Monday, October 31, 2016

SCHOOL REFORM FOLLIES: an example

In the 1990’s the Oklahoma State Board of Education imperiously declared that by the year 2000: "All schools will focus instruction on the needs of each individual student at all levels within the framework of an integrated curriculum."
How could a secondary teacher assigned an average of, say, 110 students per day, possibly individualize instruction for each and every one of them? This is plainly impossible. And teachers had to accomplish this within the framework of a newly “integrated curriculum” — whatever that meant. 
This “reform” was borderline impossible for elementary teachers as well. Designing and implementing instruction for small groups of, say, 5 or 6 youngsters is demanding, but doable. But truly individualizing newly integrated subject matter for each of 20 or more children is just ridiculous when the teacher had to keep the rest of the children orderly and learning simultaneously. [1]
This so-called “reform” actually was a mind-numbing combination of wishful thinking and political hot air. But Oklahoma educators had to appear to comply. This doubtless gave rise to dozens of mind-numbing meetings and vast amounts of useless paperwork. Meanwhile, from Kenton in the panhandle to Sallisaw on the Arkansas border, this top-down  “reform” interfered with educators actually doing their job.
Years have passed since the Oklahoma “reform” deadline. Was the state’s public education improved? Of course it wasn’t. The whole “reform” effort was an odious, time-wasting, paper project inspired by hollow slogans "individualizing instruction" — “integrating the curriculum.” Worse, it was forced on educators by self-important political hacks that either didn’t have a clue about the day-to-day realities of classroom teaching, or didn’t give a damn.
One day, far in the future, a janitor will be tidying up the Oklahoma Department of Education’s back offices. In a musty corner he or she will stumble across yellowed old documents submitted by every one of the state’s 520 school districts in order to document how they managed to accomplish the impossible.
“What is all of this?” the janitor will wonder as he or she struggles to carry the overflowing boxes to the trash. Meanwhile, in State Education Department board-rooms across the country, not to mention the Department of Education in Washington, a new crop of clueless political appointees will be crafting still more top-down reforms to convince gullible voters that their particular administration really does care about children — provided it isn’t costly.



[1] These numbers are based on 2016 Oklahoma averages as compiled by the National Center for Educational Statistics. http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/SASS/tables/sass0708_2009324_t1s_08.asp

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A SCHOOL REFORM PARABLE: every tadpole will thrive


By Gary K. Clabaugh, Professor Emeritus, La Salle University

Rewritten 8/16/16

In olden times, when hope still mattered, a frog named Horace treasured tadpols. When they thrived, Horace was very, very happy. When they failed to thrive, Horace was very, very sad.


Horace lived in the Kingdom of the Frogs where Bullfrogs reigned supreme. These puffed up monsters took up the best end of the pond, ate a great deal more than they needed, croaked so loudly no one else could be heard, and conducted their most important business hidden deep in the bottom muck.


Tadpoles need nurturing and ordinary frogs used community nurturaries to provide that. In fact, they paid taxes to the Bullfrogs for nurturary upkeep. The Bullfrogs, on the other hand, cared little about community nurturaries because they enrolled their own tadpoles in very expensive, private ones. Here their tadpoles were exempted from the omnipresent tests and measurements imposed on lesser tadpoles by the Bullfrogs.


One day the Bullfrogs mysteriously began harrumphing loudly that state run nurturaries were awful. A King-appointed blue ribbon panel of powerful Bullfrogs even proclaimed, "If another kingdom were responsible for the awful condition of our pond nurturaries it would be a cause for war." (Bullfrogs frequently found causes for wars — though they never fought in them.) 
The panel ignored the fact that Bullfrogs ultimately determined the funding of community nurturaries. Sub-adequate budgets helped create sub-adequate conditions. Plus these conditions closely reflected frog living conditions in the ever-growing stagnant end of the pond. And because they controlled the water flow the Bullfrogs determined how much of the pond was stagnant.


Anyway, as Horace came of age he thought, and thought (in the way that only frogs can think), about what to do with his life. "I know!" he finally decided, "I'll nurture tadpoles."
Certification was necessary to become a tadpole nurturer. But that process was undemanding because of the ongoing need for inexpensive, compliant nurturers. Besides, at Amphibian University, which had a Bullfrog controlled board of trustees, the weak-kneed tadpole-nurturing program was viewed as little more than a source of tuition income.


When it turned out that the undemanding certification standards still were too demanding for the casually committed, the Bullfrogs set up alternative routes to certification. "Nurture for the Kingdom," was one example. When this Bullfrog supported endeavor was created, a Bullfrog official solemnly croaked, "Alternative certification opens tadpole nurturing careers to bright young frogs who otherwise would choose another vocation."


Horace wondered (as best a frog can wonder), "Since tadpoles are so very important for our frog future, why do the Bullfrogs make it ever easier to become a tadpole nurturer?" Meanwhile the Bullfrogs continued to stoke dissatisfaction with community nurturaries. They began croaking that these nurturaries would be much better if for-profit Bullfrog firms were to take over their management at public expense. (Bullfrogs are very enthusiastic about profit making — especially when it’s at public expense.) Anyway, Horace too easily achieved certification at Amphibian U. and signed up for a job as a community tadpole nurturer in the most stagnant part of the pond.

