All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


29 June 2011

Transferrability and Reputation

Over at Instapundit, I find the following link and short comment:

HIGHER EDUCATION UPDATE: Despite Faculty Opposition, CUNY Board Votes to Standardize Some Requirements and Streamline Transfers. I don’t see why transfers should be easier among colleges and universities in general. I think it’s absurd that you can switch institutions and lose a big chunk of your credits.

I agree with the Blogfather on most things, and I'm not 100% certain he and I really disagree here. But there's the possibility that we disagree, and I want to explain why.

Prof. Reynolds assumes, like most people who argue for easy transferrability, that classes among various universities are more or less fungible, that one intro course in psych is more or less like any other.

Except it isn't, and the assertion that all intro psych courses are created equal is facially absurd once one takes ten seconds to think about it.

An intro psych class at John Miller Community College outside Portland, Maine, (were there such an institution) is unlikely to be the same as an intro psych course at Harvard, and both are likely to be different than an intro psych course at Cal State Fresno. That's not to say that Harvard's course is going to be better, mind you, merely because Harvard has more "prestige". It may well be worse. But they're going to be different.

When you get a degree from Harvard, you're getting the University's endorsement of your curriculum, of your academic accomplishments. Same thing when you graduate from UC Davis or from Florida State. They can give that endorsement because they know (more or less) what their own professors are teaching, what sorts of performance are required in their classes, and what the grades in those classes actually mean.

One of the reasons that a Yale degree is "worth more" than a degree from Millertown JC is that it's widely recognized that classes at Yale are harder and demand more of a student. (Not more effort, necessarily, but a higher level of performance. Nor is it necessarily true, mind you -- merely recognized as such.)

I'm not arguing that the information regarding the actual values of diplomas is perfect; it's a mess. But institutional reputation means something, and the free transferability of classes undermines an institution's ability to control the quality of its graduates, to effectively vouch for their learning and performance. If Yale has to accept credits earned at Cal State Fresno, the end result is going to be a lot fewer transfer students accepted from Cal State Fresno. (Let us have assumed, for sake of argument, that there were any such students to begin with.)

Now it's one thing to say that a single unified University system like CUNY, or the UC's, is going to standardize its degree. That's fine, and I applaud it, even. But you have to understand that when you standardize a degree among multiple campuses like that, you're eliminating the differences between the campuses: you're standardizing the value of the diplomas, too. It's no longer a question of getting a Baruch degree, or a Hunter degree -- what you're really getting is just a CUNY degree. And the faculty know this. From the linked Chronicle of Higher Education article:

The University Faculty Senate has issued several resolutions opposing the proposal, which it said would undermine its authority to determine the curriculum and maintain a unique academic identity on each CUNY campus.

It's not merely about "identity" -- it's about reputation. This could have some serious consequences for the "flagship" campuses of many systems. If I can take all my UC Riverside courses and transfer to Berkeley, then the sole differentiating factor between my Berkeley diploma and my friend's Riverside diploma becomes the fact that I was able to get admission to Berkeley. (To be fair, many people argue that this is the primary value of colleges anyway. See this discussion.)

That's not to say that credits shouldn't be transferable, or that you should have to start over from step one at every new school you attend. But I don't think, as Professor Reynolds seems to think, that it's "absurd" that you should lose a big chunk of your credits. I think it depends greatly on where your credits were earned, and what the administration of your new university thinks of the faculty from whom you earned them.

24 June 2011

What Grades Mean

Much like diplomas (see discussion in this post), grades are carriers of information. They represent a type of evaluation. Unfortunately, much like words, they often mean very different things to different people. This leads grades to be an imperfect indicator of a student's academic achievement, which is why standardized tests are so popular: whatever a 2080 SAT means, it means the same thing for everyone. That is a huge advantage not to be dismissed lightly.

A discussion about what's "above average" at Joanne Jacobs' site recently segued into a discussion about grade inflation, and one of the regular commenters there, Sean Mays, made the following observation:

C is a penalty grade now, has been for some time.

Now, I don't think it makes sense to talk about what a grade "is" in some unified objective sense -- other than to say that a grade is a letter, a bit of language, and an evaluation. There's a difference between what a grade is and what a grade means, and sometimes I think that our use of language, while what we really mean is clear enough, can cloud the issue. So forgive me for being nitpicky -- I just want to be precise.

Anyway, Sean Mays is absolutely right in spirit: an awful lot of people see a "C" as a "penalty grade". I get students all the time who get, say, a C+ on a paper, and they come to office hours slightly indignant and ask, "But what did I lose points for?" They're flummoxed when I tell them they didn't do anything wrong at all, but that the things they did right were just uninspired, rote, and merely adequate. They demand to know what "mistake" they made to deserve such a grade. When I try to point out the very obvious differences between some exemplar "A" paper and the paper that they turned in, they continue to assert that they didn't do anything wrong.

Clearly Sean Mays has bugged my office.

This all leads me to suspect -- these are just suspicions and I stand ready to be corrected -- the following about the junior highs and high schools where these students learn their grading-response habits:

1) I suspect that it's assumed (a la Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds) that everyone starts out with an A. The A is yours to lose, as they say.

2)I suspect that it's thought that a student must make mistakes to lose points, otherwise the student gets to keep the "A". Other grades -- B, C, D, and F -- are, as Sean Mays says, penalties imposed for saying something other than the "right answer".

3) I suspect that, in line with #1 and #2 above, grades are seen by students as a sort of mechanical "response" to a performance by the pupil, rather than an evaluation by the teacher of the student's work. The student mindset does not seem to admit of the possibility of a grade being a judgment -- it's an automatic reaction to an approved stimulus, and if the student performs properly, he or she is entitled to the grade. As a side note, a lot of people probably see this model of grading as a net benefit, and think that something as important as grades shouldn't be subject to individual proclivities and opinions.

People do sue over grades, suggesting that they feel as if there is an entitlement to them after certain types of performance (examples of litigation here and here and here). It makes sense that, in the face of such an attitude, schools might play along and remove the individual teacher as much as possible from grading. (For a discussion about how the importance of grades warps the educational setting, see my guest-post at Joanne's blog here.)

4) Likewise, I suspect that there are administrative practices in place that reinforce the notion that if the student believes that he or she has performed the appropriate stimulus, any grade other than an "A" must be the result of individual teacher bias: the teacher doesn't like me, doesn't like boys, doesn't like white people... whatever. My suspicion (and it's just a suspicion) is that high school and junior high administrations cater to this sort of view by pressuring the teachers to give certain types of grades, by overruling teachers' grade decisions when there's enough squawking, and generally creating opportunities to reinforce the view that the teacher is wrong about low grades that are given.

As I said, these are just suspicions based on the products that are coming to me from high schools. And I'm no doubt getting a slanted view, as my "evidence" consists entirely of college-bound students. But if my suspicions are even on the right track, then what a grade means for many teachers and students in junior high and high school is very, very different than what a grade means to a number of college professors and instructors.

Are grades "supposed" to differentiate between different levels of threshold success? In other words, if the assignment is, "Perform some music", do both the person who bangs out "Happy Birthday" on the piano and the person who composes and conducts an original symphony get an "A"?

I'm not just talking about Grade Inflation, though certainly that's a related topic. I'm talking about whether grades are actually capable of, and intended to be capable of, marking a difference between mere fulfillment of the assignment and some true achievement of excellence. As I said elsewhere, the variety of human ability is quite large; we might think that our evaluative tools should be appropriately sensitive to those variations. I'm getting the distinct impression that we're moving away from such sensitivity.

Grades mean things, but they don't mean the same thing to all people. As with much else, our ability to use them in fruitful and productive ways as a society will depend in great degree on our collective ability to be clear and explicit about what we're doing.

22 June 2011

High School Level Math: What is it?

There's a pretty decent discussion going on over at Joanne's about an EdWeek article that recently came out, itself about a study that recently came out about "dyscalculia". Now, this isn't anything new. I remember blogging when this same issue came up back in January of 2003, although at the time it was something that schools were facing in Italy. Now it's a 10-year study in America (which means the study had started back in 2001 -- so maybe it wasn't just an Italian thing back then).

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about. That's just by way of introduction. Some of the comments over at Joanne's site have suggested that maybe this dyscalculia thing opens the door to a way to get rid of the Algebra I requirement for a High School Diploma. Which left me thinking:

What exactly does a high school diploma stand for, in terms of mathematics?

We know what various exit exams call for -- and it's something on the scale of complex arithmetic with fractions (see the study guides for California's test here). Ostensibly, tests such as the CAHSEE cover Algebra I and Geometry; but it's usually non-logic-based Geometry (i.e., it's just calculations of the kind you do in 6th and 7th grade, not proofs and theorems) and the threshold for passing is pretty low; it's not clear that you actually need to know Algebra at all to pass them (I'm sure some states have stricter standards, but I'm also sure some states have lower standards).

