Where Is the Forest in This Picture?

One of the annoyances of working in the profession of teacher is the widespread notion not just that anyone can do it but that people with little or no experience in education can speak authoritatively about it. Hence the thousands of students who would not be allowed in an operating theater without years of schooling, internship, and residency being sent not just to classrooms but to tough classrooms to teach after five weeks of preparation.

And hence the pronouncements of outsiders on what schools need to do, which are treated with respect or at least polite interest rather than allowed to sink into the oblivion that is their due. Such is a report by a panel led by Condoleeza Rice and the egregious Joel Klein. Will Rice succeed in bringing to education what she brought to Iraq and Afghanistan? We cannot say yet, but we do have some information about Klein’s tenure in education. A lawyer by profession, he spent some time interloping in New York City schools with programs like Basic Literacy and Value Added Learning.

Fresh from these triumphs, the two reveal the humanity that underlies their philosophy of education by referring to children as “human capital.” Always suspicious of anyone who thinks of people by using mass nouns, I am doubly suspicious of these two and their breathtaking proposal that the government should develop a national security readiness audit to judge whether schools are meeting “targets” in preparing their human capital for—for what? National security? It used to be enough to want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Will we have another audit on top of the No Child Left Behind audits? Those are already so unsuccessful that the Feds are handing out waivers, conditional on the recipients’ joining the RAce to the Top (RAT) and its audits. At what point will RAT waivers start appearing? And now we are going to have a third audit? Just what we need: three tiers of junk statistics instead of judgment and “perpetual discretion.”

Can we be living in the same country that was inhabited by Jacques Barzun, Abraham Maslow, and Richard Hofstadter? Barzun’s seminal Teacher in America came after ten months of visiting schools not to gather data but to share in experience. His book was not a tabulation but an explanation, not a theory but a synthesis of teaching as it happens. Maslow devised his Hierarchy of Needs with no data at all. (Subsequent generations of scholars are grateful to him for that: they could make entire academic careers gathering the data that showed he was more or less right.) Richard Hofstadter wrote chapters like “The Road to Life Adjustment” without surveys or stack searches. Indeed, he somewhat uncharitably referred to scholars who dig details and data instead of thinking as “archive rats.”

I suggest that good thinkers with their eye to what is really going on in the classroom can make more sensible suggestions about should be going on there than will a couple of educationists-manqués who think education is a form of capital accumulation.





The Sincerest Form of Flattery

John Fell was the head of Christ Church College and also the Bishop of Oxford. Doctor Fell had the reputation of a severe schoolmaster, but legend has it that when a student about to be punished was able to offer the following jingle as an extemporaneous translation of an epigram by Martial, the doctor excused him from punishment:

I do not love thee, Dr. Fell,

The reason why I cannot tell,

But this I know and know full well,

I do not love thee, Dr. Fell.[1]

—Tom Brown


If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I hereby flatter Brown with my own jingle:

I do not love thee, Mr. Klein,

The reason is, I must opine,

An argument, of which the crux

Is “Value added learning sucks.”


The following bit was written by a Victorian satirist who cast a cold eye on the House of Hanover:

George the First was always reckoned

Vile, but viler George the Second.

And what mortal ever heard

Any good of George the Third?

But when from earth the Fourth descended,

Thank God! at last the Georges ended.

—Walter Savage Landor


Let me then, in imitation, cast a cold eye of my own:


Mr. Klein talks lots of bunk, and

More bunk comes from Mr. Duncan.

Are any folks on earth such prats

As these scholastic bureaucrats?

For answers we must dodge their wind and

Catch a plane up north to Finland.

[1] Hence Mr. Utterson’s referring to Mr. Hyde’s repulsiveness as “the old story of Dr. Fell” before settling on the explanation that Hyde has “a foul soul that…transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent.”  Does this make Stevenson the first literary figure to attach horror to a character by comparing him to an education administrator?



Pink Slime Education

A couple of years ago I wrote about the increased use of an ammoniated bovine slurry called “processed beef” in schools’ cafeterias. That posting compared these inroads to the invasion of the same schools by junk education, a “product” as inimical to true education as “processed beef” is to taste and well being.

The latest news about “processed beef” is that the stuff is now known to its opponents as “pink slime,” a nickname given it by an Agriculture Department employee. That is inaccurate: it looks like Ortho® snail and slug bait that has been bleached pink, and both “products” are formed and crumbly, not loose and viscous. Its proponents (the slime’s, not the bait’s) also urge in its favor that it is not toxic, always a reassuring quality in things fed to children.

The other news is that the Agriculture Department will soon allow schools subscribing to its “food” programs to buy other kinds of meat to serve their students. The degree of reassurance this news actually provides will depend on what those other kinds turn out to be, but in the meantime the good news is cheering.

Now, if only someone in the Education Department would issue rules barring junk education from those same schools, we would have a large improvement to match the small. Unfortunately, the DoE is committed to a model of education that in many respects is precisely analogous to the production of pink slime for eating.

First, all the good stuff in education is being cut out, as the nutritious beef is cut from the scraps thrown into the slime-processing machines. All that is left is little gobbets of knowledge like bits of low-grade flesh and gristle. The scrappiness is insured by multiple-choice testing, which works against synthesis and integration of knowledge. (Of course students can guess about a synthesis or interpretation when it is presented as one of four possibilities on a test, but in that case they still haven’t actually nourished their minds with a genuine synthesis.)

