Tennessee Waltz

Teachers of a certain age will remember the 1960s’ singing comedians the Smothers Brothers and their zany songs. One of the zaniest was ‘The Last Great Waltz’, whose romantic protagonist, fond of the waltz, finds happiness in the arms of a three-legged woman who shares his passion.

In a contemporary story harder to credit than that song, the schools of Tennessee are trying to win the heart, or at least the dollars, of the US Department of Education with a ‘reform’ plan of monumental goofiness. It started with the Department of Education’s astonishing demand that RAT[1]programs have as an “absolute priority” the intention to “measure” students’ “knowledge and skills” across a set of standards including some “against which student achievement has been traditionally difficult to measure.” Not asking whether the difficulty was due to an epistemological problem, Tennessee spent seven years wooing DoE with a plan which is now “in place”.

What a plan! What a place! Unlike the ballroom in the song, which had only one three-legged dancer in the corner, Tennessee’s educational dance-floor is crowded with unfortunate educators who have been fitted by mandate with third legs. It is hard to know who is stumbling worse: the teachers or the principals. Teachers must compose lesson plans to such a demanding rubric that plans taking four or more hours to produce for a single lesson may be rejected. Principals must conduct five observations per year of every teacher, each with a conference before and after. During the observations they must rate the teacher on over 100 criteria—one every thirty seconds—and justify those ratings. ‘Value-added’ tests, given twice a year, assess skills and knowledge only in English and math. Teachers in other subjects are rated by how their school’s students do on the English and math tests. (I wonder what they study in geography class—assuming there is one.) No wonder they can’t walk, much less dance.

Tennessee’s band leader, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, insists that the dance go on whether or not everyone on the floor can dance with three legs. He blames on teachers’ laziness and fear of the unknown their reluctance to accept the state’s pedagogical prostheses. Resistance or grumbling can even be heard among principals, not normally a rebellious group, though some of them welcome the program because it has brought principals back into the classroom, which is like welcoming a third leg because it leads to more exercise.

Given the choice of the Smothers Brothers’ “Last Great Waltz” or the Three-legged Tennessee Waltz, I’ll take the Smothers Brothers. One reason is that the tune is catchier. Another is that is less painful to hear. The third is, as Miss Prism said, that “the  good end happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

[1]RAce to the Top


Problems with Marking


The simple reason to mark is to let the student (and his parents) know how well he has learned what was taught. But this simple statement hides some complications.

The first is to distinguish knowledge, skill and understanding from one another and to be sure we have assessed each of them effectively. If I ask my students to write an essay on ephemerality in Bashō’s Narrow Road to Oku, the answer should allow me to judge their knowledge of Japan and its writing; their skill in marshaling evidence to make a well-written, coherent argument; and their penetration into Bashō’s world-view and religion. If I ask them multiple-choice questions about Oku, I will not be able to make such a judgment.

We also have a problem with understanding itself. How do we judge that a student has understood something rather than just memorized words that mimic understanding? More fundamentally, if teachers do not actually teach understanding, but only establish conditions in which it can occur, how can they be sure that their students have had the chance they need to establish and communicate the understanding the course requires? Robert Frost said[1], “How do I know whether a man has come close to Keats in reading Keats? It is hard for me to know. I have lived with some boys a whole year over some of the poets and I have not felt sure whether they had come near to what it was all about. One remark sometimes told me…. And that is enough if it was the right remark…. You ought to be marked for the closeness, for nothing else.” One reason why discussion is so important in establishing marks for understanding is that we need discussion so the one right remark can occur.

Frost thought that some colleges rid their curricula of the “poetry nuisance” by not teaching the understanding and knowledge of poetry at all, but “turn[ing] it out to disport itself” with plays and games. The resulting pseudo-understanding he called “sunset raving,” in which the aficionado faces the sunset and goes “oh”, “ah.” The problem: how do we mark oh’s and ah’s and other inarticulate responses? He approved of enthusiasm but he wanted it “taken through the prism of the intellect.” That refraction allows the kind of marking that “oh” and “ah” make difficult.

Of course, we must then set the kinds of assessments that will  allow us to do that kind of marking. Frost could never have imagined that we would reach a point where students’ proficiency in subjects like poetry  is determined entirely by answers to multiple-choice questions. How can we find the ‘right remark’ by a student who is only asked to point?

We also have problems extrinsic to particular courses. They arise because a grade can be used for other purposes than its simple and ostensible one as an indicator. They can, for example, be used in aggregations to determine a student’s suitability for admission to a desirable university or for the award of a scholarship. When grades stop being simply indicators and start being a basis for making consequential decisions, they become subject to the pressure of corruption[2]. This is true not just for actual grades but also for ‘predicted grades’ such as the IB program requires its teachers to give. Predicted grades were originally required to allow the comparison of expectation and results–by the teacher as a check on wishful thinking and by the IBO as a check on faulty marking. Now they are often used as the basis of university admission decisions. No prizes for guessing what kind of corruption pressure is the result.

And what about the practice of grading ‘on a curve’? In this bizarre marking, one’s letter grade depends not on how good one’s results were, but how they compared to the results of others in one’s class. Lady Bracknell’s ghost must be satisfied to be vindicated in asserting that “statistics are laid down for our guidance.”

