What’s in a Name?

We call the person who runs a school a principal, short for principal teacher. We call the heads of some schools the headmaster, meaning the leading master or teacher. Some women who head schools are called the headmistress, though as words inflected for gender become less popular, headmistresses are becoming less common. All these titles point to the notion that those who run schools are academics. In the UK their counterparts are often called head teachers, thus preserving the notion behind the name.

The idea that a head of school should be an academic or educational leader goes back to the Academy founded in the 4th Century BC by Plato. The word “academy” still names schools, as do lycée and other European words based on the Lyceum, where Aristotle lectured. He is pictured by Raphael as the down-to-earth alternative to Plato, as he is actually pointing down to the earth, unlike Plato, who points upward towards his “ghostly paradigm[1].”

In contrast to this model, which has worked for thousands of years and has been celebrated in works of art as diverse in time and kind as The School of Athens and The Rector of Justin, we have the newly emerging model of the head of school as a businessman.

Now, businessmen have also been portrayed in photography and other art, but I have doubts about preferring them to academics as head of schools. This doubt was crystallized in an article I recently read in The New York Times about something called the Chicago Talent Development Charter High School. Reading the article also made me think about what we name things and why: the Chicago Talent Development Charter High School is run by someone called a Chief Executive.  What a term! What, or whom, does he execute? Or is he so called in order to confer on him the prestige of someone who runs a business—and, I fear, gets an “executive compensation” package?

What does this chief executive do? In the article he tracks attendance with his laptop. Now, at the first school where I taught, attendance was tracked by a formidable ex-New Yorker called Mrs. Costello. Every morning she would call the parents of all absent students. I overheard part of one such call: “…You’re not Mrs. Gumbleton! You get in heah to school right now!” Miss Gumbleton was at school by 11:00, but Mrs. Costello didn’t get “executive compensation” for reeling her in. She was called the Attendance Lady, which said everything that needed saying. If the chief executive is not misnamed, he sounds as if he is micromanaging, something that chief executives are not supposed to do.

To be fair I grant that he must do other things, but what might they be? The school is called a “talent development” high school, but its web page did not say what that means. Is it a specialized high school like the now defunct High School of Performing Arts and High School of Music and Art in New York? The home page says, “Kids are encouraged to dream, not drop out.” How noble—but how different from what the curriculum page of that school tells us. We find there that students “take basic college preparatory courses.” When I was in 9th grade, I didn’t dream about basic college preparatory courses, but maybe today’s dreams are more practical. Students can now fulfill their dreams, at least at the Chicago Talent Development Charter High School (CTDCHS!), by taking “courses designed by researchers and curriculum specialists.” And if that alone doesn’t tap into a student’s dreams, he or she is assured that in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade the courses “[t]aken in the first semester of these three grades… prepare students for the academic challenges they will face during the second semester.”  Wake me, please! When I think of dreaming, I think of my high-school classmate KC, who when we were drilling second-conjugation verbs once wrote out “Sailing to Byzantium,” which he had by heart. Also to be fair, I should admit the possibility, however remote, that there is something of the dream in the notion that the first semester of a class should prepare one for the second.

I don’t mean to say that drill should be replaced by dreaming, or vice versa. What I mean to say is that they should not be confused. To promise dreams when you give “courses designed by researchers and curriculum specialists” is baloney, and rather egregious baloney at that. Well, students are very good at telling baloney when they hear it, and they tend to react to it in predictable ways: 1) go along with it if it promises a good loaf or a trouble-free life, 2) go along with it under duress if they will be punished for saying the Emperor has no clothes, 3) resent the imposition of nonsense and the waste of time it usually entails (this is often the reaction of talented young people with drive and ambition), 4) undermine it the way bright students like the Weasley twins did when boredom and disgust with authoritarian dishonesty inclined them to subvert Professor Umbridge, or 5) walk away from it.

