Monkey on the Loose

The old British saying “Slowly slowly catchee monkey” is the beginning of wisdom in “educational reform,” but let us also add “Thinkee thinkee catchee monkey.” Unfortunately, that is not the way some education organizations see it, and so we get education “reforms” undertaken precipitately with poor thinking behind them, leaping intrepidly forward into a mess.

In Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust, as our hero strikes his Faustian bargain with Mephistophélès, an eerie chord sounds in the orchestra. One day recently, as I looked at the guidelines for submitting a proposal for a RAce to the Top (RAT) Grant on pages 18171 – 18185 of the Federal Register, I felt that if I had been examining those pages as a preliminary to signing on for a RAT Grant, I would have heard a similar eerie chord menace my determination.

Ask good teachers or administrators what the chief difficulty in their jobs is, and you will probably hear that they do not have enough time to do the job. Another likely complaint, which I must give as a Brit might say it, is that there is “too much bumf[1].” Reading the DOE’s estimate that it takes 2735-1/2 hours to complete a RAT grant application sounds a menacing chord in my apprehensive mind: if it takes more hours than the average person works in a year to complete the application, what will it take to implement the program? For an unfortunate answer, see below.

The chord would become more insistent in the mind of a thinking educator who reads[2] that the grantee must have as an “absolute priority” the intention to “measure” student “knowledge and skills” across a set of standards, including those “against which student achievement has been traditionally difficult to measure.” The inquiring skeptic wants to know what happened to understanding in addition to knowledge and skill as a component of “achievement.” He asks why measuring some standards would be “traditionally difficult.” Maybe the difficulty here is not traditional but epistemological.

To help understand why, consider by analogy a trip to the Louvre to “measure the achievement” of the Mona Lisa. Imagining Thomas Hoving, clipboard and rubric in hand, in front of the picture before passing judgment should help us to see where the problem lies: We must be careful about what we mean when we say “measure achievement.” We must leave ourselves open to the possibility that some judgments  (and some achievements!) have nothing to do with measurement, period. Instead, they have to do with know-how or connoisseurship and are handled non-quantitatively. Exploring how to apply such thinking to students’ work must be done slowly—maybe even more slowly than filling out the RAT grant application.

But that is not what the good people of Tennessee did. In their haste to be first off the mark at implementing a RAT program, they came up with what sounds like a nightmarish scheme of evaluating—well, yes, students, but also their teachers. I will briefly mention a few outstanding horrors in what I read here and here (The New York Times and Education Week):

Plans for single lessons requiring 4 – 12 hours for an experienced teacher to prepare were rejected as insufficient before being rewritten.

In subjects that do not have “measurements” available for students’ “achievement,” teachers were assessed, and held accountable for, students’ scores on tests unrelated to the subject they teach. For example, a music teacher was held accountable by a test of her students’ writing, which was presumably taught by their writing teacher. You read that right.

Principals must evaluate each teacher five times a year in a process that includes a 20-minute pre-observation discussion, a one-period observation, and a 20-minute debriefing. Assuming a 50-minute lesson and a faculty of 65 teachers, a principal would have to spend about fourteen hours of contact time a week with teachers for their evaluations alone, whether they were good or bad. That doesn’t include the paperwork, which one Tennessee principal estimates to take him four extra hours a day.

I don’t mean to single out Tennessee as a locus of miseducation. My own experience one year was illustrative. We were preparing for our school’s re-accreditation and had foolishly volunteered to establish “measurable goals” to reach as part of the process. We came up with goals and “measurements” as required. When interviewed by the school’s Measurement Honcho, I said that these “measurements” didn’t measure what we claimed they did, and that what they did measure, they measured badly. My warning and advice were disregarded. When the re-accreditation team finally visited and then issued its preliminary report, it found that our “measurements” did not measure what we claimed they did, and that what they did measure, they measured badly.

Such inadequacy seems so obvious in retrospect that one wonders what is the difficulty in looking ahead. I have some thoughts. First, the impetus to reform in education is big on the vision thing but not on the thinking thing. Second, it takes place over far too little time to allow the careful thinking that is needed. This includes genuine consultation, not poll-taking that gets tabulated and ignored. Third, it relies on slogans, to which educators are terribly susceptible. Fourth, it dismisses or attacks criticism that is at odds with prevailing views. Fifth, it forgets that patience is a virtue and that without it the monkey will not be caught.

[1] This marvelous word, short for “bum fodder,” refers to all useless, excessive, or wasted bureaucratic or institutional paperwork.

[2] On p. 18173



Pretty Lights and Bouncing Balls in the Classroom of the Future

Harry Potter and his classmates laughed at Professor Trelawney for her lousy ability to predict the future, but actually she is better at it than educationists who deliver prophecies about the Classrooms of Tomorrow. Mr. H., a history teacher who passed through my school in the mercifully short time of one year, was a good example. He was fond of “teaching” class by showing movies. “In the classroom of the future,” he said, “all history will be taught by video.” Video! Many of his students disparaged his classes, calling them by the name of the local cinema chain, but the movies at the chain were much better than the ones in the class. I know because I subbed for him and had to sit through some of them, feeling like a classmate of Ferris Bueller’s while listening to a lecture about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.

