Failing and Sailing

As an expatriate teacher I often spend my summer holiday at least partly on trips to see people I’ve been away from. This summer’s visits included get-togethers, but it also included a reunion. A cousin of mine and her husband, whom I had last seen over twenty-five years ago, had settled in a ‘flyover city’ that I had carelessly flown over all these years. The business they started there became highly successful, but they recently decided to sell it and retire to a coastal place well known for its semi-rural charm.

During my last visit they had two very young children. Now both are grown. The second son, after graduating from a small liberal-arts college, found a job at the home office of a ‘tech giant’ not too far from his parents. Number one son turned away from academics to ‘work with his hands’. (Arabic-speakers, when someone’s manual artistry or labor has made their life easier or more worth living, call down a blessing on him: tislam eedak: blessings on your hands. We lack that appreciative expressiveness.)

The episode in his career that his father chose to relate to me was his tenure as a teacher at a sailing school for young people. The first thing to say is that a candidate couldn’t even start the sailing course if he or she couldn’t swim offshore and back or right a capsized little boat alone. The teachers would approach the candidate in the water and call out advice on righting if it was needed, but the candidate had to do something with the advice, and failure was a very real option.

Some of the children’s parents (and many of them were used to getting their way) would plead for admission if Junior failed, and sometimes even asked that the tasks be waived. Not a chance. Qualification was real, and Alex was expected to hold to the standards in the face of tears and countervailing pressure.

It was a good story, and nothing needed to be said about applicability to his teaching cousin’s work, but my cousin’s husband also had one bit of advice—maybe for me and maybe for my students. This highly successful entrepreneur said, ‘If there is one thing that a student should learn in order to prepare for a successful business career, it is how to write because in learning how to write, you learn how to think.’



High Noon

Schools in Hong Kong let out for the summer holiday in mid-July, but exams finish a few weeks earlier, thus disproving the claim that the city’s students do nothing except for an exam. My school’s grade 12 students, having finished their Education Department or IB exams, maintain a minimal presence on campus, with exceptions to be discussed below; but the lower grades have ‘post-exam activities’ and, in the IB division, continued classes. Among the most prominent activities at this time of year are musical and dramatic productions.

The four year-end concerts are done without the competitive pressure of the citywide Interschool Music Festival held in March and, some people including me think, produce better music as a result (though the competitive results are also formidable). I attended two of the four.

One highlight was the appearance of the senior mixed choir comprising choristers from our school and our sister-school with the senior orchestra, including the former first violinist, a 12th-grader who had given up his chair to a junior.  Together the groups played and sang ‘Wenn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras’ from Brahms’s German Requiem. The performance was dedicated to the memory of two popular members of staff who had died recently. Another was Francis Poulenc’s four little pieces of St Francis of Assisi. Light pleasure came from a number of jauntily done barbershop numbers.

The Drama Committee performed an original murder mystery, with the audience seated as if at a wedding banquet. It was done with great verve and dedication by a cast including many 12th-graders in their valedictory performance, and seems to have fooled most of the detectives in the audience. One might prefer the Drama teacher’s choice of new material and stages, or the music teacher’s more traditional choices, but I think that that is not the main point in school productions.

The main point is to give students a chance to immerse themselves in their art and then to share it with a receptive but critical audience. It is to show that art matters and, as Wallace Stevens said of metaphor, it engages with the ‘primary high noon of being’.


Incompleteness and Infallibility

I want to assert a principle that seems to govern education ‘reform.’ I will call it the General Incompleteness Theorem (GIT1). It says

Any organization’s proposal for education reform will tend to be incomplete, reductionist or tendentious—possibly all three.

This principle is meant to be not cynical but cautionary: people who keep it in mind when examining reform proposals should be asking themselves

•       Where are the unexamined assumptions?

•       Where are the untested claims?

•       Where are the ignored counterarguments?

•       Where are the reductionist ideas?

•       Where is the realistic examination of who stands to gain?

•       What is the (not-so-)hidden agenda?

•       Where are the booby traps and land mines?

This principle sometimes works in destructive tandem with another, which we may call the General Infallibility Theorem (GIT2), which states that

An educational leader or organization never admits errors or mistakes.

