Bringing Up Baby

That students often talk freely with each other when their teachers are nearby is a mixed blessing. We sometimes overhear remarks that help us focus on problems of learning that they’re having, and teach to those problems—something no online school will be able to do no matter how hard The New York Times flogs online learning. We pay for these moments with insights we would prefer to do without. I remember listening to one small group of students talking about how strict or lenient their parents were. The daughter of the strict parents had no sympathy from her classmates: “You have to train them. My parents are trained.”  Given the fecklessness, incompetence, and baseless confidence of the speaker of that line, I could guess what he had trained his parents to do and not to do. The insight that came to me from this listening-in was that some high-school students have been malignantly indulged. The intention is not malignant, though we know what road is paved with good intentions; but the results are.

This phenomenon is not universal, as anyone knows who has spent time teaching overseas. It manifests itself in tell-tale signs, many of which I had to “teach against” in my day-to-day work. Such teaching usually involves refusal to comply with a student’s order (an order!), coaching in manners to adopt when asking a favor, reproof of attempts to indulge in emotional blackmail, and lessons in those disagreeable but inevitable elements of the human condition such as that teachers and other adults have needs and expectations too, and that “there’s no fine thing / Since Adam’s fall but needs much laboring.”

It also involves (attempts at) demolition of magical thinking and replacing it with the Reality Principle. The magical thinking usually consists of a belief by a student (and often his parents) that success will come in spite of incompetence, unpreparedness, and ineffectiveness by some kind of miraculous concept-work, arrangement, fix, or spell, usually with the teacher as a kind of compliant medium. The Reality Principle says that a crux in a student’s education is a time for hard work and difficult choices, not plea bargaining or magic.

But there’s only so much a teacher can do to work against this kind of upbringing, which an article in The New Yorker discusses this week. The author compares some anthropological and psychological fieldwork in the U.S., France, and the Amazon jungle and concludes that the Matsigenka people of the Urubamba River are better at bringing up children than are many Americans. She notes a story by a former Wall Street Journal reporter that her, the reporter’s, daughter was “invariably the most ill-behaved child in every Paris restaurant and park she visited.” Even if the author exaggerates to make a case plain, my experience tells me that she has a point. She also has a point in her discussion of magical thinking when she talks about parents who say, “Little Ben may be unable to tie his shoes, but that shouldn’t preclude his going to Brown.” One of her stories discusses a couple of parents who hired a lawyer when their child received a failing grade in a major assessment set by his school. What is a teacher to do when faced with that kind of reaction to his professional judgment? What to do when parents undermine the teachers’ efforts to educate their children, whom they have brought up badly?

Two pernicious consequences follow on this combination of incompetence and adversarialism. One is playing out now in public discussions of universities’ need to adapt themselves to young men and women who have reached the age of adulthood but have not learned to apply themselves to a sustained job of work and thought. It is anyone’s guess what the discussions will finally lead to, but my guess is that they will not lead to an improvement in university education.

The other is to impose a system of blame on schools that does not correspond to reality or improve any real conditions. Speaking of flogging: in days of old when knights were bold, a prince at his lessons would have a commoner boy studying with him. When the prince failed to learn his lesson, the tutor would whip the other boy, called a whipping boy, as a punishment for the prince’s failure. Can you guess how well such a system of correction worked for the prince? Can you guess its effect on the morale of the boy? The system of value-added learning now being implemented in schools proposes to create a class of whipping teachers, ostensibly because all failures to learn must be laid at their feet. In reality, some of the failures lie outside the classroom.


A Mess of Pixels

Now that Harvard, MIT, and Stanford are offering courses online we can expect, indeed we are already seeing, the drill teams and pompom persons coming out to shake ‘em for the nascent advertising campaign in favor of “delivering” “instruction” online. Readers of these postings will know my own deep reservations about this move, but Harvard, MIT, and Stanford themselves are being rather cautious about their online offerings.

They are not fully integrated with any college of those institutions. They do not accrue credit. They do not count towards degrees. That caution only reflects the reality that online “instruction” does not take advantage of the richness of real academic residence; the benefit of meeting with colleagues, classmates, and teachers; the aid to education afforded by institutional and formal ties; and the human connections formed in real life.

I have been paying the university fees of a South African man who has been working towards his degree at a university known within South Africa for its programs in “distance learning.” During the first years of his undergraduate program he was distanced, as it were, and not a little alienated from his studies. This year, his final year, is one of live workshops, seminars, and courses. The difference to him—and in him—has been remarkable to see and hear as his emails and Skype conversations fill me in on activity, alertness, give-and-take, fascination, interest, learning, and just plain real life that he has been missing. What I see happening in the movement to turn schools into screens and clicks is a movement in the opposite direction, and, though not without possible benefits, in general a bad direction.

