Saturday, December 19, 2009

Arne Duncan and Teacher Education: Still More "Bullshit"


Those who can do, those who can’t teach, and those who can’t teach, teach teachers.

—Anonymous

Teacher education has long been a low status activity, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan isn’t making it any better. Lacking any professional preparation himself, Duncan nevertheless confidently asserts that many, if not most, of the nation’s teacher preparation programs are second-rate. He claims that they attract inferior students and weak faculty. He also charges that colleges and universities use them as “cash cows,” bleeding off the revenues they generate.

Politics, Not Logic
There is truth in Duncan's allegations. But at the same time he demands increased rigor in teacher preparation, Duncan also praises alternative “quickie” routes into teaching.

Logic demands that if teacher education lacks rigor, it must be made tougher, not easier. How shall we account for Duncan's illogic? The explanation is that Duncan holds a political office, and naturally prefers politics to logic. So let's forget his observation that: It’s no surprise that studies repeatedly document that the single biggest influence on student achievement is the quality of the teacher standing in the front of the classroom. For Duncan it's politics that takes first priority.

Mr. Duncan says he favors getting to the root of the nation’s educational problems. Time magazine, for instance, quotes him as saying,
It’s obvious the [educational] system’s broken. Let’s admit it’s broken, let’s admit it’s dysfunctional, and let’s do something dramatically different, and let’s do it now. But don’t just tinker around the edges. Don’t just play with it. Let’s fix the thing.
The trouble is, at least when it comes to teacher education, Duncan doesn’t follow his own advice.

Letting State Officials Off the Hook

Duncan conveniently ignores the fact that state governments set, and enforce, standards for teacher education. So if programs are lousy, Duncan’s primary quarrel is with state officials.

Duncan could use the big bag of non-earmarked money that the Obama administration is injecting into schooling as a means to compel those officials to raise teacher education standards.

Would state officials do a good job of improving teacher education? Probably not, but since Duncan is inordinately fond of top-down reform, his inattention to state responsibility suggests he isn't really serious.

Professional Education Schools

Also, if Duncan were not just “tinkering around the edges,” but truly serious about improving teacher education, he would advocate the complete abolition of undergraduate programs. In their place, he would demand graduate-level professional schools of education modeled on the training required by other established professions.

Consider what is required of aspiring physicians, attorneys, architects, optometrists, dentists, podiatrists, veterinarians, and chiropractors, for example. Entrance into any of these occupations requires selective, tough, graduate-level schooling in a specialized environment. To qualify for entrance, candidates first have to grow up, get a college education, and pass a tough examination.

In contrast, teacher education programs typically are mere undergraduate majors that must compete for student attention with other undergraduate requirements and campus social life. Most teacher education programs can’t even select their own applicants. They must accept anyone the university admits who declares they want to major in education. In consequence, teacher educators have to make do with many immature, unfocused, often marginally committed youngsters who aren’t developmentally ready for serious study.

By what magic is such raw material to be transformed into skilled, dedicated professionals?

Money Talks
Why the enormous difference between training in the true professions and in teaching? Is teaching easy? Just give it a try. Is there little to learn? Not the last time I checked. No, the reason those other occupations can charge a higher price for admission is because of the generous benefits that await graduates.

Forgetting his secret tape recorder was on, Richard Nixon once candidly observed, “Money talks and bullshit walks.” And Secretary Duncan emphasizes that sort of bullshit in his speeches. He specializes in fertilizer such as this:

There is no question that our country needs you. Our children need you.
[I]f you care about promoting opportunity and reducing inequality, the classroom is the place to start.
Great teaching is about so much more than education; it is a daily fight for social justice.
This call to teaching is the great public mission of our time. . . .[3]


Secretary Duncan goes on to say, “Put plain and simple, this country needs an army of great, new teachers.”[5]

What Duncan does not say is that this country is not about to offer sufficient rewards for teaching to attract many of the best and brightest, nor will it support truly professional preparation. In fact, Duncan's florid rhetoric indicates that the substantial benefits of teaching are slim indeed. That doesn’t mean that the symbolic benefits are unworthy, mind you, but in this materialistic society they don’t offer the same degree of motivation as money.

Warm Bodies
Given how we poorly we reward teachers and how enthusiastically we dump on them, professionalizing entrance requirements would cause the candidate pool to dry up. Then where would we find the roughly two hundred thousand new teachers per year that the United States will shortly need? Remember, it has been a long time since sexism forced nearly all the best and brightest women into teaching. Today’s competent women have many other options.

Conclusion
The truth is that America's politicos only pretend that they want high-quality teacher preparation. If they really wanted it they would not tolerate slack state regulation, ever-easier ways to enter teaching, and exploitation by short-sighted college officials. It's just that, given the current costs and benefits of being a teacher, it is absolutely necessary to make it cheap and easy to enter the occupation.

Of course, this slapdash approach creates many difficulties. But they can be dealt with by focusing still more blame on teachers and teacher educators. Duncan’s rhetoric provides a perfect example of this political sleight of hand.

What lies beyond Duncan's rhetorical smokescreen? In the end, it is more of the same old bullshit. We might as well still have William Bennett in the saddle. At least he offered comic relief.

In the end one can’t help but wonder if the Secretary of Education would encourage his own kids to become teachers. A quote from William C. Bagley comes to mind:

When will men who would never for a moment encourage their own sons to enter the work of the public schools cease to tell us that education is the greatest and noblest of all human callings?[4]

To further examine these and similar issues, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

-- GKC

Friday, October 16, 2009

Psst! Hey buddy, Wanna Be A Teacher? Thoughts on Alternative Certification

Back when there was a surplus of teachers, US politicians ignored the opportunity to toughen teacher preparation. Instead, they sat by while self-serving colleges graduated thousands of half-trained, half-committed, half-witted candidates in order to cash their parent’s tuition checks.

Now that there is a growing scarcity of teachers, however, state officials are rushing to weaken already wimpy teacher certification standards. Pennsylvania provides a particularly worrisome example. Pennsylvania's former Governor Tom Ridge, (You remember, he's the Homeland Security chief who advised us to use duck tape as a security measure.) declared that those who have a hankering to teach need only take a ten day summer seminar to qualify for a classroom of their very own. After no more than six credits of additional instruction in pedagogy they can be certified for life. How’s that for standards?

Ridge said he wanted to “…help local education agencies fill critical vacant positions in secondary or K-12 content areas with ‘outstanding’ candidates for eventual level I certification.” The truth is he wanted to fill teaching vacancies in the state’s educational wastelands with whatever warm bodies could be found.

He also wanted to weaken the state’s teachers unions, both of whom were smart enough to oppose his election.

Right-wingers, like Chester Finn, argue that thousands would jump right into teaching if they just didn’t have to expend any effort to first learn something about it. Besides, Finn asserts, kids taught by certified teachers don’t do any better on achievement tests than those taught by scrubs. Here’s what’s wrong with this argument:

• Research shows kids tend to do better when taught by certified teachers.

• So-called “achievement” tests are only one measure of a teacher’s success — and a weak one at that. We need only consider what they don’t measure to appreciate their limitations.

