A World Away

Having just returned from an Easter trip to South Africa, I will devote this week’s posting to a look at an educational world rather different from the one most of my readers are familiar with. The story that I now relate begins with a black man from the rural areas of Limpopo Province, then known as the Northern Transvaal. He had little formal education but served in the South African forces arrayed with Britain’s against Hitler’s Afrika Corps. He, like his white compatriots, served “for the duration.” Unlike them, he received no recognition, and indeed not even any pay, though when he was demobilized back to the Transvaal the South African government gave him a coat and a bicycle. He and his wife later died in suspicious circumstances. Poison was suspected, but no investigation ever took place. His orphaned children ended up living at and receiving their education from a rural mission school.

That school, one of the few mission schools to remain open after the Bantu Education Act ended state funding of religious schools that did not practice apartheid, had the backing of the Cassinese Benedictines, the Ursulines, and a dedicated bishop. They say that charter schools are competing against Catholic schools in the US, but I wonder what charter school company would try competing with that kind of charitable dedication in a hostile political environment. At any rate, the school still operates and is still a beacon in the region. One nearby public school produces not a single student who can pass South Africa’s school-leaving exams; this school, by contrast, has a 90% pass rate.

The orphaned siblings received their sixth-grade education from the mission school. One of them met and fell in love with another orphan at the mission. After their schooling was “completed” (at Grade 6), they were married and had a son. Johannesburg, the City of Gold, attracts people from all over South Africa who are seeking their fortunes. This included the young husband and wife. They worked in the city and had a house in the Alexandra township. One day the boy was snatched from his front yard by a kidnapper, probably a “muti killer”, someone who kills children in order to use their body parts in witch doctors’ recipes. (The parts are “at their best” when removed from the child while it is still alive.) What the snatcher did not count on was that Mom was a championship runner. When she heard her boy’s screams she bolted out of the house after the kidnapper, who dropped the boy and ran on.

The parents decided the boy could no longer live in the township. Instead, they left him in the care of relatives in Limpopo who turned out to be unreliable. The mother eventually quit her job in Johannesburg to return to her village. She said she did it because she was tired of being shouted at by white people, but I think it was actually because she knew she would have to bring her boy up in person, and because she was an active woman who felt hemmed in by domestic work. That is when her son started his education at the mission school. He ended up graduating from its high school. He still speaks fondly of his teachers there, and his classmate the tragically short-lived author Phaswane Mpe dedicated his first and only novel to one of the sisters. As a young man the orphans’ son undertook a university course at one of the abysmal “tribal colleges,” but was unsuccessful. After a long period of time he is now in the last year of his remedial university education at a real university, about to receive a degree in social work.

His sons attend a Catholic school in Johannesburg, Catholic schools providing the best and cheapest alternative to the public schools, which in spite of some successes, still often fail to educate their black students sufficiently. The boys’ school has had a 100% pass rate on the school-leaving exams for many years now, and the boys have no doubt that they will get a solid university education. The main question is what to study and what career to prepare for. The elder son plays basketball for his school; the younger son plays in off-campus soccer and water-polo clubs; both do well in their studies. The father, a widower, has been a successful guide to them. Miraculously, even with the memory of his kidnapping, he is not a helicopter father, though he takes care to see that his sons are not exposed to undue danger and bad influences.

And he sees that his sons are effective students. No TV or gadgets till homework is done. No computer on school days except for homework. Bedtime is bedtime, though the elder boy sometimes reads in bed. I am optimistic about their prospects and hope that they will do well.


Teaching in California and Farming in Connecticut

A lawsuit to break the system of tenure for teachers in California is receiving sympathetic media coverage. That coverage is notable because of mistaken assumptions and sloppy thinking strewn through it and the suit like boulders in New England farmland. Traditional New England values included the notion that there are some things we must do even if they are difficult, usually by combining hard work and canniness: hence the reputation of Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee and General Grant’s Connecticut farmer[1]. It is safe to say that the plaintiffs and their reporters are not Connecticut farmers, or they would be examining some of the alternatives.

