Compasses and Roadmaps, Educational and Moral

Today’s text is a line by Arne Duncan:  “I am a deep believer in the power of data to drive our decisions. Data gives us the roadmap to reform. It tells us where we are, where we need to go, and who is most at risk.” The line has a certain resonance, though not quite the pithy eloquence of Lady Bracknell’s that “statistics…are laid down for our guidance.” Lady Bracknell has the advantage of Duncan in that her ventriloquist was Oscar Wilde, but both dummies have made a fundamental mistake. Statistics do not guide us, and they do not tell us where we need to go. They are results or epiphenomena, like the tracks of subatomic particles in a bubble chamber. Saying that they tell us where we need to go is like saying that the bubble chamber tells the particles where they need to go. Statistics may provide useful information, but deciding where to go is a judgment, not a statistic. Confusing these things can lead to mistakes, and it can provide cover for an abdication of responsibility: it’s not me, it’s the numbers.

Thus, I am troubled by Duncan’s analogy of reform by statistics to finding a destination on a roadmap. It implies that reform is a kind of AAA TripTik®: just follow the nice map. Actually, as I have argued, a better analogy is Chesterton’s, that it is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative. Indeed, I would argue that it is a comparative of which we have not settled the comparative.

What else can explain the utter failure of No Child Left Behind and the incipient failure of its offspring RAce to the Top? If data were the roadmap to reform, by this summer 100% of US high school graduates would be proficient in all their subjects, as “proven” by their ability to get good scores on multiple choice tests in two of those subjects. Some superlative: an unachievable goal. Some comparative: a method of “measuring” achievement that is absurd, as shown by, among other cases, the Tennessean music teachers rated by the ability of their students to answer multiple choice questions about English prose composition.

But even the data themselves are suspect. Mr. Duncan says they can tell who is “at risk,” but the “value”-“added” “metrics” used to determine peer-groups of schools whose students are most “at risk” assign like weightings to factors whose coefficients of correlation are very, very unlike; and they make consequential determinations on the basis of correlations as weak as -0.114.

What is more, a naïve believer in Duncan’s assertion would have no clue of what the statistics of “proficiency” leave out, for they are all based on multiple-choice tests. The problem is that these tests do not capture a lot of what takes place, or should take place, in a good classroom[1].

As Donald Campbell foresaw, the prospect of high-stakes testing tends to exert a corrupting pressure on courses away from breadth of learning and towards test preparation in the narrowest sense. In the article from which Duncan’s comment was taken, its author, Professor Meredith Broussard, focuses on the narrowness of the preparation, which often turns out to be the study of textbooks written by the publishers of the tests. To no one’s surprise, the mysteries of multiple choice Professor Broussard cites as “solved” by study of the expensive textbooks amount to what Orwell called “preparation for a confidence trick.” Like Amy Chuan, Broussard wants success for her child and looks for it without stepping outside an intellectual terrain in which these tests and their deleterious effects are taken for granted. She further notes that success in these tests usually comes from studying expensive textbooks and taking expensive courses of test preparation, options that are generally not open to the students “most at risk.”

I do not mean to imply that Broussard and Chuan are confidence tricksters; rather, Broussard at least seems to have been taken in by the confidence game established by the real confidence men, people like Duncan. (It is possible that instead of being a confidence man, Duncan simply can’t think properly.) In my view, if he bears any resemblance to a compass, it is because we can tell directions from him by noting that he is the southern end of a northbound horse.


[1] The wonderful Powell’s Books in Portland managed to get a copy of The Tyranny of Testing by Banesh Hoffmann, a colleague of Einstein’s at Princeton. In this old book Hoffmann is said to demolish multiple-choice testing, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Watch this space.


Learning to Teach

I have mentioned my friend H, diagnosed in childhood as a borderline “moron,” who went on to a distinguished education and a career as a doctor. But H had another surprise up his sleeve. As a college freshman I discussed learning math, telling him that I was not terribly successful at it. He flatly promised that if he tutored me, I would improve. He then described his way of approaching math instruction.