• Just because a teacher is certified doesn’t mean they have adequate preparation. Certification means little so long as state officials fail to enforce tough program approval standards and close down low quality cash cow programs that are used simply to generate tuition.

• You don’t get elite troops without tough training and you don’t get top-flight teachers with blue light special certification either. Requiring a candidate to prove their commitment and capabilities by surviving a tough training process is vitally important.

• Filling public schools with marginally committed, virtually untrained warm bodies destroys whatever hope teaching has of becoming a full-fledged profession. This neatly fits the political agenda of “conservative” politicians, but it undermines efforts to make schools better.

• However weak they presently are, most certification programs sort out at least some of the candidates who are lazy, uncaring, mentally unstable and so forth. God knows what kind of people will sneak through alternative certification processes like Ridge has instituted.

• Subject matter knowledge is necessary for teaching competence; but it is not sufficient. To be competent a teacher must also command a body of professional knowledge.

• Certification was introduced largely because teaching was bedeviled by patronage. Hiring was based on everything but professional competence. Without tough certification standards that’s where we’ll end up again. Political affiliation, religious preference or who your brother-in-law is will be what gets you a teaching job.

• Alternative certification and cash cow traditional programs demoralize those teacher educators who continue to care. It’s tough to continue to insist on quality when the governor himself doesn’t give a damn about it.

In fact, alternative certification and cash-cow programs threaten to drive demanding programs out of existence. Why spend a lot of time and effort qualifying for certification when there are far easier ways?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Debasing Education: Preparing Kids for the World of Work

Recently I was involved in interviewing a candidate for Director of Graduate Teacher Education at my university. She was a twenty year administrative veteran of a big city school district and, more recently, superintendent of several different suburban districts.

During the interview she kept referring to schools preparing children for the world of work. After a while I began to wonder if she thought schools should do anything else. When I asked her about that she looked bewildered and said, "Like what?"

I suggested that perhaps schooling should have something to do with truth and beauty, for example. She frowned in disapproval and said that this sort of thing was up to parents or other non-school agencies. Then she added, "I seem to have a broader vision than you do of what education is about."

How she came to that conclusion I am at a loss to explain. But I am not at a loss to explain her commitment to the notion that schools should concentrate on preparing kids for the world of work. That ominously unimaginative priority has dominated every governmental education "reform" since A Nation At Risk. That was the sensationalistic Reagan administration sponsored 1983 report on American education which claimed our schools were so awful that if a foreign power had caused their deterioration it would be a cause for war. No Child Left Behind simply reiterates this report's alarming emphasis on schooling as a means of training internationally competitive workers.

This unimaginative goal fails to consider the unpatriotic nature of multinational corporations. They typically don't give a damn about the US or its workers. What they care about is profit. So if, say, the Vietnamese, sew shirts at less cost than US garment workers the jobs go to Vietnam regardless of how well schooled Americans are for the world of work.

Such an unimaginative goal also vulgarizes the proper ends of education. At its best schooling is not about improving international competitiveness. Schooling is about cultivating wisdom, it is about discovering what is universal in the human experience, it is about discovering that truth and beauty are more valuable than profit, and it is about learning how to assess value, not just price. Such transcendendent values must not be replaced with beating the Chinese at making widgits. In the best case, an exclusive focus on preparing school kids for the world of work will succeed only in creating more competitive barbarians.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bootlicking and Teacher Merit Pay

President Obama’s education agenda, which turns out to be George W. Bush’s program squared, has a particular feature that could have an unfortunate impact on teachers — merit pay.

Whenever I think about teacher merit pay I’m reminded of a situation that occurred when I taught seventh grade. Our school’s scarce audio-visual equipment was “stored” in the classroom of the principal’s favorite teacher. The practical consequence was that this teacher, we’ll call him George, had first claim on it— a privilege he routinely abused.

How did George become the principal’s favorite? It wasn’t that he was the most skillful teacher. He actually bored the kids half to death. His talent was boot licking. The man stroked the principal’s ego like Paganini bowed a violin. And since he taught nothing of consequence nor dared anything different, he never made waves. The principal loved him for that too. This is how George got the AV equipment, as well as choice assignments; and this is what would have won him merit pay if such a thing had then existed.

Yes, teacher merit pay could easily turn into bonuses for brown-nosers. And even if standardized test scores become the soul criteria, favoritism could still play a role in who gets the money. That’s because the principal’s favorites often end up with the easiest classes and particularly difficult kids are quickly reassigned to some less favored soul.

One doesn’t even have to be the principal’s favorite to gain such advantages. Sometimes being a secretary’s favorite will do. I personally know of a school secretary who annually let her favorite pick the kids she wanted in her class because the secretary was her friend and neighbor. The other same grade level teachers got, as one of them dejectedly put it, “the dregs.”

Will favoritism result in unfair competition for merit pay? It’s a good bet.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Christian Right and Abstainence-Only Sex Education

As Governor of Texas, a born-again George W. Bush was unequivocal in his support for abstinence-only sex education. And when he became President he put the full weight of the federal government behind it, spending $1.5 billion trying to convince hormone-addled adolescents that self-denial was their only suitable standard of sexual behavior prior to marriage. The abstinence-only approach also encouraged, some say, “pressured,” teens to sign a pledge that they would remains virgins until marriage.

In order for schools to qualify for federal funding all other types of sexual and reproductive education, particularly those dealing with birth control and safe sex, had to be excluded from the curriculum. The use of contraceptives could be mentioned only to emphasize their failure rates — which often were grossly exaggerated.

An overwhelming majority of experts opposed the President’s program. In fact, abstinence-only education was officially criticized as unscientific and ineffective by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the Society for Adolescent Medicine, the American College Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Public Health Association.

The general public also was opposed to the abstinence-only approach. Even at the height of Bush's popularity, a solid majority of the public did not support it. In fact, fully 82 percent wanted other methods of preventing pregnancy taught, and a surprising 70 percent supported teaching kids how to use condoms properly.

If the experts were so opposed, who supported it? Many social conservatives did. But the Christian right, particularly televangelists such as Jerry Falwell, John Hagee and Pat Robertson, were its most passionate champions. They used their nationally televised pulpits to recklessly, and often falsely, attack existing sex education programming and promote the total abstinence approach.

Pat Robertson’s fulminations were typical. In one broadcast, for instance, he said, "Sexuality is a sacred thing. It is the creation of human life, made in the image of God. …. It isn't just something where you hook up with this one and then you hook up with that one. But, that's the message. It is on college campuses. It is in these schools, and the educators are buying into it. If you want to fix some of this you'll stop the teachers from pushing that thing that was going on -- I think it was a program called SIECUS by Mary Calderone and it must have been 30 or more years ago that was free sex and the whole thing. That's Planned Parenthood's plan -- to have kids have as many babies as they can, then we can start sterilizing them."

Where did such reckless charges originate? They were "borrowed" from an earlier, and very successful, religious right campaign against sex education that began in the 1960’s. Reverend Robertson was just inaccurately repeating an old discredited con.

