians. They're just concerned with the data -- and the data aren't about teachers, but about student test scores. Instead, what we get is this paragon of scientific precision:

Principal Gregory Hodge of New York's Frederick Douglass Academy said data for teachers generally aligns with his classroom observations. Mr. Hodge said the data for teachers generally aligns with his classroom observations. "It's confirming what an experienced principal knows," he said.

I'm less than impressed. If we're going to trust the metric because it "generally aligns" with principal observations, and principals are going to make those observations anyway, why not just use the principal observations in the first place and save districts a significant amount of money?

I'd feel much better about this if all the various metrics agreed with each other, and if they were all "just confirming what the principal knows". But I am informed by the WSJ, and on that basis believe, that they don't.

Two different metrics that say different things cannot both be confirming what every principal knows. This is the really real world.

Of course, it's entirely possible I'm just overreacting to a single sentence, and that the WSJ just has its facts wrong. Maybe all the metrics produce identical results.




Let's count that as my joke of the day.

23 August 2011

A Possible Explanation for Grading in Education Departments

From the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, via Inside Higher Ed, via Instapundit, we are invited to read about "Grade Inflation for Education Maj and Low Standards for Teachers". Professor Cory Koedel (Economics, University of Missouri, PhD from UCSD) is essentially writing commentary on a statistical report from the New Teacher Project.

I looked around the internet briefly, searching for the original data report. I was unable to locate it. So take everything I have to say with a grain of salt. But Koedel's analysis has a hole in it so large that I could pass the complete corpus of Aristotle through it and still have room for a Winnebago.

I wonder why it is that anyone would expect education majors to have the same grades as anyone else. Do you expect the grades in "Advanced Metamorphic Pressure Studies" and "Rocks for Jocks" to be the same? Of course not: some classes are just easier.

Likewise, we might expect some majors to just be easier, or to have different grade profiles. Physics is harder (for most people) than Qual Sociology. Chemistry is harder (again, for most people) than English/Crit Theory. Philosophy is very easy to pass, but extremely hard to do well in. Some subjects have bimodal grading distributions. None of this should necessarily be a cause for alarm, I think. At least I've not been given any real reason to be alarmed by this report.

Koedel seems to be operating from the assumption that all majors should be equally challenging -- or at least in the same ballpark. But that doesn't strike me as an obvious truth. Should every major be as challenging as is necessary to teach its corpus of knowledge?

Now Koedel's premise might be true -- maybe we should make sure every major is equally challenging. But you have to convince me of this. You can't just assert it. Why should they be equally challenging? Is there something about challenge itself that is necessary to learning?

Koedel seems to think that the answer is "yes":
Grade inflation is associated with reduced student effort in college—put simply, students in classes where it is easier to get an A do not work as hard. This is not surprising, and a recent study by Philip Babcock quantifies the effect.8 He shows that in classes where the expected grade rises by one point, students respond by reducing effort, as measured by study time, by at least 20 percent.9 It is straightforward to apply Babcock’s result to the data from the two schools depicted in figures 1 and 2. If the grading standards in each education department were moved to align with the average grading standards at their respective universities, student effort would rise by at least 11–14 percent.

We are thus supposed to think that a rise in effort would be a good thing. As I said, maybe it is. But I'm not necessarily convinced. Koedel admits that...
...(f)or the increased effort to be beneficial, it must be the case that either the content of classes taught in education departments adds direct value in terms of teaching quality, or teachers gain other skills indirectly as a result of a more demanding college experience (for example, skills in time management or improved work ethics).

Let's put aside the big, difficult question: for increased effort to be beneficial to whom, exactly? (My completely unfounded suspicion is that Koedel would reply by saying something like, "beneficial to the involved parties".) What we are given are two options for justifying greater effort: better results in teaching, and better results in something that I'll call "life skills" -- time management, work ethics, learning to follow instructions, etc.

He admits that there's no real evidence for the first option. Nevertheless, he seems to think it's probably true anyway, a position that I actually find somewhat dubious. I'm not convinced of the value of education majors generally. Saying that you could make better teachers by having more of an already ineffectual curriculum of training is like trying to make up a per-unit loss in terms of sales volume, as the old joke goes.