I remember enough of his description to be able to recognize something like it in a system of math teaching now commonly used to great effect in Japan, whose PISA math results are among the world’s best. By contrast, U.S. math teaching tends to be rather less successful.

Attention is now focused on the incipient failure of American teachers to be able to use the kind of math instruction called for in the Common Core, which includes an attempt to imitate Japanese success. The irony is that Japan’s successful method of math instruction was pioneered by—Americans. Not that it matters: American teachers, according to The New York Times, are not learning how to teach effectively.

Unlike many pieces that locate the problem in teachers, this Times piece notes that the whole structure of teacher education in the U.S. is radically defective, and bound to leave teachers badly equipped to do their job. Though the defectiveness starts in schools of education, it continues during a teacher’s professional life. While Japanese and Finnish teachers spend only 600 hours a year in the classroom, using other time to plan and improve their teaching and to observe their colleagues, American teachers spend 1100 hours in the classroom but have very little pointed and helpful peer review. I was fortunate enough to be a part of an exception to this rule, but none of my professional acquaintances in American schools report having had anything like this experience.

Instead, the usual pattern is to call in a silky consultant with shining incisors to give a brief workshop on the “new methodology.” It ends up unpersuasive, and the teachers don’t actually get practice in what they are “taught.” Instead, they participate in Rube Goldberg workshop “activities” where they clap and smile a lot and learn to give answers that mimic understanding. And then it’s over, the pedagogical equivalent of anonymous sex.

And what about those three older guys slouching in the back, their arms folded across their chests? Their look says, “I dare you to teach me something.” It’s tempting to blame them for their lack of receptivity, but for how many years have they been going to these charades for one or two days per year and learning nothing they could use? The Times article mentions “active resistance” rather than passive aggression, but both these responses imply a teacher training that was incomplete and unpersuasive. Unfortunately, when there is a kind of follow-up, it is the wrong kind. After the first wave of glossy consultants comes the second wave of gimlet-eyed commissars to enforce adherence to questionable methods badly taught. It inculcates bitterness, not compliance.

The Times article notes the importance of patience, which is regrettably not usually an attribute of education administrators in the U.S. It will also be important to stress the need for thoroughness. And no plan can work if the teachers being told to implement it do not have the time they need to think about how to make it work, or to consult with their colleagues.

Finally—and this was not a part of the Times discussion at all—American students who have not yet done so will have to learn, as Adèle did from Jane Eyre, how to become obedient and teachable.


Whisper Who Dares

S-h-h-h! No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a fallen soufflé, and the hot air is escaping from RAce to the Top (RAT) even as I write. That sound is not just leakage, however: it is a command to hush. 2014 was the year by which 100% of America’s school children were to be proficient in all their studies. Why is no one asking what happened?

Instead, we now have a mandate that 100% of America’s students will be college- and career-ready by the end of Grade 12. Because this mandate has been abducted by the Department of Education, we can expect the same care and discernment that it showed in “implementing” NCLB and RAT, with the same results.

Among other things, we may expect the “evaluation” of students, and “therefore” their teachers, by using unstable and baseless “metrics” drawn from multiple-choice tests, which cannot capture the breadth and subtlety of learning found in a good school or a good course.

They also overlook the fundamental truth that, as Barzun says, “One does not teach a subject, one teaches a student how to learn it…. Each individual must cure his or her own ignorance.” This does not mean that the teacher’s role is insignificant, as was asserted in the 1970s and 1980s. Rather, it means that under the guidance and discernment of an expert teacher, students find or acquire the means to learn. Discernment is especially important in encouraging understanding, an element of learning not easily captured by the kind of pointing encouraged in multiple-choice tests. Martin Skelton says that we cannot teach understanding; we can only establish conditions in which understanding takes place.

This view of teaching and learning is a far cry from the fill-the-bottle model of teaching espoused by those who assert that a teacher’s job is to deliver instruction. There is no discernment in a bottling machine. What is more, the bottle may have its top on during the pour, though under RAT the teacher is punished anyway if the bottle remains empty.