Horace was delighted to nurture young tadpoles. But he soon discovered that while he and his fellow tadpole nurturers were held accountable, they had no say about how the nurturary was run or what nurturing materials were available. Worse still, nourishment and oxygen were in scant supply at that end of the pond. Those scarcities made the tadpoles much harder to nurture. Sometimes the half-suffocated tadpoles even turned on one another, or on a frog nurturer.
Some blamed Bullfrog rules and inadequate funding for this nurturary’s plight. Others blamed it on the frog administrator’s who had sold out in order to feel more like a Bullfrog. Still others thought local community nurturary board member’s lack of knowledge was at fault. (Board members weren’t required to know anything about tadpoles or teaching.)


In fact ignorance of tadpole teaching was common at all levels of community tadpole nurturary management. Even the Bullfrog who was Secretary of Tadpole Nurturance possessed none of this knowledge whatsoever. But he was well connected in the pond and very skilled at croaky solemnity. Ignoring the many environmental factors limiting tadpole growth, for instance, he pompously advised tadpole nurturers that if they just had "higher expectations" their tadpoles would thrive.


About this time the Frog King emerged from the muck on the bottom of the pond, swam to the surface, stuck his thick Bullfrog head out of the water, and croaked out a royal decree. "Henceforth," he thrummed, "every tadpole succeeds!" And with that, the King dove back down into the muck. (Little, if any, additional money for tadpole nurturance accompanied the King’s declaration).


The Frog King
 
The Bullfrogs declared that all community tadpole nurturaries must regularly measure and report tadpole growth. The results were proclaimed throughout the land and community tadpole nurturaries were held publicly accountable." (There was not even a mention of measuring tadpole growth in the private nurturaries that served the Bullfrog's offspring.)
The Bullfrogs assured frogs with tadpoles that they had the right to transfer them to other community nurturaries if theirs got low scores. In reality, such transfers were very difficult. But that didn’t stop the Bullfrogs from boasting about the policy.
Horace and his fellow tadpole nurturers wondered how they could be held responsible if the tadpoles were under their care only six and a half hours a day, five days a week, 180 days of the year. The rest of the time (and that was a great deal of time indeed), tadpoles were "cared for" at home by their frog mothers and fathers — if the later could even be found.


In fact, by the time frog parents brought their tadpoles to the nurturary to be taught, their all-important early growth period was already over and the damage inflicted at home was more or less permanent. For this reason Horace often got tadpoles with needs that were well beyond his simple skills. He struggled bravely (or at least as bravely as a frog can struggle), But try as he might Horace could not get the environmentally stunted tadpoles to meet the Bullfrog's puffed up standards. He even tried expecting more, as the Bullfrogs advised, but that that just made things worse. 

“I guess I’m not very good at expecting,” Horace said to himself.
About this time a Bullfrog-owned and approved charter corporation took over the community nurturary where Horace worked. Despite strenuous denials, the bottom line was no longer tadpole nurturing but profit making. Changes were introduced but tadpole growth did not improve. In fact, fewer tadpoles blossomed than before. But at least the Bullfrogs were more content.


With the coming of summer, nurturing ended. And there was a sad new weariness in Horace's bulgy eyes. He still loved tadpoles. Only now he kept dwelling on their frequent failure to thrive. He spent most of the summer thinking about his future. Should he keep nurturing or not? In the end his love of tadpoles won out. Hoping things would improve he returned to his job in the community nurturary.


Actually, things were worse. Thanks to Bullfrog owned, for-profit management love of tadpoles was entirely absent. Making a profit was all that mattered. And because the Bullfrog set standards were impossibly difficult for damaged tadpoles, some nurturers started cheating.
Horace would have none of that. He played by the rules and continued to do his best. "Worthwhile things are seldom easy," he would say to himself. But reality slowly smothered what was left of his hope. Finally, after a particularly discouraging day (and frogs aren’t easily discouraged), Horace just hopped sadly away, never to be seen again.
Some say he hopped to another pond where there were no Bullfrogs. Others say Bullfrogs dominate every pond in the world and that Horace died of a broken heart. In any case, he is gone — forever.
THE END