So what is high school level math? What degree of proficiency should a high school degree convey? Or should it merely be a marker that someone sat in a chair for X number of hours studying some kind of mathematics?

Because that's kinda what it is right now, I am afraid. For what follows, I'm going to use the California exit exam as my whipping boy; I want everyone to know that I recognize I'm picking on one particular test, and that other states might have better measures. (Some might have worse.)

So the exit exam helps, some, with pinning down what counts as high school math. If it's on the test, then it's high school math, right?

Well, not quite.

If they were serious about it, they'd have each section graded (and passed or failed) separately: Arithmetic, statistics, geometry, and Algebra. Strength in one area wouldn't be able to overcome weakness in another, and a passing grade wouldn't be 350 out of 450, which sounds impressive until you know that the lowest possible score is 275, making the passing score essentially 75/175, or around 42%. I should note that this is a "scaled" score, so it's not as if getting 42% of the questions right means that you passed; it's closer to 53%, or at least that's what I got after running a weighted average on Table 4 of this 2010 scoring document.

But it's also a multiple choice test where you can guess. FOUR-ANSWER multiple choice, for that matter. Here's a math problem for you:

Let's say there were 80 questions, and you needed to get 43 of them right to pass the exam. Let's assume that you can get 25% of the questions on which you guess right without knowing the material. Holding that guess-yield rate constant, how many questions would you actually need to really know to pass the test?

Let K=Number of questions really known, G=Number of Questions guessed

We have two equations:

K + G = 80
K + .25G = 43

So: G=80-K
So: K + .25(80-K)=43
So: K + 20 - .25K=43
So: .75K + 20 = 43
So: .75K = 23

K = 31 (when rounded up).

31 questions out of 80. If you know 39% of the math on that test, you know enough "high school level math" to get your diploma.

Why am I going over all this? For exactly the same question I was asking the question above: just so we can all be clear about what it is a high school diploma actually means with respect to mathematics knowledge, if it means anything at all.

Which maybe it doesn't.

And maybe it shouldn't.

But we need to be clear about it.

College For Everyone: A Brief, Terribly Unfair Field Study

Anyone who's taking the time to read this blog has probably heard about "College for Everyone" or "College for All" -- the social and rhetorical push to make sure that no one under 21 or 22 ever really commits to a career or thinks about starting up a company before they've learned about Tolstoy and taken an acting class, to ensure that the success conditions of our education system are marked by collegiate sheepskin.

As you can tell from my tone, I'm not a fan of this line of thought, and thankfully it's not gaining ground nearly as quickly as its supporters would like.

Now last night I went to a high school graduation for someone I care about very dearly. It was by far the largest, longest high school graduation to which I'd ever been, but I had good company up in the nosebleed seats of the UCI Bren Events Center and some of the speeches were entertaining. (Someone needs to think about the stress on the poor band, having to play Pomp and Circumstance while 600+ names are read.)

But something happened there that I thought was blogworthy. Knowingly or not, a member of the School Board gave a speech in which she thought she was being quite nice; I thought she was being -- taken on her own terms -- quite rude.

The El Toro High School Class of 2011 has a very large percentage of people going to college -- I forget the actual number but it was something high like 85% or so. The speaker mentioned this, and then proceeded to name about 15-20 of the most prestigious and most notable local schools: Yale, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, Biola, Chapman, and a bunch of others. Then she mentioned that a goodly portion of students were going to community college. Then the full statistic on how many students were continuing with higher learning. This was really the centerpiece of her speech: congratulating the class on how many of them were staying in school.

Then after that, after a brief digression into other topics that I don't actually remember, there was a single sentence about students who were going (this is a paraphrase quote) "on into higher learning, into the military, or into a career."

And that was it.

If you were going on to college, you got to be the focus of almost the entirety of the woman's speech. (Not that, being a high school student who's probably never even thought about the school board, you really cared about her speech.) If you were going out to die for your country, or to be a productive member of society, you got a single sentence (which felt like it was put in there precisely so no one could say that she actually ignored all those other students).

Now by itself, that isn't a big deal. I don't care so much about how many people go to college, so if someone wants to talk about people going off to college, that's fine by me. You might just as well quote statistics about the class's total weight, or how many of them have gone skinny-dipping off the coast of Japan, or how many cans were raised in the food drive (which was mentioned several times by many people).

But it was fairly obvious from this lady's tone, and the speech itself, that she was filled with all sorts of warm fuzzies for the students who were going on to higher learning, that somehow the prestige of the school's academic future enhanced the prestige of the institution of which she's a representative. There wasn't a doubt in my mind: she would have been happier if 100% of the students had been going on to college. She would have died, right there on the stage, in paroxysms of ecstasy if every single one was going to an Ivy League or to Stanford. And that sentiment was apparent in her speech (as whitewashedly political correct as the speech was).

So taken on her own terms, she was congratulating about 80% of the class on achieving something that she valued, while more or less dismissing the other 20%. Which, again, is fine taken by itself. We do things like this all the time in day to day conversation; it's called making judgments. It's what humans are good at.

Except that this isn't a graduation for the kids going to college -- it's a high school graduation, and she's a speaker at this graduation. Context matters. Let me put this in other terms:

If I bake cookies for a bunch of people for Christmas, and deliver them out, no one accuses me of not getting Christmas cookies for the people I don't know. I exclude them because I'm not going to bake 6 billion tins of bookies, and that's fine.

Now imagine that you're in a class of 30 other students. If you bring cookies for you and your best friend, then you and your best friend have cookies. If you bring cookies for you and your five best friends, you're starting to get a little cliquish, but it's still fine. But if you bring cookies for 27 of the students, and leave out the three students towards whom you don't feel as warmly, you're being rude. Cruel even. Context matters.

And if you spend 2-3 minutes talking glowingly about how wonderful it is that all these students are going on to college, if you go through all the attention-giving trouble of naming a lot of the schools, and then dismiss 20% of the class in a sentence, at their graduation and right in front of them, you're being rude. You're telling them they're a disappointment (which I don't think they are) and that if they weren't part of the class, if the college percentage was higher, you'd be happier. Which might be true, but is a terrible thing to say to someone at their graduation.

She wasn't really giving out cookies -- as I said, I don't think anyone really cared what she thought. But she thought she was giving out cookies. And she didn't give them to around 20% of the class.

Now I'm being somewhat unfair -- I don't know what was going on in this woman's head, and I'm only making the best educated guesses I can about her inner motivations. Maybe she doesn't actually think that everyone should go to college, and she just isn't a very good speaker who conveys ideas she doesn't actually hold. But sometimes an act is rude whether or not you intend it to be rude -- not always, I think, but sometimes.

This is one of those times. And someone who is a professional in education, who is in a position of authority such that she's asked to speak at a graduation of a number of students it's unlikely she's ever met (which, to be fair, is what school board members do!), should know better anyway. And my suspicion is that this is being repeated at other fairly well-to-do school districts around the country.

16 June 2011

Accountability and Standards: In Which a Prediction is Vindicated and I Clarify My Views

There's an opinion piece by a Professor James Alexander (Kentucky Wesleyan) that was written in April, but which I just got around to reading this morning. The piece isn't remarkable for its conclusion: it's essentially a "me too" to Ravitch's latest round of arguments that it's not teachers that are to blame for whatever education problems we're having, and that research shows that the big elephant in the room is "out of school" factors: poverty, parental engagement, and time spent on homework.

One of the things that has confused me about Ravitch and company's recent set of arguments is that I wasn't actually aware that people were blaming teachers for poor educational results. I've a long history of complaining of poor teachers myself -- Lord knows I've had my share in my education -- and I've often argued that we should want to increase our "teacher quality" -- by which I meant that we should want the brightest, most capable teachers possible with the greatest enthusiasm and expertise in their fields, instead of settling for the often second-rate intellectual talents that we do. But one thing I don't think I ever did was say that the problems facing of our worst public schools (primarily, but not exclusively urban schools) and the widespread functional illiteracy of many of our students was the fault of poor teachers. And I didn't think anyone else was saying this either. Indeed, while I've often been critical of accountability testing, I've always understood that its usefulness was not in identifying our "problem" teachers, but rather in preventing a very specific type of educational fraud: the "everything's fine here's your high school diploma even though you can't read it" fraud. I didn't like NCLB when it came out, and I don't like it now, but I never thought it was somehow supposed to find the "bad" teachers. It was, I presumed, simply designed to prevent our pretending not to see that so many of our schools and student populations were actually in serious trouble and not everything was fine.

Apparently I've not been paying close enough attention, because a lot of very smart people seem to think that "poor education is the fault of teachers" really is the argument to which they must respond.

You'd think I wouldn't be surprised by this: I saw it coming. On December 21, 2002, at the old version of my blog which exists no longer, I wrote the following, which I redact somewhat because I was less temperate in my younger days:
STANDARDIZED TESTING: I just came from reading several posts over at No. 2 Pencil. I have these thoughts. The standardized testing craze isn't going to fix our schools. It isn't going to give us better teachers, make schools more accountable, or make our children any better educated. If anything, it's going to take time away from education.