OK, so both experts and the public weren't behind abstinence-only — the Christian right was. But experts, even an overwhelming majority of experts can be wrong. So can the general public. Maybe the program actually worked.

No, it was a bust. Research clearly demonstrates that abstinence-only had no enduring effect on teen’s sexual behavior. As a matter of fact, teens who took the much
publicized virginity pledge not only had sex just as often as those who didn’t; they also engaged in more far-more-dangerous substitutes and protected themselves less often from disease and unwanted pregnancy.

The facts are that almost 75 percent of U.S. teenagers have had sexual intercourse before they reach age twenty. American teens under fifteen also are more likely to have sex, and with more than one partner in a year, than teenagers in Sweden, France, Canada, and the United Kingdom. And the U.S. has the highest level of teen pregnancy of any developed nation—eight times higher than Holland and Japan, for example.

Disregarding these realities, Republican Party leaders adopted abstinence-only sex education as a component of their 2008 party platform. They also chose Sarah Palin, a particularly vigorous abstinence-only proponent, as their candidate for vice president. (Incongruously, Palin’s unmarried daughter was pregnant at the time.)

During the campaign the Republicans did their best to tap into America’s once-vast reservoir of sexual anxiety. A McCain TV ad claimed, for example, that Obama's “one accomplishment” as a congressman was a bill to teach sex education to kindergartners. But unlike previous eras in American history, this sexually sensational charge had little impact on voters. The Republicans lost in a landslide, and abstinence-only sex education went down with them.

The Obama administration’s first budget abolished almost all spending for abstinence-only, transferring the money to teen-pregnancy prevention instead. The director of the team that organizes White House domestic policy commented dryly that the sex education budget Obama sent to Congress, “reflects the research.”

Has ideologically inspired opposition to research-based sex education finally run its course? Is access to full and complete information about sexuality now broadly accepted as necessary for the nation’s youth? So it seems for the moment. But the US has a long history of sexual anxiety and repression, so only time will tell.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Monday, August 3, 2009

Imprisoning and Silencing America's First Sex Educators

Remember how quickly Congress reacted to the Janice Jackson "wardrobe malfunction?" Lawmakers have long been hitching a ride on America’s sexual hang-ups. In fact, Congress began throttling sex education, and cutting off access to sexually related materials, in the 1870’s. That is when they joined forces with the notorious self-appointed sexual morals activist, Anthony Comstock.

Comstock was the founder of the highly influential New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. (Consider its apparent similarity to the present-day Saudi Commission for the Protection of Virtue and Suppression of Vice.) Blocking access to information about birth control was Comstock’s chief concern. He also wanted to stiffle information on abortion. And while he was at it, he also campaigned to stamp out “obscene” books including serious novels, “dirty” pictures, birth control devices, and so forth.

Comstock’s Society kicked off its activities by conducting vigilante raids on retailers; confiscating and handing over to the police, “bad books” and “articles made of rubber for immoral purposes and used by both sexes.” Then, emboldened by the success of this campaign, Comstock and his Society launched a national political campaign to criminalize sex education, sex toys, racy illustrations and “bad books.”

Their efforts were one hundred percent successful. In 1873 Congress passed, without debate, the Comstock inspired, Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use. Significantly, sex education, particularly as it pertained to preventing conception, was defined as obscene. Here is an excerpt from that statute:

Whoever … shall sell, or lend, or give away, or in any manner exhibit … or shall otherwise publish … or shall have in his possession, any obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, … or instrument … of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion, or shall advertise the same for sale, … shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, on conviction thereof, he shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary for not less than six months nor more than five years for each offense, or fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two thousand dollars, with costs of court.

The law also specified that it was a serious crime to send such materials through the mail.

That last provision created a government job for Comstock because, when this legislation became law, he was appointed a special agent of the US Post Office with exclusive enforcement powers. He held this position, — in essence, America’s sexual morality czar — for the next 42 years.

As an agent of the government Comstock prosecuted anyone who provided information about birth control or who committed any of other sexual “offenses” involving the mail. Upon retirement Comstock boasted that he had successfully prosecuted more than 3,600 defendants and destroyed 160 tons of sexual materials.

He also provoked at least one famous suicide when feminist Ida Craddock killed herself rather than be imprisoned for sending sex education information by mail. Her suicide note reads, in part,

“I am taking my life because a judge, at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, has declared me guilty of a crime I did not commit -- the circulation of obscene literature. Perhaps it may be that in my death, more than in my life, the American people may be shocked into investigating the dreadful state of affairs which permits that unctuous sexual hypocrite Anthony Comstock to wax fat and arrogant and to trample upon the liberties of the people, invading, in my own case, both my right to freedom of religion and to freedom of the press."

Thus ended the life of one sex education pioneer. Hundreds of others ended up in federal prison. How far have we come since then? You decide.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Are Most Humans Beings Educable?

Certainly a great deal of human misery could be prevented if people could be taught to think more deeply and effectively. But is the common failure to do so a consequence of a lack of education as many suppose?

Perhaps,the real culprit is a widespread lack of capacity and/or inclination for learning. After all, in order for education to be a cure — much less a cure-all — for what ails the human condition the majority of humans must be capable of sufficient reason and understanding to be improved by that means. Plus, they must willing.

Suppose this is not the case? Suppose a great many humans, possibly even most humans, are not truly educable in any deep and abiding sense?

Is such speculation excessive? Perhaps it is; but consider the long-standing popularity of P.T. Barnum’s observation that “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Ponder also the durability of H.L. Mencken’s dictum that “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” Perhaps these and many similar observations are so durable because they are deeply rooted in reality.

This line of reasoning is heretical to those accustomed to the obligatory optimism that is so current regarding schooling. Nevertheless, there is evidence to support this more pessimistic view.

Consider, for example, that most Americans are more interested in how Michael Jackson died than the fact that we are are blithely destroying our own habitat, increasing our population at an unsustainable rate, and heating the globe to a potentially catastrophic level.

What are we to make of widespread indifference in the face of mortal threats to our very survival? Are they merely the result of inadequate education? Maybe so. But what if a very substantial number of humans, perhaps even a majority, are not educable?

Such folks are not necessarily stupid — though we shouldn't join the politicians in pretending stupid people don't exist. No,uneducable people may be too scared, mentally or physically ill, lazy, angry, or what have, to think deeply and effectively. Such people can only be trained.

What proportion of the population fits this description? Is it, say 10%? (According to the US Department of Education, this is the approximate total population prevalence rate of Americans who qualify for special education.) Is it really higher than that? You decide.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Thursday, July 16, 2009

HIDDEN FACTORS: What Competent Teachers Really Need to Know

My first year of teaching I taught seventh graders. Things went reasonably well, except for one youngster who drove me to distraction. He did it by echoing me. I tried a variety of tactics to get him to stop, but to no avail. In fact, if I said, "David, please stop repeating me" he frequently would respond by saying, "Repeating me."