It’s enough to make people ask, as in a recent article for The New York Times, “Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?” The writer did not mean to ask why everyone is not doing excellent work in rigorous courses. In fact, he ridiculed rigor as ‘macho’. He meant to ask why the whole system of inappropriate and corrupted marking is not thrown over for the sake of its unfortunate victims.

Frost’s answer was that ‘we are all being marked by each other all the time, classified, ranked, put in our place, and I see no escape from that. I am no sentimentalist. You have got to mark, and you have got to mark, first of all, for accuracy, for correctness.’ That minimum accomplished, you can then establish conditions in which it is possible to mark for taste and judgment. Finally, you will be able to mark for imagination, initiative, enthusiasm and originality.

[1]In his 1930 meditative monologue on ‘Education by Poetry’, which he wrote and delivered while he was a poetry teacher at Amherst.

[2]This phenomenon is the ambit of Campbell’s Law.


Lanterns and Ignes Fatui

Too much fun is of all things most loathsome.—Blake

I am back after a long absence because more needs saying about lanterns (see my last posting) and other lights. I realized the need last March at an education conference I was attending. Now, one reason to go to education conferences is, like an epidemiologist, to detect menacing strains of pedagogy as they begin to establish footholds in the educational world.

My vigilance was rewarded with the sighting of a theory called “Agency.” I had no idea what to expect when I entered the crowded presentation room, so it took a few minutes of enthusiastic chirping for the presenter’s ideas to become “clear.” In this program each pupil is the “Agent” of his or her education. The opposing “idea” seems to be a desire for some kind of old-fashioned prison regime in which pupils do nothing but suffer arbitrary impositions by their teachers that destroy their autonomy and kill the joy of learning, etc. It was an example of the kind of cartoon dialectics often favored by education reformers, in which grotesque caricatures of antithetical ideas fight each other before the New Synthesis sweeps the field.

The accompanying slide show began with children on the floor putting pieces of cardboard together. It progressed through other children on the floor putting pieces of cardboard together. It continued with pictures of selfless teachers scavenging pieces of cardboard for their children to put together. It compared what each classroom’s children put together with the others—but not invidiously, of course. The culmination was a series of pictures of a Parents’ Day in which the parents ‘got down’ (the presenter’s word) and helped their children put pieces of cardboard together. There was of course no coercive hickory stick in sight, literal or figurative. The problem was that there did not seem to be any reading, writing or ‘rithmetic either. This lack did not bother the presenter, who said that since children do their best learning when they are playing, they should play all the time.

We also learned how the presenter did SWOT audits. My British readers do not need to worry that the purity of Agency was compromised by swotting, or hard study before tests: this acronym refers to assessing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats presenting themselves to a school. (In my experience, schools rarely summon the fortitude needed to do a truly honest and helpful SWOT audit.) One striking result of the audit was that teachers who objected to the Agency program were identified as “threats” to the school. You can guess what kind of backward subversives they must have been and what a menace they must have posed by objecting to content-free lessons and subject-free curricula.

Though much writing and research may have gone into justifying the “agentic” approach to “study,” the book that for me comes closest to the heart of the program, as it was presented at the conference, is my copy of the Calvin & Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. Do you remember Calvin’s “agentic” presentation on bats? Funny bit, but imagine him after completing an entire ‘agentic’ education conducting a magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography of your sphincter of oddi.

Unfair? Not at all. Let’s look again at the lights of my title. In my last posting I gave as examples of lantern-bearers the students and graduates of my school who studied and performed music, particularly choral music. I have been present at a number of final concerts in the Hong Kong Music Festival to hear my school’s choir take the prize. Their gathering afterwards on the grounds of the Tsuen Mun Town Hall is a taste of “the glory of existence” like that felt by the lantern-bearers at the links. Well, getting Stevenson’s ‘fine light’ requires work: fueling the lanterns; trimming their wicks; carrying and tending them; affixing their beams; and working in concert with the other lantern-bearers at the links. The same is true of the choir’s victory at the World Choir Games in South Africa and the standing ovation they received at the Royal Albert Hall. And of course it is true of the less spectacular glory of singing in the quads and the staircases.

And since it also requires direction, something must be said about the old choirmaster, who is now the headmaster of the school. There is a wonderful photograph floating around of the choirboys tossing him into the air after one of their performances. How many hours did he plan and teach the boys? How many hours did they rehearse under his baton? How was their joy in that photo made possible by his work and theirs? If they had spent two years cutting cardboard instead, what would the picture look like–if there had been one? Just how happy were they? At a school assembly after the old headmaster had resigned, a representative of the school’s management committee announced to the students that the choirmaster had been selected to succeed him. A fine moment: the minority who had been paying attention to the speaker started cheering and applauding; as the news spread through the hall, the applause spread as well, led by students whom he had spent years training and rehearsing. At about that time he was coincidentally short-listed for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Award.  According to the tenets of ‘Agency’, though, he would be seen as a threat to his pupils’ self-direction.

For the emblematic light of Agency and our presenter is the ignis fatuus: insubstantial, ephemeral, indistinct, amorphous, unheated swamp gas. The reason I call it by its Latin name instead of the more familiar name “will o’ the wisp” is that it is not a “fine light” but a “foolish fire.”