Call this terrible tandem GIT2 or GIT Squared.

Some things are pure GIT2.The US Federal education policy is a good example. The US Congress foolishly passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) by using wishful and magical thinking. When it proved unworkable, the Department of Education granted waivers with the onerous requirement attached that a second program, Race to the Top (RAT), should replace it. Now the mess is in the hands of the states under Every Child Succeeds (ESS) and a badly implemented Common Core. Nowhere in all this capricious presto change-o is any admission that any of it was badly conceived, badly executed, badly monitored, and badly measured. Only mediocre results persist.

Other things dabble a bit in GIT. A paper was published recently suggesting that behavioral science could lower the freshman-year dropout rate at four-year colleges. Now, when I hear behavioral science promoted, I think of a joke about two behaviorists having sexual intercourse. After they finish, one says to the other, ‘You enjoyed that a lot. How did I like it?’

The joke is on behaviorist reductionism, but more seriously, the problem the paper proposes solving[1] can be handled better using another approach, which I have written about. The problem is that doing so would conflict with easy assumptions about what high school and university entail on students and teachers alike.

Let me end with my possibly unique case of an education organization admitting error. It was the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors admitting that they had been wrong to fire the university president and reinstating her. The admission had the effect not just of restoring the president but also of ending an educationist wild goose chase at its outset before it could cause too much damage.

The remedies are humility, good sense, a keen eye for the whole, and a lively realization that education is by and for human beings.

[1] p. 33


Say No to Mutant Schools

Much is made in fashionable school-chatter of the saving power of mutation. In particular, this chatter takes pseudo-Darwinism one step further by asserting the power of mutation to adapt not just to the present, as the social ‘Darwinists’ modestly proposed, but also to the future. Of course it isn’t called mutation but rather something upliftingly paradoxical like ‘creative disruption.’

The most appalling educationist mutagen I have read about recently is the ‘Director of Education’ at a San Francisco-based chain of for-profit schools. In a posting a couple of months back I criticized this chain, but there is more to say, though it is hard to know what to say first. Should I mention the deployment of Orwellian cameras in all classrooms? The bureaucratic burdens imposed on teachers? The constructivism?

I think I’ll let the Prime Mutagen begin for herself: ‘We encourage our members of staff to express their pain points…” I am deeply disquieted by a list of staff desiderata that begins with ‘expressing pain’, particularly when it strongly implies that the pain has no treatment. The list goes on to include some action-clichés for teachers and ends with this bizarre and creepy promise: ‘We know we are going to iterate quickly.’ Taken precisely, this statement is meaningless in its context, for (re)iteration is saying something (again and again). She must mean, ‘We will mutate quickly’. Either she is talking baloney or she is promising that whatever we thought her schools were, they would not be that in, say, a year’s time. How reassuring to parents, on top of surveillance and constructivism! By contrast, she asserts, ‘[o]ther schools tend to move in geologic time’. This is evidently meant to be a criticism of schools that retain their identity instead of shedding it like a snake its skin or a mutant its genes.

It may be worth re-iterating some countervailing values to be sought in schools.

1. Teach subjects. That seems obvious, but there is no reason to think that in a constructivist environment that is what will happen. By contrast, since a subject is a constellation of facts and ideas seen in the light of some unifying factors, it implies that the material can be approached both systematically and intuitively. It allows students to absorb the ways in which consecutive, analytical and synthetic thought takes place and to try those ways themselves. If after some years of training in a discipline a student wants to step out of the disciplinary matrix, it can happen in what one hopes will be a thoughtful way.

2. Respect both Continuity and Contiguity. William James thought that attention shifted via these two means of association. Continuity makes associations on the basis of rational connections between things encountered or handled in consecutive ways. Contiguity’s connections are more serendipitous and startling, and the best way of judging them is the pragmatic test: what follows from them? The best ones are fruitful. The danger in emphasizing contiguity is the danger of getting lost in rabbit holes or of developing garbage-heap minds like that of Borges’s Funes the Memorious. One mark of a good teacher is the ability to get these modes of attention to complement each other, and one mark of a good school is the readiness to let him or her do so.