The second option is odd: that effort could have value if it imparts what I'll call here "life skills" (time management, following instructions, etc.). Teaching life skills by themselves is just weird: I could assign my students 300-page, handwritten papers with all sorts of ludicrous formatting requirements (like every fourth word has to be in a different color ink). And I could make them write about the quality of their toe jam. This would "teach" them all sorts of time management skills, as well as valuable skills in following arcane directions. But it's jackassery of the highest order. And the meaningless of it all would probably undermine whatever lesson is being taught, assuming there was a lesson.

Life skills are taught best doing something substantial and relevant; when students do work, the doing of the work might impart life skills, but the work itself should be a substantive end; an education course should teach about education, or its simply a fraud. If you wanted to just learn life skills, you could take a class called "Life Skills 101".

Of course, it's possibly to make an assignment harder than it really needs to be in order to learn/demonstrate mastery of the actual course syllabus. That way, you're getting more effort, and better life skills training, than you would if you just had an assignment that reflected the substantive issues in the course alone. But that seems silly and wasteful.

The second option -- life skills -- doesn't look like it's going to work as a justification.

So really, the first option is the only option: increased effort is only going to be valuable if the material itself generates some sort of benefit. But as I said, I don't see why we should think this, and Koedel gives us absolutely no reason whatsoever to think it's the case.

As I said at the outset, maybe education courses are easier because the subject matter (what is the subject matter of education courses, anyway?) is simpler and actually requires less effort. But Koedel doesn't even entertain this idea. No, for him the easier grading is itself a problem:
It seems difficult to argue with the notion that low grading standards in education departments at universities are bad for students in K–12 schools. But Weiss and Rasmussen documented these low standards over fifty years ago, so this has been an ongoing cultural norm for some time. What is causing the problem, and what can be done to fix it?

It's not difficult to argue with that notion; I'm doing it. I'm arguing (not entirely sincerely, mind you -- I don't have an informed opinion on this precise subject) that the low grading standards are just fine for the subject. Indeed, the fact that this has been a cultural norm for some time suggests (but does not prove) that maybe it's not really a "problem", after all. Maybe learning how to teach someone to read is actually kind of easy compared to, say, learning how to synthesize polymers or learning to parse one's way through a paragraph by Kant.

As I indicated earlier, I'm not really endorsing this view substantively. I'm just flabbergasted that Koedel doesn't even seem to think it's an option, and instead decides that what's really needed is for every major in college to require roughly the same amount of effort.

That's a weird idea, even for an economist.

Bad Joke of the Day

A brand new bit of not-quote funny from your original spinner of jokes, Michael Lopez (who is perfectly aware that someone, somewhere, probably made this joke up first):

Why are some rocks so emotional?

I don't know. Why are some rocks so emotional?

Because they're sedimental!

I'm here all week.

22 August 2011

Accountability and Obligation

This is the sequel to my prior post, Some Thoughts on Accountability and Prepositions. As promised, this post is about what obligations teachers actually have, and whether it is reasonable for them to take those obligations on.

In the last post, I claimed that many people speak vaguely of holding teachers "accountable", but that the only reasonable interpretation of that position is to think that the teachers owe their schools a duty to produce student achievement. Now I want to talk briefly about what sort of obligation that is. (Keep in mind that while I don't think that accountability has anything to do with enforcement of obligations per se, as I said in the last post, I'm assuming, arguendo, that being "held accountable" includes being subject to enforcement measures/punishments that are appropriate to the obligation.)

There's a saying that comes in many forms: "Don't let your ego write checks that your body can't cash", "Don't let your mouth write checks that your soul can't cash", etc. All of these sayings amount to the same thing: a caution not to take on obligations that are beyond you.

Now, "beyond you" can mean many things. If I promise someone that I'm going to run 100m in 9.5 seconds, well, that's just beyond me. It's just not going to happen. It probably wasn't going to happen before my catastrophic car accident, and it sure as hell ain't gonna happen now. However earnest my intentions, I'm simply not capable of that level of performance.

