Archive for December, 2010

Wishes for the Holidays and New Year

Saturday, December 25th, 2010

May your classroom be full, but not too full, of eager students.

May your students not be jaded.

May they have had a good night’s sleep.

May they greet you when they come in and bid you goodbye when they leave.

May they look you in the eye but not get in your face.

May they never say “whatever.”

May they get their work done—by themselves.

May their parents appreciate what you do for them.

May your lessons fall on keen eyes and ears.

May your bag of tricks be bottomless.

May the only added value in your life be the value added to your abundantly deserved retirement accounts.

May your administrators be educational leaders and decent human beings.

May they appreciate teaching more than a business plan.

May your professional relationships with your colleagues be fruitful and productive.

May nothing in your building leak.

May your school’s network work.

If these wishes do not entirely come true, may you be possessed of the serenity to accept the human condition and the keenness to relish what you have.

What “Elite” Colleges May Say to Us All

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

As the seniors were winding up the writing of their applications to college, an article came out in The New York Times wondering whether going to an “elite college” was worth the cost. The main determinant in the answer appeared to be how much money a graduate could expect to make ten years after getting out.

Well, I am a teacher, and so I can’t have been worried about that. Maybe my values were skewed because “the cost” to me meant something different from what it usually means to a student (and his parents). One reason was that thanks to an extraordinarily generous scholarship, most of my expenses were paid; the other was my need to pay the rest myself. You may make what you like of this disclosure, but I can say confidently that I never worried about what I would be making ten years after getting out of the “elite college” I went to.

That seems to be a minority outlook today. The problem is that if Mommy’s Little Bean Counter wants to know the “return on investment” of a university education, there is little definitive to say. Yes, people who go to “elite colleges” make more than people who don’t, and the differential appears to be growing, but that is not the end of the story. According to the Times article, statisticians have also discovered that high-school students showing broadly similar quantifiable markers of ability and promise seem to get broadly comparable amounts of money in their careers regardless of the college they went to.

This got me thinking. When I entered college, the population of the U.S. was roughly two hundred million. Now it is a bit more than three hundred million: it has increased by fifty percent. Compare that with the growth in “elite colleges”: of the twenty-five national universities and twenty-five liberal arts colleges ranked highest by U S News, only five have been founded in the last hundred years, and four of those are in a single consortium, the Claremont Colleges in California. Not a single one has been founded in the fleeting years since I went to college.

My students look at me as if I were an antediluvian monster when I mention the gadgets that didn’t exist when I was their age, but I am positively up to date when I say that College X had a great reputation when I was a boy. There are half again as many kids to apply to the same fifty schools. Did they expand their classes? Some did, but not by 50%.

Add to that increase the number of kids who have succumbed to the Brand Anxiety Disorder (university strain), and these fifty must be far more selective than they were when I was trying to choose among them. The students they accept now are so extraordinarily accomplished that even when dim descendants of bright old names are factored in, these colleges’ classes would comprise individuals having generally much higher markers of promise and ability than formerly. So even the increase in income their graduates eventually register could be due entirely to demographics and not “elite” education. People who want return on investment would apparently be well advised to become fireballs and apply to a relatively cheap college with a good football team and strong alumni support.

The strange thing about the Times article was therefore how small a part anything but “return on investment” played in the discussion of which university to choose or whether “elite colleges” were worth the price. It did mention that within any university some departments are much stronger than others—so much so, said one former admission officer, that “there’s more variability within schools than between them.” That should add some complexity to an already baffling business. It suggests that even though some universities or departments may have better facilities than others, that explains only part of the difference between “eliteness” and “non-eliteness,” and maybe not the biggest part.

Universities and their departments, like high schools, seem to fly, or to sink, in new buildings or old, though of course, all other things being equal, great facilities would confer an advantage. But what are these other things? When I was applying to colleges, the University of Cambridge’s physics department was still housed in the old Cavendish Laboratory, built almost a hundred years earlier. I didn’t apply to Cambridge, but at the university I ended up attending, the physics department, one of the best in the country at that time, was housed in a building constructed forty years before.  What is true of physics is a fortiori true of pencil-and-paper departments.