What the standardized tests that have sprung up like dandelions will do, however, is allow us to see how pathetic our schools are. * * * * What standardized testing may do is take away our ability to hide from our failure.

But then what? What do we do once we are faced with the God-Awful truth that we have failed thousands and thousands of children? How do we recover from something like that? How do we make it so that the children of the ignorant do not continue the cycle?

These are the questions which will face us, and for which we must have answers when the standardized testing has passed its course. I fear that people will simply demand more and more accountability, and that the "curriculum" will be reduced down to a list of things that must be taught, and innumerable tests to show that we have managed to reach our goals. (That's what El Presidente is trying to do.... set the bar low enough that everyone passes.)

What we are faced with is a drastic problem, and it may take something quite draconian to fix it - if that's what we really want to do.

So if Ravitch and Professor James Alexander are to be believed, what I feared has actually come to pass (and I apparently missed it!): we've come to the point where we're demanding accountability. But where I had imagined the response to the demand to be merely tighter curricular control, it seems like people are getting ready to scapegoat the teachers.

Look -- the teachers in this country (taken as a corps) need some work. But so does my house; that doesn't mean it's not a nice place to live. I'll advocate for higher teacher standards and an end to union control of the school-as-workplace and principal autonomy in hiring and firing and higher salaries, and I'll continue to criticize what I see as a profoundly anti-intellectual teacher culture, and point out that some nontrivial portion (not a majority but more than 1%) of our teaching force is simply inadequate to the task.

Those are issues I care about.

I just want to make sure I'm also unequivocally saying for public record that I don't think that the systemic sorts of educational failure we have in this country are the fault of teachers. And I'm puzzled by people who do.

To some extent, I suppose that the teacher-as-scapegoat route is the low-hanging fruit, something we can focus on. You know the symptoms of this kind of behavior: you're three months behind on the mortgage and you spend money you don't have on new sodding for your lawn, because that's something that's within your control; you can't pay the mortgage but you can fix the lawn. And taxpayers might not be able to fix the "real problem" -- whatever that might be -- but they can demand that teachers be fired or whatnot; and as I said, some nontrivial portion of teachers really could use some firing (unless teacher quality has soared since I was in school) so it's even easier to think that this might help. It won't, but it's easier to think that it will.

But what is the solution? As I said earlier, I think it's likely to be quite draconian, if its possible at all. James Alexander, for his part, decides to fart fairy dust:

So, I repeat, the entire enterprise is flawed. No one can fault standards as the basis of a curriculum guide. Beyond that standards, testing, and accountability form a devastating trio. It simply cannot be decreed that all students will be on grade level by a certain date (2014). It doesn’t work that way. It leaves teachers anxious and demoralized. It does the same for kids. What we need is not more tests and standards and accountability but, rather, a great societal turning.

Is that all we need? A "great societal turning"? Well, gee, why didn't I think of that sooner? Crap. It was sitting there in front of me the entire time...

Sarcasm aside, James Alexander, PhD, is right, in part. A "great societal turning" wherein all families decided to spontaneously do what was really best for their kids and all parents decided to participate in civic culture and Borders was saved from bankruptcy by the sudden renewed interest in reading would do the trick.

I'll stop here, on this ambiguously depressing note.

UPDATE: Title fixed. I have been spending way too much time on medieval logic, and wrote "Predication" instead of "Prediction".

14 June 2011

In Which a Student of History Isn't Disturbed by Historical Apathy

Joanne Jacobs has a brief bit of commentary on and a link to yet another article bemoaning our country's lack of history knowledge. You know how it goes:

American students are less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject, according to results of a nationwide test released on Tuesday, with most fourth graders unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure and few high school seniors able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean War.

I majored in a history field (Medieval Studies) in college. I took my high school history seriously. I read books on history all the time. In my work as a graduate student, I'm teaching undergrads about Medieval History and how the institutions and cultural shifts of the Ancient World were expressed in Philosophy.

I love history.

And I'm here to tell you that the sort of history most people think about when they think about how awful our students are at history is pretty much worthless. There's much hand-wringing about the dearth of "historical facts" in students' heads, as if that were important.

Now, I want to make a caveat up-front: I'm am not here advocating that students not be taught historical facts, any more than I would advocate that they not be taught literature and poetry. All of these things make one's life a better place. But I do want to try to argue that it's not the end of the world if students aren't learning them, or even if they're not interested in them. (Indeed, it would make me feel a lot better about students' not learning about poetry and history if the students were affirmatively uninterested in them.)

Let's look at an example of what people are so worried about:
Diane Ravitch, an education historian who was invited by the national assessment’s governing board to review the results, said she was particularly disturbed by the fact that only 2 percent of 12th graders correctly answered a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education, which she called “very likely the most important decision” of the United States Supreme Court in the past seven decades.

Students were given an excerpt including the passage “We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and were asked what social problem the 1954 ruling was supposed to correct.

“The answer was right in front of them,” Ms. Ravitch said. “This is alarming.”

If I can digress for a moment, it's easy to say "the answer was right in front of them" -- except that the NAEP questions are generally well-written. I don't have the Brown question in front of me, but any question-writer worth his or her salt is going to have an option in there about women integrating into universities, and another about immigrants being able to enter public schools, both of which are perfectly plausible given the quote.

But back to my main point: it's not necessarily a great tragedy that few people know about Brown vs. Board of Education. I mean, really, how many people , let alone high school seniors, know about Marbury vs. Madison? That's at least as important a case, historically speaking. But no one worries that Johnny doesn't know about the establishment of judicial review just because they can't line up the case name with the concept. And that's in part because a lot of people don't care about Marbury the way they care about Brown. The reason that people want students to learn about Brown is because they value it, not because it's particularly interesting in and of itself. Really, in terms of the average American going through his or her life on a day to day basis, knowing about Brown vs. Board of Education is every bit as important as knowing the name and medical conditions of the seventh son of the daughter of Count Edward Thimblefinger, Earl of Grouse.

In other words, not very.

The study of history is the study of people, of how they react to different situations. It's basically a giant lab experiment that would be totally unethical if tried in the present, but because it's being done retrospectively, in the past, it's perfectly fine. You'd go to jail if you said, "Gee, let's drop two atomic bombs on Japan and see what happens..." and then proceeded to experiment. But looking back through the study of history, since someone actually went and did it, you can get all the data you want about it, or at least as much as is available.

If you want to know what happens to a legislature-governed people when you grant indefinite emergency powers to a unified executive, well, you can either do it (and find out) or you can look back into the laboratory of history and see what happened the last couple of times. Ceasar... Hitler...

But it's the lessons, not the facts, that are important. You don't need to be able to say that Brown vs. Board of Education overturned Plessy in order to learn the lessons it teaches: that separate schools and separate water fountains and separate theatres and separate train cars are inherently unequal, and that while people can deceive themselves, or at least put up a pretense of deceiving themselves to protect their financial and social interest, they can't deceive themselves about that forever.

Indeed, I've always been underwhelmed by Brown vs. Board of Education, and to the extent I'm interested in it, it is primarily for its effect on evidence law, which was much more revolutionary. Insofar as it relates to racial relations, far from being "the most important case of the last seven decades", the case itself is really just the "crack" of a cultural tree that was already falling under its own weight. The social attitudes were already in place for that decision and fetishizing it as some sort of momentous, earth-shattering decision gives the wrong impression of what it is the Supreme Court is designed to do anyway. The case was merely the way in which one side of an argument called the bluff of another side. And this time, there wasn't a Civil War, which there likely would have been if Brown was anywhere near as revolutionary and nation-changing as people like to pretend it is.

(A benefit of studying history: bluffs sometimes get called to disastrous result!)

Now, I'm not saying that you wouldn't get the same results (or worse) if you were asking more general questions to these high school seniors about the cultural shift to racial integration in the mid-20th Century. It might very well be worse, because most high school students aren't taught to think about history like that. They're given a list of names and dates and events and told to "learn history." They're told that it's important that they know what Brown vs. Board of Education is.

But it's not, not really. The case got decided, some law got made, and now life goes on. At best, the case is evidence for the important part of history, evidence that should be reviewed and treated with a healthy amount of skepticism with respect to any given conclusion. At worst, it's the jargonish name for a legal (and possibly ethical) principle that we attorneys use to try to win cases. Why on earth should it be some sort of moral imperative that high school students learn it?

Well, obviously the answer is in part "because the state put it down in the curriculum." And "because it's on page 243 of the textbook and the law says we have to teach the kids what's in the approved textbook." And surely there's a reason to sit up and take notice if the things we mandate by law aren't happening. (Perhaps we should sit up and notice that our laws are stupid, but at the very least we should sit up and pay attention!)