But there's another sense in which things can be "beyond me" -- the sense that something is completely outside my control. I could promise, for instance, that my wife will show up at a banquet. That's dicey business, and the reason that it's dicey business is that I'm promising that someone else will do something.

Now I can physically drag my wife to the banquet over her protests (maybe). I might have to cripple or kill her if she was resisting enough, but it's conceivable that I can deliver on the letter of my promise without my wife's cooperation. That's not really what I promised, though. The spirit of my promise is that my wife would show up and at least pretend to do so voluntarily. That means that I'm going to have to persuade my wife. Maybe I'll have to guilt her into it. Maybe I'll have to bribe her.

But my ability to manipulate her into doing what I want her to is far from unlimited. Certainly because of the nature of our relationship, I can expect a certain amount of influence, and it might even be likely that I can convince her to show up. But there's always the possibility that, for one reason or another, she just won't be moved to attend, and I will have failed to deliver on my promise. My mouth wrote a check that my soul couldn't cash -- in this case because the ultimate outcome wasn't really dependent on me.

Things would have been different if I had simply promised to make my best efforts. Promising best efforts (in good faith) is not promising results, and any promisee accepts a promise for results that aren't 100% in the control of the promisor is either (1) ignorant, (2) filled with faith, or (3) really accepting a promise for best efforts anyway, despite what is said.

You should be able to see where this is going now: in order for teachers to be "accountable" in the way I discussed yesterday, they need to have a duty to produce student achievement. That would be all fine and dandy if the students were beanstalks or 1974 Pontiac engines or some other sort of insentient matter. But the students are autonomous, sentient agents. They get to make their own decisions (in a strong, narrow sense) and their learning is, in great part, up to them. It is not entirely in the teachers' power, any more than my wife's attendance is entirely within my power.

Teachers can manipulate students in various ways -- they can coerce, cajole, coax, conspire, and a whole host of other words that don't begin with "c". Teachers can attempt to make learning easier. They can attempt to demonstrate the worth of their subject. They can try to make it entertaining. They can be the best teachers in the world, but the final decision as to whether there will be any learning of the subject at hand isn't up to the teacher.

So why would we expect a teacher to be "accountable" for student results, or the improvement of student achievement? Why would a teacher promise such a thing, even implicitly, and why on earth would any administrator accept such a promise?

It seems likely to me that most teachers never made any such promise, and don't view themselves as having made that promise. This is why you see so much push-back from teachers on issues of accountability. It's not that they don't want to be good employees and good teachers, or that they are lazy or unmotivated. It's that the promise for which enforcement is being sought in the name of "accountability" isn't one that they think is either realistic or legitimate.

Teachers (and I'm generalizing here) likely see themselves as having made a promise either for "best efforts" or, at the outer limits, for actual results that are within their control: something on the order of "I will deliver objectively interesting and informative classes and will present the curriculum in a manner that, in my best professional judgment, will maximize the return on any attention and effort the student wishes to invest."

The question, then, is whether the position of public school teacher carries with it the more unreasonable obligation of guaranteeing student results, simpliciter. In other words, does a teacher, merely by agreeing to take the position of teacher, assume responsibility for things that are, ultimately, beyond his or her control?

I rather think that a lot of people think that the answer to this question is "yes", and that many of those people think that the answer should be "yes". They think that teachers should be held accountable for student achievement, even though actual student achievement is highly dependent on the student himself. Now if the teachers voluntarily take on this obligation, they are acting wrongly because they are writing checks their souls can't cash. But as I said, I don't think teachers do undertake this obligation, at least not knowingly. And an obligation that is both unrasonable itself and held against someone who is in no position to reasonably make it cannot be a morally legitimate obligation.

All of this, of course, depends on whether or not student achievement really is something that is highly dependent on the student himself. I think that is so obvious that it hardly bears mentioning, but it's conceivable, I suppose, that I am mistaken about this. Nevertheless, I am not going to offer an argument in its defense, at least not here, not today.

