A Little of This and a Little of That

This posting places two stories together that at first glance may not seem related but at second glance point in the direction of what makes education founder and what makes it work.

The first concerns recently discovered fraud and malpractice at hospitals run by the Veterans Administration. The connection of this story with education becomes evident in an article discussing one possible contributing factor. It turns out that a prime suspect is badly conceived performance reviews’ being tied to “measurement” of “quality of work” using spurious “values.” One of the measurements, for example, tied performance increases to minimizing the number of follow-up visits regardless of need: “Good” doctors are so good that their patients don’t need to see them again, even if they do. Campbell’s Law applies to fields other than education, which of course Professor Campbell knew. I can’t wait to see whether the uproar leads to the cancellation of such ratings. If it does, may we please have an uproar leading to the cancellation of “effectiveness” ratings for teachers that do not rate effectiveness[1]?

The other, more upbeat, story comes from last year, but there is a background. Professor Barzun mentions in one of his articles the experimental testing of the Paideia program under the direct supervision of one of its founders, Professor Mortimer Adler. The test took place in the early 1980s at a public school in Oakland, California. It turns out that the program is not only still in existence but thriving at the Oakland Technical High School.  Students read great writing closely and examine it under the direction of teachers who probe their students’ understanding with Socratic questioning. It divides learning in three: knowledge, skill and understanding; and it uses different methods of teaching and learning to ensure that its graduates can manage all three kinds. Though admission to the program is competitive, the primary requirement is a willingness to do the work the program demands—and it demands plenty. In return, it provides not just an answer key to a multiple choice test but the ability to think, work and communicate well. My instrumentalist readers will want to know that graduates of Oakland Tech’s Paideia program enrol for college work everywhere from Laney and Chabot Colleges, the community colleges down the road, to Brown, Bryn Mawr, Cal Berkeley, Cal Poly, Cal State East Bay, Harvard, Howard, Johns Hopkins, Kenyon, MIT, Northwestern, Oberlin, Penn, Pratt, Rensselaer Polytechnic, Spelman, Stanford, and Wellesley. Well!

[1] See my last posting and an earlier one for a discussion of their worthlessness.


The Phantom VAMs

One cinematic curiosity of the Great Depression is The Phantom President (1932). It had songs by Richard Rogers & Lorenz Hart. It starred Jimmy Durante, Claudette Colbert and, amazingly, George M. Cohan for his only appearance in a “talking picture.” It opened to warm reviews by among others The New York Times. In spite of all these seeming advantages, it remains remarkably unmemorable: whatever makes a movie wonderful seemed to be missing here, even though all the “ingredients” look right[1]. The double-lead role by Cohan is as a politician of more than usually vacuous dullness and his look-alike, a typical charismatic mountebank. They work together…H-m-m…maybe teachers will recognize many types in this movie.

And the Teachers’ Typology extends from the people (and horses) supplied so generously in education to the ideas typical of the field and their typical expression. Dr. Johnson once said of a contemporary that he was “dull, naturally dull, but he must have taken great pains to become as we now see him.” One constraint in educationist writing is the Iron Law of Dullness that it must obey in order to be taken seriously. Young people seeking graduate degrees in education or teaching credentials must endure,  must (pretend to) welcome such writing.  Maybe its promoters think that dullness will guarantee against mountebanks and balonists[2]. In fact, it tends to guarantee that those who succeed in the field are those who do not have to try too hard to make their productions dull.

This is one reason why we must be grateful, when we find them, to scholars who have mastered the necessary dullness while preserving their critical intelligence and producing remarkable work. Two such scholars are Morgan S. Polikoff and Andrew C. Porter, authors of a study called “Instructional Alignment as a Measure of Teaching Quality.” Their paper concludes that “the correlations of value-added with observational measures of pedagogical quality, student survey measures, and instructional alignment were small.[3]” Of all the hypotheses they suppose might explain this smallness of correlation, the one they find most plausible is that “the tests used for calculating VAM are not particularly able to detect differences in the content or quality of classroom instruction.[4]” They follow the discussion of this hypothesis with the relatively frisky observation that “[a]lthough we would not expect perfect correlation of instructional measures with VAM, correlations at or near 0 should raise concern.”