This behavior went on and on and it was having a disruptive impact on the class. Finally, having exhausted everything I knew about behavior management, I felt I had no choice. The school, which was in the heart of the Bible Belt, still subscribed to the "Spare the rod and spoil the child" principle. In fact, on the first day of school I found a paddle sitting in the chalk tray of my classroom. It was red with "El Diablo inscribed on it." When I asked the principal about it he told me that paddles were made by kids in wood shop and I should feel free to use it.

He did the same. A giant of a man with a misleading Gomer Pyle manner, he wielded a mean paddle himself. School legend had it that no one ever returned for a second treatment from him; and there was no doubt why. When he administered punishment the crack of his two handed paddle resounded throughout the halls and the school's biggest behavior problems left his office in tears. The net effect was an orderly school.

Anyway, after weeks of trying everything I could think of, I reluctantly said to David, "If you don't quit repeating me I'm going to have to paddle you." "Paddle you" David said quietly. With that I ordered him out into the hall for the administration of corporal punishment.

As required, I asked a neighboring teacher to witness punishment. At the sight of my witness David realized I was serious and dissolved into hysteria. "Oh my God, he screeched, "don't hit me!" I tried to quiet him by saying, "Come on David, take it like a man." But David squalled, "I'm not a man, I'm a little boy!" By the way, he was uncommonly small.

The commotion attracted a crowd — chiefly the kitchen staff from the nearby cafeteria. The janitor and some passing students assembled as well. As my colleague struggled to put David over his knee, David screeched for help from the Almighty. The cooks clucked in disapproval and looked at me as if I were a war criminal.

Embarrassed and deeply regretting my decision, I just gave David a light swat. But he reacted as if I had hit him full force with a cat-of-nine-tails. When I returned to the classroom with a sobbing David the kids looked shocked and frightened.

That was the end of corporal punishment for me. For a long time I felt that the chief lesson I had learned was that there were better ways to control behavior. But years later I discovered, quite by accident, that repetitions such as David's are a classic symptom of Tourrete's Syndrome — a psychological disorder three times more common in males than females and most often found in children. So there is a very good chance that I paddled David because he was ill. So the second lesson to be learned from this incident is that teachers had better know their business better than I did.

Clearly aspiring teachers should learn much more than they typically do about youngsters and what either empowers or impedes their learning. In other words, teacher training must transcend mere methods and require in-depth understanding of both learning and learners as well as possible abnormalities such as Davids. Lacking this knowledge, novice teachers will surely make damaging mistakes.

The shame of it is that teacher preparation is moving in the opposite direction. The "highly qualified teachers" requirement of No Child Left Behind has turned out to be a joke. To save money and find "teachers" for America's educational wastelands, many states are requiring less, not more, of future teachers. The financial savings this makes possible are obvious; the human costs are typically hidden. But they are real nonetheless.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Course Evaluations and Teacher DIsempowerment

At sixty-seven years of age, I have survived good times and bad and have the scars to prove it. I have raised two children to happy, productive adulthood and stayed married to the same loving woman for forty-eight years. I have worked as a day laborer, a janitor, a night watchman,a store clerk, a barber’s apprentice, an Army officer, a seventh-grade teacher, and, for thirty-nine years, a teacher educator and author. Yet every semester I am required to submit to anonymous evaluations of my teaching by unripe undergraduates who frequently are more interested in partying and petting than in studying and learning. I should add that I don’t consider my faring well in these ratings as sufficient compensation.

To make matters worse, a disempowering ritual accompanies these evaluations. Professors are sternly instructed to distribute the evaluation forms and then to leave the room. They are not permitted to touch the envelope containing the completed evaluations. The last student finishing must seal the envelope, sign it on the seal, and hand carry it to the department secretary, who presumably is licensed to kill.

This humiliation is accomplished under the pretense that it is a course
evaluation, not an evaluation of the professor. But that fools no one.

Had someone asked me to evaluate my professors when I was in college, I would have thought they had taken leave of their senses. I knew, and my classmates knew, that we were green kids in the presence of full-scale adults who had accomplished a great deal more than we had. It was their business to do the evaluating. It was our business to try to learn — or at least pretend to.

Perhaps I knew my place better than most. As a teenager I apprenticed in my
dad’s barbershop, largely populated by tough, no-nonsense railroaders, coal miners and war veterans. I learned the hard way to be respectful of my elders. For example, I remember voicing an opinion on an adult subject only to have a grizzled railroader tell me that I reminded him of the barber's cat, "full of piss and wind." After that I kept my opinions to myself.

Professors might be able to learn something useful from “course” evaluations if they only knew which students wrote them. (After all, one doesn’t want to take a class-cutting dullard’s comments seriously; but the opinion of accomplished students are another thing entirely.) Unfortunately, student anonymity precludes the professor from knowing who is saying what, while it simultaneously teaches students to hold their tongues unless they can totally avoid responsibility for what they say.

Professors are generally not afforded the commensurate privilege of evaluating their chairs, deans, provosts, or presidents. And professors are almost always expressly forbidden from initiating communication with anyone on the board of trustee's. And all of thie pertains despite the fact that mature, experienced professors with expert knowledge are far better qualified to evaluate college administrators than immature. inexperienced and often strikingly ignorant youngsters are their professors.

Of course college administrators know full well that granting professors the power to evaluate them would disempower them as much as their present policies disempower the professors. Wisely, they are having none of that. What's sauce for the goose turns out, in this case, to be gall for the gander.

Sadly, student "course" evaluations are part of an emerging pattern of teacher disempowerment that is causing teachers at all levels to become more and more impotent. Yet, at the same time, teachers are being held more and more accountable. What a deadly combination. No wonder teachers are leaving the occupation in droves.

Things would change a great deal if faculty evaluations of college administrators served the same purpose that student "course" evaluations serve for the professoriate. Namely, as a gauge for the administrator's promotion and firing. But don't hold your breath waiting for that innovation.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wardrobe Malfunctions, Murder and Children's Values

Remember the reaction to Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction?” That one-second revelation created such a public furor that Congress, the FCC and the Supreme Court all got involved.

Most complaints about the incident emphasized that children were watching. Yet the average US child watches 8,000 murders on TV by the time they finish elementary school and this generates little public protest.

A glimpse of a breast is more damaging to children than watching thousands of murders? What is one to make of these priorities? What it points to is a moral cretinism that infests US culture. Objectively speaking only moral idiots think that murder as entertainment is tolerable while bare breasts are not. Yet, right now at least, such idiocy is pretty standard in America.

Sure, the argument is that kids know these TV murders are not real. And for normal kids at least, this is so. But what does a normal child learn by living in a culture that accepts murder as entertainment? And what do they learn about sexuality when a bare breast creates a national furor. They learn unworthy, fundamentally perverted values.

Preaching at kids does little to shape their values. Most of what shapes their sense of right and wrong is caught rather than taught That is to say, they absorb it just by living in a given environment. And what they are absorbing at the moment is unwise and unworthy of their promise.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Friday, June 5, 2009

Does Truancy Cause Social Problems?

Like many cities, Trenton, New Jersey has a Truancy prevention program. The City, The Trenton Police Department and the Trenton Public Schools cooperate to conduct daily truancy sweeps. If a school child is found on the street, he/she are apprehended by the police and brought to the truancy center. Parents then are called to pick up their child.