The Times article suggests that the number of students taking the last approach is rising, and not because the students perversely refuse to have their talents developed. The school started in the 2009 – 2010 academic year with an absenteeism rate of 10%. It is now 15%. One of the ways used to encourage attendance was to have cheerleaders shout out cheers as students arrived at school. Another was to give them pizza. I suppose that a young person starved for recognition or just plain starved might start out beguiled by an assembly-line of cheers or a slice of pizza, but eventually he or she will recognize what Dr. Johnson knew: He who praises everybody, praises nobody. He who cheers everybody, cheers nobody. The cheers become white noise: Hawthorne effects are not automatic, but depend on how the affected person interprets the cheering stimulus.

The chatter about dreams and execution in the schoolhouse overlooks a couple of things. One, typical of misbegotten statistics, is that average daily attendance often disguises another, more serious, problem: that some students miss weeks—months—of school every year. Two statisticians who went duck hunting took aim at a duck in flight. One shot ten yards above the duck, and the other shot ten yards below. They started jumping up and down, shouting, “We got it!” Like these duck hunters, a statistics-based approach to attendance may completely miss a serious problem. The other thing overlooked is that even if a school’s chief executive is J P Morgan, he may have to deal with loci of difficulty that lie completely outside the schoolhouse.

Morgan had his millions, his minions, and his eyes. What does a chief executive like the one of CTDCHS have? An attendance program developed by Johns Hopkins and “executive skills,” whatever they are; but these have not been enough to stop a rise in skipping school. By contrast, an educational leader like Mr. Moeketsi Molelekua of the Leshata Secondary School in South Africa’s Orange Farm shantytown has the charisma and conviction of an educational leader. Yet even those considerable gifts could not permanently put right the difficulties that poor students faced there. These examples may show that educational leadership is better than execution, or whatever a chief executive does; but they also remind us of the regrettable truth that an approach centered on the schoolhouse will not fix problems that lie partially or largely outside its walls.

It is therefore more than a pity: it is a pernicious mistake to adopt solutions based in the schoolhouse  like holding teachers “accountable” for the “success” or “failure” of students in their schooling as measured by their scores on multiple-choice tests. It is especially bad when another group, the chief executives, remains unaccountable and the chief problems lie outside the teachers’ responsibility.  The name “testing-and-accountability” sounds laudable but is actually preposterous.

* * *

The other article of note this week, from BBC News, discusses the enduring popularity of John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men in British schools, 90% of which set it as a required text for their GCSE (high school) students. Britain’s Education Secretary says that some British students read only two books a year and that this is likely to be one of them during one of those years.

As a high-school ninth-grader I read the book on my own and found it moving, but how things have changed! During my high-school years Steinbeck was sometimes accused of being a Communiss, and his books were considered risqué, so we got to read only The Pearl, which was safe but left me cold. I am not sure whether that was because The Pearl was a worse book or because studying it rather than reading it spoiled it for me.

One teacher interviewed for the article said that it remains popular because its length is “not too onerous when we are pushed for time in the curriculum,” though it also has the advantage of accessibility. I agree that it is accessible and laud it for that, but the teacher’s comment brought me up short. What are they doing to be so pressed for time in an English class that they can read only two books a year, one of them a six-chapter novella? Are they dreaming?

Their dreams are not airborne: the article also quotes the author of the Cliff’s Notes study guide for the book. I am not sure what is sadder: that high-school students get to read only two books a year in their English classes or that if they have to read Of Mice and Men, a six-chapter novella, they have to examine Cliff’s Notes in addition (or instead). What’s in the name English class?

[1] See Stanza VI of “Among School Children” by Yeats



Babysitters Indeed!

As the members of the Drama Club and I headed to the airport en route to Athens and a weekend drama workshop, I should have known something was up: One of my students was dressed in a very smart traveling cloak and outfit and had a large suitcase. The sign slipped by: it was very, very early in the morning of what would prove to be a terribly long day, and I just thought she wanted to be nicely dressed for the weekend.

The flight to Athens was smooth, and we were clearing immigration when this student began to walk rapidly away from the rest of us, suitcase in tow. Telling the others to wait, I followed, calling her name repeatedly and finally catching up with her outside the terminal. Waiting for her were an older woman who looked like her and a very big man.

