Monday, June 30, 2008

Let's Test the Candidates

No Child Left Behind's emphasis on one-size-fits-all standardized testing is a concern of many. But the remedy for this federal spree just may be the hair of the dog. In other words, require every political candidate to pass a battery of standardized tests to be eligible for office. If you don’t pass the test, you can’t join the fest. And to make sure no deserving individual escapes our net, we also will require aspiring high level government appointees, such as the future Secretary of Education, to also pass.

We could require every aspiring office holder to take the same tests he/she prescribes for others. Before being allowed to run for President, for example, Dubya would have had to pass the self-same tests he championed for high schoolers. Imagine him sweating and scratching his noggin. Similarly we could require every aspiring state Secretary of Education to pass the battery of tests they propose requiring of aspiring teachers. In Pennsylvania, for example, he or she would have to pass separate NTE tests in Reading, Writing, and Listening Skills, (The later would be a tough one for any politician.).

An alternate plan is to design office specific tests for those aspiring to high office. We could turn to ETS or the Psychological Corporation to craft enough items for multiple versions of the test since cheating would be a particular concern. Test items would be finalized only after a painstaking vetting. Blue ribbon boards would appraise and reappraise every question. In the end we might have questions roughly like these:

1. Given an unprecedented federal budget deficit, the best course of action is to:
a. borrow money to repair the nation’s crumbling infrastructure
b. cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans
c. privatize Social Security
d. tighten the nation's belt and spend only what we have

2. If an attractive intern offers oral sex a public official should:
a. quickly take him or her up on it before he or she changes their mind
b. be discreet
c. politely decline
d. ask them what they mean by "sex."

3. If, as President, you plan to have our schools emphasize “character education,” the best model to base the curriculum on would be:
a. J. Edgar Hoover
b. Richard Nixon
c. Bill Clinton
d. none of the above

4. If an attack against the US originated in Afghanistan, the best course of action would be to:
a. invade Iraq
b. invade Iran
c. invade Afghanistan
d. invade anybody

Admittedly, on a test such as this dishonest answers might be a problem. Safeguards clearly are required. One possibility is to administer the test while test-takers are hooked up to lie detectors. Imagine a candidate sweating and squirming as the polygraph relentlessly tells the tale. “Is that your actual answer? Is that your final honest answer?” (Philadelphia’s infamous late Duce/Mayor Frank Rizzo once failed a lie detector test while trying to prove the device’s reliability. Evidently the polygraph was more discerning than voters.) Alternatively, we could inject test-takers with scopolamine, a truth serum favored by secret policemen the world over. The test would be administered orally as the subjects drift guilelessly on a tripped out cloud.

Regardless of the method, however, we must be absolutely certain that our subjects are answering truthfully. And we should keep in mind that most of them would be unaccustomed to doing this.

That, in broad outline, is the plan. But it needs filling in. That’s where you can help. Tell us what you think. Should aspirants for public office take the same tests they prescribe for others, or should they be required to take brand new custom designed tests? If so should we measure wisdom, rectitude, practical knowledge, educational expertise, sexual cravings or what? And should we test just once, or longitudinally every year the person is in office? (Longitudinal testing has the obvious advantage of measuring whether or not the subject is improving while “serving.”)

You also might like to suggest specific test items. They need not be multiple choice as exemplified in this commentary. Any types of questions typically found on standardized tests are welcome. Rush your comments and suggestions to The Worm Turns Foundation, c/o Newfoundations, P.O. Box 94, Oreland, PA 19075, or post them here.

To examine these issues further, see articles at

Friday, June 13, 2008

Why Teaching Critical ThinkingTypically Is a Farce

Critical Thinking About “Critical Thinking”

There are more than 16,000 school districts in the United States and nearly all of them boast that they teach ‘critical thinking.’ In fact if you Google “critical thinking,” “school district,” and “mission statement” combined you get an astonishing 182,000 matches. Click on them and you will find page after page of heart-warming affirmations like this one from the Lordstown, Ohio School District: “We believe in the development of critical thinking skills.”