Mr. H. was also forward-looking enough to cater to students’ desire to have classes that were fun[1] because that is what students in the vanguard require. His favorite such activity was the “class debate,” a kind of mêlée in which the boys shout at each other and the girls silently wonder when they will grow up. As might be expected of a room full of uninstructed and unconstrained sixteen-year-olds, the favored rhetoric was ad hominem and tu quoque argument. If it had had been criticized when made, the students relying on such argument would have learned something, but Mr. H. said the important thing was to get “the balls bouncing” in the classroom. Maybe he was farsightedly thinking of the weekend shouting head programs of the future, but of the millions of students in training, only a few dozen will become shouting heads. Sounds like a long shot to me. Most of them would be better served by instruction in how to marshal arguments and present them persuasively, preferably without PowerPoint.

Mr. H. anticipated the corruption engendered by high-stakes testing when he cheated “in favor of” his students on their I. B. history papers, which should not have received any detailed comments or editing from their teachers. He went over the drafts thoroughly and required rewrites to eliminate the shortcomings he saw.

It was therefore with a flashback to Mr. H. that I read a recent article in The New York Times entitled “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores.” Even though the “Classroom of Future” was thankfully not shown to be a locus of academic malpractice, it had earmarks of the H. approach to study. Something called “engagement,” i.e., fun with bouncing balls, is evidently considered desirable in such classrooms. An astonishing Example of the Future was the boy who was supposed to be doing his sums by shooting at rockets on his computer screen. The problem, which anyone should have been able to anticipate, was that the boy played to shoot rockets, not to get sums. He would shoot at any rocket that looked like a good target, not just the “correct” ones. But that’s all right, said the boy’s teacher, because “[e]ven if he doesn’t get it right, it’s getting him to think quicker.” It may be all right “In Classroom of Future,” but it is not all right at, say, the Hyatt-Regency in Anaheim, where I once watched a young cashier come to grief as a guest of the hotel asked her to make change for $100. She couldn’t do it, but she was adept at using her keyboard and screen to summon help.

This visionary gleam of rockets, failed sums, and bouncing balls persists even though there is little or no evidence (as how could there be?) that the wired classroom produces better learning. Not that that matters to the companies selling the technology. A representative of one of them said, “Test scores are the same, but look at all the other things students are doing: learning to use the Internet to research, learning to organize their work, learning to use professional writing tools, learning to collaborate with others.” I note that of the four desirable abilities learned, three of them can be learned without “Classroom of Future.”

The article also has much to say about the way high-tech classrooms seem to go in tandem with increases in class size; about the way high-tech purchases seem to crowd out other purchases such as soap, Kleenex, and books; and the way their proponents seem to persist in their visions not just, as I see it, against the “educational experience of the human race[2]” but also, as the article points out, in the face of a complete lack of evidence that the gadgets produce better students. Like Mr. H. these frothy futurists seem as lightweight as bouncing balls.

[1] “Too much fun is of all things most loathsome.”—William Blake

[2] Richard Hofstadter’s expression in Anti-intellectualism in American Life



Everything with Nothing

When writing about education is readable, it often throws away some potential readability in breathless enthusiasm, particularly when anticipating the destruction of rule books, great leaps forward, revolutions, new eras, etc. Given that “era” has almost become a synonym for “moment,” that Eden sank to grief, and that the original Great Leap Forward was not, this kind of writing should be suspect. Our suspicion may be aroused because the writing bears a resemblance to ad copy promising a “revolutionary advance in dishwashing” and other kinds of pitchman’s b*******[1]. It may be suspect because it conflicts with what our imagination of the real tells us is “the educational experience of the human race.” It may be suspect because it overlooks the indisputable fact that many people receive a sound education without a single revolution.

It may also be ironic. Hence perhaps an article in BBC News recently about another bold initiative in the New York City Schools, this one called iZone, which the reporter helpfully tells us means “Innovation Zone.” It has promising brand-recognition cachet, but what will it deliver?

The iZone’s Principal hopes to solve “the fundamental problem” of most schools, which, she says, is that they “are not organized around individual students’ needs.” The way she hopes the iZone will solve this problem is by destroying the requirement of “seat time.” In another line that made me instantly suspicious, she said, “We have students who are ready for graduate level work now—and we have students who will not make progress unless they’re in a three to one staff situation. Having them in a class of 30 is not going to get results.”

To understand my suspicion, consider that there is now one and only one system that is “organized around individual students’ needs.” That system is private tutoring. All other systems are organized around a combination of students’ and institutions’ needs—as they must be in any real world. Not to recognize this is either blindness or baloney, and pernicious baloney if the institution’s effectiveness is vitiated by demanding of its teachers what only private tutors can do. How well would Leopold Mozart’s lessons have gone if he had had to give them to 129 students in addition to meeting little Wolfgang’s individual needs? If Frank Russell had not intimately known his brother Bertrand, could he have had the same chance of overcoming Bertie’s aversion to studying Euclid? Could he have had that knowledge while teaching five sections of geometry?