An exchange occurred at Columbia in the mid-1940’s. Dwight Eisenhower, the new president of the university, referred in an early communication to the faculty as “employees of the university.” The physicist I. I. Rabi answered him, “Sir, we are the university.” Eisenhower accepted the correction.

This recognition suggests another, better, reason for attending an “elite college” than that it will produce a “return on investment.” Rabi was known for chalk talks with coffee in paper cups among professors and students. What I have read about them suggests that they were among the best conversations it was possible to have at that time in physics. The attendant “technology” was not advanced nor the facilities elite, but instead primitive and demotic (chalk, coffee, boiling water, paper cups) and didn’t make much difference. People had these conversations not because they expected a “return on investment” but because the talks were exciting and because they advanced learning, developing it and shaping—educating—the people who did the talking. It is hard to imagine Rabi being energized, improved, or made more effective by being subjected to a value-added learning audit or being appreciated because of participating in a horizontal study of the earning-potential of his graduate students. I think a good college or department, like the Porch of ancient Athens, becomes distinguished in time by a growth and maturation that cannot be predicted or forced, though it can be given opportunities to grow and mature in an environment where the faculty is treated with the respect due to it as being truly the school. I believe that a kindred organic complexity, also largely unpredictable, is true of high schools; they too can be nurtured in the hope that a desired efflorescence might take place.

It may be argued that high school teachers are in a different position[1], and it sometimes feels very much as if we are, but the palpation-and-command crowd would do well to take a careful look at how “elite” schools became elite. It had nothing to do with business models or five-year plans. The studies referred to in the Times article suggest that what makes them valuable is not value-addition, return on investment, business plans or branding but something less tangible and, to judge by the slowness with which schools establish themselves as “elite,” less subject to command than to patient alertness and nurture.


[1] See my first definition of “position” in my posting The Devil Made Me Say It

Why Most Published Research Findings Are False

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

That is the fascinating title of a paper by John Ioannides, an epidemiologist at Stanford. Even more fascinating is Professor Ioannides’s discovery that of thirty-four randomized controlled studies published in three medical journals and later replicated, the results of forty-one percent “had either been directly contradicted or had their effect sizes significantly downgraded[1].” It also turns out that experimental results are subject over time and replication to “the decline effect,” whereby initially astounding or superb results become less remarkable or even unremarkable in successive tests. If all this weren’t enough to induce terminal modesty in experimenters, there is in addition the widespread problem of publication bias and other forms of prejudice that lead experimental research falsely in expected or desired directions.

I would not want to say that research is useless—perish the thought[2]!—but I would  say that it is subject to many of the same kinds of error as “less scientific” ways of thinking, and a few that these less scientific kinds are proof against. William James describes a psychological problem he calls “mental vertigo,” in which the sufferer enthusiastically embraces propositions without any of the caution that a good education and wide experience can confer on someone with a generous natural endowment of common sense and critical intelligence. Because “research” is commonly and incorrectly supposed automatically to provide authoritative results derived by foolproof techniques, it actually can set up credulous people for a case of mental vertigo.

It is therefore unsurprising, but for all that deeply disturbing, to contemplate the exuberant and uncritical acceptance accorded by educationists to research findings of dubious sensibility or even doubtful sanity, followed by the findings’ vanishment in silence, as if they turned out to be faux-pas. Do you remember the research showing that students don’t learn any more in enriched classes than in ordinary ones? Do you remember the research showing that teachers have no discernible effect on the learning of the students in their classrooms? Do you remember the research showing that classrooms should not have walls? Do you remember the research ramifying the dominions of the left and right brains? Do you remember the research showing that there is no transfer effect? Do you remember the research endorsing “whole-language” learning? Do you remember the research showing that team-building activities are effective, and the research showing that they are ineffective? Do you remember the research showing how English was supposed to be taught as a second language twenty years ago (and do you remember the whirligig of successive acronyms to describe the students who are learning it)? Do you remember the research showing that everyone should be taught to write as if he or she were a gifted and talented writer? Do you remember the research supporting “New Math” instruction? Once thought earth-shaking, these research results are now the objects of an oblivion of distaste.

