Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tougher Teacher Preparation: The Most Essential Step Toward Better Schools

“When one considers in its length and breadth the importance of a nation’s young, the broken lives, the defeated hopes, the national failures, which result from the frivolous inertia with which (education) is treated, it is difficult to restrain within oneself a savage rage”

Alfred North Whitehead
The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: Macmillan, 1929) p.22.

Really want to improve American schooling? Here is the first and most essential step. Recognize that better teachers are the key ingredient for improving our schools; and wake up to the fact that nothing, or at least nothing good, will happen until we strengthen their preparation.

How can this be done? Most undergraduates are too immature, ignorant and unmotivated for serious teacher preparation. What is required is thorough professional preparation in a post-graduate professional school similar to that required of lawyers, medical doctors, veterinarians, opticians, and podiatrists. In other words, make teacher preparation similar to that of trades we really care about.

This is no pipe dream. Advances in the teaching knowledge base make it possible to transform teacher preparation into a meaningfully rigorous and truly empowering process. But instead of exploiting this opportunity, state and federal officials have been fostering lax, disempowering short cuts into teaching.

Not content with the already slap dash preparation offered in undergraduate schools of education, thirty-eight states also offer so-called alternative certification programs as well. Most of these programs are so undemanding they do little or nothing to eliminate incompetence. Despite public rhetoric to the contrary, these short cuts are set up to license “teachers” on the cheap.

If our politicos were really serious about improving the nation’s schools, they would forget about quickie teacher preparation alternatives; close marginal teacher preparation programs at profiteering colleges who specialize in cut-rate certification; and simultaneously set up graduate level professional schools of pedagogy that feature demanding entrance and graduation requirements.

Remember, it took guilds, with their rigorous training, to build enduring masterpieces such as Europe’s great cathedrals. Master glass workers or stone masons certainly didn’t invite “creative, idealistic and enthusiastic” people in off the street, as politicians do with teaching, to try their hand at stained glass or stone carving. They were unrelenting in their apprenticeship requirements and the results speak for themselves. We need a similar approach in teacher preparation.

Sadly, too many public officials have a hidden agenda that is inimical to quality teacher preparation. They want to increase the supply of teachers by cheapening certification requirements. That drives down salaries and cuts the cost of government.

Anyone with an ounce of sense knows that higher salaries would have to be paid for highly trained, deeply committed teachers who really command the skills of their trade. And the average American simply isn’t willing to dig deep enough into their pocket to pay this tab. So there is little political benefit in supporting more rigorous requirements.

What is more, if the people entering teaching are less knowledgeable and less committed to the profession, it weakens teacher unions — a prime goal of Republican politicians whose election bids are routinely opposed by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

What needs to be done is obvious. What is equally obvious is that this is not going to happen any time soon. So, in the meantime, our politicians will keep messing about with high stakes tests, charter schools and any other 'remedy' that can be accomplished on the cheap.

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

Monday, December 8, 2008

A MOST ESSENTIAL QUESTION: How Many Are Truly Educable?

“Essential questions” are much in vogue in teaching. They are intended to guide instruction and help students discover the big ideas that constitute the core of a topic of study. But suppose we apply this methodology to education itself. What is the most essential question we can ask about it? How about this? How many people are truly educable?

Reason and Understanding

What’s the difference between being “educable” and “trainable?” Let’s stipulate that for a person to be “educable” they must be “capable of being improved in ways that depend on reason and understanding.” A trainable person, in contrast, is incapable of being improved in these ways.

Education as Panacea

It must be widely supposed that most people are educable, for Americans have long had a peculiar faith in the power of education. Indeed, it is frequently regarded as the answer for most human difficulties. Consequently our schools are expected to resolve a daunting array of problems such as the cultural integration of immigrants, difficulties with national competitiveness, the elimination of racial injustice, the control of sexually transmitted diseases, and so forth. Indeed, the list of problems thought to be susceptible to educational solution seems almost inexhaustible.