3. Think teleologically. It helps in setting a course to know what place you want to reach, what state you want to attain, or what purposes you want to serve. These include ethical purposes. These should be expressible in language that Orwell would welcome reading rather than Newspeak. There should be some freedom in how to get there, though perhaps how much is a judgment call.

4. Avoid ‘disengagement contracts’. This expression I get from a BBC report on British university education, though the phenomenon it names can be found in the US. The two ‘parties’ tacitly agree to something like this: you will allow me to disengage from my teaching and setting and marking of tasks so I can pursue the kind of ‘research’ that will put me on a tenure track or get me a prestigious chair. I in turn will let you disengage from learning through imbecile ‘assignments’ so you can have fun, find yourselves, and still gain a credential. During my own university career, ‘gut’ courses like Professor D’s at Teachers College were regarded as rarities, and even Professor D eventually stopped letting students set their own grades. How many Professor D’s would we find now? In the lower-school version tenure and research do not loom so large but many other features are the same.

5. Let the education be primarily philanthropic. The profit motive has no business in education because someone will get short shrift if (increases in) earnings are threatened. What is more, there should be a compelling state interest in seeing that education remains cheap. Scotland, a country of about five million people, has twenty universities, which charge no tuition to Scots. What is more, Scottish students who borrow for their non-tuition expenses pay back their loans based on how much they earn, not how much they borrow, with no interest penalty for low earners. Alex Salmond, the former Scottish First Minister, put the philanthropic principle graphically: ‘Rocks would melt in the sun[1]’ before he would consider introducing tuition fees.

[1] And remember that this is Scottish sun.


Life and Limb for Learning

This weekend a cousin of mine is taking his boys on the hike up Half Dome in Yosemite, about thirty-four years after I took him and his brother there. The last part of the Half Dome Trail is set on the rock face, where stanchioned cables are laid on in the summer to help people with the ascent, which would otherwise be a class 5 climb. It is still not for the faint-hearted.

Or at least that would be the judgment of an American in his armchair. It is not the judgment of the children of the village of Atuler in Sichuan, or their parents. This village, built on a mountaintop, is accessible to the ‘neighborhood school’ only via an 800-meter rock face that is climbed or descended using vine ladders and some free climbing. (Read about and see pictures of this hair-raising school commute here.) To put these children’s challenge in perspective, remember that the Half Dome cables go for only 120 meters, the prominence of Half Dome is about 400 meters, and the face of El Capitan itself is 900 meters high.

The reaction of foreign media was mainly tongue-clucking at the primitive conditions in which many rural Chinese lead their lives, as indeed those conditions deserve (and would deserve in other countries where the poor are left behind). Strangely, no one mentioned the fact that was immediately evident to me: the people of Atuler must attach great value to education—so much as to risk life and limb for it.



The Boredom Machine

When I was younger, newer to teaching, and more foolish, I imposed structural and rhetorical formulae on my students’ writing. Doing so turned out to be a mistake. My less secure students made some unremarkable gains, but my more accomplished ones had no outlet for their urge to let their writing be shaped by their topic and its ad hoc demands. At one point I shared a good essay by one of my students with the class. A bright and contentious student asserted that it was ‘a bit heavy on its feet’. His own writing was lively but amorphous, and I had criticized him for that latter quality.

This student decided to produce as his next essay a satire of the plodding sort of essay he disapproved of. Everything followed the formula, but it was the most boring piece he had ever written for me. I am (somewhat grudgingly) grateful to him for a lesson learned.

Some years later I had another student, JM, one of the best writers I had ever taught. In those halcyon days before bogus ‘value’-‘added’ ‘metrics’ we used a home-grown writing assessment to judge (not measure) our students’ writing (but not their teachers’ teaching). It gave a once-off reading of each student, which we shared with students and parents hedged about with qualifiers[1]. Now, JM was the only student to whom we had ever given full marks on his writing assessment, and he got full marks every time he took it.

Our class was studying Moby-Dick, and so I shared with my students an extract from D H Lawrence’s brilliant but idiosyncratic essay on the book—an essay widely said to have (re)established its literary reputation. JM was enchanted, so much so that for his next writing assignment he tried imitating Lawrence’s manner. The result was first-rate. Then came the inevitable question: ‘What would happen if I wrote like this for the IB exam?’ I told him that he ought to write more conventionally for the exam but that he was welcome to make stylistic experimentations when he wrote for me. That was the point at which I think he was lost to literature.