It is hard to know which is the biggest obstacle in the field, but let’s start with the chief piece of “research” cited by the plaintiffs in the suit, and taken at face value in the coverage. Last June I wrote a posting sharply questioning that very research. My readers are invited to examine the questions and comments, but I will focus here on just one problem, which the researchers themselves admit: there is little connection between their judgment of “effectiveness” and what they call “teacher observables.” Put in clear terms, it means that their classification system is almost entirely disconnected from the ability or even the need to see the good things “effective” teachers do or the bad things “ineffective” teachers do. Thus, while some “ineffective” teachers may indeed hand out stupid worksheets to their classes so they can drink coffee & catch up on their Facebook, other “ineffective” teachers may do everything right but be victimized by an unreliable[2] statistical “method.”

In Philip Dick’s story “The Minority Report,” people are identified and imprisoned for “Pre-crime,” i.e., crime that clairvoyants have said they will commit at some time in the future. Our researchers’ methods and their advocates in lawsuits and school administration do Dick’s precogs one better by detecting “Un-crime,” that is, the statistical stigmatization of “bad” teachers without reference to any time, any observed bad behavior, or indeed any behavior at all. Ironically, on the same day as the latest report on the lawsuit, the Times ran an article on bringing up moral children that distinguished between guilt, the result of particular acts that can be avoided or atoned for, and shame, a generalized and ineffaceable state of odium not due to any act in particular. Evidently what leads to good morals in children can be dispensed with in adults, for the label “ineffective,” like the state of “shame” or the judgment “pre-criminal,” inheres without regard to actions.

At least the Connecticut farmer knows that his fields have a chance if only he takes the time & makes the effort to remove the rocks and till the soil. By contrast, the parents and students of California have no guarantee that witch-hunting by statistics and “No man, no problem[3]” management will do their schools any good. What intelligent potentially good teacher will enter a system that reserves the right to stigmatize and fire him for no identifiable misbehavior? This system could remove rocks that are not in the field while leaving behind the rocks that are.

As for tillage: what if the people replacing terminated teachers are themselves no great shakes? A study released nearly a year ago plausibly claimed that only 7% of teacher education programs “provide strong support” to candidate teachers. In the posting I wrote on this study I also suggested that school administrators might adopt some of the practices the study recommends for schools of education. Why, they might even invite teachers to help each other improve their work by peer evaluation! But it would take a lot of work and dedication. Ways of doing so are out there, including  one I have written about.

The catch with the alternatives sought by the plaintiffs in the California lawsuit is that though they appear to promise less work and more automatic science than farming in Connecticut, they also promise less success than the farmer will get by sizing up the scope of his problems realistically, rolling up his sleeves, and proceeding with probity, good sense  and hard work to solve them.


[1] If you have not read the opening pages of General Grant’s Personal Memoirs, praised by such diverse admirers as Mark Twain himself, Gertrude Stein, Edmund Wilson and Gore Vidal, you have missed a treat. These pages include a famous story about boyhood horse-trading gone wrong, and the reference to the Connecticut farmer. The later pages are very good too, but their focus is largely on his military career.

[2] To see just how unreliable, read this.

[3] “Death solves all problems. No man, no problem,” said Marshal Stalin. Of course the sort of education administrator who “makes tough decisions” cannot be compared to Stalin because his methods replace death with termination.


A Week in Perspective

The usual rhythms of the school week are a bit altered these days as the IB students, whom I teach, move towards their examinations in May. (They had also been altered by the school’s massive and successful participation over the month of March in the citywide music competition.) One very pleasant preview culmination took place last Friday with the opening of the Visual Arts students’ exhibition of work in the school’s gallery. Since the students have to show some skill with their artistic means and be able to explain or give a rationale for their work, we could enjoy not just looking at the pictures, sculptures and installations but also hearing the students talk about their work. The headmaster and other teachers and adults were in attendance, but I was especially pleased to see the place filled with students who came to see their classmates’ work. There is a particular sculpture that I hope will end up enlivening the ground floor of the IB building, and I would like to see some of the pictures on the walls too.

Students in subjects other than art are busily preparing for their exams, sometimes in class and sometimes out. I finished my last scheduled class presentations, so this week I offered some review of the use of sound in poetry, and I set an optional review paper for the students to write for mock marks. Most students signed up for both activities. Other teachers have been doing the same.