Indeed, they should raise more than concern, as the authors imply at the study’s end: “[T]his study contributes to a growing literature suggesting state tests may not be up to the task of differentiating effective from ineffective (or aligned from misaligned) teaching[5]”.  The authors note by the way in their conceptual discussion some prior research finding that the usefulness of tests varies with their “distance” from the learning being “measured” and that “state or national standardized tests… are likely to show the weakest” connection to what is sometimes called “Opportunity to Learn” (OTL)[6].

Let me summarize, using the authors’ own words for the final point:

1.     There is little or no significant correlation between comparatively reliable ways of judging effective teaching and “Value”-“Added” “Metrics”.

2.     There is little or no significant correlation between “aligned” instruction and VAMs.

3.     “VAMs are not associated with either the content or quality of instruction[7]”.

The authors ask a final question: “If VAMs are not associated with either the content or quality of instruction, what are they measuring?”

My answer: They are measuring nothing. They are a phantom entity.

[1] Though one moment, memorable to a certain college student and some of his classmates, showed a fade shot in which “the southern end of a northbound horse,” as it would have been called in 1932, fades to a political speaker spouting pious platitudes. This little fade comes back to me again and again when I read or hear the recitation of educationist pieties. I am waiting for someone to study why the field of education is home to so many northbound horses that they begin to assume the qualities of a type.)

[2] balonist (bə-lōn΄-ist) n.: one who offers or requires baloney. Not to be confused with a balloonist, whose hot air is confined to his balloon. Cf. “Baloney Bingo”. Richard van de Lagemaat offers a workshop in “Baloney Detection across the Curriculum,” but not at schools of education (q.v.). (from The Didact’s Dictionary.)

[3] p. 13

[4] p. 16

[5] p. 16

[6] Ruiz-Primo, M. A., Shavelson, R. J., Hamilton, L., & Klein, S. P. (2002). On the evaluation of systemic science education reform: Searching for instructional sensitivity. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39, 369–393.

[7] p.16


Who Gets to Be Educated?

A recent long article in The New York Times focuses on a serious problem in American education: the student who goes to college and then founders. I read the article with interest, as did a good friend and former colleague who is now at a public university. We agree that (as my former colleague says) “the NYT focuses on a solution to the crisis without looking at the source of the crisis.”

That solution, implemented at the University of Texas, is fascinating to read about, but in some ways also frustrating. Its hero, Professor David Laude, is clearly a capable, compassionate and admirable teacher. He also avoids the easy way out: he insists that his shaky students study the same material as his more capable ones instead of shunting them into “remedial” classes that by teaching backward material remedy nothing. He makes such instruction possible in part by shoring up needy students’ fragile self-image with encouragements offered (as if) by a community of older and more experienced students who “have been there” and “know how it felt.”

What is frustrating is that the student-protagonist Vanessa and others like her have had to wait until their university education to receive this kind of teaching and community support. Vanessa reports that in high school she aced her math tests without having to study for them. She had a 3.5 GPA, placing her in the top 7% of her class. But the trout in the milk, as Thoreau would say, is that her ACT score was 22. Readers of these postings will know my reservations about scores on multiple-choice standardized tests, but they can be suggestive, as indeed is Vanessa’s. Not to put too fine a point on it, her score suggests that she was the victim of a branding hoax—a hoax not detected by the Times reporter. If the University of Texas takes the top 7% of students from a high school, and Vanessa is in the top 7% (as she was), then in ordinary life, if not in the world of branding and baloney, she should be ready for university. In fact, her ACT score was the equivalent of an SAT score of 1530, and my former colleague notes that she does not quite meet the “SAT Benchmark” of college and career readiness (which is 1550/2400). Students who exceed this benchmark are far more likely to graduate than those who do not meet it. Even considering the SAT margin of error (±30 points) most generously, one could only conclude that she has not been very well prepared—this though she was in the top 7%. That conclusion is borne out by the trouble she had at UT until Professor Laude took a hand in her education.