A commendable belief; but what would happen if critical thinking actually were effectively taught? Suppose the youngsters truly, seriously and boldly scrutinized their community and nation’s customs, principles, and beliefs. Suppose they were encouraged to critically examine the authorities that most of us defer to in directing our lives and defining the good, the true, the beautiful? No doubt that would be critical thinking. But would educators who encourage this sort of analytical inquiry receive hearty congratulations or have to flee a rampaging mob of angry, torch-wielding villagers?

Let’s be clear that by critical thinking we do not mean mere logic chopping. You know, the “these are the premises” and “this is a conclusion,” sort of thing. That kind of ‘critical thinking’ is generally harmless in that it rarely results in serious challenges to anything deeply believed. That is why this is the common style of ‘critical thinking’ taught in school. No,by critical thinking we mean systematically reconsidering the deep assumptions that many, including student’s parents, take to be true. We also include questioning basic authority — including sacred and semi-sacred documents and those who interpret them. Thinking critically has to include that sort of thing or it is hardly critical.

Some might argue that it isn't necessary to tackle these issues head on; that by teaching generic methods of thinking critically learners will, sooner or later, bring these tools to bear on those deep assumptions and basic authorities that are central to their lives. But too many things can interfere with transfer of learning to rely on it. If you want young people to really think critically, it is far better to provide them with a direct and well focused opportunity to do so. Just be prepared to find another job shortly thereafter.

-- GKC


The Philadelphia Inquirer just published a letter to the editor from a taxpayer irate about the terms of a settlement that ended a teacher's strike. Smarting over the prospect of teachers making still more money, the taxpayer insists the remedy is a three-tiered teacher salary system. He wants to pay the most to those teaching math, science, physics, biology, etc. Next in pay would be teachers of English, literature, foreign languages, social studies, business and vocational subjects. The lowest pay tier would be elementary, special education and physical education teachers.

One wonders how he arrived at these priorities. Is it that he thinks math and science are the most worthwhile subjects? Perhaps he think that it takes more skill and effort to qualify to teach them? Perhaps he is of the opinion that it is harder to teach these subjects. But how did special and elementary education teachers end up at the bottom of his three tiered sytem? Surely he doesn't think this type of teaching is easier than teaching, say, algebra. If he does he could use some special education himself. With respect to elementary education being easier, perhaps he should try his hand at teaching 30+ six year olds like Philadelphia teachers have been doing for years if he thinks this is true.

Does he think that kids with special difficulties are worth less public investment? That seems unlikely because he also wants elementary in the bottom pay tier, and few argue that young "normal" children are least worthy of public resources. Perhaps he has some other criteria in mind. But what could it be? Does he just like math and science? But the foundation of both those subjects, indeed of all subjects, is laid in elementary school.

Perhaps, like some theological matters, the criteria for his rankings must forever remain a mystery. One can only hope they were not divinely inspired.

By the way, this chap also thinks teacher's salaries should be capped at no more than $20,000 above the starting salary. Presumably he thinks this will insure retention of the best and brightest.

-- GKC

Fairness in Educational Practice

Affirmative Action in Educational Practice: Neglected Considerations

Educators who plan to take affirmative action to undo the effects of past and current unjust discrimination should take the following into consideration . Social psychological research has consistently demonstrate that many genuine handicaps are seldom even considered when administering such a policy. Consider the following as possible sources of unjust discrimination and ask why affirmative action should not be extended to these and similar classes of people.

Physical Attractiveness

In a study entitled "What Is Beautiful Is Good," researchers from the American Psychological Association experimentally documented a phenomenon referred to as the physical-attractiveness stereotype. Investigators showed photographs of attractive, average, and unattractive people to university undergraduates. The students were asked to rate the people in the photos on various personality traits and behavioral tendencies, based solely on their appearance in the pictures.

Results showed that compared to unattractive people, attractive people were assumed to possess a higher number of positive traits. The students rated them confident, strong, assertive, candid, warm, honest, kind, outgoing, sensitive, poised, sociable, exciting, and nurturing (Dion, Berscheid, and Walster 1972). Startling as these results may be, the physical-attractiveness stereotype is robust, replicated in several different experimental paradigms (Feingold 1992). As Aristotle noted, "Personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction."