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

RESPONSIBILITY AND TOP-DOWN SCHOOL REFORM


Gary K. Clabaugh
Professor Emeritus of Education, La Salle University

23 October 2016

School reform efforts typically employ key terms that are vague and undefined. Consider the late unlamented “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001. What exactly did “left behind” mean? That remained conveniently obscure. It came to mean that any child, including special education students and non-English speakers, who failed to pass high stakes tests in math and reading had been "left behind." But that is clearly nonsense. How in hell can a child pass a reading test when they don't understand English? How about a badly damaged special needs child with a 30 IQ? Were they left behind because they failed a high stakes math test?
Who established such  mindlessness? An unholy amalgam of crafty politicians, federal and state bureaucrats and professional test makers. All of whom were far, far removed from the realities of the classroom.
Here's another thing. In the past learners had at least some responsibility for learning. This “reform” placed the entire burden on educators. Even youngsters who adamantly refused to learn had no responsibility for failing. They were victims, carelessly, even callously,  “left behind.”
I once heard a youngster defiantly tell a teacher: “You aint gonna teach me shit.” Was he being “left behind," or willfully refusing to get on board? Youngsters like this young man were not a rarity then, nor are they now. Nevertheless, the NCLB Act placed 100% of the responsibility for learning on the shoulders of his teachers. How did such a one-sided  arrangement ever become reality? Well, for one thing the term “left behind” was a slogan.
  Slogans are useful if we want to establish a broad but very shallow consensus among people of varied interests. That is why they’re employed in harmless ceremonial situations such as marriage, award ceremonies, ship christenings, building dedications, funerals, and so forth. They create the momentary solidarity necessary for common celebration. But it is an entirely different matter when slogans are used to sucker voters, justify wars or, as in this case, sneak entirely unrealistic education “reforms” goals into law.
 So what will the next generation of presently gestating “reforms” produce? If past is prologue, they will produce nothing but distraction, wasted time and superfluous effort on the part of frontline educators. But at least they will provide protective cover for wily politicians and busy work for a lot of otherwise largely useless bureaucrats.




[1] These numbers are based on 2016 Oklahoma averages as compiled by the National Center for Educational Statistics. http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/SASS/tables/sass0708_2009324_t1s_08.asp

Sunday, July 24, 2016

UNFAIR TEACHER ACCOUNTABILITY: driving out the brightest

UNFAIR ACCOUNTABILITY: out with the best and brightest

Gary K. Clabaugh
Emeritus Professor of Education
La Salle University


Why is a teaching career less lustrous than it used to be? In large part because teachers are being blamed for things they cannot control. For instance, some inner city public schools have a daily absentee rate in excess of 50%. That means one half or more 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's plainly ridiculous, even Kafkaesque, to hold educators accountable for failing to teach children who aren't there. Yet this is precisely what is happening.

Now let's consider the tens of 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, if there family will be evicted, if Mom is going to disappear again, get falling down drunk, or end up beaten half to death by her abusive boyfriend. Others worry about being assaulted or killed, And there are those who are too depressed or angry to care about school while others are making so much money selling drugs they think  schooling is a joke.

Some schools are so filled with children beset by problems and/or so poorly managed that both learning and teaching are nearly impossible. Plus there is a plentiful supply of cowardly principals who fail to back teachers in matters relating to order and safety. Their schools become scary mad houses. No one, no matter how skilled or determined, can teach in the midst of chaos. Yet teachers still are to be held to account where chaos rules. 

These impediments to learning certainly aren't invisible. In fact, they could not be more obvious. Yet allowances are not made for them when it comes to teacher "accountability." No one should be held accountable for things they can't control. Holding teacher's feet to the fire while ignoring anything and everything that destroys instruction and makes teaching impossible is base foolishness. There is no surer way to demoralize and embitter a caring teacher. Yet that is what is going on in school after school all over this country. 

So as the accountability craze continues to intensify, what sort of teachers and teacher candidates will be left? The very bottom of the barrel, I suspect. 



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

INDOCTRINATION VS EDUCATION: where's the line

Gary K. Clabaugh, Professor of Education Emeritus, La Salle University


Indoctrinate (noun)
1. to instruct in a doctrine, principle, ideology, etc., especially to imbue with a specific partisan or biased belief or point of view.


Is it indoctrination if a professor deliberately sets out to change student opinion? Yes, but only if they are pushing an unbalanced, partisan or biased point of view. 

A key factor is whether or not the professor indicates he or she is expressing their personal opinion. Recently a professor teaching a film class showed a clip involving suicide. A number of students expressed the opinion that suicide was cowardly. The professor responded that suicide might be better understood as the ultimate expression of will.

Did his response stray into the realm of indoctrination? I don’t think so. The professor only indicated this was an alternative view. Moreover, by expressing it he gave students the opportunity to reconsider their opinion.

What about the fact this was a film class? Suicide was hardly in the course syllabus. Should professors withhold their opinion when a topic strays like that? Must a professor of mathematics, for instance, avoid expressing an opinion on, say, holocaust denial, if it to comes up in class? I don’t think so. After all, his or her silence constitutes a lesson in itself.

I well remember my 9th grade biology teacher. He told our class that his fundamentalist religion prevented him from teaching the class from an evolutionary point of view. Then he subsequently struggled to teach the subject without considering, even mentioning, evolution.

A biology teacher avoiding such a centrally important topic is patently ridiculous. Evolution is a central principle of biology. Nevertheless, he was the only high school teacher I ever had with the courage to take a moral stand on anything memorable. The rest dodged moral commitments as if they were oncoming buses, and by so doing taught moral cowardice by example.

Teaching How

Another consideration is the type of teaching a teacher is engaged in. Consider teaching someone how to do something. Let’s say something very straightforward like how to pack a parachute. I observed this type of teaching at the Parachute Rigger’s School, Fort Lee, Virginia. The instructor’s job is to make certain all students who aspire to pack them follow the exact same time-tested procedures.