It is in light of experiences like these that I began to resist formulaic instruction in writing. Fortification of that resistance came, as it often did for me, from Jacques Barzun. In an interview of him conducted near the end of his very long life, he asserted, in connection with the ‘writing process’, that ‘all systematic devices for generating good writing are a mistake’. While I could see an exception to Barzun’s dictum made for young students who do not know how to think consecutively or argue persuasively, such devices should be cast off like training wheels from a bicycle or a cast from a broken arm.

What should replace such devices is what Barzun called ‘perpetual discretion’, the power of constantly discerning where the individual student is and what he or she needs. Unfortunately, the conditions in which an institution can support teachers in the exercise of this power are growing harder to find: small classes, support of good writing across the curriculum, and freedom from baleful systematic and bureaucratic requirements. It also helps to hire and support teachers who are intellectually agile.

A moment’s thought will show that this kind of subtlety is beyond systematic and ‘algorithmic’ handling.

But subtlety and discretion are not where we are going. On the contrary, many schools are adopting such writing ‘aids’ as the Jane Schaffer Method, whose strictures are likely to produce essays like my subtle student’s parody and to forestall any student like JM. Now, it is possible that in some middle-school or remedial settings, that parody would be a non-parodic step forward, but it is hard to see how such rigidity could characterize the teaching of writing in secondary schools whose students are said to be approaching college-readiness.

Some of my ToK students will shortly be reading chapter 8 of Stephen Jay Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb. (I should say before discussing that reading that Gould’s writing is exceptionally good, as the IB program recognizes by placing him on the Prescribed List of Authors for its two English courses, including the literature course.) In this chapter Gould examines the question of the level at which natural selection works, offering his own thesis and rejecting two others.  He ends with a synthesis in which he condemns the ‘scientific’ doctrines of atomism and reductionism—the belief that ‘wholes should be understood by decomposition into “basic” units [and] the idea that the properties of microscopic units can generate and explain the behavior of macroscopic results.’

In connection with the subject of this posting the first thing to be said about this excellent chapter is that it in no way and at no point conforms to the requirements of the Jane Schaffer Method, or indeed any method, including methods propounded for the reporting of education research. It is agile and limber, adapting itself to the needs of each part of the argument as they come up, subtly laying the groundwork for his concluding synthesis.

But the second is that atomism and reductionism are dangerous to the teaching of writing too, and for reasons that are not too dissimilar to what makes them objectionable in science. The very model of atomistic and reductionist instruction in writing turns out to be the Jane Schaffer Method, together with other ‘formulaic’ patterns and ‘systematic devices’.

We don’t expect seventeen-year-olds to be dependent on training wheels on their bicycles. Why should we allow them such aids in their writing?

[1] One year one of the classes threw the test because of a grievance. Did that make them bad writers or us bad teachers? VAM has an answer, and it is wrong.


A List of Poems

Since I published it nearly five years ago, my posting ‘Shéer Plód Makes Plough Down Sillion Shine’ has remained one of my most popular. My readers may also know that in eulogizing the late Seamus Heaney I commended his and Ted Hughes’ anthology The Rattle Bag. Here I share a list of poems from the anthology along with a few comments on each.  I’m keeping them in the alphabetical order in which they appear there. My object is first to suggest what can make them accessible to a high-school student. as well as give guidance for understanding. At this age they don’t need either to be freighted with ‘interpitations’, especially found ones,  or left to indulge untrammeled reader response. You must, please, hand out or display the poem and treat it at least for a while before they can go to the internet to look it up, thereby losing the opportunity to meet it on its own terms without mediation.

The Artist by William Carlos Williams. Students should be open to the possibility that a poem can be funny in a goofy way, but still have a point.  The attractive pleasure is in the unfolding of the poem line by line. When you read it aloud you should pace it so that there is a pause or vocal turn to signify each line as it ends.  If you can do an entrechat, so much the better! (I am prose in motion, but on occasion I have been known to ‘execute’ an entrechat.) A question to ask: Why might Williams want his artist/dancer to be an ordinary hairy guy on the porch instead of a ripped and nicely barbered dancer on a stage? But don’t labor any ‘interpitation’.