The justification for this program is that truancy causes many social problems. For instance, the Trenton Truancy Prevention Program notes that
95% of juvenile offenders started as truants. It then adds that truants:

Are more likely to join a gang running the risk of disease, injury or death.
Are more likely than other children to use marijuana, alcohol and hard drugs.
Are more likely to become pregnant and drop out of school.
Are more likely to have a low self-esteem, low aspirations, and educational failure.
Are more likely to be illiterate or have serious trouble reading.
Are more likely to engage in violent and criminal activities.

As regards the first point, 100% of juvenile offenders started out as babies. But starting life as a baby obviously does not cause a youngster to become a juvenile offender. And why should we assume that gang membership begins with truancy? It seems more likely that gang membership encourages truancy. The reasons kids join gangs are many and varied; but you can bet it rarely is caused by truancy. We might first take a look at broken families, for instance.

The same applies to using marijuana, alcohol and hard drug use. Sure truants might be more likely to engage in such behavior. But why assume truancy is the cause?

Are truants more likely to become pregnant and drop out of school? Probably, but here too truancy is an unlikely cause. Wanting to be loved is more likely. As to low self-esteem, low aspirations, and educational failure. they seem likely causes of truancy, rather than the other way around.

How about illiteracy and serious difficulties reading? Is truancy the cause? Isn't it more more reasonable to think that kids with serious reading difficulties are truant out of frustration? And so far as violence and criminal activities are concerned, those things are caused by the same long-neglected social problems that also cause truancy: poverty, broken homes, violent neighborhoods, lack of legitimate economic opportunity, and so forth.

A cardinal rule of research is that correlation is not causation. In other words, just because A correlates with B it does not necessarily mean that A causes B. That's the error underlying all of the Trenton Truancy Prevention Program's assertions. Perhaps they know better. Maybe, in the end, all these bogus claims are nothing more than a defense of the truant industry. But in any case, their claims are bogus.

Given all the problems created in schools by unmotivated, disruptive kids, maybe it's better to give up on compulsory education. After all, we can drag them kicking and screaming to school; but we can't make them learn once they are there. That requires effort on their part.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Stupidity Is Not The Only Impediment to Reason

Stupidity is not the only thing, perhaps not even the main thing, that prevents intelligent reflection. Many individuals with considerable native intelligence cannot, or will not, engage in careful thought because they are too emotionally needy. In other words, they are not too dumb to think straight; they are too unloved, angry, scared, insecure, guilty, depressed, and so forth. Our prisons, for example, are overflowing with intelligent people who, for a variety of reasons, including childhood neglect and abuse, simply will not or cannot think deeply about the costs and benefits of their own behavior.

Additionally, many intelligent people willfully shut off their intelligence in order to gain psychological reassurance from one or another true belief. The folks who joined Jim Jones's People's Temple, the Koresh's Branch Dravidians or Bo and Peep's Heaven’s Gate cult, were not necessarily stupid. Their emotional needs may simply have gotten the better of them, causing them to willingly put intellectual blinders on.

As a matter of fact, there are entire sub-cultures within generally more enlightened cultures that willfully reject learning in order to preserve key beliefs The Amish are a clear-cut example. Reason and understanding are effectively ruled out of key aspects of member’s lives in return for community and religious certitude. Many other religious sub-cultures, some quite large in numbers, also fit this description.

Culture itself can be another barrier to reason. Some cultures facilitate reasoning by providing rich resources for reflection, but others stifle it. After all, many cultures never experienced an enlightenment. Fine native intelligence can be smothered in the cradle by pre-enlightenment social surroundings.

Let us also not forget good old-fashioned laziness. Some folks avoid thinking simply because it takes effort and can generate discomfort. It isn’t that they can’t think; they just refuse to think. They are, in affect, bone idle when it comes to exercising their mind.

We also should not assume, as many do, that increased schooling necessarily equals improved reasoning and understanding. Too often schooling is less about reasoning than it is about conformity and the mere mastery of technical skills. Consider the scientists who eagerly apply their technical competence to the creation of unimaginably vicious weapons. Is the man or woman who applies their knowledge of biology to perfect a vaccine-resistant plague virus, for instance, really reasoning the thing through as well as they should?

And what evidence is there that the average MBA or Ph.D. degree holder, is more reasonable or thoughtful than those who are less well schooled? Sure, they have hopefully mastered a range of techniques, but can they think more deeply and well? Consider Lyndon Banes Johnson’s top staffers. They were supposed to be “the best and brightest” minds of that era. There was Secretary of Defense Robert Strange MacNamara, B.A. U.C. Berkely, M.B.A., Harvard; Special Assistant to the President McGeorge Bundy, Groton, Yale and Harvard; and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Rhodes Scholar, Oxford and U.C. Berkeley, for example. And what did these well schooled can-do guys accomplish? They bogged us down in a loosing ten thousand day war in Vietnam. Forty eight thousand Americans died; another three hundred and four thousand were wounded and many more were psychologically maimed for life. In fact in the five years following the war there were an additional nine thousand suicides resulting from wartime trauma. On top of all this there were an appalling 5.1 million Vietnamese casualties. Not to mention that one hundred and eleven billion dollars was wasted and America was torn apart domestically. Does that sound like the work of men with superior reasoning?

More recently we have the example of George W. Bush, perhaps the most clueless President in living memory. Yet he has a B.A. in history from Yale University and a Harvard M.B.A. Were his reasoning and understanding improved in consequence of this schooling?

What percent of the general populace has the innate capacity to be think things through in the sense we’ve used it here? Many. What percent of them actually use it? Far fewer.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Monday, April 13, 2009

100% Americans Censor Textbooks

One hundred percent Americans usually are the very first to ignore the most fundamental values of the Constitution. Consider that, for many years, the American Legion, a self-proclaimed first priority guardian of the Constitution, searched schoolbooks for un-American content, and then whipped up witch-hunts against bewildered educators who had adopted books the Legion’s censors didn’t like.

The Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization “dedicated to promoting patriotism, preserving American history, and securing America's future through better education for children,” also censored textbooks. In fact, in the 1960’s they published a “Textbook Study” listing a disquieting total of 170 books that they deemed unfit for the nation’s youth. The hyper-patriots at the DAR, charged that these offending e texts “described the U.S. as a democracy rather than a republic” and “emphasized the Bill of Rights rather than the Constitution.” One hundred percent Americans often worry about overemphasizing democracy and the Bill of Rights.

Such attacks haven't gone away. Textbooks are routinely criticized for their un-Americanism by everyone from home-brewed schoolbook review websites to right wing pundits at Fox News.

Faced with such complaints, state school authorities and local school boards typically grant them deference. It seems public servants are often reluctant to challenge the legitimacy of these complainant’s convictions or their self-serving interpretation of Americanism. Instead they treat the most ludicrous complaints with earnest attentiveness, thus exposing educators to insult and intimidation. These folks need to toughen up and tell our native-born Taliban where to get off. But, given the nature of the beast, such courage seems unlikely. -- GKC

See also Education for Democracy: is this more than rhetoric?