On the other hand, many people have had an excellent education in well-taught classes that required seat time. What babies is iZone throwing out with its bath water? The principal gives away part of the game when she mentions the students who need a “three to one staff situation.”  My guess is that the iZone will end up meeting some, not all, students’ individual needs. It could be argued that young Mozart needed a “one to one staff situation,” but I bet that such students’ needs will not be met as Frank Russell met Bertie’s.

I have discussed elsewhere the problem of fobbing off constructivist nonsense on students for whom it is ill-suited. While I share the principal’s concern that students who need three-on-one support to make progress get what they need, it would be a shame to divert lots of teachers to the needs of the few students with certain needs while shortchanging the many students with others. It would certainly be wrong to divert resources from the education of bright students to make good that need, for bright students have needs of their own. Recognizing this problem is essential if some students are not to lose the schooling they can get from an institution with reasonable aims.

I fear that schemes to place kids in constructivist hangars or depots with work stations connected to banal software will turn out to be the way such schools “meet” some of their “individual students’ needs,” thereby freeing up teachers to mind the ones who need a “three to one staff situation.” We are already seeing some software being touted by its manufacturers as like the Oxford tutorial system. Who knows that someone won’t end up believing it? Fiscal pressures are increasing too, requiring teachers to do more and more with less and less.  This demand could be affecting the need for education-hangars. At what point will teachers finally be expected to do everything with nothing? Some irony!


I recently listened to a discussion with the 103-year-old Professor Jacques Barzun. Asked by his interlocutor to comment on the “writing process,” Barzun left him momentarily nonplussed by saying at the outset, “All systematic devices for generating good writing are a mistake.” I wish the two had discussed this comment more fully, for it seems to go against much of what was taught in the 1980’s and ‘90’s (and later) about writing.

The length of Professor Barzun’s life has allowed him to hold the record for the longest absence from the New York Times Best Seller List between consecutive best-sellers—some forty years between The House of Intellect and From Dawn to Decadence. His first best-seller, called Teacher in America, still in print after nearly seventy years, may have hit on the alternative to “process writing.” It is very simple: teachers must “work like dogs” at commenting on the writing of their students. In my experience nothing could be truer. I would love to find a shortcut, but I never have. “Peer editing” still seems to me more like writing instruction by homeopathy than genuine writing instruction should be. I mention Barzun and writing because in all but the best talents, and sometimes with them too, “individual students’ needs” shape the coaching given. It would be a shame to see the teaching of writing farmed out to software or otherwise ignored in the rush to meet “individual students’ needs” when some of them turn out to be more equal than others.

[1] See Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, p. 22)



More Trout in the Milk

“Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”—Henry David Thoreau

One of the gamy mysteries of “branding” is the way that some respected brands will go off, their products and services degraded. For a while inertia and advertising divert people’s attention from the degradation. Two examples occur to me. The first was one of the few remaining good-quality shoemakers in New England, which sold out to an enveloping company that lowered the quality of its shoes and hired cheaply paid foreigners to make them. Another was a company that provided services to automobile-drivers. A relative of mine who worked for them reported attending business meetings at which they planned to downgrade their formerly famous “member services.” My relative, now retired, pointed out that the reason many people kept their membership for thirty or forty years was that the company gave good service reliably. These companies downgraded their products the way an unscrupulous dairy farmer waters his milk before bringing it to market.

It is a chilling thought that a third case might be found in American education. In this case the “brand” is “college preparatory diploma.” A report that was no joke covered the increase in “rigorous” courses offered in high schools at which 40% of the students who took AP classes got failing grades (1 or 2). These schools’ students were in turned “prepared” by middle schools that offered “Jungle Gym Math,” beanbags, and bed sheets in their curricula

What is more, we now have a report that 40% of college students in the US who take them give up on majors in science, technology, engineering, and math because “It’s Too Darn Hard.” The report blames poor teaching at universities for this disaster. That may indeed be a part of the problem, but I guess there’s more to this story.

The reporter perplexingly notes that grades are lower in science majors because “the answers are clear-cut and there are no bonus points for flair.” I am not sure what non-science courses the reporter has in mind by way of contrast, but surely a good teacher in a humanistic discipline also insists on clarity of thought and response? As for “bonus points for flair”: what can this mean? That a student who thinks badly can salvage part of his grade with verbal flimflam? That kind of imposture should be, and is, smoked out by good teachers. Maybe good teachers are rarer than I like to think, but it’s possible that when students find themselves up against firm demands for intellectual work, they crumple because they were not held to account during their college preparation and have not developed the habits of work and intellect that they need.

We all recall the dismal history teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off lecturing about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff as his dazed students drool helplessly on their desks. Is it that bad at university? One way to find out would be to compare the rate at which STEM[1] majors are dropped by undergraduates from the US with that of students from India and China. If the home-grown rates are higher, it may mean that these undergraduates have been ill-served by a secondary education with trout in the milk rather than by universities with drool on the desks. To the argument that Indian and Chinese students put up with lectures because they don’t know any better, I would be tempted to counter that it’s because they don’t know any worse.

[1] Science, Technology, Engineering, Math