Lack of Education or Educability?

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, just perhaps, the real culprit is a widespread lack of capacity and/or inclination for education. After all, in order for education to be a cure, much less a cure-all, the majority of humans must be capable of sufficient reason and understanding to be improved by that means; plus they also must willing. Suppose this is not the case? Perhaps a great many humans, possibly even most humans, are not truly educable in any deep and abiding sense.

Is such speculation too pessimistic? 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 remain current because they are deeply rooted in reality.

Too Dumb, Too Scared, Or What?

This line of reasoning sounds heretical to those accustomed to the obligatory, optimism that engulphs schooling. Nevertheless, there is evidence to support such a view. Consider how many humans willingly trot off to slaughter every time someone idecides to gives a war. And instead of learning from repeated previous slaughters, we humans continue to enthusiastically divide ourselves into pseudo-species, carefully nurture distrust and hatred toward one another, and then, sooner or later, join in still another horrific mutual slaughter that is utterly foreign to any “lesser species.”

For instance, fully fifteen million people were killed and twenty two million wounded in World War I. Yet just nineteen years later homo sapiens (man the thinker?) got himself into a far worse slaughter — WW II, This ghastly tribute to human folly cost 60 million people their lives and loosed hellish suffering on many more. Does any of this sound like the behavior of a species that is educable, i.e. “capable of being improved in ways that depend on reason and understanding?”

On the other hand, how much power did the average person have to change the course of these events? And they only knew what they were told. Perhaps it is true, as radicals have long maintained, that wars are creations of the rich and powerful and serve only their purposes while the rest are forced to “serve.”

Weapons of Mass Destruction

Still, home sapiens displays a peculiar reluctance, or inability, to employ reason and understanding even when the truth is readily apparent. The Harris Poll reported, for instance, that despite repeated official reports that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, the belief that Iraq possessed such weapons increased substantially after the war was over and the evidence in.

That’s right, despite massive and widely publicized evidence to the contrary, the number of Americans who thought that Iraq possessed such weapons prior to Operation “Enduring Freedom” actually went up as evidence to the contrary became widely known. As a matter of fact, in February of 2005 only 36% thought Iraq was so armed; but in July of 2006 fully 50% believed they were. Does that sound like a conviction that grew out of widespread capacity for reason and understanding?

To be fair, those who changed their mind about those weapons of mass destruction might have done so out of an unconscious desire to rationalize their own original enthusiasm for the war and/or to justify the tremendous costs it has generated. In short, what seems to be evidence of public credulity might just be people being human, all to human. But that still leaves us wondering why the species is so very eager to cling to the mindless tribalism, hatred and the organized murder we call warfare? Is that evidence of Homo sapiens' educability?

And what about our destruction of the very environment that sustains us? With happy oblivion we are rapidly destroying the basis of our species very existence. In this case, it might turn out that homo sapiens, “man the thinker,” will ultimately prove too dumb to live.

Campaign Appeals

On a less global scale one can also profitably consider the success of political campaign strategies that are based on the principle that many people are fools. In Pennsylvania, for example Senator Rick Santorum cut down challenger Bob Casey’s very substantial lead by means of a $3.5 million TV ad blitz that repeatedly referred to Casey as “Bobby” in order to make him seem juvenile and inconsequential. Casey countered with an equally unsophisticated attack ad. The plain truth of the matter is that ads like this work and work well. Does that suggest there is a great deal of deep thought going on out there?

Of course, political propagandists know how to play on emotions such as fear of the unknown, the alien and the complex. Moreover, the simplicity they offer is beguilingly attractive to a public that has to reach conclusions based on imperfect information and deliberate disinformation. Maybe that, rather than widespread intellectual ineffectiveness, is why the general public remains so exploitable and so oblivious to many urgently important issues. Let’s hope so.