Second, the removal of fat from pink slime in the centrifuges where it is processed is equivalent in flavor-reduction to removing from education the tasty variety of classroom experiences in a rich curriculum, retaining only the lean leavings of “measurable behavioral objectives” that the testing can “capture.” That these leavings are not positively poisonous will be cold comfort to the kids who will have to endure a diet of them for twelve years.

Third, teachers are being turned by restrictive curricula and narrow results demanded into burger-flippers of the mind. Since many of them used to be good chefs, and popular ones, they are demoralized and disgusted by having to preside over pink slime, scorching griddles, and tanks of hot bubbling fat. Diane Ravitch reports that the year of experience with the highest population of teachers used to be the fifteenth year of teaching. Now it is the first. No wonder.

But one respect in which the slurry and delivery of fast foods does not resemble the Ed Biz these days is that when people on a steady diet of junk food suffer a deterioration of health, the waitresses are not arrested for causing grievous bodily harm. Unlike them, teachers are held responsible for whatever ill effects their education—or anything else!—may produce on their “customers'” learning.

So far is the Department of Education from admitting these massive shortcomings of NCLB and RAT that it is now trying to bring the benefits of junk education to colleges and universities. One hopes that action can be taken against the junkification of education as it has been against the slurry piped into school cafeterias, but regardless of hope, it is needed: the students fed this diet for twelve years will come away as walking damaged goods.



Words Words Words

A few more entries from The Didact’s Dictionary:

acronym n.: 1. in good prose, an alphabet soup stain. 2. in jargon, an initial obfuscation. 3.  in education branding (q.v.), repackaging by initials in order to make snappy what is essentially flaccid, as NCLB (No Child Left Behind), or to assert the truth of what is essentially false, as RAT (RAce to the Top).

behind n.: 1. (US education: NCLB) ahead.

GERM n.: [Global Education Reform Movement] a putative movement confined to the U.S. that unlike minuscule germs and genuine movements does not spread or move anywhere except by top-down inoculation and forced incubation.

value n.: 1. in general, relative worth 2. (non-standard) a student’s result on a standardized multiple-choice test in one of two subjects tested but of six subjects taught. Formerly but mistakenly called “achievement.”

added part.: in education, usually with value: augmented by teaching, completion of assigned study, parental encouragement, private tutoring, independent exploration, interest by peers, and inculturation; but arbitrarily deemed the responsibility of a teacher.

metrics n.: in baloney (see balonist), the means of posing as a judge of academic qualities by asking multiple-choice questions and scoring answers, the way no other judge works.

truth n.: what corresponds to reality. antonyms.: falsehood, bunk, rubbish, lie, baloney, b*******, value-added metrics.

And an observation:

The first PISA reading test results, released at about the time of NCLB’s passage, showed US schools behind Finland’s and those of thirteen other governments. Ten years after NCLB, the latest PISA reading test shows US schools behind those of sixteen governments, including three that were not in the first results. The results were worse for math and science. GERM is agitating for more of what led to this decade of success.





Teacher Effectiveness Ratings: Let’s Play Gopher Bash!

If you’ve been to game arcades, you know that most games now involve screens, joysticks, buttons, and software. One charmingly primitive game that thumbs its nose at electronic sophistication is Gopher Bash. In this game the player takes a mallet and waits over a “field” where gophers appear at random in their holes, bashing them with the mallet when they do. (A variation allows the player to stamp them with the foot when they appear.)

Currently the most interesting thing about this game is not its intrinsic goofiness, though in an arcade game goofiness is an attractive quality. More fascinating is that it inadvertently displays the governing model for teacher evaluation under NCLB (No Child Left Behind or Neglected Children Lose Brains: take your pick) and RAT (RAce to the Top).

First, there are district, state and federal officials charged with evaluating teachers based on Value Added Modeling. They have the mallets. What makes the teachers resemble a field full of gophers randomly popping up (or pushed up) for bashing is the use of  statistical “estimates of teacher effectiveness [that] are highly unstable[1]”  to rate them. One study cited in the report I have just quoted found that a third of teachers rated in the top 20% of effectiveness one year found themselves in the bottom 40% the following year. Another study found “year-to-year correlations of estimated teacher quality [range] from only 0.2 to 0.4. This means that only about 4% to 16% of the variation in a teacher’s value-added ranking in one year can be predicted from his or her rating in the previous year.” Thus, even a teacher in the top 20% one year may be set up by a statistical fluke for a bashing the following year, and there is no way to predict the lucky winners.

A number of perverse consequences ensue from VMA-based evaluation. It unintentionally rigs the game against the teachers of the students most in need of special help, as studies cited in this report show. Teachers would respond rationally to this disincentive to teach them by running away from the bashing-field. They also run away from its arbitrary and capricious labeling. Sadly to me, who have always valued collaboration with my faculty colleagues, as readers of this blog know, this kind of rating system also appears to undercut cooperation within a faculty.

Bill Gates, whose foundation supports value-added modeling and teacher evaluation based on students’ test scores, said in a recent New York Times column that these numbers should not be placed in newspapers to shame teachers. Big deal. In New York the VAM numbers are a part of the public record, so potentially arbitrary humiliation is just a click away. More shameful to me than the Gopher Bash game is how many tourists in the garden of education have forgotten that teachers are not the gophers; they are the gardeners.