Education and Cannibalism

There was an Irish journalist living in the US who used to assert that the way American media deal with contentious issues is to oversimplify and to omit important elements of the issue from their ‘discussion’. His hypothetical example, given tongue in cheek, was a media ‘debate’ on cannibalism, in which ‘one side’ contended that it should be permitted while ‘the other side’ contended that it should be regulated. I was reminded of the ‘debate’ on cannibalism when I glanced at a New York Times ‘debate’ on how to raise students’ test scores by producing better teachers.

The resemblance of this ‘debate’ to the mythical regulation of cannibalism lies in what is left out of the discussion: producing better evaluations of teaching and learning, producing better administrators, producing better funding, producing better working conditions, producing better models of school operation, producing better attitudes towards quick fixes, particularly e-fixes, producing better schools of education, producing better parents, and producing better students. Any ‘debate’ or program that addresses only one or two of these desiderata will be inconclusive or come to grief. Any program that punishes ‘bad’ teachers without producing the other necessary conditions of teaching and learning will be bound to fail.

An illustration of what I am talking about occurs in a blog posted in The New York Times this morning. The headline promises a story about a New Electronic Product that makes math teaching more effective. However, the blog tells a different story to someone who opens out the focus. It seems that in the course of making the e-stuff work, the school featured in the blog has found out some of the methods used in Finnish schools.  Online learning is one of the edbiz’s and the Times’s debating points, and so the interesting Finnish-style classroom arrangement (though with four teachers for 120 students instead of the twelve that that number would have in Finland) receives notice but not focus. Since Finnish schools cost the government a fraction of the typical US school, and since the proprietary software is very expensive, we should expect a discussion of this innovation to investigate these other possibilities too. Without a proper investigation, the software may turn out to be like one of those breakfast cereals of empty calories that provide nutrition when eaten with milk, fruit, wheat toast and no sugar. Instead, the blogger focuses on ‘proving’ the software.

It would be interesting to know whether the teachers could be given the prep time that Finnish and Japanese teachers get. These teachers are in the classroom about 55% of the time that American teachers are, and use that time to prepare good lessons, not needing to rely on expensive proprietary software to get them through their bloated workload. But giving teachers less classroom time is not a part of the ‘debate’ either.

Far from it: the ‘debate’ focuses on the charter schools, but not on their unsustainable depredations on the ranks of teachers-to-be (24% annual turnover on the average). This style of crap-through-the-goose personnel administration needs more examination than it is getting, as do the working conditions that lead so many young persons to flee the field of education. But the problem affects not-so-young teachers even more: teachers with family responsibilities who don’t want to spend eleven hours a day at the school and then two or three hours at home doing ‘homework’. Today’s Guardian has an anonymous story by a teacher who with her husband committed career suicide in order to have family time with their daughter. The biggest reason was the unreasonable working conditions, but can you imagine an article in an American paper featuring a teacher subjected to similar or worse conditions? It’s not part of the ‘debate’. Indeed, so far from the ‘debate’ are teachers’ working conditions that reporters can misreport research showing how high the stress levels of teachers really are.

Far from the stressful crowds of teachers lie salvific foundations like the Gates Foundation, which spent $45,000,000 to promote a radically defective system of ‘value’-‘added’ ‘metrics’ that is bound to fail when it is used in the RAce to the Top and the foundation’s findings are used to support huge payments to education companies for defective systems of testing. None of this defectiveness has received attention in the mainstream media. The shortcomings of foundations were analyzed keenly by Barzun in his book The House of Intellect (1958), and those of standardized tests by Banesh Hoffmann in his Tyranny of Testing (1962); but these findings have also been largely ignored.

And few people are discussing, or want to discuss, the role of bad child-rearing and administrative practice in producing defectively educated children. Parents who hire lawyers when Junior fails his assignments and administrators who tell their teachers that ‘failure is not an option’ are depriving young people of the kind of learning ‘opportunity’ that they will face on the job if they have not learned how to think and do a job of work—and face in less supportive conditions than those at school.

What all this narrow focus and glossing-over ensures is that the narrow solutions thrown up by ‘the debate’ will be inadequate to the task.

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