Why did a college-bound student not have to study math in order to ace her math tests? Another former colleague of mine actually taught a future Senior Wrangler of Cambridge. That boy didn’t have to study in order to ace his math tests either, but surely he is an exception that should prove a rule?

Maybe not. One of the eeriest objections one hears to the Common Core is that it will make students work too hard, the poor things[1]. Professor Laude proves by actual teaching that working hard is precisely one of the remedies for poor preparation (and, by implication, that it is needed for good preparation; evidently this proof is also needed). Such thinking has been infecting education longer than just recently. Some years ago I was the colleague of a 6th-grade teacher who “helped” her students “succeed” in reading by forbidding them to check out books of more than 2nd-grade difficulty. There was quite a row when the librarian, not one to mince words, told her plainly what she thought of such malpractice. When I was in 6th grade I read the Arabian Nights—some of them!—and Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Sister St. Catherine didn’t tell me to put them back and read Binky Brown Cuts the Grass. Neither did my parents.

At the same school with Ms. Malpractice, a rather small one, I was the high-school English teacher. The new headmaster, who came there when I did (but stayed only three years), told me to teach a demanding course that would challenge the students but not overwhelm them. I put together four years of work that included reading, speaking, weekly writing, grammar, and discussion using shared inquiry. Authors read included James Baldwin, Isaiah Berlin, Joseph Conrad, Lawrence Durrell, Flannery O’Connor, Selma Lagerlöf, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Thoreau, Tocqueville, Tolstoy, Tennessee Williams, the poets of The Rattle Bag, and writers from the Norton Reader. 90% of my students were non-North American “English language learners,” and some of them had very low Iowa test scores. In two years the high school’s average SAT verbal score increased by 125 points out of 800, and our Iowa tests showed very pleasing year-to-year improvements. (I mention the tests only because these results are crudely suggestive of real improvement).

The results were pleasing to me, and to most students[2] and parents, but not all. A few of them, from the U.S., thought I was “too hard.” One came to me and, lips white with anger, leveled her charge: “You think everyone here is going to Harvard!” Actually I thought no such thing, but not long afterwards the new, new headmaster called me in to say that I needed to be less demanding and assign less work. I obliged, and the Iowa tests of my last year there told a new and different tale.

There is more than simple teaching in Professor Laude’s approach. What needs to be said, however, is that much of the extra work he does to give students confidence and endurance is what any strong functional community does as a matter of course, not as a part of a job but as a part of communitarian values and fellow-feeling. In my posting on Potemkin Schools and elsewhere I made the point that sociology and good sense have shown the best schools are functional communities. In such communities those who have been through a difficult experience help others to know that they will get through it too. W. B. Yeats said, “There’s no fine thing / Since Adam’s fall but needs much laboring.” By contrast, the sort of magical thinking that says “Little Ben may be unable to tie his shoes, but that shouldn’t preclude his going to Brown” will guarantee a hard fall and maybe failure for students who fly in to Brown, or UT, on their fake wings.

A last point: the Times article is headlined “Who Gets to Graduate?” Shouldn’t the question suggested by Vanessa’s experience be “Who Gets to Be Educated”?

[1] Concerns about privacy and testing by private corporations are another matter, for another posting.

[2] The students thought enough of me that in two successive years they asked me to be their graduation speaker.


Addle All

One fascinating concomitant to a 2007 study of the incidence of ADHD in Northern Finnish adolescents is that although ADHD may be roughly as common in Finland as in the US, the ratio of Finns to Americans receiving medication for it is about 1:12. Finland’s adolescents are famously successful in their studies, evidently without anything close to the extent of medication suffered by American children. What is going on?