One teacher, absent for maternity leave, will be returning after the Easter holiday. Her substitute is a man who has retired from teaching at three outstanding schools in the United States as well as schools in Hong Kong. His mixture of knowledge, meticulousness and geniality is impressive, and the students have taken to him as well.

(It was interesting to hear him talk about his brief and unsatisfying tenure as an administrator at a school that was not so good as the places where he was accustomed to teach. He said that the principal would announce a series of teacher observations by coming in to his office and saying “OK, let’s hit ‘em!” It sent me down Memory Alley to recall an administrator of my acquaintance who used to address the teachers as “you people,” and another who would refer to the experienced teachers as “dead wood.” And I also thought of the degradations practiced on teachers of Atlanta by their administrators. The good administrators I have worked with would never even think of saying or doing such things. The old sub also told me about an administrator who told his teachers that there had to be an increase of 10% a year in their students’ grades from one year to the next, thus anticipating “value”-“added” “metrics” and Campbell’s-Law corruption in one fell thought. I wondered what happened to teachers foolish enough to stay at that school for ten years.)

I spent much of this week marking the essays we set for applicants to the school’s IB program before we start interviewing them. I will be taking part in the interviews after the Easter holiday, and I am marking essays for the IB Organization as a ToK examiner. Sometime I may write a parody of Frost’s “After Apple Picking” called “After Essay Marking.” Farmers and teachers work hard at picking apples and marking essays because they don’t like what they “grow” to fall to the cider heap. Dead wood indeed.

P. S.:  After posting this I appeared in the hallway and was corralled by some twelfth-grade IB students: it is their last day of class before the exams, and we had to pose for pictures together. When my higher-level students joined me, I told them, “Think of Cleopatra’s barge.” Did they laugh at the the thought of the barge or at knowing they were finished with it? And the sub: one of his students drew his portrait and gave it to him, while another picture they gave him depicted some hang-dog expressions with the caption, “Say it ain’t so. Do you have to go?” Some people want to replace this with “blended learning” and “virtual” (but not virtuous) classrooms?


PISA Startles Again

Regular readers of these postings will know that I have taken issue with the stereotype of Asian students as memorizing machines who cannot work through problems that they are unfamiliar with. I therefore welcome the release by PISA of its latest results confirming that this stereotype is false. I will explore their findings along this line below, but first I want to report some really surprising data of another kind that can be found in the linked report[1].

These data show that while there is a strong positive link between performance in problem-solving and the use of computers at home, the same is not true of the use of computers at school. In fact, only a third of the PISA “economies” showed a significant positive correlation between computer use at school and scores on the problem-solving test. Most “economies” showed no correlation or a negative correlation. What is more, PISA data show that “differences in performance on computer-based assessments are not larger than differences in performance on paper-based assessments, across students of varying familiarity with computers.”

What this means is that schools and school districts that are jumping up their class sizes and teacher-student ratios in order to buy computers for the schoolhouse may be spending a lot of money chasing a will-o’-the-wisp “classroom of the future.” I have written about the lack of research behind the rush to computers and other Marvels of Technology, but now we have some credible research by a disinterested international organization suggesting that it is far from a guaranteed good thing. What is needed first is to discover why some countries’ classroom computers help their students while others’ do not.

It would also be nice to discover why some classrooms lead their students to better problem-solving than others; and so we come back to the main business of the report. Which 15-year-olds solved unfamiliar problems best on the PISA test? In order, those from Singapore, Korea, Japan, and China (comprising Macau, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taipei). Immediately after these top performers comes Canada. The US is somewhat higher than the OECD average; but lest we draw too much comfort from that, we must examine OECD’s “Country Note” on the US, which advises us that schools in Massachusetts, widely regarded as the best in the US, produce math students two years behind those in Shanghai.

And OECD has offered some concrete advice to American schools: Adopt the Common Core, which appears to promise better scores in PISA math tests. The catch, of course, is that it must be adopted and implemented carefully after due planning and in the needed stages—not the way New York is doing it.

[1] pp. 113 – 114