Beeny Cliff by Thomas Hardy. This is a poem for a bright group that is willing to do some digging to explain bits like ‘purples prinked the main’.  The poem is written in fourteeners, which your students may appreciate as an alternative to the usual meters whose names are Greek to them. The description of the setting is vivid though written in strange words. What do the strange words do for the poem? The situation is that the speaker reminisces about the times he spent here with his beloved. Question: why might the speaker have said ‘—elsewhere—‘ in line 14 instead of being exact?

Binsey Poplars by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  In this poem the speaker expresses his sadness that a favorite stand of trees has been chopped down. When you read this poem aloud you should invest the lines with emotion when they call for it. You should also emphasize the shifting rhythms and use them to help the lines reveal their meaning (e.g., line 3). If you can read line 8 fluently, your students will appreciate it. You may need to practice it several  times. When you get to ‘this sleek and seeing ball’, stress this and point to your eye. You can explain the image by saying that the globe is put out by digging and hacking the way an eyeball is put out by a pinprick. The ending should be soft and regretful in the repetitions. It is both a strongly poetic and a strongly felt poem, and though its strangeness may take some getting used to or make it hard to get completely, its way of conveying sadness that something we love has been ruined is accessible to anyone.

Cocaine Lil and Morphine Sue, written anonymously. The strong rhythm is alluring, as are the repetition and the characters with drugs as part of their names. Cocaine Lil overdoses and dies at a ‘snow party’, and her epitaph ends the poem in a readily understandable way. Students who fear that poems have ‘hidden meanings’ will be gratified by the accessibility of this poem.

Earthy Anecdote by Wallace Stevens. It is best not to lead your class into one of the tar-pits of interpretation that seem to surround this poem, even against Stevens’s stated aversion to such treatment. I think it is perfectly fine to see the firecat as a firecat and not ‘the Sisyphean plight of the individual’, as one tar pit rather improbably has it. When reading aloud, emphasize the o sounds in ‘over Oklahoma’ and let the short a sounds sound very flat. Let the line endings help shape the action of the poem, and let lines 6 – 13 strongly echo each other in sound and intonation. Let lines 17 & 18 pause for a windup before springing to ‘bristle in the way’. If your class insist on a meaning, ask, ‘Is the firecat a kind of cat or a kind of fire?’ but I like it just to be itself. Let the clattering music and the danger and menace of the firecat be enough.

The Flower-Fed Buffalos by Vachel Lindsay. This elegy for the vanished buffalo and native Americans of the plains is highly accessible. The ballad meter or common meter is strong, as is the rhythmic shift in lines 11 – 12. Reading it aloud should lead to those lines as a climax, followed by the inclusion of names of plains peoples and the softly repeated ‘lying low’. The poem’s song-likeness should be evident in a practiced reading aloud, including the cadential ‘lying low’.

Buffalo from Hunter poems of the Yoruba. This poem establishes the power and deadly menace of the Cape buffalo of Africa in a series of vivid images and metaphors as well as a small narrative. Some of the descriptions seem hyperbolic, but we must remember that in Frank O’Hara’s story ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ the buffalo is the next-most dangerous game.  Read it to include line endings, and give it a wide-eyed sound.

Little Fish by D. H. Lawrence. This poem, over almost before it begins, needs a well-paced reading that emphasizes line endings and the repetition of ‘in the sea’. Lawrence says what he means plainly, quickly, and simply. Maybe you should ask students if they hear any implied contrast with other life forms on the land.

maggie and millie and molly and mae by e. e. cummings. The reading should be expressive of the feeling in each stanza/couplet and should emphasize the strong rhythm. The rhyme of ‘troubles,and’ and ‘bubbles,and’  can be handled with a slight pause afterwards. The students should try to explain and justify what the ‘horrible thing’ in lines 7 – 8 is. (Possible answers include a crab or a sideways-washing wave passing over the sand.) How can we tell what kind of self each of the girls finds from what object she ‘finds in the sea’?

