Thursday, July 29, 2010

Education won't make poverty go away

The most emailed article in the Times this week is about a study showing that kids with more effective kindergarten teachers end up earning higher incomes as adults.

There’s a logical flaw, though, implicit in the article -- one that goes unnoticed in many discussions of education. The assumed implication of the study is: if all kids had more effective teachers, they would all make that much more money as adults. But that conclusion does not logically follow, even if the study’s analysis is accurate.

There are almost certainly two effects at work. One is that certain educational advantages give a child an edge relative to other children in later life. The other is that educational advantages generally promote economic growth. In other words, the study doesn’t sort out the two questions: is it just that kids with educational advantages end up with a larger slice of the pie, or would giving everyone those advantages result in a bigger pie? It would hardly be cause for celebration if the gains made by the kids in the study came largely at the expense of other kids who weren’t in the study.

Sure, people with more educational advantages are less likely to end up in poverty. It thus becomes politically appealing to argue that, to address the issue of poverty, we need only provide a better education to all kids. But that logical jump allows politicians to ignore the extent to which poverty is a necessary evil of our economic system. You could send everyone to four years of college and beyond, and our economy would still require a lot of cheap and unskilled labor. Focusing on education as the solution to poverty enables politicians to avoid the question of how we deal with the poverty (and income inequality) that won’t ever go away, regardless of our educational policies. It also allows some people to conclude that poorer people have no one but themselves to blame -- why didn’t they study harder in school?

Of course, as a recipe for giving some kids a relative advantage over others, the article is probably accurate. Hmmmm . . . why do I suspect that kids who are already better off will be the most likely beneficiaries of that recipe?

..How can I comment?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Caution: Experts at work (continued)

I have just discovered another blog, Coalition for Kid-Friendly Schools, started by a parent concerned about the craziness that is imposed on kids in our schools. I like these “indie” parent blogs. I have no illusions that a majority of parents would agree with me about most educational issues, but I’d be much happier in a system where parents were at the heart of educational policy decisionmaking, because parents are the people with the most interest in ensuring that kids are treated humanely and not used for other people’s benefit.

FedUpMom, the author of the blog, has posted several times about a program called “Whole Brain Teaching,” yet another authoritarian, behavioral-rewards-based, pseudo-scientific, memorization-and-drill product of the educational consulting industry -- this time featuring a whole set of hand gestures that the kids make in unison while reciting the program’s rules. Here’s a taste, from a letter that a teacher might send home with a child:

Help!!!!!!!! I need practice. Today at school I broke the circled rule(s). I agreed that all of these rules are fair and I am fully capable of following them. I would never do anything to spite my wonderful teacher or break one of the rules on purpose; therefore, I need you to help me practice.

Please have your child practice the rule at home for as long as you feel necessary. We have practiced at school already, but PRACTICE MAKES PERMANENT! Sign and return this paper tomorrow. If you have any questions, please give me a call or email.

My son/daughter practiced for _____ minutes at home.

Student _____________________
Parent ______________________
Date __________

You will be unsurprised to hear that the rules in question are: (1) Follow directions quickly, (2) Raise your hand for permission to speak, (3) Raise your hand for permission to leave your seat, (4) Make smart choices, and (my favorite) (5) “Keep your dear teacher happy!” If the student breaks a rule, he or she “practices” the rule during recess and lunch, and the note is sent home to the parents. The materials instruct, “If note doesn’t come back, kids practice in class until it does.”

Readers of this blog will already know my feelings about this program. The only point I’ll make again here: My disagreement with the marketers of this product is not an empirical disagreement about “what works.” It’s a normative disagreement about the basic values that should guide how we interact with children.

“Whole Brain Teaching, LLC” by the way, was previously marketed as “Power Teaching.” What a nice metaphor for the practice of dressing up authoritarian educational practices in scientific language.

..How can I comment?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Robots as teachers, or teachers as robots?

The Times reports on efforts to create robots that could teach children in the classroom. Which raises the question: Does this reflect on how advanced our technology is, or on how diminished our conception of the teaching profession is?

Something tells me these schools will be the first to make use of the new technology.

..How can I comment?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Morphine and the bed of nails

In her essay “Facing Reality,” Marilynne Robinson (often quoted here) wrote about our society’s increasing tendency to medicalize emotional states. As I read Peter Gray’s post about how thirteen percent of American boys have been diagnosed with ADHD, I couldn’t help but think of these lines from Robinson’s essay:

To say that behavior is aberrant is much more powerfully coercive among us than to say an action is wrong. . . .

Antebellum doctors described an illness typical of enslaved people sold away from their families, which anyone can recognize as rage and grief. By medicalizing their condition, the culture was able to refuse the meaning of their suffering. I am afraid we are also forgetting that emotions signify, that they are much fuller of meaning than language, that they interpret the world to us and us to other people. Perhaps the reality we have made fills certain of us, and of our children, with rage and grief -- the tedium and meagerness of it, the meanness of it, the stain of fearfulness it leaves everywhere. It may be necessary to offer ourselves palliatives, but it is drastically wrong to offer or to accept a palliative as if it were a cure.

And earlier in the essay:

It is as if we took morphine to help us sleep on a bed of nails. Another generation would have looked for another solution.

..How can I comment?

Sitting still

Over the past year I’ve had several conversations with people who work in our school district about our district’s behavioral rewards program (also known as “PBIS” -- those red tickets that I’ve been harping on in this space). Often these people -- many of whom I like and respect -- respond to my concerns with some variant of the following: “Yes, I understand why you don’t like it, and I’m not crazy about it either, but, you know, I work in the schools, and I can tell you, it really does work. The fact is, the teachers need something like this to get the kids to sit still long enough to learn the material.”

Notice the premise: If the kids can’t meet expectations, we need to change the kids. Isn’t it possible that there’s something wrong with the expectations, not with the kids? It is as if that possibility has been removed from the realm of permissible thoughts.

In his latest post, Peter Gray notes that approximately thirteen percent of American boys aged 4-18 have been diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Gray writes:

How convenient that we have this official way of diagnosing kids who don’t sit still in their seats, often fail to pay attention to the teacher, don’t regularly do the assignments given to them, often speak out of turn, and blurt out answers before the questions are finished. They used to be called “naughty”--sometimes with a frown, sometimes with a smile of recognition that “kids will be kids” or “boys will be boys”--but now we know that they are, for biological reasons, mentally disordered.

The whole post is worth reading. Gray’s blog is always interesting because it raises the question that usually goes unasked: What is the great benefit of all this sitting still? Of all the coercion that (increasingly) underlies our system of compulsory education? Where is the evidence that it leads to a better world, or that it makes children more likely to grow into happy and fulfilled adults? I can understand how some people can disagree with him about these issues, but I don’t understand the lack of debate -- the near complete silence -- about this central feature of the way we’ve chosen to educate our kids.

..How can I comment?