But I'm not going to get all upset because students can't tell me which products went where in the old slaves-sugar/cotton-rum/textiles trading scheme. That's just more evidence that can be used by students for drawing conclusions about Life. Sure, if I teach history, I'll teach my students about Triangular Trade, and I'll advocate that it's both interesting and useful to know about these things because of what it allows you to do in your thinking about the present. And the more history you know, the easier time you have thinking through human and societal behavior. But you could learn many of the same lessons by paying very close attention to the world around you, to the way people interact on a daily basis. And if you don't care about history, if you'd rather learn about carpentry and how to build a better house, well... I say more power to you. It's not like you won't learn history (at least the history of house buildings and flood plains) in the course of your studies. History is tied up in everything we do, in both subtle and obvious ways. You can't entirely escape history, but you can, if you wish, escape its formalized study as a distinct discipline. I don't recommend it because, as I said, I love history and I think it has greatly enriched my life; but it's certainly an option, and not an entirely unreasonable one.

I want to close with a quote from Alfred North Whitehead, recently the topic of some discussion between Diana Senechal and me:

I pass lightly over that understanding which should be given by the literary side of education. Nor do I wish to be supposed to pronounce on the relative merits of a classical or a modern curriculum. I would only remark that the understanding which we want is an understanding of an insistent present. The only use of a knowledge of the past is to equip us for the present. No more deadly harm can be done to young minds than by depreciation of the present. The present contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past, and it is the future. At the same time it must be observed that an age is no less past if it existed two hundred years ago than if it existed two thousand years ago. Do not be deceived by the pedantry of dates. The ages of Shakespeare and of Molière are no less past than are the ages of Sophocles and of Virgil. The communion of saints is a great and inspiring assemblage, but it has only one possible hall of meeting, and that is, the present, and the mere lapse of time through which any particular group of saints must travel to reach that meeting-place, makes very little difference.

The Right Expert for the Problem

A few months ago, Michelle Rhee came to speak at UCLA. One of the things that struck me about the way she was greeted by what can only be described as an extremely hostile crowd was the way that people reacted when she was asked how much teaching experience she has. She said three years, and practically the entire room groaned in disapproval. The message was clear even before one of the earnest fellows (it was a woman, mind you, on fellowship) from the Principal Leadership Institute at UCLA actually was rude enough to put it into words a few moments later: no one with just three years of teaching experience has any business attempting to make educational policy.

That night was in the back of my mind a few weeks ago when I was reading this post about the influence of Bill Gates on education, over at Joanne Jacobs' blog. Many of the commentors reflected what I think can fairly be called a healthy skepticism about Gates' qualifications to engage in the project of education reform; there was much talk about his misguided efforts, his reliance on experts. The meme is fairly common; I've heard this sort of thing about Gates before:

As much as Bill Gates knows about making money through monopolistic business practices aided by neo-liberal economics and libertarian politics, he knows next to nothing about education, and worse, he refuses to listen to experienced teachers, instead dismissing us as enemies.

You've doubtlessly heard similar criticisms directed towards other ed-reformers: "You don't have any experience in administration", or "All your experience is in suburban schools", or "Education reformers are all ivory-tower academics, not real people with real experience in teaching", or my absolute favourite, "What can you know about education? You're not a parent."

So I've been thinking the last few weeks: what exactly would "qualify" someone to be an education reformer? Thankfully, it's not like there's a major one can get in Education Reform -- or if there is, it's sufficiently ridiculous that no one takes it seriously. There's MPA programs, and EdD programs, and all sorts of other programs, but none of those seem to uniquely situate people to engage in education reform. (Which, I admit, is a vague, broad term, but bear with it for now.)

Who among us has 15 years of teaching in blighted urban schools at both the elementary and high school levels (to understand the problem), 10 years of teaching at successful urban schools serving the same populations (to understand some possible solutions), 10 years of experience in suburban schools, has done fellowships studying the education of children in other countries, has experience in on-site educational administration and finance -- but not too much experience, otherwise you become part of "the system", has been a member of teachers' unions but has never participated in their leadership or institutional activities, has 10 years of experience as a superintendent, has run a successful business, has served as the Secretary of Education, has a PhD in Child Psychology and an MPA with a focus on education, is a parent of more than one kid, all of whom are doing perfectly well?

No one, of course. And even if someone did have such a CV, it doesn't mean that their ideas would be any better than the ideas from a stay-at-home Mom in Indiana, or a second-year Junior High teacher in Seattle. Anyone might come up with a good idea. But who is qualified to judge whether an idea is any good?

I think the answer is that you are. I am. And the guy down the street is qualified. Human beings are pretty cagey creatures, and we tend to know good ideas when we hear them. Sometimes things go badly, but by and large we've been pretty successful. If Bill Gates were to come into my living room and tell me that the solution to public education's problems was shopping off the ring fingers of all the boys, and the pinky toes of all the girls, I'd be pretty sure he was off his rocker. Likewise, if Michelle Rhee were to tell me that what we need to do is turn every public school into a Spartan Military Academy, well, I'd be pretty sure that was a bad idea, too.

I don't think we do anyone any service whatsoever by making ad hominem attacks -- and that's exactly what a criticism of someone's qualifications amounts to. If Gates is wrong, then there's some premise from which he's operating that's simply false, or he's made a mistake in reasoning. If Rhee is wrong, then there's some premise from which she's operating from that is false, or she's made a mistake in reasoning. People say, "If the teachers' unions weren't in control of the schools, they'd be better." That's either true or false -- and it's probably false. People say, "Charter schools will make inner-city education better." That's either true or false -- and it's probably false. We can tell it's false by running a simple thought experiment: imagine a district with dozens of Charter schools filled with child molesting meth addicts for faculty. Clearly merely having charter schools isn't the answer.

There's no one who is an "expert" at education form. There can't be, because it is by its very nature a speculative enterprise. If you want to drill an oil well, you can call a well-drilling expert who's done it before.

But no one has ever really gotten a public school system like the one that the United States has to work before. In the first place, it's a new project, this goal to educate everyone. In the second place, you can say "Well Finland did it!" but the fact is that whoever is the expert from Finland is the expert of what works in Finland. We are not they.

That's not to say that the Finland-guy doesn't have useful things to add to our discussion and debate. He surely does. But he should be explicit as to why he thinks the things he thinks, so that we can judge for ourselves whether they are applicable to our individual situations. We shouldn't discount what he says simply because he's from Finland.

This sort of qualification-hunting and discounting that I'm talking about, this sorting through people based on their resume, is a sort of intellectual shorthand. We use it so that we don't have to parse through 10,000 different people's ideas. We dismiss people as not knowing what they are talking about because, often, that's the only way to make it through the day. Maybe that guy at my door really does have the miracle product that will make my carpets cleaner; but the fact is that I don't have the time to bother with it because I don't think he knows what he's talking about.

But when we're seriously debating issues, big, important issues like education reform, we need to put away our interpersonal heuristics. They aren't helping us. There is no "Right Expert" for the problem, and if someone is serious about throwing their hat into the education reform ring, well, merely on the basis of that qualification I'm willing to listen to what they have to say, and to see what they can do.

11 June 2011

Gratuitious Link of the Day

As if there's anybody reading this blog right now who doesn't come here from Rachel's blog, I'm going to tell you to go read this post on teaching English. It's quite wonderful.

The Challenge of the Application-Challenged Family

Julia Steiny, you may have heard, is writing at EducationNews.Org these days. Her inaugural column was a rumination on how things could be better if only people would just care about kids (presumably the way she does). I was rather put off by the self-righteous tone, but I thought to myself, "This is someone who's been at this for a while and has clearly thought about these issues; a first column can be allowed a little egocentric indulgence and biography. It's not like I'm never self-righteous, after all. Let's wait and see what she does next. She even kinda looks hot in a Cathy Siepp-sort of way, may she rest in peace."

Well, her second column is here. Overall, I'm unimpressed. But amidst confused arguments and some possibly bad ideas, there's a glimmer of what I think is a good idea.

Probably the biggest problem I have with her column is that it undermines itself. She uses that tired expression, "left behind", to talk about seriously troubled kids whose parents don't care enough to apply to charter schools.

For now, it’s fabulous that more lucky parents are as satisfied and engaged in their child’s learning as the private-school and affluent parents are.

* * * *

(But) an unintended consequence of the otherwise-terrific choice movement is that some of the toughest kids to educate are left behind in certain regular public schools – in increasingly high concentrations.

The worse-off kids are, we are to believe, finding themselves in an increasingly perilous position as the better-off kids leave, as the "concentration" of these toughest kids rises.

On this basis, she argues that all kids should share in the benefits of school choice:

But in the meantime, states need to look long and hard at their reform strategies. Hard-to-reach families must be integrated into the benefits of the choice movement.

