Monday, November 30, 2009

Multiple choices

I may have to retract my criticism of standardized tests: this author makes a persuasive case that life really is a multiple choice test, even for kindergartners.

..How can I comment?

Avert your eyes

The Einstein posts were fun, but ultimately frustrating. Few people would outright disagree with any of Einstein’s comments on education. It’s easy to imagine a school board member, a school principal, or a Congressperson nodding in agreement if they were to read those posts. Yes, yes, coercive and authoritarian approaches to education are bad; we need to engage the child in her own learning; the more autonomy for teachers and children, the better. Then they would return to their project of making the schools more authoritarian and coercive, treating the children like passive subjects to be dictated to, and eliminating autonomy all around.

What accounts for the disconnect between ideals and practice in education? When it comes to school administrators and teachers, it’s easy enough to understand: ideals are nice, but if your job, your raise, or your promotion depends on raising standardized test scores, you’ll do what you have to do. But what about parents? How do they make sense of what now goes on in the name of education?

I think many parents have a kind of cognitive bias in favor of giving the benefit of the doubt to the school. After all, many of us have little choice but to send our kids to school. To be openly critical of a school’s practices, while simultaneously sending one’s child there every day, could obviously be disturbing to the parent and potentially confusing to the child. Moreover, the message we receive in so many ways is that complaints are futile: everything is dictated from above; key decisions are made in Washington; one person can’t change anything. To criticize the school, then, would just make your kids less happy -- or maybe even turn them into alienated malcontents. As one parent said to me, after sympathizing with some of my concerns, “You have to just avert your eyes from a lot of what goes on.”

I know that reality never measures up to ideals. If our schools were engaged in a genuine effort to pursue humane educational practices like those Einstein talked about, it would be wrong to nitpick about imperfections. But what if we’ve averted our eyes to much more than we realize? What if our schools actually operate on an entirely different set of assumptions and values, and on ideals that are diametrically opposed to our own?

I see enough evidence to make me worry about the answer to that question, and I suppose exploring that issue is the mission of this blog. At some point, to avert one’s eyes is to deny reality -- the reality in which our kids spend a big chunk of their lives. Are we really doing our kids a service by making them the only people in this system who can see what's going on in front of them?

..How can I comment?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What would Einstein do? (part 3)

A few more thoughts from Albert Einstein on education:

Sometimes one sees in the school simply the instrument for transferring a certain maximum quantity of knowledge to the growing generation. But that is not right. Knowledge is dead; the school, however, serves the living. It should develop in the young individuals those qualities and capabilities which are of value for the welfare of the commonwealth. But that does not mean that individuality should be destroyed and the individual become a mere tool of the community, like a bee or an ant. For a community of standardized individuals without personal originality and personal aims would be a poor community without possibilities for development. On the contrary, the aim must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals, who, however, see in the service of the community their highest life problem.

. . .

Give into the power of the teacher the fewest possible coercive measures, so that the only source of the pupil’s respect for the teacher is the human and intellectual qualities of the latter.

. . .

[T]he teacher should be given extensive liberty in the selection of the material to be taught and the methods of teaching employed by him. For it is true also of him that pleasure in the shaping of his work is killed by force and exterior pressure.

. . .

I want to oppose the idea that the school has to teach directly that special knowledge and those accomplishments which one has to use later directly in life. The demands of life are much too manifold to let such a specialized training in school appear possible. Apart from that, it seems to me, moreover, objectionable to treat the individual like a dead tool.

--Albert Einstein, 1936 (from Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (1982).

Part 1 here; part 2 here.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What would Einstein do? (part 2)

Despite the myth, Einstein was a good student, consistently getting high grades, especially in math. His troubles in school were the result of his conflicts with his teachers. He rebelled against the authoritarian approach to education that prevailed in the German schools he attended. Einstein had, in the words of a biographer, “a deep suspicion of authority in general and of educational authority in particular.” (1) “This contempt for authority did not endear him to the German ‘lieutenants’ who taught him at his school. As a result, one of his teachers proclaimed that his insolence made him unwelcome in class. When Einstein insisted that he had committed no offense, the teacher replied, ‘Yes, that is true, but you sit there in the back row and smile, and your mere presence here spoils the respect of the class for me.’” (2)

Eventually, Einstein left (or was expelled from) that school and eventually attended a preparatory school in Aarau, Switzerland. “It was a perfect school for Einstein. The teaching was based on the philosophy of a Swiss educational reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who believed in encouraging students to visualize images. He also thought it important to nurture the ‘inner dignity’ and individuality of each child. Students should be allowed to reach their own conclusions, Pestalozzi preached, by using a series of steps that began with hands-on observations and then proceeded to intuitions, conceptual thinking, and visual imagery. It was even possible to learn -- and truly understand -- the laws of math and physics that way. Rote drills, memorization, and force-fed facts were avoided.