This is a short posting because I am doing my end-of-year marking, grading, and conferring. I’m handing back papers. I’m giving and reporting on oral and written examinations. My students are knocking at the door asking for meetings and explanations. Parents are writing. Teachers are conferring in order to work up and issue “advisor reports” on each student by an advisor-teacher. We are producing the three-page year-end reports that each student and his parents get. Summer reading assignments are being made, as well as plans for summertime remediation in writing. Would we want to give that up for a mess of pixels, never mind that it is just a click away?



Time to Press the Reset Button

Many of you will recall the little Chinese boy who had to go out weeping into the snow last winter in his underpants to run and do push-ups because his father wanted to instill in him a “masculine temperament.” I recall a lot of tongue clucking about Chinese child-rearing practices and stuff about tiger mothers and eagle fathers. But the tiger and the eagle have a wider habitat than just East Asia.

An article in The New York Times reports the widespread use of addictive prescription stimulants and ADHD drugs by high-school students to boost their ability to take tests and otherwise succeed at school. And why do they do it? Take Madeleine, a student interviewed by the Times reporter, who took five AP classes, went out for field hockey, and joined a number of other extracurricular activities at her school. For her the choice was easy: “Do I want only four hours of sleep and be a mess, and then underperform on the [big physics] test and then in field hockey? Or make the teachers happy, and the coach happy and get good grades, get into a good college and make my parents happy?” [emphasis added]

A number of things struck me about this report. One was that she didn’t say anything about enjoying her work or play in high school: it was all business. She even bartered tutoring and proofreading for her pills. Second, the alternative she feared was underperforming. The reason underperforming mattered more than, say, playing the game or enjoying her subjects was to be found in the alternative she sought. She wanted five things, of which three were to make the important adults in her life happy. Where are the eagles and tigers now? It is also clear which market this grim little high-performance engine was being built for: she is now a sophomore at an Ivy League college, where she uses the drugs “only” occasionally.

A seat at an Ivy League college has become a “positional good,” desirable not for any intrinsic reason[1] but for some perceived advantage or status it confers on those who hold it. The harder it is to get, the more valuable it becomes, and the more luminous its possessor (and her parents and teachers). That shows no sign of changing any time soon.

But will the study drug scene change? Already there is talk about restricting the prescription of amphetamines and ADHD drugs, but the drug-taking is only a symptom of a deeper problem and probably won’t go away even with stricter prescription standards. The deeper problem is adults who are “made happy” when Junior gets into the Ivy League or scores a field hockey goal or aces a physics test. Of course they should be happy when their children or students perform, but not only then. If they have left the poor things scrounging for drugs and flogging themselves into As and championships and pages-long résumés at the age of seventeen to make them happy, something is deeply wrong.

[1] I don’t mean to say that going to a great college does not have intrinsic value. I only mean to say that this intrinsic value is not what many people seek when they knock at its door.



Bradbury’s Forking Paths

The death of Ray Bradbury has received a lot of coverage in the British media, including a fine eulogy by the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, who reports a writer friend of hers saying, “When I was 12 or 13, I read every single book [of his]—I sought them out. I read them cover to cover.” Atwood’s answer: “I thought that a lot of writers—and a lot of readers—had most likely had the same experience. And that they would be writers and readers of the most diverse kinds – poets and prose writers, all ages, all levels of brow, from low to high.”

Indeed. A friend, when I was 14 and he 13, reported the same interest, and it was at his urging that I myself first read Bradbury—Dandelion Wine—at that age. My friend’s garden of forking paths led him to meet Bradbury three times subsequently. He now owns about six thousand books, something that Bradbury would surely have appreciated had he known. What the Internet-hating Bradbury might not have appreciated is that the friend has his library catalogued on the LibraryThing web site.

My own garden of forking paths included a meeting with Bradbury when I was a junior in high school. Impressed by what I had read and heard, I had written him, asking him to give a talk to the high-school club of which I was president. To my delight, he wrote back proposing that the club come up to Hollywood, where he was lecturing, attend the lecture, and then meet him afterwards. At our meeting he blazed another path in front of me when we discussed Moby Dick, which we had just read, and for the movie of which he had written the screenplay. We wondered how he could stand the book, but he gently turned aside our criticism, saying he saw what we meant because he had had to read it many times before being able to write the screenplay, but that in spite of its difficulty it was a wonderful book and that we should consider coming back to it some time.

That path connected with my final year in university, when I decided thanks to Bradbury’s urging that I would take a graduate course in the novels of Herman Melville. (It was a hair-raising term: one course was Melville with seven novels, a novella, and a collection of short stories; and another, offered by the challenging but greatly admired Professor Pious, had a 3,500-page reading list. Further reading came in a course on “equality and the social order,” where I read parts of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice). Who could have imagined what happened? The professor teaching the Melville course uttered the unbelievable direction “Read Moby Dick over the weekend.” It is true that the weekend comprised the five days between the Thursday and Tuesday lessons, but still: was he crazy? It turned out that I couldn’t put the book down, finishing it the day before class. It remains one of my favorite books, and I have read it through seven times, though that makes me a beginner compared to a friend who has read it more than two dozen times. If I hadn’t taken Bradbury’s recommendation to heart, I would have missed experiencing Moby Dick as I should have.