Opportunities for biased instruction in this how to are minimal. There is one best way and the master rigger repeatedly reminds students that every parachute must be packed in exactly that manner. Lives depend on it. And, by the way, that includes the packer’s life, because he or she has to periodically jump with a chute chosen at random from those they themselves have packed. The official motto of Army parachute riggers is: “I will be sure, always.” They had better be.

Do professors teach anything as straightforward as parachute rigging? Sometimes. Mathematics, engineering, foreign languages and the sciences come immediately to mind. Properly using a sling hygrometer (it measures relative humidity) is not a matter of opinion. Neither is balancing a chemical equation or computing structural stress loads. So professors teaching these kinds of skills have the least opportunity to give themselves over to indoctrination.

But teaching how is not always one-dimensional. At times there are several acceptable ways to do things. I was an apprentice barber, for example, and I learned various ways to produce first-rate haircuts. The master barber resisted the temptation to only teach me the one he favored. He demonstrated all the techniques and it was my job — given individual customer characteristics —to discover which ones worked best for me. But he also made it clear there were some things you must always and some you must never do. Most were related to hygiene.

I was told to choose my own tools. A variety were available. I tried them all. (This was more choice than I ever had as a secondary school teacher. District “leadership” chose my teaching tools. Chief among them was the textbook.)

Sometimes those teaching how ignore legitimate alternatives. Why? Conceit, vainglory or insecurity come to mind. In any case, students deserve to be taught every legitimate alternative. Otherwise it becomes indoctrination.

Even when teaching how is done carefully, however, teachers can be accused of indoctrination.  To improve their ability to appraise educational policy, for instance, I taught my college students how to identify slogans. I explained that they are statements containing vague key terms that can be variously interpreted. That's why slogans generate broad agreement. But the very shallow nature of that consensus as soon as the vague terms are defined. 

To sharpen their understanding, I provided them with the mission statement of the Red Lion Area School District. (I used Red Lion’s because I once taught there.) I told them to identify any slogans it might contain. Then, should there be any, I told them to list questions these vague terms obscured. Here is Red Lion’s statement: “In partnership with our communities, to prepare all students to reach their greatest potential, thus becoming responsible and productive citizens.

Students came up with questions such as these: What does this “partnership” amount to? Who decides what counts as a “community?” What sorts of “potential” are to be developed fully? And why assume that developing student “potential” always produces “responsible” and/or “productive” citizens?

Teaching students to think in this way can make school administrators unhappy. It also provokes parents who are threatened by critical thinking. In a sense, then, this lesson provoked “dangerous” thoughts. For example, upon learning about slogans one of my students blurted out: “The Ten Commandments!” “What about them? I asked. “They’re all slogans!” she replied.

Insights such as these can be unwelcome. But teaching that sort of critical thinking skill is hardly indoctrination. On the contrary, it is an antidote.

Teaching That

The temptation to indoctrinate increases when a professor is teaching that. In other words, is teaching “facts.” Why? Because what counts as a “fact” depends on what authority is relied on. For instance, it is a fact that the earth is over 4 billion years old when one relies on the authority of science. But if you rely on the literal words of the Bible it is, perhaps, 6 to 8 thousand years old.

In too many cases the relied upon authority is the professor him or her self. In other words, they have succumbed to teaching their particular “truth” as the one and only gospel.

I recall debating a colleague in the humanities regarding the definition of "romanticism." He insisted that his definition was the only correct one even when I showed him other definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. He even refused to expand his definition when I demonstrated that F.L. Lucas actually identified 11,936 different meanings for that word in his Decline and Fall of the Ideal of Romanticism (1948). When that kind of dogmatic certainty is taken into the classroom, indoctrination is assured.

In disciplines such as science, mathematics and engineering, the matter of authority is relatively unproblematic.  Such disciplines properly rely on the consensus of their scientific community. But things are not so straightforward in the arts. Here there is much more debate and disagreement; and, consequently, more room for indoctrination.

Keep in mind, though, that students can compare the gospel according to Professor Smith with the gospel according to Professor Jones of the outside world and reach their own conclusions. Indoctrination is maximally effective only when all disagreement is expunged. For instance, in schools such as Liberty University or Oral Roberts University the Bible, as interpreted by one or another charismatic preacher, is the ultimate authority. Hence the physical universe is officially designated as the direct creation of God —the one and only great designer and lawgiver. Consequently, life science professors must teach, or at least pretend to teach, the “true belief” that the man-made concept of evolution is patently false.

Should life science professors in real schools give equal time to creation “science” in order to avoid indoctrination? (You might recall George W. Bush advocated this when he was President.) No, because creation “science” is not science at all, but religion. Why? Because it relies on an a piori faith commitment rather than empirical evidence.That is why schools that teach creation “science” and the supremacy of the Bible over all other forms of knowledge are not institutions of higher education, but institutions of elaborate indoctrination. Liberty University and Oral Roberts University come immediately to mind.

Teaching To

Teaching to must evoke far greater student commitment than teaching how to.  You can teach someone how to read, for example, but that doesn’t mean you have taught him or her to read. Likewise, you can teach someone how to be a Roman Catholic. But that is no guarantee you have taught them to actually be Roman Catholic.