The very big man advanced towards me, but my student stopped him, turning to me and saying, “This is my mother. I am leaving my father [in the country we had flown from] to live with her. I won’t be going to the workshop.” The very big man said, “That will be enough.” They left.

When I got back to my other students, they had been found by students of our host school. No adults were with them except the Greek-speaking bus drivers because it was naturally thought that their guests would not require, ah, special services at the airport to handle abductions. In those pre-cell-phone-pre-internet days I could only say that I needed to speak to a policeman. From a pay phone I called the school and was told to take the bus and make the report later. (It turned out that my missing student, being 18, was entitled to do what she had done.)

Phone calls to the Headmaster and then to the father followed that morning. Both were understanding, but I remained very upset. I had told the students that their classmate would not be joining us where we stayed and only later told them that she had decided to leave us. It was of course important not to convey my upset to the students, who were looking forward to an exciting weekend.

And that is what they got. Our host school, named after an English Renaissance poet and composer, was well known for its offerings in the humanities and for its dramatic productions, as would befit a school located in the Birthplace of Drama. The workshop’s production of excerpts from a tragedy was very impressive and inspired the Club in ways I will discuss below. I also took the students on our own school tour of the Acropolis. Even there a breath of trouble blew: a man followed us, seeming to stalk one of the girls. I kept myself interposed between him and the students, and we finally left because he continued to be troublesome without doing anything overtly threatening or assaultive. As we left, a drenching thunderstorm broke, so we ran for cover to a taverna in the Plaka, where we dried out over Greek food. The stalker was forgotten.

To the students it was an altogether splendid trip, but my reaction was more ambivalent. On a school-sponsored trip into town I had a fine discussion with the school’s classicist about translations, agreeing to disagree about the relative merits of Lattimore and Fagles—that  while examining relics from the Acropolis in an excellent museum. At a round-table of academics and poets held at the school I was able to ratify my choice of Rae Dalven’s translations of C. P. Cavafy’s poems for use with my students and to become interested for the first time in the work of George Seferis. I reflected on all this in light of the abduction, which I couldn’t separate from my total impression of the trip.

Was it worth it? Later that year the students mounted a production of excerpts from Oedipus Rex. The original impetus for the production and choice of play was theirs, as were most of the production and directorial decisions. They made masks for all the characters, choreographed the Choruses to take account of the strophes and antistrophes, and made a set showing a public square in Thebes. The boy who played Oedipus was very good and diligent enough to learn some very long speeches.

On another trip I got sick. Our Theory of Knowledge classes used to take an annual weekend trip to stay by the banks of a nearby river, where we would divide time between preparing and giving “ToK Presentations” and doing such things as river-rafting and hanging like spiders from ropes, etc. On this particular weekend I spent most of both nights either being sick or preparing to be sick, and the days left me barely the time between visits to the bathroom to supervise activities as lightly as possible, and to give suitable attention to grading the Presentations. The students didn’t need to know, and did not find out, that I had been sick. Even my colleague didn’t know of my illness till I told her as the bus drove up to the school at the end. There was no alternative except to abort the trip or to cast a pall over the proceedings.

It was during the Athens trip that I decided all good teachers are also good actors. We have to give the appearance of solidity to our students even when we are feeling somewhat fragile or brittle. It is not easy.

I therefore reacted angrily to news that parents in Wisconsin, in support of some political measures against teachers taken by their legislature and governor, were saying before TV cameras that teachers are “only babysitters.” This breathtakingly ignorant formulation has no basis in any reality I have been familiar with for the last twenty-five years. A baby-sitter is a fourteen-year-old who eats popcorn and calls his customers home if anything bad happens. A teacher, by contrast, goes with his students to Athens or the riverside and summons the sense and strength to guide those students even when difficulties and sickness intrude on the proceedings. I say nothing of the classroom, less glamorous and more important.