I'm not trying to get teachers "off the hook" for their legitimate responsibilities, and I'm not denying that there are a lot of teachers who really don't meet (and some who don't even make a good faith effort to meet) their reasonable, legitimate obligations. I think holding teachers "accountable" for legitimate obligations is perfectly fine, and that it should even be a policy priority. I'm merely arguing that it's unreasonable to hold teachers accountable for things beyond their control. Such attempts ignore what it means to be legitimately "accountable" for something in the first place.

And as we're proceeding under the (false but apparently widely-accepted) notion that being held accountable is the same as being subject to enforcement, you can't legitimately punish teachers for failing to deliver on an obligation that's not morally legitimate. Obviously, you can treat teachers like the Whipping Boys of old and punish them for things they didn't do, but then you really are just bullying. (And I mean real bullying, not just some pattern of ill-defined, nebulous behaviors that some education writers rhetorically call "bullying".)

The bottom line: You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. And you can hold your stablehand accountable for leading your horse to water, but only an idiot would hold the stablehand accountable for making the horse drink.

21 August 2011

Some Thoughts on Accountability and Prepositions

Everyone says that they want "accountability" in education: teachers must be "accountable", administrators must be "accountable", even parents must be "accountable". This sort of talk often leaves me feeling... unsatisfied. Let me explain why.

Now, one of my favorite fallacies is the fallacy of the missing preposition. It something that I came up with one day when I was watching Babylon 5. There's a great scene with Lyta Alexander and the Vorlon Ambassador. He pretty much dismisses her, and then we get the following:

Lyta: Damn it, I have earned some respect!
Ulkesh: Respect? (pause) From whom?

It's the missing preposition fallacy: Lyta thought she deserved respect in the abstract, but forgot that respect is a two-place predicate, and that some particular entity has to go into the second place which may or may not make the statement false. People make mistakes like this all the time.

When was the last time someone said to you, "It'll be great!" and you thought to yourself, "Great for whom?" Or "This is really important!" and you thought, "Not to me." These are all examples of the MPF. This fallacy, which is, basically, taking a statement like "I love Betty" and universalizing one of the objects so that it comes out as "Everyone loves Betty" or, more conversationally, "Betty is loveable" (yeah... to you), might have a real name somewhere -- but I call it the Missing Preposition Fallacy.

Anyway, I see the workings of the MPF in almost every discussion of "accountability" in our schools. Accountability is a three-place predicate (at least). X is accountable to Y, for Z. And X gets held accountable to Y, for Z.

So if teachers are "accountable" for dismal student learning outcomes, then they must be accountable to someone in particular. Who is that? The school? The state? The parents? The student? To whom exactly are teachers supposed to be accountable?

One way to answer this question is to ask ourselves what it means to be "accountable" for something, and further, if it is any different from being "held accountable". Here's what dictionaries say, though I warn my readers that dictionaries are guidelines to words' intended meanings, not authorities.

Accountable: 1. subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable.; 2.capable of being explained; explicable; explainable.

We can dispense with the second definition. The first definition is pretty much what you'd expect from looking at the word: a person is "accountable" if their actions can, at least metaphorically, be charged to their karmic "account", that is, if they have some sort of duty to someone else. That duty, that obligation, is really the foundation of what it means to be accountable. In the absence of a duty, there can be no accountability.

To be "held accountable", then, is just to be recognized by the person towards whom one has some duty or obligation as being responsible for that duty or obligation.

Being held accountable, by itself, tells us nothing about punishment or enforcement mechanisms. Punishment/enforcement comes into play because (and only if) the person to whom the duty is owed has legitimate authority to enforce the duty.

If you promise to bring me a cup of sugar tomorrow, I can "hold you accountable" for your promise. Your promise created an obligation. That doesn't mean I have the authority to burn down your house and kill your pets if you forget to drop it off. The obligation carries with it, in the context of our interactions, its own enforcement mechanisms. I get to express a certain amount of disapproval, perhaps. Maybe I can call you up and legitimately guilt you into bringing it over RIGHT NOW -- if the situation calls for it. Maybe I just get to tease you about it once or twice.