Successfully teaching someone to do something, that is to actually embrace it, is orders of magnitude more difficult than teaching them how to. It can come down to fostering a deep and abiding love in students for what they are learning. Imagine a ballerina who practices until her feet bleed because while she was learning how to dance, she also was learning to dance.

This also applies to just teaching someone how to read, versus teaching them to read. The later occurs when a student reads because he or she wants to. They have learned to enjoy reading for its own sake. The teacher who accomplishes this transformation deserves special respect.

Must teaching to involve indoctrination? Not when it is the artful fostering of a love or passion. Unfortunately, however, artful cultivation is not the only way to foster a deep passion — particularly if it is religious or political. Thealternative involves daily programming, preferably from early childhood, in isolation from competing messages. Doubt and dissent are unwelcome — even punished. Students are repeatedly told how they should think, act and feel. Shame and guilt are used as instruments of control; and students are encouraged to believe that they are being inducted into a special group that stands apart in important ways from the great mass of humanity. What kind of teaching is this? It is indoctrination, in spades. And it's precisely how you create terrorists who are perfectly willing to blow themselves up in order to eradicate infidels and gain sexual access to a hefty supply of virgins.

Education and indoctrination both involve teaching and learning. But that is where the similarity ends.


ARE GRADES FUNNY MONEY?

MAKING SENSE OF SCHOOLING: are teachers paying with funny money?

Gary K. Clabaugh
Emeritus Professor of Education
LaSalle University

Public schooling encourages solemnity but discourages seriousness. Most of what is said is a stew of wishful thinking seasoned with outright lies. So let’s be novel and take a rational approach governed by simple truths.

Let's begin by acknowledging that people respond to incentives. If behavior is rewarded, people will do more of it and more intensely. If behavior is costly, people will do less of it.

Now let’s consider grades. Some youngsters regard good grades as rewarding in and of themselves.  Others see them as valuable because, in part, they please their parents. Still others see them as means to other ends such as a scholarship or admission to a favorite school. In any case youngsters who regard grades as valuable will work to achieve them.

But some youngsters regard grades as valueless. They see no connection between them and any future they imagine for themselves. Also some parents could care less about their children’s grades. (Read Claude Brown’s biography, Man Child in the Promised Land, for a sad real life account.) That’s a real turnoff. Besides, getting good grades might antagonize their peers. So it makes more sense to raise hell.

So what rewards can a teacher offer that will make this type of student want to learn and do it more intensely? Well there is teacher praise; but that’ generally appeals to kids who already care about grades. Also, they could develop a subsidiary economy where they buy, at their own expense of course, things most kids would like to have and award them for achievement. That works, but it is expensive and some regard it as bribery.

How about making disinterest or outright opposition more costly? Corporal punishment was used for centuries as motivation, for instance. An ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic even reads, “Learning comes with blood.” But modern pedagogues are not only forbidden to use corporal punishment as motivation, they are assured it won’t work.

So what are teachers left with? A sizable, sometimes paralyzing, number of kids who care less about grades and cannot be motivated or threatened with anything else that they find convincing. The net result is classrooms with students, perhaps many students, who are impossible to teach because they utterly lack motivation. Of course, that means all kinds of trouble.

What it to be done? Not much. Presently the strategy is to just blame it on the teachers. That’s wholly unfair, but it works pretty well.


For articles related to this topic try the site search at www.newfoundations.com.

Monday, June 27, 2016

CHRONIC ABSENTEEISM: what's the real problem


Gary K. Clabaugh
Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

According to the Education Department's new Civil Rights Data Collection about 13 percent of all U.S. students — more than 6 million—missed at least 15 days of school in the 2013-14 school year. The survey includes a variety of often-neglected reasons including excused or unexcused absences, truancy, suspensions, illness, or family issues.

Utilizing this new data the Associated Press found that "of the 100 largest school districts by enrollment, the Detroit City School District had the highest rate of chronic absenteeism. Nearly 58 percent of students were chronically absent in the 2013-2014 school year." Numerous other big city districts, such as Philadelphia and Baltimore, were close behind.

Secretary of Education John King says that, "Chronic absenteeism is a national problem. He then emphasizes the obvious, namely that, “Frequent absences from school can be devastating to a child's education. Missing school leads to low academic achievement and triggers drop-outs. Millions of young people are missing opportunities in postsecondary education, good careers and a chance to experience the American dream."

Predictably the Secretary wants educators to address the “root cause of this problem.” But the root cause is neither schools nor education. Anyone with an IQ above room temperature knows youngsters are chronically absent in such prodigious numbers because they are hungry, sick, scared, angry, alienated, indifferent or think they have no future worth worrying about. So how, pray tell, are educators supposed to deal with all of this?

 Brown points to the “American dream” without recognizing the all too real American nightmare. What is that? Dysfunctional family life, deteriorated neighborhoods, below poverty level wages, chronic under or unemployment, drug addiction, alcoholism, fatherless families, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, the massively unfair distribution of our national wealth, and politicians who are bought and paid for.

Secretary Brown’s solemn hogwash is just one more example of the disingenuous bullshit we have come to expect from federal officials. Consider their latest intrusion into public education, the inanely named Every Student Succeeds Act. Every student will succeed when pigs fly! These fools and charlatans should spare us their silly posturing and get serious for a change.