Another argument I hear out of Wisconsin is that teachers work “only” 180 days a year. Which 180 do they mean? The 180 days of contact time mandated by law? The days “in service”? The summer study? The weekend trips and abduction management exercises, usually without compensatory Acropoles? The evenings and mornings grading papers? The time spent on preparation for re-accreditation of self and school? My calculations show that I spend at least as much time at teaching as someone else spends at a job with a two-week vacation and ten paid holidays. Teachers who live an easy life undoubtedly exist, but I don’t know them.

In any case, why just listen to me? A report on “Lessons from PISA” has some keen observations about the esteem in which teachers are held in the US and, by contrast, in the countries whose students do best on the PISA (the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment) tests. There is much to interest us in that report, but the most gratifying moment must be the question asked of a young teacher in Finland, where the world’s best schools are found, and the answer he gave:

“What made you want to be a teacher?” asked the author.

The Finnish teacher’s reply: “Because it is the most honorable of all professions”



Of Phrenology and Value Added Learning

A colleague of mine once told me that her intellectual hero had been the late Stephen Jay Gould, the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard from 1982 until his death in 2002. She was a biology teacher and admired his fruitful explorations of evolutionary theory in spite of its detractors (they called his idea of punctuated equilibrium “evolution by jerks”), while I admired him for the blessed clarity of his writing, which was clearly governed by Professor Barzun’s dictum that “writing is an act of courtesy” to the reader.

I especially admire The Mismeasure of Man, which I read before and reread after publication of The Bell Curve. Gould had personal and public reasons to be wary of the way that statistics can be bent in their use to justify false positions or to “enable” people to draw false conclusions. The personal reason: he heard, after being diagnosed with cancer, that the median period of survival of his kind of cancer was eight months after diagnosis. He survived twenty years, having made a complete recovery, which he discusses in his article “The Median Isn’t the Message.” One of his many public reasons for wariness, handled at length in the book, was that statistical methods could be (mis)used to enforce bad ideas or to justify bad public policy.

The key exhibit in this discussion was the chapter “The Real Error of Cyril Burt: Factor Analysis and the Reification of Intelligence[1].” It takes the statistical methods and concept-work behind traditional intelligence testing and subjects them to a careful, thorough, and transparent demolition.

And well-deserved. Teachers of a certain age will remember their halcyon pupil days, when IQ scores appeared next to students’ names, branding them like tattoos passed off as birthmarks. Mr. Smith, the math teacher of my own 7th-grade halcyon days, was a great inspiration to all of us, who looked forward to the end of the school-day because 8th period was when we would get—not have—to go to math class. A gifted teacher, he also and unfortunately had a tongue that sometimes led him down questionable paths. One day Student X had to be excused to go to the office. After he left, Mr. Smith said to the rest of us, “You know, you are all in this class because of your brains, but X’s IQ leaves you in the dust. When he grows up, he will do anything he wants.” So he did, though not quite in the way Mr. Smith had in mind. Before he settled into a modestly satisfying professional career in a small city in the Northwest, he had an extraordinary international career as a druggie, in which he smoked, sucked, ingested and injected anything, a living illustration of “Aldous Huxley Told in Gath” or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He pursued part of this first career at the feet of Timothy Leary.

By contrast, my college friend H told me that as a boy he was classified a borderline moron[2] by his teachers, who advised his parents not to expect much from his adulthood. Against the expectation of Intelligence Scientists, his intellectual trajectory took him though the Bronx High School of Science[3], a successful undergraduate career in a rigorous pre-medical curriculum, and medical school. His IQ, at the level of a borderline moron in first grade, “increased” to 160 by the time he got out of Bronx Science, a thing that IQ was not supposed to do.

I would add another thing about IQ: it was not supposed to be used as a tool for predicting career trajectories or as a means of making fine distinctions such as the cutoff point above which my classmates took math with Mr. Smith and below which they took it with Mr. Dust. All of us of a certain age have stories like this to report about IQ tests, but few of us remember any critical examination of the idea behind the tests and labels. Professor Gould therefore did the world of intellect a service with his thorough debunking. Professor Barzun has done likewise in his intellectual-historical writing on social sciences whose ancestors include phrenology and physiognomy[4], which parallels in some ways Gould’s discussion of craniometry and its intellectual descendants in The Mismeasure of Man.