But that seems a very odd argument to make, given that she acknowledges that the bad situation is bad precisely because of the presence of those who are being "left behind". We know that they are the proximate cause of the bad situation because as the "concentration" of these disengaged, unsupported, suffering kids increases, the schools are (she argues) getting worse. That's not to say the kids are to blame for the bad situation, merely that they are the proximate cause of it. (If you are confused as to what I mean, imagine that a terrorist puts a bomb in my suitcase and I carry it on the train. The bomb causes the crash, and I cause the crash, and the terrorist causes the crash, but really the terrorist is the only one to blame.)

Steiny assumes that the charters aren't, in and of themselves, academically superior schools. So what exactly are the benefits of school choice? Well, the assumed academic parity suggests that the primary benefit of the school choice movement is getting away from the kids with problems that stem from the fact that their families have problems that interfere with their ability to make school choices, the "application-challenged" families. (Her term, not mine.)

So how do we "share" those benefits? If the benefit of my train ticket is that it takes me far away from someone else, I can't "share" that benefit by getting them a train ticket, too. That destroys the benefit.

So this strand of Steiny's column makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. But, thankfully, that's not all she has to say. She also has some thoughts about how we can flat-out improve the lives of the application-challenged. (Yes, that's a little bit of mockery you hear in my writing when I'm using that term.)

One day, in a happier future, let’s hope that all families have so many good school options that every one of them makes active choices. Outreach programs help them choose.

Now, we've already established that the problem isn't a lack of choices. It's a lack of capable, motivated choosers. And good options don't make for motivated choosers, so the first sentence is rendered almost unintelligible: you can't possibly get enough good options to make everyone into an active, motivated chooser.

But the outreach idea isn't a bad one. Direct work with the families probably has a place in the grand scheme of things. I don't know how efficacious it will be: it's not as if there aren't tons of such programs already. You'd have to be a bit more invasive than normal, because these aren't the sorts of families that are going to seek out benefits.

But invasive, it seems, is exactly what Steiny has in mind.

And then, if a family fails to fill out an application or preference sheet, a red flag goes up, indicating possible domestic distress.

So if the parents don't get on board by demonstrating that they are engaged in their kids' education by filling out an application... we'll what? Put up a red flag? Then everyone can point and say, "Hey... it's the red flag! How pretty!"

I jest. Red flags are calls to action. And since we seem to be talking about the government here, we know that there's always going to be an iron fist hiding somewhere in the velvet glove.

Wait for it...

Wait for it...

Social services goes out to visit the home and gently offers help.

So if the outreach programs fail, we're going to have more outreach?

Of course, Steiny is either being naive or disingenuous; I suspect that she doesn't really mean "gently offers" at all, because that's presumably already been done through the outreach she calls for. But whether she means it or not, there's no "gentle" with social services. There's a threat to take kids away from their parents, pure and simple. That threat might be hidden behind smiles and brochures and applications and "monitoring visits" and all that, but that's what it comes down to in the end. Social services is the opposite of gentle.

Now, maybe that's what's really needed. Maybe not going to PTA meetings or failing to enter a charter lottery, or just not giving a crap, is a form of child abuse, and we should just take those kids away and put them in better, "application-ready" homes. I'm not a fan of that kind of policy, frankly. I support parental autonomy just as I support free speech, and that means I have to put up with a certain amount of behavior of which I do not approve. But it's not an inherently unreasonable position to take, and even though she's being mealy-mouthed about it, I can understand the sentiment.

I like Steiny's last idea the best, though she almost manages to make it unappealing:

Or if we’re going to concentrate the Dennys of this world into certain schools, they should be showered with help for what is essentially a special special-needs population, made more difficult by segregation.

First off, what a god-awful sentence. "They should get help for a population that is made more difficult." What the hell? But putting that aside, if I'm understanding her correctly, this is actually a pretty good idea. It's more or less what I advocated a few days ago. Why not have a special set of schools for dealing with kids who are hell-on-educators because their home lives are a disaster, the "intentional non-learners" as they're coming to be called?

But it's not that their situation is made more difficult by segregation. Their situation is made worse by the fact that there are a certain number of them, not by their distribution in the population. Once you reach a critical mass of such students (around 4 or so) in a class it doesn't matter how many good students you pack into the classroom with them. The class is shot. And the only way to avoid having that low of a concentration is to disperse them to schools all around the country (which, I suppose, is possible if Social Services is taking them out of their homes; why not send a few to rural Iowa?). But the way things are situated right now, in urban centers the natural concentration is already way past that stage, and the presence of the "application-ready" families isn't really helping that much (which is why they're eager to leave).

No, if she's right, then this segregation could be the key to making their situation better. And that, I think, is a fine idea. It will take more resources, and a certain amount of political will, but, well... I put that Latin phrase up as the motto for my blog for a reason.

Update: Minor stylistic/wording change to the second paragraph.

09 June 2011

Administrators: How much is too much?

Imagine you were designing a university. You'd want buildings. You'd want books and/or computers. You'd want faculty. A theatre or two. Some workshops. Tables and chairs. Maybe a printing press. Some athletic fields. Dorms, maybe? A dining hall.

And you might think to yourself, "Gee... I should probably get some people to run this place." So you have a President, and he has a secretary. And you maybe have a few deans, each with their own secretaries: a dean of admissions/PR seems like a good idea. A dean of academic affairs/faculty relations seems like a good idea. A dean of university services, maybe? (Or maybe call that person a VP?) You'd want a VP for finance, and probably under that person a Financial Aid Director, a Director of Accounting. An assistant director of accounting who is primarily responsible for student accounts. Maybe a Registrar with a staff of assistants (I'm thinking 2 assistants, plus 1 for every additional 5000 students). You'd want a GC, maybe with one assistant and an EEOOC/Title IX compliance officer. A Physical Plant manager, maybe with an assistant. I'm sure there's lots of other people you'd want to: someone to head up IT, a good chief librarian, etc. The list could get pretty long.

But would you ever think that you'd need more administrators than you need faculty? It's not as if we're discussing total university employees, which one would expect to be quite numerous, but rather people classified as administrative/professional who aren't faculty -- people with titles like "Deputy Under-Assistant Dean of Tuesday Services" and such. These are not the people on hourly wages like your groundskeepers, electricians, registrar assistants, work study students, etc. It probably (I'm speculating) doesn't even count a goodly chunk of the secretaries.

Surely such administrative bloat is ridiculous, no?

On the other hand, talking about Administrative Bloat is a popular pastime among people who don't know much about running organizations. It's always harder to point at a particular position and say "We don't need YOU." It's like government spending: everyone likes to reduce it in theory, but in practice that gets harder.

So just for perspective, here's a list of administra positions at a local college (Chapman) that I cobbled together from their "Key Department" listings and the associated links. It's almost certainly incomplete, and I've tried only to grab titles that sounded like they would actually be admin/professional. I've left out almost all duplicated titles (on the grounds that they can't be that important and are really just titles for worker bees), anyone who looked like they might be faculty, and I've tried to eliminate as many duplicative spots as I could find (i.e., where the same person has more than one position). I was unable to get any information on their External Education or Legal Affairs offices -- there doesn't seem to be any sort of generally accessibly telephone directory for the university.