Weight is another, often overlooked, physical characteristic associated with discrimination and unfair treatment. Social psychological research on attitudes toward overweight people has shown they are often perceived as lazy, unintelligent, slovenly, and unattractive (Grover, Keel, and Mitchell 2003). Several studies have demonstrated that such negative attitudes toward obese individuals may contribute to discrimination in the work place. Specifically, obese people are not hired as often as people of normal weight (Roe and Eickwort 1976); are less likely to be promoted (Larkin and Pines 1979); and often report being discriminated against by managers and peers (Rothblum, Brand, Miller, and Oetjen 1990).

Short Stature

Height, particularly in men, is another physical attribute associated with negative stereotypes and discrimination. A 1992 study by researchers from Michigan State University demonstrated that short men are often judged inferior to tall men in several personal attributes. People tend to judge taller men as more socially attractive, higher in professional status, more masculine, more athletically inclined, and more physically attractive than short men (Jackson and Ervin 1992). Similar studies have found that short men often experience discrimination in professional settings. For example, short job applicants are not hired as often as taller applicants (Bonuso 1983); short employees earn less, on average, than taller employees (Loh 1993); and short political candidates lose elections more often than taller candidates (Gillis 1982).

Some Of The Other Factors

Social psychological research also indicates that people with red hair color are often stereotyped as "clownish" and "weird" (Heckert and Best 1997). Negative stereotyping based on language and dialect (i.e., Southern accents, ebonics) also is a common occurrence (Anisfield 1972). Additionally, children who wear brand-name clothing and shoes are judged "popular," "wealthy," and able to "fit in with their peers" compared to children who do not wear name brands (Elliot and Leonard 2004).

What does such research have to do with equity in the classroom? The answer is "Everything." If unattractive, obese, or short people, for example, experience discrimination in a broad setting, it is very likely that they experience similar discrimination in an educational setting. So shouldn't fair share educators be prepared to apply compensatory measures for any student victimized by prejudice? Why should some students qualify for fair share treatment just because their particular group has more political muscle?


Instead of focusing on skin color or other group differences, perhaps educators should embrace the character-based vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. If they have the freedom to do so and if they can overcome the natural human tendency to stereotype, perhaps they should focus on each child's individual humanity, rather than his or her race,ethnicity, or what have you. After all, in the end, isn't character, not group membership, the most important quality of all?




In making No Child Left Behind the law of the land, Congress and President Bush got their school reform priorities backwards. Before demanding that no child be left behind, they first should have remedied the educational inequalities that insure that millions of American youngsters don't have a fair chance of keeping up.

How severe are these inequalities? Consider the School District of Philadelphia. Nearly 80 percent of its K-12 students live at or near the poverty level; and financial neediness spawns profound educational deficits. Nevertheless, a typical Philadelphia student has $2,215 less spent per year on his or her schooling than a typically less disadvantaged suburban student. As a matter of fact, six of those surrounding suburban districts spend over $5,000 more per pupil per year than Philadelphia. Given the School District of Philadelphia’s maximum class size of 32, that equals a $160,000.00 difference per classroom, per year.

It would be one thing if such educational inequalities were confined to the Philadelphia area or even to Pennsylvania. But outrageous inequalities in per student spending persist in district after district, and state after state. Here is a brief sampler of the unequal per-student spending that disadvantages so many American children.

• Camden, NJ $15,485 / Brick Township, NJ $9,472 – a difference of $6,013.
• Palo Alto Unified, CA $10,709 / Victor Valley Union High, CA $5,125 – a difference of $5,584.
• Yonkers, NY $15,148 / North Syracuse, NY $9,856 – a difference of $5,292.
• Atlanta, GA $11,502 / Columbia County, GA $6,580 – a difference of $4,922.
• Pittsburgh, PA $12,242 / Reading, PA $7,340 – a difference of $4,902.

These differences are typical of differences over most of the nation. Yet federal politicians, fully aware of this pitiable situation, are piously demanding that no child be left behind. Their hypocrisy is truly breath taking, even by Washington standards.