One of my former students, now at Oxford, wrote me in the spring to say that he would like to offer a summer colloquium in philosophy to interested high-school students. Yesterday, during the first session, he justified the effort by saying that reading philosophy does more than help us answer important questions; it also keeps us in touch with our humanity. He took a small but dedicated group through an examination of Rousseau’s Social Contract.

Implicit in RAT is the dirigiste assumption that teachers control the means of education and that bureaucrats control the teachers. By contrast, the ancient Chinese Classic of Changes sometimes recommends “Keeping Still” as the mode of leadership in some situations. That was the stance I adopted after publicizing our graduate’s proposal and making some preliminary arrangements. I sat in the back of the room during the first session and nearly succeeded in keeping still, though a couple of questions did escape me. I wrote a brief email to the new teacher with a couple of comments. I may not be invited from the teachers’ office to the subsequent sessions; we shall see. And I don’t think I or the graduate will give a single multiple-choice test. A different kind of s-h-h-h.

We are not in pedagogical agribusiness with this offering: it is a wonderful and perhaps fragile bloom, to be given space and maybe a touch here or there until it bears fruit.



Meet Me at the Fair

Today was an outing to warm a language teacher’s heart: a trip to the Hong Kong Book Fair.  Some book fairs, like Frankfurt’s 500-year-old event, have more prestige in the publishing world, but this one is remarkable for its amazing popularity with the general public. Over a million people visit during the fair’s seven days, more than to Disneyland at its most crowded. Before the school year ended, a couple of my students even reported their plans to attend, and no doubt others will attend without my knowing.

The Exhibition Centre, where the Fair takes place, is about half a kilometer from the Wan Chai subway stop, but when I emerged from the train level at 10:30 a.m., I found that a line already stretched from the Centre to the station. Some of the Vertical City’s neighborhoods are crowded enough that elevated walkways—express sidewalks, you might call them—extend above the streets to allow people to move briskly along. Wan Chai’s main elevated walkway was set up to handle the Book Fair’s line, about five or six deep, as it moved briskly along. (Hong Kong residents always move briskly along. Children move briskly along, and the elderly move briskly along. Dogs, cats, amoebae move briskly along. Locals using escalators stand to the right so people who care to may move briskly along the escalator on the left.[1]) Many Fair-goers came prepared with empty wheelie bags to use for hauling away their loot.

The reason the line moved so briskly, I found out, is that for those who did not get tickets on line, there were dozens of ticket windows. (Admission: HK$10 (US$1.30) before noon; HK$25 after noon.) Most Hong Kong residents carry a piece of plastic called an Octopus Card, which they use to pay subway & bus fares, buy drinks at vending machines, go grocery shopping, buy fast food, and gain admission to book fairs. The subway’s Island Line runs trains with 90-second headway during rush hours and 2 – 3-minute headway at other times, all of them today seemingly set up to bring visitors to the Fair. The Octopus Card allows ticket purchases to take 1 – 5 seconds each. Why impinge on briskness? Beyond the ticket windows, four escalators took visitors upstairs.

The Exhibition Centre was thronged with people in their thousands. The majority of visitors appeared to be young people; but all were actively looking and buying. I saw one boy gloating with his friend over a complete set of Percy Jackson books he had just bought. They were in English, the language of about 20% of the books on show, the rest being in Chinese. But even that 20% was a good selection.

The appeal to the local sense of value lies in the heavy discounting that the exhibitors typically engage in. Many books, even school books, were discounted. But most of the enthusiasm for the book fair seems to be because Hong Kong is a happily literate place. New technologies of literacy were on display and for sale, but at this fair the book is king.




[1] Two things in Hong Kong that do not move briskly along are the Ding Ding, the old line of partially wooden street cars that make their way slowly up and down the Island’s north shore; and the Star Ferry, whose lines include one from nearby the legendary Peninsula Hotel to the vicinity of the Exhibition Centre.