“Einstein loved Aarau. ‘Pupils were treated individually,’ his sister recalled, ‘more emphasis was placed on independent thought than on punditry, and young people saw the teacher not as a figure of authority, but, alongside the student, a man of distinct personality.’ It was the opposite of the German education that Einstein had hated. ‘When compared to six years’ schooling at a German authoritarian gymnasium,’ Einstein later said, ‘it made me clearly realize how much superior an education based on free action and personal responsibility is to one relying on outward authority.’” (2)

Einstein’s “‘early suspicion of authority, which never wholly left him, was to prove of decisive importance,’ said Banesh Hoffmann, who was a collaborator of Einstein’s in his later years. ‘Without it he would not have been able to develop the powerful independence of mind that would give him the courage to challenge established scientific beliefs and thereby revolutionize physics.’” (2)

What would Einstein have made of our schools’ increasing emphasis on behavior management, obedience, and standardized test scores? Of this, or this? More importantly, what would those practices, if they worked as intended, have made of him?

Part 1 here; part 3 here.

(Sources: (1) Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times (1971); (2) Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007).)

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Monday, November 16, 2009

What would Einstein do? (part 1)

As the Baby Einstein phenomenon shows, our culture sees Albert Einstein as the ultimate icon of intellectual achievement, and with good reason. It is interesting, then, to read some of Einstein’s own thoughts about education:

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.

It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.

One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.

I am opposed to examinations -- they only deter from the interest in studying. No more than two exams should be given throughout a student’s [college] career. I would hold seminars, and if the young people are interested and listen, I would give them a diploma.

It is also vital to a valuable education that independent critical thinking be developed in the young human being, a development that is greatly jeopardized by overburdening with too much and too varied subjects . . . . Overburdening necessarily leads to superficiality.

[T]he gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.

Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Part 2 here; part 3 here.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

False advertising

The makers of Baby Einstein products -- videos featuring bright colors and classical music that would supposedly help increase your baby’s intelligence -- are now offering a full refund to dissatisfied parents. The article reporting this news was one of the most emailed articles in the New York Times last week.

Now we can all laugh at the idea that parents could raise their babies’ IQ by playing Mozart to them. Then we can send our kids off to schools where first-graders have homework every night. Hmm.

At least the babies got to listen to some good music.

Related post here.

..How can I comment?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cure or symptom?

The other day I wrote about a survey that found that thirty-six percent of high school students felt that newspapers should not be allowed to publish a story without first getting government approval. Follow-up studies in subsequent years confirmed that finding.

The foundation that sponsored the surveys asked Joel Martin, a school administrator with twenty years of experience, to comment on the results. He wrote:

One positive finding is that more First Amendment courses are now being offered in high schools. A continued effort must exist to patiently make progress. The charge will continue to be lead [sic] by organizations and entities with specific financial backing and clear mission statements.

. . .

Curriculum adjustments to focus on the First Amendment issues of free expression need to be explored. The idea of incorporating this topic into increased curricular areas must be studied. The government or civics teacher late in a student’s educational career may struggle, despite a genuine effort, to do justice to the subject of the Constitution and First Amendment.

Courses and/or curriculum at lower grades addressing these issues may be prudent. Schools need to consider developing new course offerings aimed specifically at First Amendment rights issues.

I nominate Mr. Martin as the voice of contemporary American schooling. His heart is in the right place, but he is completely unaware of the contradiction between his ends and his means. Genuinely concerned about issues affecting freedom and human dignity, he can respond only in terms of a system that sees kids as passive recipients of information and proposes to solve every problem by adding more class hours or required courses. (One imagines teachers drilling the kids to prep them for the Iowa Test of Basic Freedoms.) Faced with students who have a low regard for freedom, Mr. Martin can think of one response: We need to do a better job of telling these students what to think!