What we must carry away from this discussion into the contemporary world of education is the need to be very careful in our use of statistics to create categories and make educational decisions; above all, we must not reify statistical products whose underlying reality is fundamentally dubious.

Let us now move to a discussion of how to evaluate teachers and, as a part of that discussion, to New York City, home of much that is great and awful in American education. We will go not to the Bronx High School of Science but the Lab Middle School for Collaborative Studies in Manhattan. We will find there a teacher called Stacey Isaacson, who received degrees from Penn and Columbia and who “had a successful career in advertising and finance before taking [her] teaching job, at half the pay.[5]” Ms. Isaacson received glowing reviews from her principal and glowing tributes from former students. All but one of her students was rated as “proficient.” She came in voluntarily at no pay once a week during her maternity leave.

All the evidence that a normal rational human being would need to decide on the quality of her person and work suggests rather strongly that she is a paragon. Unfortunately, that evidence doesn’t matter. What matters is her value-added learning score, which shows that she is one of New York’s worst teachers. It means that when she is reviewed for tenure, she will almost certainly not receive it. It will probably soon mean that in layoffs she will be one of the first asked to go. She may beat them to the pink slip since she will probably have no trouble returning to her career in advertising and finance if she needs to. I think she ought to apply for a teaching position in Finland.

More seriously and more to the point, I think that value-added learning is precisely the same kind of misbegotten mess that Pearson’s g[6] turned out to be, if not a worse. We cannot even say exactly what value is in this addition: all we can do is infer its existence from the solutions to a formula. What is more, IQ is at least a simple quotient: contrast it with Ms. Isaacson’s score, which is the result of applying a formula[7] of astonishing impenetrability. This cloud of sigmas and enigmas, enveloping her work with data about her students and the school where she does that work, has determined that she is in the 7th percentile of teachers.

The 7th percentile of teachers. What does that mean? I suggest it means no more, and possibly much less, than a college-rating system of suspect reliability means when it says that College X is the 52nd-best in the country. The suspect system of ratings means little even if it has no margin of error, but it turns out that Ms. Isaacson’s score has a margin of error so great that her “actual rating”—whatever that is—could be anywhere from the 1st percentile of teachers to the 52nd. This helpful rating, taken with the needed caution, effectively says that she might be the worst teacher in New York, or better than half of them, or anywhere in between. Unfortunately, this helpful rating is not being taken with the needed caution because the margin of error is ignored in the definitive casting of Ms. Isaacson on the rubbish-heap. Where is Finland?

Or, for that matter, to keep things American, where is W. Edwards Deming? Schools should be run on an educational model, not on a business model, but Deming became the inspiration of post-WWII Japanese business and its economic miracle by advocating a remarkable series of principles of business management. If the educational leaders in schools are going to be replaced by businessmen—though they shouldn’t be—at least those replacements might consider applying some of Deming’s principles:

  • Drive out fear.
  • Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets.
  • Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.



[1] I should not want to say that if you Google “The Real Error of Cyril Burt” you will find a .pdf reproduction of the chapter online.

[2] The degrees of mental impairment, in order of decreasing intellectual power, were called “moron,” “imbecile,” and “idiot.” My fourth-grade teacher referred to people with Down’s Syndrome as “Mongoloid idiots.”

[3] This public school is so far from being a locus of mental impairment that it has graduated as many as two future Nobel Prize winners from a single class.

[4] See for example Clio and the Doctors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

[6] The statistic reified into the “thing” intelligence by the folks that brought you IQ

[7] See the picture at the top of the article by Michael Winerip that I referred to above.



Potemkin Schools

Myths surrounding the life and death of Catherine the Great run the gamut from salacious baloney (however enchanting for schoolboys and college sophomores) to excellent stories that, like all good myths, convey the essence of truth in narrative form. One of the best is of Grigory Potemkin, the official in charge of Russia’s newly conquered southern regions in the latter part of the reign. He built fake villages of facades and imported peasants for the Empress Catherine to see during her travels there. The object of the fakery was to impress her with the riches of the South and to justify their being conquered. Though the “Potemkin villages” almost certainly did not really exist, their mythical existence illustrates the timeless archetype of official fakery made to support false claims.