Another forking path ended this semester. I taught Bradbury for the first time: Fahrenheit 451 to a class of 10th-graders. What struck me in the teaching was how insistent my students were that the novel was “about” censorship. Of course it is, in a way, but it is more “about” the impoverishment of life led in conditions where electronic “media” stop mediating life and actually become it. It is about life without books and without libraries. It is a life that Guy Montag, the hero, finally starts to recover from after he escapes the Mechanical Hound and experiences a night flight through a landscape that he can smell and hear—one free of the intrusive ads for Denham’s Dentifrice that had made his underground journey on the Vacuum Train so appalling.

“Underground journey” brings to mind a whole skein of forking paths in the main stacks of my college library. A bit like a Borgesian protagonist I would sometimes set off on a different sort of underground journey through the long narrow corridors, all silent, looking at the titles as they passed, or to the edge of the East Asian Library, further progress barred by book spines in Chinese characters and Hangul. I settled on the topic of a history paper for Professor Stern on a stroll through the stacks. (It was about the Kulturkampf and was not particularly good, but that was not the stacks’ fault.)

A last forking path leads from Bradbury, who couldn’t conceive of a world without libraries, to an article about a raft of new schools in Louisiana that have no libraries. The students in these schools spend their days in cubicles doing workbooks or in big rooms looking at “educational” DVDs. How big are the screens they view?



A Philosophy of Baloney

An old joke has it that when you mate a crocodile with an abalone you get a crock o’ baloney, but surely there must be other ways of producing it: how does such an abundance of baloney come to appear in the field of education? Why are so many educationists also balonists[1]?

One respected philosopher says that a balonist (not his word) is primarily concerned not with telling the truth but with promoting or protecting himself, or with keeping the boat he is on from being rocked. Such a person’s relationship with the truth is therefore accidental and opportunist; it yields truth claims that are phony. One current truth-tussle can illustrate.

Four professors, from Stanford, Cal Berkeley, and the University of Arizona, have been studying “value-added models” (VAMs) of evaluating teachers[2]. Here are just some of the results:

  1. At least seven factors other than the individual teacher figure in students’ success. These include home and community supports and challenges, peer culture and achievement, and of course the specific tests used to “measure” “achievement.”
  2. VAMs are inconsistent. Only 20% of teachers rated at the top or bottom of their district rankings retained those ratings in the following year, and when rated by different tests, 40 – 55% of teachers got “noticeably different scores.”
  3. Teachers’ value-added “performance” is affected by the students assigned to them. One set of figures documents the experience of an English teacher whose rating changed from the first (worst) to the tenth (best) decile from one year to the next. The change was attributable not to his sudden emergence from a vegetative state, but to the fact that his students in the second year numbered fewer English learners, Hispanic students, and low-income students and more students with well-educated parents.
  4. VAMs can’t disentangle these other factors influencing students’ (and “therefore” their teachers’) performance. Take for example an elementary school teacher who had been voted Teacher of the Month and Teacher of the Year in Houston, where her supervisor had rated her as “exceeding expectations.” She was fired as a result of her VAM scores, which showed wide fluctuations across and within subjects. These scores did not correct for her lower value-added in 4th grade, when English learners are mainstreamed in her school district. Take also the VAM scores of teachers that “flip-flopped when they exchanged assignments.” When such stories start to circulate, guess how many teachers will accept assignments to classes with disadvantaged students!

Other ways of evaluating teachers, discussed at length in this article and in passing in these postings, are available and have been shown to work. Why, then, do we see such reliance on VAMs?

One answer is in the nature of a balonist. If his primary purpose is to serve not truth but himself, he does not particularly care what the truth is. Another, in this case, is in the nature of this particular baloney. Though rank and gross in nature, it seems to simplify and explain so much, and to deflect blame so effectively from the balonists using it, that it is irresistible to them. Finally, it jibes with a public tendency to be satisfied with crude methods of identifying and punishing members of undesirable classes. A complex problem can be simplified. Villains can be “found” and eliminated. The phoniness of the baloney doesn’t matter. The balonists—say, a cabinet secretary or the superintendent of an urban school district—can be seen as “tackling problems” and “making tough decisions.” What could be more desirable, except the truth?

[1] This term, indispensable when talking about education, can be found in The Didact’s Dictionary. A balonist produces his own hybrid of humbug and b*******.

[2]Evaluating Teacher Evaluation” by Linda Darling-Hammond et al., Phi Delta Kappan, March 2012. I thought this article well worth the five dollars it cost me to download it.