The Media

Evidence of a widespread ineducability is not confined to the repetitive insanity of war, assaults on the environment, or crass political chicanery. Consider, the quality of the media. More specifically, let’s consider infomercials or “paid programming.”
Multiplied millions of dollars are spent buying TV time to peddle bogus nostrums, physical or spiritual, and many, many more millions are realized in consequence. Psychic hotlines generate fortunes for their bogus operators even though they have absolutely nothing but hot air to sell. Omega 3 fish oil is successfully huckstered as a cure for an impossible range of maladies and tens of thousands have been convinced that purging their bowels will have the same beneficial effects on their body that emptying a full sweeper bag can effect for s clogged up Electrolux.

Also consider how dozens of televangelist,s of dubious background and motive, repeatedly and successfully con the public by means of such obvious scams as packets of “miracle spring water,” or dollar green “prosperity prayer cloths”, that allegedly convey magical pecuniary powers. “Pastor, right after I got that prayer cloth a thousand dollars mysteriously appeared in my bank account. Praise God!”

The fact is there is a small army of prosperity “pastors” on TV convincing tens of thousands of financially desperate people that giving generously — to the pastor, of course— will not only eliminate some benighted fools financial troubles but prompt a ten-fold return on their “offering.” One oily, but particularly persuasive, televangelists lives in a multi-million dollar California beach front mansion and flies to world-renown resorts in his private jet. And just today I saw him wheedling still more money out of the faithful so he can buy an even bigger jet —the price tag is nine million dollars! Let’s pump this sacerdotal bunko artist full of truth serum then ask him about the educability of the average American. Can you guess what he would say?

Ponder also the generally appalling quality of media programming in general. TV, for instance, is still the same cultural wilderness it was in 1961 when FCC Chairman Newton Minnow invited us to:

“…sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you--and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience-participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials--many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom.”

Newton was right on target until he got to that very last sentence. Since TV bored him, he concluded that the broad masses must also be bored. But Minnow failed to consider that shows remain on the air by virtue of their ratings. TV content is a function of the public tuning in or tuning out. Hence the generally mindless quality of TV programming must be regarded as an indirect index of widespread public preference for drivel. Network executives long ago learned that they pan the most gold by designing a preponderance of their shows for people of limited capacity and less sophistication — i.e. the general public.

Radio programming is similarly selected via public popularity. So what do the masses tune to? Well here in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, home to almost 6 million people, it is unlikely to be classical music because the one commercial station that played it switched to soft rock. Philadelphians can listen to hip-hop, dance, country, soft rock, hard rock, pop/rock, stupidly one-sided right wing “talk” shows and endless gassing about sports, but the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn are out so far as commercial radio is concerned. Why? The broad masses weren’t tuning in. Evidently the broad masses prefer Rap to the Ode to Joy.

The Desolation of the Hinterlands

Keep in mind that even greater desolation exists in the hinterlands where semi-literate pastors read God’s mind for the masses while country music grinds on endlessly in cacophonous concert. That is nearly all there is in the heartland.
To be fair, no one knows for sure how many people are deeply disgusted with this media garbage. And many people might have far better discernment if they had more knowledge to work with. American schooling helps little here. It is woefully inadequate when it comes to the arts and the discernment they can develop and it shies completely away from anything that might help kids see through bogus divines. As a matter of fact, by the time budget cuts slash “frills” from the curriculum, high stakes testing takes its share and the self-appointed censors finish off anything that might trigger thought, the curriculum is a cultural wasteland par excellence. Perhaps, then, we should beware of blaming the victim for the wasteland’s results.

Space does not permit extending these considerations. Suffice it to say that there is abundant evidence of widespread vulnerability, gullibility, wishful thinking and tastelessness among the broad masses. What shall we make of this? Is it evidence of a deeper, fundamental immunity to any and all improvements that depend on reason and understanding? Alternatively, is it the inevitable consequence of a society where avarice trumps all and schooling is generally so narrow and unimaginative that it is unworthy of the name?

general populace has the intelligence and the emotional capacity to be educated in the sense we’ve used it here? You decide.