From the steppes of southern Russia we turn to two high schools that could reasonably be called Potemkin villages of learning. The examples I give are from the 1970s, so we are talking about a phenomenon that does not have a very recent genesis. A friend of mine on the West Coast, wishing to do his small workingman’s bit for the support of the schools and people of his neighborhood, agreed to take on as his construction assistant the salutatorian of the local high school. The attempt ended in failure, with my friend regretfully dismissing the student. He was ready to work, and he was eager, but he could not use a tape measure, could not read off fractions, and could not add or subtract them. The other was a graduate of a large urban high school in the East. He, too, was salutatorian (notice no “a”: these boys were graduated before schools started naming valedictorians in litters). He had applied for admission to my college, where I, sitting on the College Admissions Committee, saw his academic record. His story is sad, too. In the 1970’s the SAT had scores running from 1600 for seniors who walked on water to 400 for those who were alive and breathing but could not find the lake. This salutatorian’s score was in the 500s. There was no question of admitting him, but we felt sorry for someone who could find himself graduated as the second-most distinguished student of a school that did not teach him even how to manage a minimally satisfactory score on a multiple-choice test.

The Potemkinization of testing had not yet started to make “advances” such as the “recentering” of SAT scoring or the setting of “proficiency” exams by which random guesswork can yield a promotion from one grade to the next. Even now, some testing retains a pre-Potemkin integrity. Hence the PISA test scores or the scores of International Baccalaureate assessments, which are not obliged by local considerations to certify as genuine any panoramas of fakery.

But the Potemkin schools: when did they start? I am not a historian of education, but my guess is that the phenomenon started to be significant when the Life Adjustment Movement[1] in education found itself in the late 1950s and early 1960s having to trim its sails in the wake of Sputnik and the Communiss Challenge. We decided that if the Communiss were not going to bury us, we would have to stop offering three-year courses, with content repeated each year, in “Home and Family Living” covering such topics as “My duties as a baby sitter” and “How to be liked.”[2] The problem was in recovering ground lost to foolishness, which we turned out not to be able to do.

The late sociologist James S. Coleman in his book Public and Private High Schools identified Catholic high schools as having produced the best results at academic preparation of any large group of schools in the US[3]. He said that the reason for their success was that they acted as “functional communities,” which it turns out could hold kids to account more effectively than other kinds of school with their less all-embracing organization. I think we will find that another step in the degradation of schools was in their decline as functional communities. One of the chief forces destructive of urban Catholic education is now shaping up to be charter schools; and it seems that they are destructive of public education too—this without providing an alternative education that is demonstrably better than what it is destroying[4].

A third source is in the saturation of the fabric of education by baloney[5]. Professor Barzun, who is among other things a historian of education, even offers to explain “Where the Educational Nonsense Comes From[6],” and his explanation is convincing. Well, it is convincing to me, if not to people who continue engaging in discourse of the kind he rightly condemns.

Since these three problems seem nearly intractable, much is to be done if we are going to replace Potemkin schools with schoolhouses in which real teaching and learning take place.

[1] See Chapter 13, “The Road to Life Adjustment,” in Anti-intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter. New York: Vintage, 1963.

[2] Ibid., p. 357. My godmother would say, “To have a friend, be a friend,” and she wasn’t even a consultant on retainer.

[3] Excluding the top-flight private college preparatory schools found in places like small New England towns (Exeter, New Hampshire; and Andover and Groton, Massachusetts) or semi-rural Western locations (Ojai Valley, California),

[4] Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, passim.

[5] See my entry under balonist in The Didact’s Dictionary. For a more detailed treatment, see Baloney Bingo, and get up a baloney bingo game of your own!

[6] See the article of that name in Begin Here, U. of Chicago Press, 1991.