True Believers Target Educators

A few years ago a suburban school district was the site of a memorable incident. A 10-year-old boy, ostensibly protesting the presence of costumed witches and demons in his public school’s Halloween parade, declared he was going to march as Jesus — complete with white robe, paper crown and twig crown of thorns.

The boy’s mother, host of a local gospel radio talk show, claimed that the principal told her son to forget the Jesus costume and instead parade as a Roman emperor. The principal claimed that a meeting with the youngster and his mother resulted in a mutual decision that the boy would parade as a contemporary of Jesus.

The mother took the matter to Federal Court, charging that the district had attacked freedom of religion. She added that the district was giving unbridled discretion to school officials to suppress free speech. A self-described Christian conservative organization backed the mother’s suit, claiming that it “Defends the right to hear and speak the Truth.” (Note it is “the Truth,” not “our truth.”)

Before deciding the merits of the mother’s case, one should first ask: “Whom would Jesus sue?” After all, it was he who advised his followers thus:

“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile,] carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow."
- Matthew 5:38-39

Why do so few self=professed Christians take this absolutely clear injunction to heart? Are they hypocrites professing beliefs and opinions that they do not actually hold? Are they befuddled and honestly fail to recognize that they simultaneously hold, and selectively act on, incompatible beliefs. Maybe they confuse their own desires with those of the almighty. Doubtless some are bunko artists looking to mine other people’s religiosity for money, status or fame. Still others might be mentally ill. But whatever the origin of their behavior, such individuals are dangerous. For what they lack in truthfulness, clarity, insight, honesty or mental health, they make up for in unscrupulousness or narcissistic conviction that their 'holy' end justifies most any means. Thus does religious dogma become synonymous with personal peculiarity, criminality or pathology.

Why should educators care about this sort of thing? Because religious true believers regularly target teachers, principals and superintendents, that’s why. Who better for these folks to stick a bull’s eye on than relatively powerless public educators?
Compounding this vulnerability, local school boards often grant serious regard to these hypocritical, opportunistic, narcissistic, befuddled, self-righteous or just plain crazy individuals.

Americans get along as well as they do by generally holding their tongue about their fellow citizen’s most deeply held beliefs. Most of us understand that doing otherwise destroys community. But such civility lends inadvertent cover and misplaced authority to the hypocrites, narcissists, numskulls, fools, knaves and scoundrels who misrepresent, or mistake, their own agendas for the teachings of Jesus.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The End of Ignorance?

Have you noticed that no one is ignorant anymore? They're just part of the "low information" crowd. The folks who voted against Barrack Obama because he is a Muslim, for example, weren't ignorant. They were just low on information.

Note how delightfully nonjudgmental this is. No one is ignorant, they're just less informed. It's like being left handed as opposed to right handed!

We seem to have forgotten that ignorance, unlike congenital stupidity, is an achieved trait. Sure, the ignorance of the mentally incapacitated is due to diminished capacity. But what about a person of normal intelligence who, for example, still insists that Saddam Hussein was in league with El Quaeda and in possession of weapons of mass destruction? Given decisive evidence to the contrary, such ignorance is entirely their own handiwork.

The politically correct would have us believe that ignoramuses have disappeared. Such folks are just low on information. The next thing you know "less informed" will be out and "differently informed" will be in. Think the earth is a mere 6,000 years old? Well that's just as good as any other age. It all depends on how you look at it.

How far shall we take this nonsense? Has personal responsibility been removed from our lexicon? And what about the implications of this rampant political correctness for schooling? Don't even ask. -- GKC

For similarly irreverent ruminations and lots of other interesting stuff on education visit www.newfoundations.com

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Why Not Cheat?

When it comes to schoolwork, why not cheat?
Essentially, there are two sorts of reasons. The first involves looking out for number one. The other has to do with doing the right thing. Let’s examine them both.

Looking Out for Number One

If you are smart, you won't cheat because the potential costs far outweigh the likely benefits. This is not a moral argument. The point here isn’t that cheating is wrong, though it is, it’s that cheating isn’t smart.

Sometimes students cheat because they don’t realize the seriousness of the consequences if they get caught. Don’t make that mistake. Few things enrage educators more than cheating and they often take serious measures against students who are guilty of it. They include:

• Double weighted zeros on the test or assignment
• An informative phone call to parents
• Course failure
• A letter of reprimand in the student’s permanent record
• Compulsory community service
• Expulsion from a program
• Expulsion from school

Another selfish reason for not cheating is that it stifles the development of the cheater’s own human potential. In other words, cheaters cheat themselves of their own possibilities as persons. That’s pretty basic.

Here is a final selfish reason not to cheat. Often it only postpones the inevitable. Let’s say you cheat your way through a math course. Your lack of actual skill will typically catch up with you in the next math course. In other words, cheating usually only postpones the inevitable. Plus, as time goes by, the odds that you will be able to keep cheating your way through get slimmer and slimmer.

Ethical Arguments

The Judeo-Christian tradition offers one well-known ethical argument against cheating. “Thou shalt not steal,” states the commandment. And since you are getting a grade you didn't earn, cheating is stealing.

An additional ethical argument against cheating is that it produces unfair and unjust consequences. Justice requires that each person gets what he or she deserves. Sometimes deciding what people deserve isn’t easy. But that's not the case with a cheater. He or she didn’t do the work and their honest classmates did. Therefore, the cheater doesn’t deserve the same grade.

A further ethical argument against cheating is that it involves using others to advance a personal goal without regard for their rights as human beings. People aren't things and should not be treated as if they were.

Finally. in deciding what is morally right it's helpful to consider the total good that will come from our action as well as the total harm. With cheating, the total harm outweighs the good. What is more, honest effort provides greater benefits to a greater number. Therefore, cheating is wrong.

Summary
You’ve seen there are two kinds of reasons not to cheat. The first involves looking out for number one. The second involves ethical considerations of right and wrong. The combined force of both arguments suggests cheating is a bad idea.

Psychological research reveals that when people have a chance to reflect on a moral issue, they are much more likely to behave in accord with their consciences. Give yourself that opportunity.

Friday, March 27, 2009

CAN EVERY CHILD LEARN?

The key element in teaching success isn't technical skill, or more resources, or smaller classes; the key to success is higher expectations. Teachers will get more if they expect more. The mantra to chant daily is, “Every child can learn.”

That’s the tune that a lot of people are dancing to these days. A remarkably diverse assortment of governors, national and state legislators, educational entrepreneurs, school superintendents and ordinary, right thinking Americans all assert “Every child can learn.” In fact, this overworked and under considered motto is a ubiquitous as dog doo on the public green.

Ignoring definitive research that points to non-school factors as key to school success or failure, those embracing this mindless motto dismiss the idea that “schooling failures" are largely a symptom of social failures. Do they honestly believe that positive thinking can cancel out the educational consequences of a fifth of all U.S. children living in poverty. Do they honestly believe that positive thinking can defeat the problems that cause infants born in US inner cities being less likely to survive than babies born in the “third world.” Do they honestly believe that positive thinking can save the education of hundreds of thousands of U.S. youngsters who literally don’t have a home to do homework in. (On an average night in D.C., for instance, 1,300 youngsters are in shelters for the homeless.)

