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


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.


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.

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