See "Solemnity and Seriousness," newfoundations.com


Thursday, June 23, 2016

BEWARE OF PROGRAMMATIC DEFINITIONS!


PROGRAMMATIC  DEFINITIONS: WHY THEY EXCEED MERE LINGUISTIC PREFERENCE

by Gary K. Clabaugh 
Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

Explicit definitions mirror ordinary usage and are fully and clearly stated; leaving nothing implied. For instance, The Medical Dictionary explicitly defines abortion thusly:

abortion [ah-bor´shun]
termination of pregnancy before the fetus is viable. In the medical sense, this term and the term miscarriage both refer to the termination of pregnancy before the fetus is capable of survival outside the uterus. The term abortion is more commonly used as a synonym for induced abortion, the deliberate interruption of pregnancy, as opposed to miscarriage, which connotes a spontaneous or natural loss of the fetus. 


In contrast Pope Francis recently declared abortion to be a "crime" and an "absolute evil." If we accept this definition, we embrace the Roman Catholic program of action that underlies it. While that may have merit, it violates ordinary usage. Presently abortion is not a crime. Nor do a majority agree that it is an absolute evil. This violation of ordinary usage and popular consensus is what makes the Pope's definition programmatic. 

Programmatic definitions are particularly troublesome because they tend to delegitimize debate and stifle discussion. Accept the Pope's definition, for instance, and we need not wonder if a girl who has been forcibly raped by her father should have the option of abortion. If she chooses that, no matter how desperately, she is, by the Pope's definition, a criminal choosing an "absolute evil." Moreover, according to the Pope, this would be true even if the abortion is performed before the fetus is capable of independent survival outside her uterus.



The practical force of programmatic definitions is that their acceptance has consequences far exceeding mere linguistic preference. Accept Pope Francis's definition, for example, and there is no room for argument or contrary evidence. The choice has been made for us.


A handy, though by no means infallible, method of identifying programmatic definitions is the presence in the definition of adjectives such as “true “ or “real.” For example, "A true conservative is one who ...:". You can fill in the rest.

Now, those who offer programmatic definitions do not necessarily intend to deceive or slip us a linguistic Mickey. Individuals offering programmatic definitions often sincerely believe that the meanings they propose are the only “true” or “right” ones. 

Sincerity and good intentions, however, are not enough. To avoid being programmatic, definitions must mirror ordinary usage,  stand against contrary evidence and surmount informed disagreement. Mere assertion will not do.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

INDOCTRINATION VS EDUCATION: non-conventional considerations

INDOCTRINATION OR EDUCATION: some non standard considerations

Part 1

Gary K. Clabaugh
Professor Emeritus, La Salle University

Recently a worried Israeli émigré asked me if it was proper for her daughter’s Middle East history professor — who is Jewish — to consistently condemn Israel. The mother worries that her daughter, who was born and raised in Israel, will come to despise the land of her birth. 

I advised her not to worry. Students of college age long ago learned to discount disagreeable instruction no matter how forceful or prolonged. I know a woman, for instance, who experienced 8 years of Catholic schooling that was conducted by old style, no-nonsense nuns. Yet to this day she remains remarkably ignorant of Catholic doctrine. I asked how this happened? She replied, “I disagreed and tuned them out. They taught us, for instance, that it was a grave sin to save the life of the mother if it required sacrificing the life of her unborn child. But the mother might have other children who love and need her. And what about her husband? Might he not love and need her too? I also remember the nuns teaching that the souls of newborns are infected with original sin. What a terrible thing to say about innocent babies! These sorts of things are why I quit listening.”

"I just tuned them out."
           


This is not a one-off kind of thing. Indoctrination frequently fails misreably. It can even provoke obdurate opposition. When I was eleven or twelve, for example, I remember asking my Sunday school teacher what happens when people die without ever having even heard of Jesus? (I was thinking of remote areas, like New Guinea.) She replied: “They go to hell.” I said that this didn’t seem fair. She responded by reciting John 14:6 where Jesus reportedly says: “No man cometh unto the father but by me.”


Missed the news about Jesus?
Unconvinced by this Biblical tidbit, I guardedly reiterated that it was unfair to damn people to the eternal fires of hell simply because they had never heard of Jesus. It was then that she informed me that Sunday school is not a debating society. Adding crossly: “If you are unhappy with the Bible’s answer, perhaps you should leave.”

Reprimanded but resolute, I followed her suggestion. My Sunday school offering bought me 10 pinball games at a near-bye corner store. I played Sabbath pinball for several more Sundays until my mother found me out. It looked like I was in serious trouble. But when she heard the full story she granted me absolution. It turned out she too thought it unfair to spend an eternity in hell on an ignorance rap. Eventually we both quit going to church. One-sided instruction often backfires.