Thank You and Other Bits

Now that the Grade 12 students are finished, many of them have written thank-you notes, and not just for stellar results. Of these, most are by email, and compared to no note at all email is just fine. Of the handwritten notes, one was on a tiny envelope the size of a double postage stamp, and another was on a handsome card with a framed scene in silken embroidery. All of them were appreciated.

Amazingly, many students need a reminder that thank-you notes to university interviewers would not go amiss. I conduct interviews of local applicants for admission to my alma mater and almost always receive, and notice, an emailed thank you. I am sure some people think writing thank-you notes is as old-fashioned as dancing the pavane, but they don’t include my colleagues or the interviewers for my alma mater.

* * *

Some time back I wrote a jingle that included this couplet: “Mr. Klein talks lots of bunk and / More bunk comes from Mr. Duncan.” Indeed it does. Informed that the NEA had asked for his ouster as Secretary of Education, he replied, “I always stay out of local union politics and believe most teachers do too.”  The representatives of millions of teachers may have other reasons than local union politics to wish his removal, including misguided incompetence.  I have written many, many postings discussing both (for examples, take that, and that, and that, and that), but today I want something a little lighter. Taking as my starting point the rhyme of bunk and & Duncan (a slant rhyme, but rich in possibility), I realized that “Duncan” calls up a mother lode of rhyme:

bunk and

clunk and

funk and

junk and

lunk and

skunk and

slunk and

stunk and

sunk and. (Duncan‘s prosodic associations are peculiarly rich in s-words.)

Why not make up your own couplets, or even jingles? It’s fun! It’s easy!


* * *

Speaking of jingles: let me end with one in honor of one of my advisees. (The supervisor of his Biology Extended Essay reports that he is making the rather complicated preparations needed, e.g., preparing his agar and petri dishes, etc., before he performs the necessary experiments, which he will do in his own time over the summer holiday.)


A Student Casts a Cold Eye on His Petri Dish

E. coli move with their flagella,

And I must say that it’s a hellu-

va trick to fill a whole intestine

By flagellatin’ and infestin’.

It’s marvelous, but on the whole I

Prefer a world without E. coli.






The Ed Biz’s Cabalistic Evolutions

One of many strange and absorbing passages in Berlioz’s oratorio l’Enfance du Christ is a swirling little orchestral number called “Cabalistic Evolutions[1].”  It is played as King Herod’s magicians try to assist Herod by dancing up useless spells. The outcome, as we know, is that the Object of their magic escapes, while many innocent children are victimized. That makes this piece an ideal candidate for theme music of the education “reform[2]” “movement[3]”.

Like Herod’s magicians, our own Ed Biz wonder-workers seem to be on a different planet from the one they should be focusing on. Unlike the old-time magicians, our five-star philanthropists are very expensive. A recent article in The New Yorker told about Mark Zukerberg’s Act of Faith in the ability of the five-stars to turn around the schools of Newark, New Jersey. He donated a hundred million dollars, most of which has been spent, much of it on the cabalistic evolutionists. Vivian Cox Fraser tartly and effectively summarized the benefits: “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.” How much were they paid? “The going rate for individual consultants in Newark was a thousand dollars a day.”

The biologist Dr. Helen Epstein describes the magic of five-star philanthropy in another context. Her summary of the process is that the five-stars come in like colonists and make “vague claims of ‘creating sustainable models,’ ‘partnering with other organizations,’ ‘mobilizing communities,’ ‘scaling up capacity,’ ‘using holistic approaches,’ and ‘forming community councils,’” without telling us “how this helps children.” That is a serious omission in a program to help children but easy to overlook if you are on another planet. The problem, of course, is that these people are really, regrettably, and indubitably on this planet, and in ways they do not see, they are dancing up a storm.

[1] In this context, cabalistic suggests secret magic, and an evolution—not the mass noun Darwin used—is a set of prescribed movements.

[2] Nothing gets reformed (see year after year of PISA results).

[3] It is a coterie of ineffective specialists, not a movement.