A deeply troubling answer is suggested by the statistic[1] that American “boys who were born in December [and hence the youngest in their class] were 30 percent more likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD than boys born in January” and that “boys were 41 percent more likely to be given a prescription for medication to treat ADHD if they were born in December than if they were born in January.” It is possible that mere stupidity allows immaturity to be confused with disease, but Stephen Hinshaw, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, has discovered that ADHD diagnoses can vary widely according to demographics and education policy. He notes that No Child Left Behind gives a strong incentive to diagnose ADHD because it allows extra time for tests to be taken and, in some districts, exemption of such tests from the reporting requirement. Even more troubling is a report that students are receiving prescriptions for Schedule II controlled substances  (with a “high potential for abuse” and the possibility of “severe psychological or physiological dependence”) simply to enable them to do better on their schoolwork and standardized tests regardless of medical condition. One of the mental health professionals who study this phenomenon notes that Americans “as a society have been unwilling to invest in very effective nonpharmacological interventions for these children and their families.” Thus, drugs may be turning into a kind of cheap and perhaps profitable quick fix, as it were.

My colleague the psychology teacher tells me in highly expressive language that there is no need or excuse for this extensive overmedication of children. Coincidentally, the figure he gives of kids who he thinks actually need medication is roughly the same as the figure of those who receive it—in Finland. This is not the same as saying that “ADHD Does Not Exist”; rather, it is saying that we are making a problem larger, not solving it.

P.S.:  A study was presented Friday by a CDC official showing that more than ten thousand toddlers age 2 – 3 years are receiving ADHD medication, including Schedule II controlled substances, even though, as the story drily notes, “impulsivity and hyperactivity are developmentally appropriate for toddlers.”

[1] To be found in Esquire’s April 2014 issue in an article about ADHD, but Esquire’s web page is repellent, so I am providing no link.


Haste Makes Waste

Haste is sometimes pedagogically dangerous, as can now be seen in an understandable flap over the Rialto (California) Unified School District’s “critical thinking” assignment on whether or not the Holocaust occurred.  Like many other school districts, Rialto’s was laboring under the mistaken notion, encouraged by RAce to the Top, that it is better to adopt the Common Core in a hurry than to take the time needed to think through what its adoption means and requires. In the resultant rush, the district’s Language Arts teachers, of all people, undertook to set their 8th-graders a task that occupied the British historian Sir Ian Kershaw for years as he ratified his unequivocal answer to the question.

But haste is not Rialto’s (and other districts’) only or even predominant danger in working up the new curriculum. One of the lurking dangers  is the notion that “critical thinking,” being taken as a constituent of advanced intellect in general, can be abstracted from the subjects in which it is found and bottled as a separate stuff, a kind of mental A-1 sauce to be added to any dish. What else could explain the otherwise untenable view that skill in history is a language art[1]? It is one thing to assert that the transfer effect is real, but quite another to deny that transferring must be done with care.

In fact, Grade 8 is nowhere near the age at which this kind of project can or should be undertaken[2]. The Modern Researcher[3], now in its sixth edition but originally meant as an aid to graduate history students at Columbia, discusses what is needed in order to do historical research. “No matter how it is described, no piece of evidence can be used in the state in which it is found [emphasis in the original]. It must undergo the scrutiny” of a mind practiced in the methods of historical research.

This means that a Rialto 8th-grader must be able to answer the following questions of his or her sources:

·     Is this object or piece of writing genuine?

·     Is its message trustworthy?

·     How do I know?

These questions lead to others:

·     What does it state or imply?

·     Who is its author or maker?

·     What is the relation in time and space between the author and the information, overt or implied, that is conveyed by the item?

·     How does the statement compare with others on the same point?

·     What do we know independently about the author and his credibility?

Only when all the “safeguards” implied in these questions are in place, can the young historian then ascertain the truth by “systematically applied” or “informed” common sense. Sounds like a tall order to me! And the order is being given not in a history class but in a language arts class. What is more, a suspicious part of me fears that all this might have turned out to be preliminary to a class debate on the subject. Since the object of class debates is usually victory rather than truth, the canons of critical historical thinking are likely to be violated in the hopes of gaining “debating points.” Some “critical thinking”![4]

To see the genuine article in its proper disciplinary matrix[5], look at the web site of The Concord Review. This admirable publication features history papers by high-school students. The quality is remarkable, and the work is genuine. Schools with students who produce such work begin the students’ preparation early—perhaps even earlier than 8th grade. What is more, rather than seeing “critical thinking” as some kind of all-purpose additive sprinkled by English teachers, they develop in their students the sense of how thinking goes in each different subject taken. It is painstaking work and lasts years.