Beelzebub's tool.
And here is another thing. Professors, teachers, parents and the general public all tend to overestimate the durability of instruction. In my 46 years as a professor I taught thousands of undergraduates and was repeatedly astonished by how little of what they had “learned” they actually remembered — much less could use, I must add. Many found it impossible to convert their raw test score, say, 29 correct out of 35, to a percentage. Most could not identify the principle combatants in World Wars I or II. Only a handful knew the decade of the Great Depression. Most could not find China on an outline map. One thought that France was our northern neighbor because, “people speak French up there.” Another opined that Heinrich Himmler must be the chap who invented that life saving maneuver for people choking on food.
That famed lifesaver, Heinrich Himmler

These kids were middle of the pack freshmen and sophomores who could easily master complex social media applications and identify every single Kardashian. Yet most of them manifested only transitory interest in what typically is taught in school. And trying to transform their purely instrumental interest in passing tests into an intrinsic interest in knowledge was like trying to make a dog happy by manually wagging its tail. These typical undergraduates were not the type of people who could be easily influenced by a biased lecture.

I doubt my 46-years of experience with academic amnesia and disinterest is unusual. In fact I’ll wager student ignorance of past instruction is utterly commonplace. That is why university administrators would rather fight a pack of rabid pit bulls barehanded than require students to pass core subject tests before granting them a degree.

How is any of this pertinent to our émigré mother’s worries? Given the perishable nature of most school taught knowledge, it seems highly unlikely that any preachy pedagogue is going to convert her daughter to an anti-Israel stance. In fact, you can bet that this proselytizing professor’s reportedly impassioned denunciation of Israel's behavior has not motivated one single student to admire Yasser Arafat. Although they will want to know: “Is he going to be on the test?”

Yasser Arafat


Is it proper for professors to conduct class in a one-sided manner? Not when the issue is multi-faceted. And they certainly should not ask biased test questions and require the “right” answers. But it’s not like these students are living in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia. And it is only in this kind of situation, where only one point of view is permitted, that indoctrination is likely to succeed. These students have other professors, each with a different opinion and popular culture offers still more. Moreover, by the time they get to college these youngsters will have spent years learning not to take instruction all that seriously.

INDOCTRINATION VS EDUCATION: some more considerations

Indoctrination or Education: non-standard considerations

Part 2

Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed.D.
Professor Emeritus of Education
La Salle University


Indoctrinate (noun)
1. to instruct in a doctrine, principle, ideology, etc., especially to imbue with a specific partisan or biased belief or point of view.


Is it indoctrination if a professor deliberately sets out to change student opinion? Or must they be deliberately pushing an unbalanced, partisan or biased point of view? Perhaps we should also ask, if students fail to acquire more refined opinions have they really been educated?

Professorial Opinion

A key factor is whether or not the professor indicates that he or she is expressing their personal opinion. A professor teaching a film class told me he recently showed a clip that coincidentally involved a suicide. A number of students spontaneously expressed the opinion that suicide was cowardly. The professor responded, saying that in some circumstances suicide could be understood as the ultimate expression of will.


Is this response indoctrination? I don’t think so. He only suggested another way of looking at it. And, by expressing this view, he provided students with the opportunity to reconsider.

The ultimate expression of will?
What about this being a film class? Suicide was hardly in the course syllabus. Should professors withhold their opinion when a topic strays like that? Should a professor of mathematics, for instance, avoid expressing an opinion on, say, holocaust denial, if it somehow comes up? Of course his or her silence would constitute a lesson in itself.

I remember my 9th grade biology teacher telling our class that his fundamentalist religion prevented him from teaching biology from an evolutionary point of view. Subsequently he struggled mightily to teach the subject without mentioning evolution.

A biology teacher dodging this centrally important topic is patently ridiculous. But he was the only high school teacher I ever had with the courage to take a moral stand on anything. The rest conspicuously dodged moral commitments; and by so doing taught moral cowardice.

Teaching How

The type of teaching engaged in is another consideration. Consider teaching students how to do something. Biased instruction in how to type teaching are typically minimal. Let’s consider a straightforward example: how to pack a parachute. I observed this type of teaching at the Parachute Rigger’s School, Fort Lee, Virginia. The instructor’s job is to make certain all students follow the exact same time-tested procedures.

There is one best way and master riggers repeatedly remind students that every parachute must be packed in exactly the same way. Lives depend on it; and that includes the packer’s life because he or she has to periodically jump with one of their own randomly chosen chutes. The official motto of Army parachute riggers is: “I will be sure always.” And they had better be.

A parachute rigger in the trademark red cap

A parachute rigger in his trademark red cap.
Do professors teach anything as straightforward as parachute rigging? Sure they do. Mathematics, engineering, foreign languages and the sciences come immediately to mind. Properly using a sling hygrometer (it measures relative humidity) is not a matter of opinion. Neither is balancing a chemical equation or computing structural stress loads. And professors teaching these kinds of skills have the least opportunity to give themselves over to indoctrination.

But teaching how is not always one-dimensional. At times there are several acceptable ways to do things. I was an apprentice barber, for example, and I learned various ways to produce a first-rate haircuts. The master barber resisted the temptation to only teach me the one he favored. He demonstrated all the techniques and it was my job — given individual customer characteristics —to discover which ones worked best for me. Of course he also made it clear there were some things you must always do and some you must never do. Most were related to hygiene.

I was also told to choose my own tools. It was a multi-chair shop and varieties were available. I tried them all. (This was more choice than I ever had as a secondary school teacher. There district “leadership” chose my teaching tools. Chief among them the textbook.)