Controller (Accounting/Financial Services)
Assistant Controller
General Account Manager
Accounts Payable Manager
Financial Manager
Payroll Manager
Director of Grants and Contracts
Assistant Vice Chancellor and Chief Admission Officer
Director of Undergraduate Admission
Associate Director of Admission
Associate Director of Admission and Int'l Admission Officer
Assistant Director of Admission (TWO OF THEM!)
Assistant Director of Admission: Transfer / Int'l
Communication, Publications, & Events Coordinator (Admissions)
Chancellor (Adult Education)
Director of Athletics
Associate Director of Athletics
Senior Women's Administrator (Athletics)
Assistant Athletics Director (TWO OF THEM!)
Sports Information Director
Business Manager (Athletics)
Recreational Sports Manager
Director of Student Business Services
Assistant Director of Student Business Services
OC Student Account Advisor Supervisor
Vice President of Campus Planning
Director of Property Management
Director of Career Development Center
Vice Chancellor for Faculty Affairs and Assessment Liaison Officer
Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Education
Vice Chancellor for Special Projects
Vice Chancellor and Dean for Enrollment Management
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Dean of Students
Vice Chancellor for Academic Administration
Assistant Chancellor
Director of Institutional Research
Director of Academic Technology and Digital Media
Director of Academic Advising
Director of Fellowships and Scholar Programs
Financial Operations Manager
Testing Administrator, Academic Advising Center
Dean of the Chapel
Director of Conferences and Event Scheduling Services
Director of Facilities Management
Associate Director, Facilities Management
Building Trades Manager
Contract Services & Events Manager
Project Manager, Facilities Maintenance
Director of Financial Aid
Assoc. Dean/Director of Housing & Residence Life
Assistant Director of Housing and Residence Life
Vice President of Human Resources
HR Services Coordinator
Equal Opportunity Officer
Employment Services Manager
Director of Employee Relations and Performance Management
Benefits Manager
Director of HRIS and Compensation
Chief Information Officer (IT / Tech)
Director of Communications and Media Relations
Public Relations Coordinator
Public Relations Editor
Public Relations Writer
Chief of Public Safety
Director of Purchasing
University Registrar
Associate Registrar - Registration & Enrollment Records
Associate Registrar
Associate Registrar - Datatel & Clearinghouse Management
Assistant Registrar - Transfer Credit & Articulations
Assistant Registrar - Degree Audit & Curriculum
Director, Student Health Services
Executive Vice President, University Advancement
Assistant VP, University Advancement
Director of External Relations (Univ. Adv.)
Manager, Advancement Communications and Gov't Relations (Univ. Adv.)
Assistant VP, Advancement Operations & Information Systems
Director, Prospect Research (Adv. Op. & Inf. Sys.)
Director, Alumni Engagement
Assistant Director of Alumni Engagement
Assistant Director, Alumni Oportunities
Director of Annual Giving (I'll assume the three managers have glorified titles)
Assistant Director, Parent & Grandparent Relations (Annual Giving)
Manager, Donor Relations (Annual Giving)
Director of Special Events (Annual Giving)
Director, Corporate & Foundation Relations (Annual Giving)
Director of Planned Giving (Annual Giving)
Vice President, Strategic Marketing and Communications
Associate Director of Creative Services
Director of University Services
Operations Supervisor (University Services)
Dean of Business & Economics School (BES)
Associate Dean (BES)
Assistant Dean (BES) - Graduate and Executive Programs
Assistant Dean (BES)
Director: Center for Economic Research (BES)
Director: Center for Real Estate and Finance (BES)
Director: Center for International Business (BES)
Dean, Education College (EC)
Associate Dean (EC)
Assistant Dean - Undergraduate Education (EC)
Director, Athletic Training Education Program (EC)
Director, PhD Programs (EC)
Director, Teacher Education (EC)
Dean, College of Film and Media Arts (FMA)
Senior Associate Dean and Chief Academic Officer (FMA)
Associate Dean (FMA)
Dean, Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS)
Director, Undergraduate Writing
Co-Director of the Guggenheim Gallery (two)
Director, Center for Holocaust Education
(Most administrators in HSS seem to be faculty)
Interim Dean, Law School (LAW)
Associate Dean of Academic Affairs (LAW)
Associate Dean for Administration (LAW)
Assistant Dean of Student and Alumni Affairs (LAW)
Interim Director, Law Library
Assistant Dean of Admission & Financial Aid (LAW)
Dean, College of Performing Arts (PER)
Director, Conservatory of Music
(There's no dean of the College of Science because it's filled by the Vice Chancellor for Special Projects)
Senior Associate Dean, College of Science (SCI)
Associate Dean, Earth and Health Sciences
Associate Dean, Health and Life Sciences
Associate Dean, Computational Sciences
Director, Marriage and Family Therapy Program
Director, Food Science Program
Director, Hazards, Global & Environmental Change Program
Director, Health Communication Program
Director, Economic Science Institute
Director, Honors Program
Director, Undergraduate Research
Dean of the Libraries
Associate Dean of the Libraries
Collection Management Division Chair
Library Systems and Technology Chair
Public Services Chair (Libraries)

That's quite a bit - around 130. Total enrollment at the school for all of its various colleges is around 6,000. They've got around 400 professors (calculated from a 15:1 claimed student faculty ratio). So it doesn't seem that bad, does it?

Well, obviously this proves nothing at all -- I have no idea whatsoever how many I missed in my really, really brief trip through their web pages. I could have gotten 70%, or only 20% -- I don't know. But I think it helps put it in perspective to actually see all those titles.

We should also bear in mind that a lot of those titles -- particularly the Center Directors, are specifically endowed positions, so it's not like the university is losing money by paying them.

I guess my point is just this: having more administrators/professionals than faculty seems like it's a generally bad idea, but if it's a bad idea it's a bad idea because specific administrative positions aren't needed. It's not a bad idea in and of itself -- after all, the modern university does a LOT MORE for its students than mere academics. Now maybe you think that shouldn't the part of the university mission (I'm rather of that mind myself), but then your problem isn't really with the number of administrators at all, but rather with the university mission itself.

Double Majors

Erin O'Connor has an interesting post up about the value of humanities majors in college, to which I wish to add only the following thought:

All three of the "Hugh Akston heroes" in Atlas Shrugged (Galt, d'Anconia, Danneskjöld) studied both Philosophy and Physics. To the extent that one thinks that there was something valid in Rand's portrayal of a morally centered, competent person (I don't agree with her philosophy in toto, but neither do I dismiss it out of hand) one might think that what Erin is suggesting has some prior support.

Destroy Education to Save It?

That's what Zombie thinks. He went to a teachers' rally and didn't like what he saw.

Will it mean chaos for a generation of students? An unstable and ever-shifting educational landscape? Maybe. And I wish that wasn’t so. But I see no other viable alternative.

Do I wish there was another, more palatable solution? Sure. But these leftist teachers like the ones you see on this page leave me no option: They’re not going to change their political stripes, and they’re not going to voluntarily relinquish control of our public schools or our children’s minds. So as I said at the beginning of this essay:

We have to destroy education in order to save it.

And after everything has collapsed and been rebuilt, maybe then we could re-create public education from scratch, free from politics and indoctrination. But until then I will have to reluctantly assume the role of the villain in the school funding debate. It’s for the children!

I confess I have trouble taking his blog post seriously, even if he meant it in all seriousness. (And sometimes it's hard to tell whether a blogger is serious, joking, or simply hiding a serious point within decidedly unserious rhetoric.) If we've come to the point where political divisions prevent us from having a foundational system of public education, well, houses divided and all that. Such a nation isn't long for this earth.

If I take his post seriously, I must simply despair.

That's not to say he doesn't have some good points. I'm all for lowering the compulsory education age as far as ten or twelve. And I think that Pierce v. Society of Sisters needs to be taken more seriously (along with the 9th and 10th Amendments), and that homeschooling and other alternative forms of education need to suffer from less "oversight" and regulation. But none of that means destroying public education.

His wish to destroy public education seems entirely partisan; I doubt he'd have any problem with it if it weren't a bastion of his political enemies. (And I seriously question whether it is; perhaps in Los Angeles it is, but it is a common lament among college professors that high school teachers, by and large, are exquisitely conservative and that they've brainwashed the poor kids who now need to unlearn all their conservative instincts.) Indeed, it's odd to hear someone who apparently disdains "progressives" adopt one of their fundamental tropes: destroy the old system and bring out a new future! Does he understand how much he sounds like the stereotypical college revolutionary?

Maybe we need reduced funding. Maybe more flexible funding. Maybe we need alternative funding mechanisms like endowments -- but I'm simply not on board with his thesis that we should destroy the public schools. In fact, I think it's a little ridiculous. And it is the duty of the citizen, inter alia, to condemn silly ideas when they enter the public forum.

Mass Differentiation

Kids and young adults don't understand expertise, that is, they don't really understand how wide the range of human ability in a given area really is. They can't, because they don't have any real experience with it. Even if they are experts in something (I'm thinking of, say, teenage chess phenoms), they haven't had a lot of experience with other experts, and they (probably -- I'm having to guess at this point) think that they're just better than other people without understanding how much better. They might understand that, say, LeBron James is an expert, or that Gary Kasparov is an expert, but they don't really "get" how much better an expert is at something than a non-expert.

Just by way of example, a bright high school graduate might think that they understand world history -- after all, they've taken three classes in it since 7th grade, and they got A's! Oh sure, there are people who know more history. But it's just a matter of studying a little more. Then they go to college, and they realize that they didn't know much history at all. But now they've majored in history -- surely they know history now! Well -- not so fast. Now they decide to go to graduate school, let's say. Now they come to understand that even undergraduate history majors don't really know that much about history.

And it's right about then that they start to understand that it's not just history: it's everything. An expert mechanic can often tell what's wrong with your car just by listening. An expert plumber can finesse a stuck snake out of a pipe when you and your five friends couldn't get it out with all the tools and effort in the world. An expert juggler can do things that the juggling club in college never dreamed of.

Humans can get very, very, very good at things. It's part of our DNA -- we learn, and we adapt. But it takes time for us to develop a sense of how good people can get at things (and how narrow of a focus an expertise can have). It takes experience and exposure and thought to really understand how wide the various gulfs of human talent and ability are.

But if that's true on the macro-level, I think it's also true on a smaller level. I don't think that people generally appreciate the size of the ability gap between a smart and well-prepared student and a somewhat dim and ill-prepared student. It's enormous. There are 8th graders who know more math (and better) than a lot of 12th graders will ever know. There are 10th graders with a greater understanding of poetry than a lot of people will ever know. And there are students who only in high school get to the level of academic ability where most of their classmates were in 6th grade.