Any fool can see that such beliefs are humbug. The plain fact is that “every child’s” learning is stifled if they are homeless, abused, malnourished, and way past angry. Sure they can learn to stay away from Mom when she’s high or to keep out of the way of Mom’s boyfriend when he’s looking for someone to abuse. But most kids living in misery can’t, or won’t, learn to do algebra, appreciate Shakespeare or conjugate verbs. Some won’t even learn to read. They’re too busy trying to survive.

Only a numskull really expects quality schoolwork from children in such situations. So let’s quit pretending that positive thinking will make the difference and face the ugly fact that social problems erode school effectiveness all across America.

To further examine these and similar issues, see
Power Failure: Why U.S. School Reform Persistently Misses the Target

--- GKC

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Why Educational Leaders Always Fall Short

Here is the skinny on educational leadership. No matter how good school leaders are, they can never be good enough. America's diversity generates immutable disagreements regarding what schools should teach and how they should teach it. The only way to generate consensus is with vague slogans — for example, "Every school a good school!"Since we don't agree on what these slogans mean, however, implementation quickly bogs down in endless disagreements.

What individuals want from schools and school administrators changes with their circumstances. In certain situations they want schools that are temples and educational leaders who are moral leaders — high priests of rectitude and knowledge. In other circumstances they want schools to be business-like and school administrators to be executives or production managers. In still other circumstances they want schools to be town meetings where policies and procedures are subject to negotiation, politics, and compromise and administrators are arbitrators mediating disputes.

Even the most gifted administrators finds such different roles very difficult to play. And if they must be played simultaneously, it becomes impossible.

A school administrator's troubles do not end there either. Irreconcilable organizational conflicts also are built into school leadership. To the extent that school leaders exercise power, they undermine morale. To the extent that they follow policy, they must ignore individual differences. To the extent that they pursue authorized goals, they must limit their subordinates discretion. In short, school administration involves a series of difficult and unclear choices. What does all this imply? That a school administrator's job performance will inevitably fall short of many people's expectations.

Many educational pundits imagine that school administrators can be miracle workers — pedagogical shamans who magically reconcile competing expectations for schools and schooling through the purity of their motivations and the force of their will.The literature on "transformational" school leadership, for example, is replete with solemn assurances that visionary change agents, expert at dealing with complexity and ambiguity, can successfully convince everyone to serve goodness, righteousness, duty, and obligation.

This is pure humbug —just more of the wishful thinking that too   often substitutes for thought in education. And for a wide variety of reasons, it's dangerous to expect educational leaders to achieve the unachievable. The best any school administrator can hope for is partial success. Sometimes, however, that can make the needed difference.

To examine these and similar issues further, see  http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/MoralLeadership.html

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What's "Special" About Special Education?

America’s public schools (and parochial schools for that matter) are factories. Mass schooling’s enormous scale requires processing the most students at the least cost.

Cutting costs requires an emphasis on efficiency, rather than community, individuality, or even moral principle. Thus the desolate truth is that the broad mass of school kids are, and always have been, processed like so many cans of soup.

Consider the “school plant” as it’s revealingly called. Signs of its factory-like nature are everywhere. It has numbered rooms in repetitive order, mail boxes uniformly arranged, sign-in sheets or time clocks, a daily inventory (roll) of the “raw material,” buzzers that set things in motion or bring motion to a halt, chairs in ordered ranks, children segregated by age and teachers by function, and an “office” that commands in metallic tone via the P.A. system. The whole thing reeks of the repetitive, impersonal but efficient monotony of a factory.

Yes, competent teachers group kids by skill level, teach lessons that exploit various kinds of intelligence, capitalize on interests, that sort of thing. Such “accommodations” are what makes some factory schools better than others. But in the end mass schooling is still factory-like because limited resources demand efficiency.

What about kids who are so "different" they can't be mass processed. In the "good old days" children who held up production were “exempted” from compulsory school attendance . Later, youngsters too out of the ordinary for efficient processing were only removed from the assembly line and placed in “special” classes. Now federal law requires that "special" children be placed in the least restrictive environment possible. In other words, put back on the assembly line. The trouble is how to do this and still maintain efficiency.

Making matters worse, the very same politicians who order inclusion fail to fully fund it. Yet they assure the public that no child will be left behind and press relentlessly for more and more high stakes testing. This places educators in an impossible situation. They must leave no child behind. They must turn no child away. They must place every child in the least restrictive environment possible. Test scores must get better. But don’t ask for more resources or smaller classes because there’s no more money. Thus, factory type schools are the only option. This is a no-win situation no matter how you look at it. Is it any wonder that teacher attrition is scandalously high? Is it a surprise that enthusiasm for school administration is drying up?

Ultimately, the difficulties “special” children create for factory schools are unresolvable. Such kids inevitably slow production. That’s why these kids are labeled “special” to begin with; the school as factory can’t process them.

This is what is special about special education? It’s the one aspect of public schooling that isn’t factory-like. It’s the only place in school where individual differences really matter. But inclusion requires that more and more "special" kids be put back on the assembly line. Hence, the factory becomes loses efficiency and special needs go largely unmet. Is that what inclusion advocates want? Well, it’s what they’re getting.

To further examine these and similar issues, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Monday, February 2, 2009

Ya Can't Pick Boogers With Gloves On

There are public schools in Philadelphia that have a daily absentee rate of 20%. That means 1/5 of the youngsters are absent on any given day. Nevertheless, their teachers are held to account when these same kids score poorly on high stakes tests.

It is plainly ridiculous, even Kafkaesque, to hold educators accountable for failing to teach children who are absent from school. Nevertheless, this is precisely what is happening.

Then there are the thousands of children who are physically present, but emotionally and intellectually absent. Instead of focusing on learning, they are wondering where their next meal is coming from or if they will be homeless tonight. Others fear Mom is going to be "entertaining" another guy, get high again, or end up beaten half to death by her abusive boyfriend. Still others worry that they are going to be assaulted or killed by a gang, or are too depressed or angry to even care about school. And a few are making far to much money selling drugs to be bothered.

Then too, some schools are so poorly managed that learning and teaching are impossible. Some "educational leaders" fail to back teachers in matters relating to order and discipline, for instance, and the school is a scary mad house. No one, no matter how skilled or determined, can learn or teach in the midst of chaos. Nevertheless, this is what is being demanded.

It's not as if these impediments to learning are invisible. They could not be more obvious. Yet no allowances are made when the politicos enforce teacher "accountability." Instead teachers are held to account for learning failures that they have no means to control.

There is no surer way to demoralize and embitter a caring teacher. There is no more effective way to drive the best and the brightest out of teaching.