The point is that it is the duty or obligation, taken in its context, that defines the right to punishment or enforcement. There need not be any enforcement mechanisms whatsoever. I can rightfully hold someone accountable, but be absolutely powerless to do anything about it without committing a moral wrong. We might imagine that politicians who do things in bad faith are an example of this: the corrupt politician is accountable for his actions, but those to whom he is accountable are powerless to act.

Some people would say that this means that he's not accountable at all, though. Some people think that "to be held accountable" means, roughly, "to face enforcement measures for your obligation." That's simply not true, as I've just discussed. But let's say we grant this.

If teachers are to be "held accountable", that means that there is going to have to be some sort of enforcement mechanism to enforce their obligation. That means it's even more important than ever to identify the person to whom they have this obligation.

Let us assume that the obligation is to raise student academic achievement. (Let us also put aside the notion that any teacher who undertakes an obligation to bring about a result that is not within his or her power is a moron. I will talk about that in another post.) To whom is this duty owed?

From a purely legal standpoint -- and it is the law with which we must be concerned first and foremost because much of the enforcement that people wish is the sort of enforcement that requires the law's blessing -- the teachers only owe their duty to their employers. A parent or student cannot sue a teacher (currently) for failing to generate that particular student's academic success. (The relation there would be 1-1; obviously, a teacher would not owe Student A a duty of any kind for Student B's success absent some extremely special circumstances.) But employees have a duty to their employers to do their jobs.

Teachers surely have a moral duty to parents and students, and that moral duty carries with it its own enforcement mechanisms: the parents and students can rightfully say bad things and think ill thoughts about a teacher who breaks the obligations. But that's not what people want. They want penalties with "teeth" -- financial penalties like reduced salaries and unemployment.

So the legal enforcement will have to come from the school. The teachers must be accountable, then, to their schools. (Though there can obviously be all sorts of non-legal enforcement of various moral obligations.)

The picture, then, is something like this: The teacher has an obligation to the school to produce student achievement. The school can hold the teacher accountable for this obligation, and can enact enforcement measures if it is not met.

My point, really, is just to point out that vague talk of "accountability" is non-productive. When one speaks of accountability, one needs necessarily speak of specific obligations owed to specific entities. One needs to ask if the obligations that are being described are real, and if real, if they are reasonable. One needs to consider what sorts of enforcement mechanisms, if any, are or should be available to meet the specific obligations that are owed to the specific entities.

No one just "gets held accountable" -- they are always held accountable to someone, for something. That's just how the word, how the concept, works. Ignore it at your peril.

In my next post, I will look more closely at the obligation that teachers supposedly owe.

19 August 2011

The Stupidest Sentence I've Read All Week

On the previous incarnation of this blog, I had an occassional feature called "The Weekly Dumb-@$$." Now that I'm older and wiser, I shan't continue with such sophomoric rhetoric. Now I'll just weasel it in on the cheap by talking about how I used to use it, and then putting that casual reference next to this mind-blowingly stupid sentence from an article by... well, there's no author listed. It's some staff piece from

Which is probably part of an explanation how you can end up with this: (the sentence in question is in bold font)
Thousands of students are facing the problem of necessary remediation as they enter college. Roughly one of every three entering a public two- or four-year post-secondary school will have to take at least one remedial course, writes Leanne Italie at the Associated Press.

Doing so dramatically increases the odds that he or she won’t graduate, according to a March report from the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education.

You might have thought that taking a remedial education class (assuming you need one) would drastically increase your chances of graduating, because, you know... it's part of the requirements, and fulfilling requirements for graduation tends to increase one's chances of graduating.

Now there's a charitable way to read this sentence. We could take "doing so" to mean "having to take" rather than "taking". So "having to take at least one remedial course" drastically decreases your chances. But that interpretation has a problem. The phrase "doing so" is active, and "having to take" is, semantically if not grammatically, passive; it's the equivalent of "being required to take".

Second, and this is an issue for either interpretation, having to take the class doesn't change anyone's odds. It just helps signal what those odds actually are. So saying that it "increases" the odds of not graduating is just false.