A sign in an Austrian restaurant where I used to go during my college years said, “Ve get too soon oldt und too late schmardt,” of which a special case consists in getting excited about experimental results that, older and wiser, we might have dismissed with a wrinkled nose. But some educationists, ostensibly mature, “get never schmardt.” Off they go behind the latest Pied Piper, ready to jump again into the River of Educational Innovation. Unfortunately, they are not just eternally young and foolish; they are also Undead, and they come back, compelling teachers to adopt the next fad.

And what will that fad be? America’s dikeless Low Countries of Learning seem to attract their unfair share of inundations, I mean innovations, and I have dealt with a few of them in prior postings. But one potential Eternal Truth of the Year is suggested by a study in which the researchers spent $45,000,000.00 to discover that students can tell a good teacher from a bad one.

I am glad to hear that the expenditure of $45,000,000.00 has ratified a truth that I have known since I was nine years old, for now I can repose in the stability of research results. Or can I? Though the subtitle of the New York Times article in which the study appeared was “Ask the Students,” that is not what the researchers actually did. Instead, they required them to answer questionnaires by checking/ticking canned comments, identifying whether the comments applied to their teachers. We are assured that a Harvard researcher who has spent ten years refining student surveys is the designer of this one and the author of the potted replies.

That set off warning bells. How do the researchers guarantee that the choices allowed for students’ response are not tendentious? What does the reporter mean by “refine”? Does he mean “get bugs out”? What are these bugs that need ten years to get out, and how do we know that they have been got out? Does he mean “subtilize”? How do we know that crudities and gaps do not remain in the picture the questionnaire draws of the effective teacher? How do we know that it identifies more than—or no more than—a few middling marker-techniques of quality?

This last is important if we are to avoid question-begging. What marks the techniques as effective? If we say that it is their success in “adding value” to teaching and then show a correlation between them and value-addition in order to validate them as components of a questionnaire, we are making a circular argument. It is also important if we are to avoid publication bias, one of the intellectual vices described in the New Yorker article, or if we are to avoid a walk in the Garden of Interlocking Assumptions, where so many of education’s mutually self-confirming studies take us. And it is important if we are to establish a truth that does not wear off.

Roger Bacon said that experiments are necessary because they “put nature to the question.” This remark is usually quoted approvingly even though “put to the question” means “torture.” One thing we should have learned in the seven hundred twenty years since Bacon and the three hundred seventy years since the abolition of the Star Chamber is that torture guarantees only that we will hear the answers we want to hear from the tortured victim. Now, Nature, when questioned experimentally, does not necessarily scream answers on the rack. But as the New Yorker article suggests, sometimes she does when asked in a biased or loaded way. I think it reasonable to assume that the intellectual vices that sometimes vitiate the results of experimental science can also vitiate those of experimental education. This was one reason why Richard Hofstadter was leery of accepting the results of experimental psychology over the “collective experience of the human race,” something that historians, not experimentalists, are qualified by temperament, training, and experience to discover.

Such generalists are also qualified to recognize a good teacher. If school administrators had received a sound liberal arts education completed in a place that requires academic residency with its attendant humanity, instead of training as a specialist in educational research—or, more commonly now, business and finance—they could sniff out good and bad teachers. It also helps not to corrupt the process of evaluation. If it is true, as the Times article states, that most teacher evaluations consist in giving full marks with only cursory awareness of what a teacher does in the classroom, then it goes against my own experience, but it also argues, perhaps vainly, for a remedy at the administrative level of reliance on such old-fashioned intellectual virtues, established by the collective experience of the human race, as honesty. In a climate of educational corruption in which single schools can graduate nine valedictorians and teachers can spend all their teaching time prepping their kids for standardized tests, maybe we should not be surprised, though we should be ashamed, that they harbor shoals of perfect teachers when their students cannot muster even average scores on the PISA tests. This is not a problem of bad teaching; this is a problem of educational leadership. Unfortunately, the remedy proposed in “value-added learning” says that these same administrative structures that cannot sniff out a bad teacher, will know how to remediate one when he or she is identified by a statistical technique of dubious value. I guess that they will end up doing more termination than remediation if Diane Ravitch’s discussion of New York’s District Two[3] is any guide. Just what is needed to attract the teachers of tomorrow: make schools like Stalin’s Ukraine. Why didn’t we think of that before?