(Notice, for example, one type of fudging that appears in almost all the commentary I have read on this survey. Granted, many of the survey questions revealed actual ignorance about the content and effect of the First Amendment. But some of the most disturbing findings, such as the ones I cited, were about students’ opinions, not about their knowledge of facts. Shall we instruct them that their opinions are wrong? The idea that there might be a distinction between informing kids about facts and altering kids’ opinions -- that is, between education and indoctrination -- seems never to occur to these commentators.)

Of course, lack of instruction is not the only possible explanation for the survey’s findings. The idea that an individual might have rights that trump those of the authorities could not be more foreign in our schools. Many kids perceive, accurately, that they are not allowed to voice, or even form, critical opinions about the institution that governs a large chunk of their waking hours. Even the idea that kids might have some say in what they learn about, or in how they spend their time, is now seen as a flaky Sixties-era relic that has no place in the Era of Accountability and Standardization. Now more than ever, school is the place that tells you what to do. The good student is the one who is quiet and follows instructions. To openly criticize the authority figures -- the activity at the heart of the First Amendment -- is, for most kids, unthinkable.

When that message is transmitted every day for thirteen years, devoting a few more semester-hours to the Constitution is like fighting a flood with a thimble. Maybe instead of instructing the kids about the value of this alien thing called freedom, we might try giving them some.

..How can I comment?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Where did the kids get that crazy idea?

Should newspapers be allowed to publish a story freely without first getting government approval? Five years ago, survey researchers posed that question to over 100,000 high school students across America. Thirty-six percent of the students said that government approval should be required. Only a bare majority -- fifty-one percent -- disagreed, and most of them only “mildly.” Thirty-two percent thought the press had “too much freedom,” and thirty-five percent thought that “the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.”

But never mind that. The real problem is that our math scores are lower than Singapore’s!

Related post here.

..How can I comment?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Which crisis?

One of the main purposes of this blog is to explore the connection between test-driven education and the promotion of authoritarian values in our schools. As I argued at more length here, the pressure to raise standardized test scores has led schools to dwell heavily on obedience and behavioral compliance, which necessarily undermines any emphasis on the importance of inquiry, skepticism, and thought.

Is it worth it? Some might say it is. There is a crisis in American education, we are repeatedly told. We are falling behind our economic competitors. We are losing our advantage in the hyper-competitive global economy. The cure for this crisis is Accountability, which means more and more emphasis on standardized test scores as a measure of whether schools are succeeding. Creating good citizens is a nice ideal, but the economic reality is that we need to create good workers.

Is it true that, for the sake of our kids’ futures, we need to focus more on producing good workers than on producing capable citizens? Consider two sets of facts:

1. “[E]ighth grade students in the United States perform at a level that is slightly below average in mathematics and slightly above average in science. The countries whose students outperformed U.S. students in both subjects were Singapore, Korea, Japan, the Czech Republic and Hungary. . . . [O]nly five percent of U.S. eighth graders would qualify for inclusion among the world's top 10 percent in mathematics, whereas 45 percent of Singapore's students would fall into this category.” Those figures provide “‘ample evidence that our curricula and expectations for our young people are not demanding enough,’ said Norman R. Augustine, vice chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation and chairman of the Education Task Force of The Business Roundtable, a corporate group.”

2. In 2002 and 2003, the President of the United States argued that America needed to invade and occupy Iraq to keep the world safe from Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. The major news media applied little skepticism to that claim, and served largely as a vehicle for passing along the administration’s unscrutinized assertions. The slogan “Support Our Troops” was adopted by large numbers of people as a persuasive argument for going to war. Opponents of the war were widely vilified as unpatriotic extremists. That war uncovered no weapons of mass destruction, resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people, ensured generations of hostility toward our country in large sections of the world, and will eventually cost the United States two to three trillion dollars or more, most of it borrowed.

Which of those two paragraphs has more troubling implications for our kids’ futures?

..How can I comment?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Is teacher autonomy just a perk?