It's not just a matter of talent, either. Academic ability, or as some people call it, "cognitive ability", is a combination of natural mental aptitudes (flexibility, memory, etc.), practiced aptitudes, actual knowledge, and motivations. There are plenty of really "bright" kids out there with good mental flexibility, decent memories, and a little practice at being clever who are actually low achievers because they didn't (or don't) have motivation or background knowledge; they have, often through no fault of their own, squandered some prime learning years. It's easy to think that, with just a little extra work, you can get these bright kids "caught up" with their more advanced peers. (There was a commenter on one of Joanne's posts a short while ago, BenF, who made this exact point in the context of a discussion about AP classes for everyone.)

But it's a mistake to think that. What you're seeing isn't just talent that hasn't blossomed; you're seeing an achievement gap that is the result of years of differentiated development. The well-prepared 6th grader isn't just better prepared than the ill-prepared 6th grader: he's years ahead, even if they have identical natural mental potentials. And the kids who are really at the bottom of the class aren't just behind, requiring a little more attention and motivation: they're years behind, even by 6th grade.

Knowledge and ability builds upon itself. It's like compound interest in that way. If you've had a lot of enrichment very early, and a lot of exposure to knowledge and a lot of social motivation to academically excel, you're going to be able to take advantage of the time in grades 1-3 in a way that isn't going to be possible for your less-well-prepared classmates. While they're learning to sound out words, you're going to be reading books, acquiring more knowledge, thinking more things. And that gap is only going to grow. And once again, this is true in reverse of those at the bottom end of the ability spectrum -- whether they are there for reasons of natural deficiencies, social reasons, or simple lack of knowledge: they are going to fall further and further behind even their average classmates because they are still learning to recognize letters.

So what are the consequences of all this if I'm right? Well, for starters, it seems like "Differentiated Instruction" (by which I mean the practice of teaching at multiple levels within the same classroom) is made even more difficult than people already think it is. You might think that not only should we break apart subject-specific classes in terms of ability level, but that we need more levels. Maybe instead of a year-long algebra class for everyone, what we need is a six month algebra class, a year-long algebra class, and a two-year algebra class. Maybe we need to divide up the grades into more grades, K-24 instead of K-12, and allow kids (with parent approval) to simply test through some grades if they want.

Computer instruction offers a wealth of possibilities for supra-individuated instruction. I don't personally think it's any sort of panacea, and I think that there's something vital and important in real-life student-teacher contact that can't be duplicated with recorded lessons and flashing programs. But technology is at its best when it makes what we are already doing easier to do -- and if a computer network can help a teacher keep track of a larger variety of students, then maybe that's a good thing.

My suggestion is just this: we need to seriously consider that our student population is far, far more varied than we typically think, and we need to consider adjusting our institutions to meet this hyper-heterogeneity. We should give serious thought to whether opening different types of schools in the same district isn't a good idea. And I don't just mean arts magnets and tech magnets and so forth. I mean outright different types of educational institutions: remediation-intensive boarding schools, two-year high schools, half-day math schools and half-day reading schools -- I hate to use a cliche, but I'm talking about really outside-the-box sorts of institutional change, with smaller, more individualized schools and sub-schools. I'm already seeing some motion in that direction across the country, but I'm also seeing movement the other way: common core curricula, de-tracking, etc.

Of course, another reaction to my arguments is that we should just stop pouring resources into doing anything other than helping those who are on the lee side of this gaping ability chasm. After all, they're not only behind, but moving more slowly. And to some limited extent, I think that we've adopted this approach. We stick the bright, well-prepared kids into the same class and tell them to sit down, shut up, and be quiet. (We have to keep them off the streets, after all.)

In our more reflective moments, we hope that they will help their less advanced bretheren -- and we stupidly think that this will help close the ability gap. This, actually, has to be one of the silliest ideas I have ever heard. Do people who advocate this not remember the second principle of teaching? You never learn a subject better than when you teach it to someone else. If we were serious about closing the ability gap, we'd lock the bright, motivated, and/or well-prepared (pick two) kids in a room by themselves and turn off the lights for 8 hours a day.

Anyway, this is just a blog post. I'm not professing to have all the solutions to the world's ills. Heck, I don't even have a solution to what Mrs. Johnson should do with her 4th period class, because, frankly, I'm not an expert in her 4th period class the way she is (or should be, we might hope). I'm just an attorney and a philosopher and an educator thinking hard about a problem, and what sorts of things might work as solutions.

08 June 2011

Guest-Post at a Better Blog

Thanks to the magnanimity of my hostess, I've got a guest-post up at a much more interesting (and well-trafficked) blog than mine. It's about diversity at our mutual alma mater, Wesleyan University.

07 June 2011

When Cheating is the Only Way to Win

Something that has come up a lot in recent discussions in the edu-blogosphere (I'm specifically thinking of this conversation at Joanne's blog) is the "success" achieved by schools that experience tremendous rates of attrition. Many people are critical of this sort of "success", to the point where they think it's a form of failure. One regular commenter, CarolineSF, had this to say:

If I ran a school that were experiencing such high attrition (or, in the case of AIPCS, such a major transformation in demographics), it seems like my common-sense strategy would be to celebrate the successes of the remaining students, maintain good relations with my funders and school community, and LAY LOW, refraining from the public preening and boasting that prompts busybodies to look up the statistics.

The assumption is obviously that the high attrition is something to be ashamed of, something that runs counter to academic "success".

You might think that high attrition rates are a form of cheating, that true educational success involves educating everyone that walks through your door. LIkewise, you might think that not letting in the more difficult cases is like refusing to fence/wrestle/race against better opponents. Yes, you'll have a great record, but you're never getting to the Olympics that way.

Let's digress for a moment and talk about Star Trek. You've heard of the Kobayashi Maru scenario, I hope? If you haven't, follow the link and go read. Now, Kirk "cheated" because he changed the rules of the game. But the game couldn't be won with the rules it had -- all it could do was test your character as your ship was destroyed. That's great if what you're trying to do is see how people respond under pressure, it's not so great if you're trying to see who can actually succeed and who cannot.

I want to suggest the possibility that people who accuse high-attrition schools of 'cheating' (bearing in mind it's my word, not theirs) are misunderstanding what is going on, and that there is a difference between testing a school's character and testing a school's ability to educate students. I first brought this line of thought up in the comments to another post at Joanne's site. CarolineSF was making a similar point then to the point she makes above: namely that a school with a huge attrition rate can't be claimed to be "superior". Much of what I am going to say from here on is an elaboration on those comments.

Whether a school can be called "superior" or not depends entirely on what you think the goal is. For example: in SEAL training, the goal is to produce maximally competent and adaptable military operatives; because this is the success condition, the training has a huge attrition rate, and doesn't even let all that many people in in the first place. Likewise, you might imagine a training program that defined "success" in terms of producing as many people who can make a three-point shot as possible. They're going to run like an assembly line: anyone who is going to take more than a few days of training is going to be dismissed because the resources needed to train that person can be better used to train five others.

We need to understand what it is we believe the success conditions of our public school system to be. Understanding those success conditions will tell us what we should do vis-a-vis students with a wide range of "problems": poverty, illiteracy, various forms of social blight, hostility, sociopathy, disability, etc. If our success condition is "EVERY SINGLE BIOLOGICAL HUMAN THAT COMES THROUGH THAT DOOR NEEDS TO BE ABLE TO GET 1200 ON THE SAT", well, then that's our success condition.

But is that really what would make for a good school? I doubt it. I'm of the mind that the success conditions of public education should be twofold: First, any human being who presents him or herself as a student should be accepted by the teachers. Second, any student accepted by the teachers should meet some minimum threshold (say, a 1200 on the SAT. Or a statewide graduation exam, or something like that.)

Now it's the "presentes him or herself as a student" that is doing all my work for me, so let me explain what I mean. CarolineSF -- and people like her -- seem to be claiming that a "win" in education involves not just delivering the opportunity for a high-quality to every single human being under the age of 18 (I am loathe to call them all either children or students), but having that person successfully receive that education.

That position can't possible be right. It's a Kobayashi Maru scenario: all you're going to test is the character of your educators and administrators as your schools fail at the impossible. And I do mean "impossible", because learning isn't entirely up to the teachers. If I can quote St. Anselm's De Casu Diaboli for a moment:
Therefore, that which he did not receive to keep because he deserted it, he did not receive not because God did not give it, but, rather, God did not give it because he did not receive it.

Anselm's point here is that the Devil was not "fated" to turn to evil because of something God did: it's not that God did not give the devil the power to cleave unto the truth and the light. Anselm thinks that the receiving of something -- a facility, a quality, etc. -- can be conditioned on two separate requirements: that the thing be offered or given, and that the thing be accepted.