Faced with such nonsense, kids usually tune out and turn off. But teachers generally put up with it. Perhaps they feel powerless and are demoralized to the point of inaction. Maybe they have bought the total "accountability" nonsense and blame themselves. It's hard to tell. But what isn't hard to tell is that holding teacher's feet to the fire while ignoring anything and everything that stifles learning is damned foolishness.

No one should be held accountable for things they can't control. As my life-hardened Granny put it, "Ya can't pick boogers with gloves on."

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Ultimate Silliness: Holding Teachers Accountable For Kids Who Aren't There

In the School District of Philadelphia's public high schools absenteeism averages nearly 20%; and the 14 worst high schools average nearly 30%.1 That means almost 1/5 of high school youngsters are absent on any given day. And we aren't even counting the large number of kids who come in an hour or more late. Yet their teachers are held accountable when absent kids score poorly on high stakes tests. Indeed, the entire school is held to account by No Child Left Behind.

NCLB requires that states and districts include at least 95% of all students, (including the disability subgroup) in assessment results in order to meet the accountability requirements. The 5% is supposed to allow for absenteeism and other events not under the school’s control."2

Plainly, the law presupposes that no more than 5% of the youngsters in any school will be chronically absent. Yet the earlier noted 30% absentee rate alone gives the lie to this. The fact is that there are many schools where this 5% allowance for intervening variables is so low as to be laughable.

1/ http://www.thenotebook.org/editions/2005/fall/Page_15_F05.pdf

2. Accountability for Assessment Results in the No Child Left Behind Act, National Center on Educational Outcomes, http://cehd.umn.edu/nceo/OnlinePubs/NCLBdisabilities.html

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

When Should Teachers Lie?

Imagine a high school science teacher being asked about evolution by a youngster from a religiously conservative family. The student might say something like this: “My church teaches, and my family believes, that the earth is just 6,000 years old. But the text claims that the earth is nearly 800,000 times older. What am I to think?”

Clearly the claim that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old lacks scientific credibility, and our teacher knows it. How, then, should he or she respond?

Here are some possibilities. You decide how our teacher might best respond and still honor her profession.

1. “A 6,000 year old earth is not supported by scientific evidence.”
2. “The Biblical account might best be understood as an allegory.”
3. “Which account do you think is more credible?”
4. “That’s a question for your parents and pastor.”
5. “If you believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, it is - for you.”
6. “Your parents and pastor are correct.”

Answer 1 is the unvarnished truth, 2 offers an alternative, and 3 begs the question. Regarding 4, the student knows what his parents think; he wants an answer from the teacher. Answer 5 is evasive, though it’s possibly wise. Response 6 is a lie, pure and simple. Which of these responses can our high school instructor choose and still properly call themselves a teacher?

Given teachers’ compensation and often shoddy treatment, it might be na├»ve to expect them to take risks for honesty’s sake. But you’re not asked to decide what is prudent here. You’re only deciding what this teacher must do to remain true to the essential nature of teaching.

Does anything change if we reduce the grade level? Let’s take this inquiry to first grade. Six-year-olds frequently ask their teacher if Santa Claus is real. Here are some possible responses.

1. “No, Santa Claus is not real.”
2. “Santa Claus represents the spirit of giving.”
3. “Do you think Santa is real?”
4. “That’s a question for your parents.”
5. “If you believe in him, he’s real for you.”
6. “Certainly he’s real — I’ve seen him myself.”

Which of these answers can our teacher give without betraying his calling? Can you think of a better one?

A wide range of vital topics are shunned or rendered harmless by educators wishing to avoid becoming the target of no-nothing parents, civic “activists,” opportunistic politicians, or self-appointed guardians of public morality. What inevitably suffers are truth and relevance. This is why public schooling is often devitalized, immaterial, and boring. This also is how teachers become irrelevant, neutered apologists.

Admittedly, one person’s truth is another’s foolishness. Nevertheless, education without candor is no education at all. Moreover, a teacher’s character, including his or her honesty, is what students remember after they’ve forgotten everything else.

Notes
1. “College Suspends Ellis for War Lies.” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 18, 2001, p. 4.
2. “California Children See How a Steer Is Slaughtered.” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 5, 2001, p. 6.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

Monday, January 5, 2009

School House or Mad House: Reconsidering Corporal Punishment

Educators and other school officials have a non-negotiable obligation to maintain a safe school in which those who want to can learn. This is an irreducible minimum which must take precedence over well-intentioned efforts at social reclamation, racial pride building, AIDS prevention, or whatever.

This means that serious disruptions, bullying, extortion, and predation, must not be tolerated under any circumstances. If this can be accomplished without administering corporal punishment, so much the better. After all, the physical punishment of children has weighty opposition. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers all oppose or strongly discourage corporal punishment of children and the United Nations has initiated a world-wide program to eliminate it.

But what if educators with thirty plus impoverished kids per class do not command the resources necessary to maintain order without this option? For 6000 years such punishment was readily, available. Make other kid's lives miserable or learning impossible and it would cost you a red behind. These days, most school districts, even entire states have ruled this consequence out.

What has taken its place? Sermonettes, ineffectual detentions, forced transfers, or trying to teach the malefactors conflict resolution techniques. Unfortunately, the recipients of these remedies typically continue to lay waste to everyone's safety and learning.

Suspension is the worst that usually happens to school kids who specialize in making other people's lives insufferable. For many kids this sanction is a joke — time off to run the streets. With corporal punishment banned by people who escape the price of its banning, school officials command few if any sanctions that impress hooligans. As one young hoodlum assured a more novice delinquent in the presence of a Philadelphia teacher friend of mine, "Don't worry, they can't do shit to you here."

Sure, corporal punishment might well damage children thus corrected. It also might encourage them to think that might makes right or that violence is the best way to resolve conflicts. (They probably think that anyway.) But even if it always damages aggressors in one way or another, that, by itself, is not decisive until the rights and safety of others have been factored in.

Put simply, educators absolutely must nor forget about the rights of victims. Children who are being subjected to merciless bullying, for example. Don't they have rights and feelings? Remember, children are compelled to attend school by force of law, and that means that they have an absolute right to safety once they are there.

Teachers have similar rights. They must be free of the threats and assaults of disturbed or malevolent youngsters; and sociopaths, whatever the origins of their behavior, must not be permitted to destroy lessons much less the peace and happiness of others. And for this to happen, school officials must command meaningful sanctions that tough kids respect.

In the best of all possible worlds, corporal punishment would never have to be inflicted on anyone for any reason. And much can and should still be done to make schooling more palatable and more effective for a broader range of kids. This would reduce misbehavior. But the world is far from perfect, school resources are strictly limited, order is absolutely necessary for reforms to take hold and the right of the innocent to safety and security must take precedence. Meaningful penalties, then, still are required.

Is corporal punishment the answer? Is it the only practical way to make inner-city schools safe places where kids can learn. If so, it must be scrupulously fair and carefully controlled or abuse is guaranteed. But let's reiterate the main point. Without meaningful sanctions of some sort incivility and social predation simply take over.

It is sadly certain that present day sanctions are so weak that they insure that good kids, kids who want to learn, are being compelled to attend mad houses rather than school houses.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com