But if, as the Times article suggests, we have the evaluation of teachers by their students to look forward to, we can also expect another instance of the applicability of Campbell’s Law of corruption. We have seen how schools have responded to No Child Left Behind by gaming test preparation. We can therefore anticipate what will happen when Educational Science, with all its intellectual shortcomings, has spoken and the student has been installed as the evaluator of his teachers. To go full circle: it is suggestive that Professor Ioannides, mentioned at the beginning of this posting, is an epidemiologist.


[1] If you subscribe to the digital edition of The New Yorker, look at the December 13, 2010 issue on page 56 under an article by Jonah Lehrer called “The Truth Wears Off.” Otherwise, ask your subscribing friend to print the article for you.

[2] Consider, for example, Jerome Bruner and Neil Postman’s brilliant experiment using playing-cards with red spades, cited approvingly by Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structures of Scientific Revolutions in his explanation of how shared paradigms (like the Garden of Interlocking Assumptions?) actually shape our perception.

[3] See Chapter 3 of The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

Time for a Sub

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

When a teacher gets sick, as I have just done, he sees his work in a special light. Examine a teacher’s job and consider what happens when the teacher has to take time off, and you will discover, no surprise to teachers, how difficult the vacancy is to fill or the teacher to replace.

When I was doing my student teaching, there was a kind of teacher disparagingly referred to as Mister Ditto. This teacher had cabinets full of potted lessons in “ditto masters,” an obsolete kind of printing now superseded by photocopying. Every day Mister Ditto would take out a master, print a class’s worth of worksheets, and hand them out. The students would quietly fill in the blanks on the ditto and turn them in.

I am sure that only Mister Ditto could calmly foresee an absence from class because only he could conceive of lesson-planning in this weakly constituted way. My own reaction to the prospect of an absence is always less serene. The reason is that unlike Mr. Ditto, I conceive of learning as of three kinds—knowledge, skill, and understanding—of which only one, knowledge, responds to the Mr. Ditto treatment. When I am gone, who will do the needed coaching in skill? Who will probe with Socratic questioning for an understanding? Who will take on the class as a live work in progress?

Who can mark writing, knowing just where every student is and what kind of encouragement and reproof he or she responds to? Who can work against the inevitable tendency of students to regard substitute teaching as a holiday?  Who will adjust the lesson plans to account for the reality of the learning of the day before?

I referred to one of my substitutes as the Visiting Fireman. He actually was a fireman, and he subbed when his duties at the firehouse allowed. Nice guy, and he had a great story about responding to a fire alarm at the Seven Seas Bar, where the customers would not leave their drinks to evacuate. But not much could come of the lessons he supervised. Another sub was the Reverend. A preacher, he used his substitutions as a chance to transmit the Wisdom of the Ages to “his” classes. The lessons remained undone.

My lesson plans during an absence usually ended up being a lot of Mr. Ditto stuff (or its equivalent in more modern technology), with skill and understanding on hold. Even knowledge became a poor relation to simple classroom management. At some level the students would recognize this. The worst of them welcomed the holiday from productive work and learning, but many, maybe even a majority, had a sense that under normal conditions what they did in class was more worthwhile than what happened during a teacher’s absence. This is probably the explanation for students’ welcoming me back warmly when I returned from my illness. It also suggests the importance of a regular human teacher in learning. Mechanized lessons may be handy, but they do not satisfy students the way a real live teacher can do.