To be sure, federal tinkering attempts to deal with symptoms of this situation. But more than a century of outrageous inequality in school funding suggests that only a constitutional amendment would apply the consistent and persistent pressure necessary to sustain efforts at educational equalization from congress to congress and administration to administration. Plus federal judicial scrutiny, would pack the muscle necessary to insure state cooperation.

What would an Equal Education Amendment look like? It might read something like this:

Section 1. Equality of Educational opportunity under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, sex, income or place of residence.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Would an equal education amendment have sufficient support in Congress? That seems highly doubtful. Would the required two thirds of the states ratify it? Possibly not. But just raising the issue of a constitutional amendment focuses attention on the inequities.

Who would oppose such an amendment? In George W. Bush's America, there should be no scarcity of opponents.

And what would be the stated grounds of opposition? Some would say that an equal education amendment establishes excessive federal control over what are properly state and local matters. But that concern seems bogus now that Republicans have taken the lead in the most massive federal infringement of state and local control of schooling in our history - No Child Left Behind.

A far more potent source of opposition to an equitable disposition of educational resources would be those who benefit from the present inequality. Barring massive new spending that would raise all boats to the same level, they would have to forfeit that advantage and Congresspersons would vote accordingly.

Make no mistake; the federal government commands the necessary resources to provide every American child with equal educational opportunity. But to do this legislators and the White House would have to massively rearrange national priorities. We might, for example, have to invest far more in children and far less in the warfare state. And this would threaten the financial interests of many powerful people who paid to get these politicians elected in the first place.

This gets us to the real advantage of putting an Equal Education Amendment on the table; it forces hands and reveals agendas. It puts a question out there that most politicians dearly want to dodge. What is more important to you, providing every American child with equal educational opportunity, or serving the special interests you are beholden to? It’s high time that we ask that question and insist on a straight answer. -- GKC

Bad Apples or Sour Pickles? Misinterpreting the Columbine Massacre

While a few bad apples might spoil the barrel (filled with good fruit/people), a vinegar barrel will always transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles—regardless of the best intentions, resilience, and genetic nature of the cucumbers. So does it make more sense to spend resources to identify, isolate, and destroy bad apples or to understand how vinegar works . . . ?
—Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo

It was 11:19 a.m. on April 20, 1999 — Hitler’s 110th birthday—when Erik Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado. Hoping to kill most of the 400-plus students eating at the time, the pair planted two twenty-pound bombs in the school cafeteria. Then they waited outside the building, hoping to pick off blast survivors as they staggered out.
When the bombs failed to detonate, the pair stormed into the cafeteria and opened fire. Forty minutes later twelve students and a teacher lay lifeless; another twenty-three students were wounded—many gravely. Harris and Klebold also were dead of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Police worked into the next day to find and deactivate the thirty bombs the pair had planted throughout the school ( Wickipedia: Columbine high school massacre ).

The FBI’s Bad Apples
What set Harris and Klebold off? The FBI’s team of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, including a Michigan State University psychiatrist and Supervisory Special Agent Dwayne Fuselier, the FBI’s chief Columbine investigator, and a clinical psychologist, assert that Harris killed because he was a “psychopath.” Klebold, they say, was “hotheaded, depressive, suicidal,” and under Harris’s influence.(Dave Cullen The depressive and the psychopath: At last we know why the Columbine killers did it. posted Tuesday, April 20, 2004.)
The FBI experts are not claiming that Harris was delusional or out of touch with reality. They are asserting that he was a world-class hater out to punish humanity for its inexcusable inferiority. Is the FBI correct? Was this horrific incident the evil spawn of a remorseless teenager with a world-class superiority complex and an angry, suicidal alter ego?