I'd like to posit that something very similar must occur with an education. It can be given by the teacher, by the relative, by the parent, but not received by the learner. And it is thus not received, but it is not received not because it is not given, but because it is not received. (Yes, I just compared some students to the Devil. I'm sure most teachers understand.)

In other words, at some level or another, a student has to want to learn; he or she has to be willing to receive instruction. Merely placing a human body in a classroom doesn't make them a student. A teacher must accept a student, and a student must accept the authority of a teacher:
First make sacred pact. I promise teach karate. That my part. You promise learn. I say, you do, no questions. That your part.

Daniel-San was a highly motivated learner. Not all students are going to be quite as motivated. Some will be of mixed minds, and some will be outright reluctant. It's surely true that some teachers are better than others at breathing life on the embers of interest. But that's an interpersonal talent that's dependent on chemistry, not really a teachable skill at all, and it's extremely context dependent. *I* might be the right person for getting Johnny interested in math, or Clara interested in Homer. But I might be the wrong person for getting Clara interested in math or Johnny interested in Physics. And in any case, there have to be embers there.

It might be possible to coerce learning, to some extent: reasonable minds differ on this point. Surely it's harder to coerce learning than mere behavior, but it strikes me that if I beat you (or even just threaten you credibly), I might be able to get you to "want" to do whatever it takes to get me to stop. And that seems like it's at least part of what we do with students right now: "get good grades or your future is doomed" we tell them. It's not a recipe for a good education -- for it puts the focus on the wrong things -- but it yields at least some results.

But there are human beings under the age of 18 who will not choose to be taught, who will not choose to be coerced, and who do not wish to receive what is offered to them. And it may just be that the right thing for a school to do in such a situation, assuming that your goal is educational success and not some sort of fascinating Kobayashi Maru psychology experiment, is to remove them from the school. Not necessarily permanently -- just until they decide they want to choose to learn, until they present themselves as a student.

Clearly this intuition of mine flies in the face of how we have our schools set up now. They are compulsory, and -- within certain limits -- we arrest kids and parents who don't attend. We tell teachers that they have to take as a student every human being who walks through their door. The teacher is deprived of the ability to pick and choose their students, to a certain extent.

And that's probably as it should be. Mr. Miyagi wasn't earning his keep as an instructor, otherwise he would have added "You promise learn and pay 19.99 per lesson." He was taking Daniel on as a charity case, which is noble. (And indeed, Socrates used to think that teaching for money was suspect.) So he got a choice. Teachers are working for the state (or for a private school, funded by parents). They agree, as part of their job, to take on any student who comes along.

But it's one thing to say that you have to teach all your students regardless of ability or economic background or culture or education level. That's fine -- call it "social justice" if you're inclined, or just call it "equal opportunity" if you're not. It's an entirely different matter to say that you have to teach all the human beings in your classroom, even if they don't want to be taught. The fact that the teacher is accepting a paycheck for such a task doesn't make it any less unrealistic a prospect. (N.B. - we do let people out of contracts on the grounds of impossibility...)

But if that's the success condition we have -- if Caroline SF is right -- then this is why I think that, in a sense, the "cheating" involved in attrition and dropout rates may be the only way to win: if you want a good school, if you want a school at all, you have to be able to get rid of human beings who do not wish to be students at all.

06 June 2011

Alter v. Ravitch: A Call For Facts

Courtesy of Joanne Jacobs' excellent edublogging, I've been following what seem to be two sides of an argument that's shaping up. It started with Diane Ravitch in the NYT, which Joanne blogged about here. Then recently, Jonathan Alter (who I'm always confusing with Eric Alterman for the obvious morphological reasons) wrote a response to Ravitch, which Joanne blogged about here.

Except it's not really two sides of an argument at all. It's Diane Ravitch presenting an argument (that's probably wrong, I should note), and Jonathan Alter launching a rhetorical diatribe about her recent positions based not on their falsity, but apparently on their being, well, depressing:

While healthy skepticism is a virtue, Ravitch seems bent on extinguishing any hope that our teachers and schools can do better. In an op-ed in the New York Times on June 1, she derided the impressive progress made at three public schools as “a triumph of public relations” based on “statistical legerdemain.”

Yes, but is she wrong?

Also from Alter:
“This was a very cynical statement that she doesn’t believe teachers and schools can make a difference in high-poverty areas,” says Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston, a former teacher and principal whose sweeping tenure-reform law is a national model. “We can debate facts at particular schools but you just can’t deny that some places are getting phenomenal results -- results that should be celebrated, not called out as fraudulent.”

Except that Ravitch does deny it. And just because she's cynical doesn't mean she's wrong. That's not an argument: it's an insult coupled with a flat-out contradiction.

Let's take the case of Bruce Randolph School. Here's what they have to say. I apologize for the lengthy quotes, but I want to get their arguments right next to each other on the page so you can see what's going on.


True, Randolph (originally a middle school, to which a high school was added) had a high graduation rate, but its ACT scores were far below the state average, indicating that students are not well prepared for college. In its middle school, only 21 percent were proficient or advanced in math, placing Randolph in the fifth percentile in the state (meaning that 95 percent of schools performed better). Only 10 percent met the state science standards. In writing and reading, the school was in the first percentile.

Her so-called evidence that the school is cooking its books is that Randolph’s ACT scores are far below the state average, as if such comparisons to wealthy districts somehow disqualify Randolph’s impressive year-over-year improvement in most areas. (And since when does Ravitch credit test scores?)

Ravitch also goes after the performance of Randolph’s middle school without mentioning that the results from sixth- graders -- one-third of the school -- merely reflect how poorly the students were prepared by the schools they previously attended, a significant though hardly atypical example of her misuse of statistics.

I'd like to point out first that the ONLY before-and-after statistic that we have for this school from either of these two is the graduation rate, which is going up. Ravitch cites low test scores, but how do we know that the low test scores aren't actually a vast improvement? Ravitch is a frackin' professor writing in the NYT. She should know better.

But Alter doesn't really claim improvement in test scores -- he makes vague claims about year over year improvements in "most areas", whatever that means. For all I know, it could be finger painting and plays well with others that have seen year over year improvements. He sure makes it sound like the test scores are improving, but no competent attorney would let a wishy-washy, noncommittal statement like that pass in deposition.

Maybe the test scores are going up. But the real question is this: are the test scores going up enough to justify using a term like "phenomenal results"? If they are, then Ravitch really does seem to be making the untenable argument that the "reform" she's critiquing isn't justified unless the worst schools turn into the best schools, which is ridiculous. On the other hand, if they aren't, then Alter's being somewhat misleading, because I do not read Ravitch as asserting that test scores haven't gone up, merely that the degree to which they have isn't really a cause for joy, celebration, or wholehearted endorsement of certain reforms.

But instead of all this debate, what say we instead have some dialectic? How about some real, actual facts about the schools in question? Here's what I could find:

Bruce Randolph Writing Scores Over Time (2004-2010):
There's some signs of a general trend over 5 years upward. Alter would probably proclaim "Proficiency levels are up almost 100%!" Ravitch would probably claim "Proficiency has inconstantly moved from below 10% to below 20%."

I have to give points to Alter on this one, though. There does appear to be improvement. In fact, if things are as Ravitch posits them -- if the problems of poverty are severe and systemic -- then the results are even more impressive. Nothing like arguing against yourself...

(Still, it looks like the school is suffering major attrition -- just watch the "number tested" fall from grade to grade. That makes its graduation rate a lot less impressive, and could affect how we're looking at test scores, too.)

Math Scores Over Time: No question about this -- there's some pretty remarkable improvement. Point Alter.

Reading? Again, definite improvement.

How about Miami Central?


Imrovement in both cases, it seems. Especially if you're looking in the "meets standards" column over on the right.

Are these results "phenomenal"? I don't think so, but I encourage you to go judge for yourself. Don't trust any of the sides of the debate to give you actual facts, even when they're right. In the case of Bruce Randolph, it looks like hard, steady, grinding improvement, with all the sorts of inconstant ups and downs you'd expect of a work in progress. In the case of Miami Central, it looks a little more impressive.

My final conclusion? Ravitch is mostly wrong: the improvements seem nontrivial and wanting of an explanation that could very well have to do with the reforms in question, even if she (and I) wouldn't characterize those improvements as glowingly as some people might. The alleged spike in graduation rates, though, seem disproportionate to the actual learning being accomplished (at least the tested learning). So that's an area that needs to be looked at more closely.

Alter, on the other hand, is apparently a sophistical polemicist who can't even make a point well when the evidence is on his side. Maybe Ravitch is shilling for the unions. I don't care about her motivations: I care about the facts.

So, based on my incredibly unscientific internet-digging, it seems like maybe there's some considerable improvement. And there's definitely reform. That's a correlation, maybe. We should want of control groups if we're going to be serious about this. There could be some new television program out there that's turning kids into geniuses. But let's say Ravitch is wrong, tentatively, on the facts.

NOW we can start arguing about causation. Anyone got some popcorn?