Yesterday, I talked about the value of treating teachers as professionals, and giving them the autonomy to make their own decisions about what works in their classrooms. My belief in that value grows out of my own experiences as a teacher at the college and professional school level. At the University of Iowa, where I work, like at virtually any university in America, professors are given a great deal of freedom in how they teach their courses. No one tells you what books to use, what lecture to give, what projects to assign, or how to evaluate students' success: it is the professor who makes those decisions, and that is one of the pleasures of the job. At most, the professor is constrained by a few paragraphs prescribing the general subject matter to be covered in the course. Any attempt to take that autonomy away from the teachers, any attempt by a central authority to micromanage the classroom, would prompt an outcry and a rebellion.

This is in sharp contrast to the way we treat our school teachers. Teachers often have no say in what books they use, what material they cover and in what order, what assignments they assign, and how they assess students' progress. Those decisions are dictated by a central authority -- usually the school board -- and are largely driven by even-more-central authorities, such as state and federal governments. Since the federal government has made so much hinge on test scores, there is all the more incentive for central authorities to micromanage the classroom in attempts to raise those scores. (See this egregious example.)

Why do we give our college professors so much autonomy? Why do we not seek to hold them accountable with the same methods that we use to hold school teachers accountable? Is it just because they are spoiled, self-policing, tenured prima donnas who refuse to be told what to do? Or is it because we see them as professionals who know better than central administrators how to teach their particular subjects?

In other words, is teacher autonomy just a perk that comes at the expense of the students' education? If so, how can we justify giving it to our college professors?

Or is teacher autonomy an important element in providing a good education? If so, how can we justify denying it to our school teachers?

..How can I comment?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Election Day thoughts

Actually, here in Iowa City, we had our school board election a couple of months ago, before this blog existed. (Today we vote for City Council, in an election that appears headed for an unusually lopsided result.) But today seems like as good a day as any to comment on the school board election, and on school board elections generally.

School board elections here have always seemed somewhat mysterious to me. I read the voter guides and candidate questionnaires, and I find it virtually impossible to detect any differences at all between the candidates. It is as if each candidate is trying as hard as possible not to reveal his or her actual opinions about any issues, for fear of losing the vote of someone, somewhere. I find myself trying to read between the lines -- to detect subtle differences in emphasis that might reveal, to those who know the code, something about the candidate's true leanings. It reminds me of the way Kremlinologists used to scrutinize photographs of Brezhnev and his circle for tips about the otherwise inscrutable workings of the Soviet hierarchy.

Once in a while, the voters are so concerned about an issue that the candidates cannot avoid discussing it. This year, the issue was redistricting -- in particular, how and when to redraw the boundaries between our two high schools, our middle schools, and our elementary schools. In fact, last night there was a district-wide forum on the issue that drew 160 people.

I won't deny that there are important issues involved in drawing boundaries between school districts. Still, there is some irony here. The teachers, and even the principals, now have so little autonomy over what goes on in their classrooms that the classroom experiences of a west-side fourth-grader look more like those of an east-side fourth-grader than they ever have. The curriculum, the books, the schedule, the goals, the educational philosophy, and the underlying assumptions about how kids learn are the same everywhere, because they are decided centrally -- often not even by the school board, but by the state or even the federal government. It is as if the most central aspects of educational policy have been taken off the table in school board elections. As a result, the major issue in our election was about where to draw the boundaries between these increasingly similar schools.

One unfortunate result is that voters then focus on the other ways in which the schools differ -- for example, which school gets more resources, and which school has more at-risk kids, and which school has more wealthy families, etc. The debate is funneled toward these particularly divisive issues and away from more fundamental questions about what the goals and methods of education should be.

I am largely skeptical about proposals for "school choice," though I hope to explore the topic at some point on this blog. But it's hard for me to believe that nationwide uniformity in educational practice is a good thing. There is a chance, after all, that the prevailing assumptions about what is good for children are, in fact, wrong. Should we put all our eggs in one basket, in a kind of nationwide experiment on our kids? I'm much more comfortable with a less centralized system, one that allows different places to make different choices, and one that treats teachers as professionals who are in the best position to know what works in their classrooms, rather than as actors reading from a centrally-written script.

If educational policy were decided locally, school board elections would actually hinge on those educational issues. As it is, no election hinges on educational issues. I have strong feelings about educational policy, but even I will admit that, when I vote for Congress or for President, many other issues are more important to me. By federalizing educational policy, we have basically taken educational issues away from the voters. Is that what a country that cared about education would do?

..How can I comment?