One of the dangers of the Avalanche Method of curriculum development favored by the Haste Brigade is that all this trouble will be overlooked or the work insufficiently planned. The consequence will be 8th-graders who assert by implication that Simon Wiesenthal and Primo Levi are liars[6].

[1] It is a rather different thing to say that skill in language is an art of the historian, as proved by Sir Ian, John Keegan, and Jacques Barzun.

[2] One discussion about what is appropriate to 8th-graders is Barzun’s in The Paideia Proposal, pp. 109 – 121.

[3] By Barzun and Henry F. Graff

[4] By contrast, Barzun’s & Graff’s prescriptions for class discussion: “The teacher who conducts a discussion on readings in history should start out with a definite historical question, and it should never be, who was right or wrong, but what was possible at such and such a juncture? What could so-and-so have done, or refrained from doing, to achieve this purpose? Was the purpose really in the interests of the group he or she was leading? Were other choices open?—and so on. Every student’s spoken contribution to the discussion should meet the point made just before, to amplify, correct, or refute it. Errors of fact must naturally be caught up, by questioning inaccurate statements and having another student supply the truth; for no argument can rest on a false basis. All assertions other than factual reminders must be accompanied by reasons: What is the evidence for what you say? What reasoning leads you to conclude as you do? The whole group may possibly settle some issue with unanimity, but more often diversity will prevail, one or more groups and individuals being persuaded or confirmed in a different position. And that too is highly instructive.”

[5] Kuhn’s term

[6] In “STEM,” that bloody hunk of an acronym, it leads to 10th-graders who follow Jungle Gym Math with AP Physics. No wonder 40% of students who take AP tests fail them.


Duncan Promises to Move Another Piano

In 1999 a Sam Gross cartoon appeared in The New Yorker showing the heavens and the Earth. In the foreground on a cloud stands God in his beard and gown. He has his arm on an unfortunate looking boy. Both of them are looking at Earth. God says, “I have the whole universe to look after, so I’m putting you in charge of this planet.”

I thought of this cartoon last week when I read that Arne Duncan is at it again, this time proposing to rate teacher training programs. Unlike the unfortunate boy in the cartoon, Duncan has a proven track record of stumbling at the hurdles. Consider, for example, that Duncan is making this proposal as we approach the end of the milestone year of 2013 – 2014, when No Child Left Behind mandated that 100% of Americans high school students would be proficient in English and math. Everybody knows, but nobody says or reports, that NCLB has been a complete failure. He might have called for the repeal of this act, but instead he made an own-goal end run around it in the program called RAce to the Top (RAT), which is as useless as NCLB, as its unfortunate progeny prove. During Duncan’s five or so years the US has languished on its accustomed seat of mediocrity on PISA results while Asians surged ahead of the Finns and Canadians on tests of ability to solve problems they were not familiar with. His announcement of readiness to work up another program should therefore be regarded with the same caution as an offer by Laurel and Hardy to move another piano.

One person whose antennae of danger are up is Professor Linda Darling-Hammond[1] of Stanford, who quickly penetrates to the absurdity of judging teacher preparation programs by the test scores of new teachers’ students on standardized tests, a proposal that Duncan is actually airing. Her alternatives, including an evaluation of a portfolio, need supplementing by guarantees of an effective practicum effectively supervised, but they are moves in the right direction.

I am afraid by contrast that if the Department of Education comes up with another plan like the other plans, some years hence we will be sweeping up another broken Steinway, or sweeping it under the rug.


[1] She also warned convincingly about the wrongness of “value”-“added” “metrics”, which Duncan’s new plan may rely on.