Sometimes those teaching how ignore legitimate alternatives. Why? Conceit, vainglory or insecurity comes to mind. In any case, students deserve to be taught every legitimate alternative. Otherwise it becomes indoctrination.

Even when teaching how is carefully done, however, professors can be accused of indoctrination.  Here is some teaching how that I did that could have backfired. To improve their ability to appraise educational policy, I taught students how to identify slogans. I defined them as statements containing vague key terms that can be variously interpreted. Because of their vagueness they can generate a broad but very shallow consensus. Then I provided them with the mission statement of the Red Lion, PA. Area School District. (I used Red Lion’s because I taught there.) Here is Red Lion’s statement: “In partnership with our communities, to prepare all students to reach their greatest potential, thus becoming responsible and productive citizens.  

I asked them to identify any slogans in this statement. Then I told them to list any unresolved questions that these vague terms concealed.” Students typically came up with questions such as these: What does this “partnership” amount to? Who decides what counts as a “community?” What sorts of “potential” are to be developed fully? And why assume that developing student “potential” always produces “responsible” and/or “productive” citizens?

Teaching students to think in this way might make some school administrators unhappy. It also provokes parents who feel threatened by critical thinking. In a sense, then, this lesson provoked “dangerous” thoughts. For example, upon learning about slogans one of my students blurted out: “The Ten Commandments!” “What about them? I asked. “They’re all slogans!” she replied.

One reaction to critical thinking  

Insights such as these can be unwelcome. But teaching critical thinking is hardly indoctrination. It is an antidote.

Teaching That

The temptation and opportunity to indoctrinate increases when it comes to teaching that. In other words, teaching “facts.” Why? Because what counts as a “fact” depends on the authority relied on. For instance, it is a fact that the earth is over 4 billion years old only when one relies on the authority of science. But not if you rely on a literal interpretation of the Bible. Then it is, perhaps, 6 to 8 thousand years old.

In too many cases the relied upon authority is the professor him or her self. In other words, they have succumbed to teaching their particular “truth” as the one and only gospel.

I recall debating a colleague in the humanities regarding the definition of romanticism. He insisted that his definition was the only correct one even when I showed him other definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary. He even refused to expand his definition when I demonstrated that F.L. Lucas actually identified 11,936 different meanings in his Decline and Fall of the Ideal of Romanticism (1948). When that kind of false certainty is taken into the classroom, indoctrination is assured.

In disciplines such as science, mathematics and engineering, the matter of authority is relatively unproblematic.  These disciplines properly rely on the consensus of their academic community. But things are not so straightforward in the arts. Here there is more debate and disagreement; and, consequently, more room for indoctrination.

We should keep in mind, though, that students can compare the gospel according to Professor Smith with the gospel according to Professor Jones and reach their own conclusions. Indoctrination is maximally effective only when all disagreement is expunged. For instance, in schools such as Liberty University or Oral Roberts University the Bible, as interpreted by one or another preacher, is the ultimate authority. Hence the physical universe is officially designated as the direct creation of God —the one and only great designer and lawgiver. Consequently, life science professors must teach the “true belief” that the man-made concept of evolution is patently false.

Oral Roberts had his own interpretation of the Bible


Should life science professors give equal time to creation “science” in order to avoid indoctrination? (You might recall George W. Bush advocated this when he was President.) No, because creation “science” is not science, but religion. Why? Because it relies on an a piori faith commitment rather than empirical evidence.

That is why schools that teach creation “science” and the supremacy of the Bible over all other forms of knowledge are not institutions of higher education, but institutions of more elaborate indoctrination. Liberty University and Oral Roberts University come immediately to mind.

Teaching To

Teaching to must evoke far greater student commitment than teaching how to.  You can teach someone how to read, for example, but that doesn’t mean you have taught him or her to read. Likewise, you can teach someone how to be a Roman Catholic. But that is no guarantee you have taught them to actually be Roman Catholic.

Successfully teaching someone to do something, that is to actually embrace it, is orders of magnitude more difficult than teaching them how to. It can come down to fostering a deep and abiding love in students for what they are learning to do. Imagine a ballerina who practices until her feet bleed because while she was learning how to dance, she also was learning to dance.

This also applies to just teaching someone how to read, versus teaching them to read. The later occurs when a student reads because he or she wants to. They have learned to enjoy reading for its own sake. The teacher who accomplishes this transformation deserves special respect.

Does teaching to require indoctrination? Not when it is the artful fostering of a love or passion. Unfortunately, artful cultivation is not the only way to foster a deep passion — particularly if it is religious or political. The other way involves daily programming, preferably from early childhood, in isolation from competing messages. Doubt and dissent are unwelcome — even punished. Students are repeatedly told how they should think, act and feel. Shame and guilt are instruments of control; and students are encouraged to believe that they are being inducted into a special group that stands apart in important ways from the great mass of humanity. What kind of teaching is this? It is indoctrination, in spades.

Nazi indoctrination taught them to die for the Fuhrer

Education and indoctrination are two very different things. They both involve teaching and learning. But that is where the similarity ends.