The Columbine Pickle Barrel
What was the situation at Columbine before the massacre? Was this high school one of those vinegar-filled barrels that transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles, or were Harris and Kleebold bad apples who spoiled an otherwise good barrel?
A painstaking investigative report by the Washington Post describes pre-massacre Columbine as filled with social vinegar. The high school was dominated by a “cult of the athlete.” ( Lorraine Adams and Dale Russakoff, Dissecting Columbine’s cult of the athlete, Washington Post, June 12, 1999, Page A-1.) In this distorted environment a coterie of favored jocks—who wore white hats to set themselves apart—consistently bullied, hazed, and sexually harassed their classmates while receiving preferential treatment from school authorities.
Other students hated the abuses of “the steroid poster boys” but could do little. A former student testified, “Pretty much everyone was scared to take them on; if you said anything, they’d come after you, too.”
Here is more of what the Post found was going on at Columbine:

Bullying was rampant and unchecked. For instance, a father told Post reporters about two athletes mercilessly bullying his son, a Jew, in gym class. They sang songs about Hitler, pinned the youngster to the ground and did “body twisters” on him until he was black and blue, and even threatened to set him on fire. The father reported the bullying to the gym teacher as well as who also was the wrestling coach, but it continued. When the father took his complaint to the guidance counselor, he says, he was told, “This stuff can happen.” The outraged father had to complain to the school board to get relief for his son.
Athletes convicted of crimes were neither suspended from games nor expelled from school. The homecoming king, a star football player, was on parole for burglary yet still permitted to play. Columbine’s state wrestling champ was allowed to compete despite being on court-ordered probation, and school officials did nothing when he regularly parked his $100,000 Hummer all day in a fifteen-minute parking space.
Sexual harassment by athletes was common and ignored. For example, when a girl complained to her teacher that a football player was making lewd comments about her breasts in class, the teacher, also a football and wrestling coach, suggested she change her seat. When an athlete loudly made similar comments at a Columbine wrestling match, the girl complained to the same coach and he suggested she move to the other side of the gym. Finally, the girl complained to a woman working at the concession stand, who called police. The next day a school administrator tried to persuade the girl’s mother to drop the charges, telling her that pressing them would prevent the boy from playing football. When the youngster was found guilty, he still was permitted to play.

Homicidal Anger

How important were these injustices to Harris and Klebold? Did they care about them, or even know about them? The facts are they both knew and cared profoundly. In fact, the Post reports that dozens of interviews and court records alike show that the pair’s homicidal anger “. . . began with the injustices of the jocks.”
They became convinced that favored athletes could get away with anything. For instance, a close friend reported that the pair saw a star athlete, in front of a teacher, forcefully shove his girlfriend into a locker. The teacher did nothing. Such injustices enraged Harris and Klebold. That’s why, just before opening fire in the cafeteria, they demanded that all the jocks stand up. They planned to kill them first.
In sum, pre-massacre Columbine High seems to have been the kind of place that “will always transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles.” The FBI’s experts clearly had fallen into something social psychologists call fundamental attribution error, which is falsely ascribing behavior to temperament or personality while underestimating the power of situational factors on the same behavior.

See ” at “Bad Apples or Sour Pickles? Fundamental Attribution Error and the Columbine Massacre
-- GKC

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What Highly Qualified Teachers?

Once again comedians rule in education.  Some months back Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan toured the country publicly ringing his hands about the urgent need to improve teacher quality in the good old US of A.

One might think that Secretary Duncan was worried about a Bush-era regulation classifying thousands of novice teachers who were just beginning their training as "highly qualified"as required by NCLB. No, Arne wasn't worried about that at all. In his department carried forward Bush's regulation, and when a federal judge ruled that the policy clearly violated No Child Left Behind, the President quickly signed a bill officially lowering that standard to next to nothing.

Just what did "highly qualified" mean before the President and Congress officially castrated it? It meant that if you wanted to teach math, science, social studies, the arts, reading and languages you must hold a long-term license and demonstrate your content knowledge by obtaining a college major, by passing a test in the subject taught, or by some other means established by the state. In other words, every state was allowed to choose its own criteria and there was no requirement that a candidate be actually trained in teaching!  

Only in the politicized lala-land of public school policy would such a weak-kneed and ill-defined requirement be taken as too tough. Yet both George W. Bush and Barack Obama thought it necessary to water the law down. See why comedians rule in education?

For more such considerations please visit Highly Qualified Teachers: misgivings

-- GKC