Mushrooms by Sylvia Plath. A good example of syllabic verse, its speakers are mushrooms growing. The reading should heed the line endings and sound as if the poem is growing as the mushrooms do, bit by relentless bit. It should sound amazing in a low-key way as it says, ‘We / Diet on water, / On crumbs of shadow’. It is possible that students will find it goofy, like ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,’ but after a laugh, encourage them to explore why it is not goofy.

A Narrow Fellow in the Grass by Emily Dickinson. It is surprising how many of your students will not recognize that the subject of this poem is a snake. Its identity can be handled like a riddle. They will hear the common meter, but they may be puzzled by slant rhymes, which you could explain. Explore how the speaker conveys the strangeness of the snake and his dread of it. (Yes, the speaker, unlike Dickinson, is a man.)

Now entertain conjecture of a time by Shakespeare. This wonderfully vivid narrative about the English camp the night before the battle of Agincourt takes a lot of preparation, including some unexpected or arcane imagery. For example, ‘paly flames’ are not pale, they are like heraldic pales through which other things can be seen. The best way to read this aloud is to turn on the DVD player to the beginning of Act IV in Kenneth Branagh’s movie version of Henry V, where Sir Derek Jacobi gives the speech. The combination of activity and fear is counterbalanced by ‘a little touch of Harry in the night’, just what is needed before the ‘vile and ragged foils’ meet the heavily armored French knights. Students may not realise that the lightly armored English were considered vile by the chivalrous French with their heavy-plated armor, which is why the ‘vile and ragged foils’ are a synecdoche for the English army. Mention that Shakespeare’s special effect is words, and hope that your students consider what you say.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe and The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd by Sir Walter Raleigh. This pair of poems is fun because one of them answers the other, but it also allows us to distinguish between the way each of the speakers conveys what is important to him or her, and how he or she thinks. The shepherd is very concrete and in the moment; the nymph, thoughtful, keen and funny in a knowing way.

A Poison Tree by William Blake. The poem is so seemingly plain and straightforward that its figurative ingenuity can be overlooked (e.g., ‘I water’d it in fears, / Night and morning with my tears; / And I sunned it with smiles, / And with soft deceitful wiles’). Reading it aloud with an emphasis on the rhymes and line endings without singsong is possible but takes practice. It takes some thought to decide how to read the final couplet aloud. One point of discussion: What exactly has the speaker admitted doing?

The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter by Ezra Pound. It might be interesting or mind-expanding to discuss with your class what makes this poem poetic. At first many students will answer, ‘nothing’, but eventually they may admit that the descriptions are very clear, the place-names sound exotic or remarkable, the wife’s character develops as the stanzas unfold, and the free-verse lines (and their endings) help us see and hear how the narrative should go forward.

Sea Weed by D. H. Lawrence. This short poem is good at sounding like what it describes. Ask students to explain what we know about the seaweed from rhythm and sound as well as from description.

‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone’ by W.  H. Auden. This poem is a highly accessible expression of grief at loss and tribute to the loved one. Read it aloud with the rhymes and line endings standing out. Ask the students how the poem is divided dramatically, and why it is divided so.

When I Set Out for Lyonesse by Thomas Hardy. As is usual with Hardy, this poem contains some hard words that need explaining. The startling thing about it is how much repetition it contains without sounding repetitive. A good reading will acknowledge the musicality of the repetition while laying discreet emphasis on the non-repeating lines. After they get the poem and have heard it, ask them whether you would be right to say that the speaker is King Arthur and have them defend their answers. Kenneth Koch said that a poem says what it says and suggests what it suggests. How does this poem balance direct statement and suggestion?

You will have noticed how important I believe good reading aloud is. To me, studying poetry without hearing it is like studying movies with the sound turned off.  (Philip Larkin would disagree, but his view is, I think, exceptional.) You will also have noticed a mixture of styles and types. My hope is that the students will encounter a variety of what Koch calls poetry’s ‘attractive pleasures’ and not just their meaning.


Water Water Everywhere

I’ve been away from these postings for a while, but I’m rumbling out of hibernation partly because of Hong Kong’s early spring weather (80s with humidity and rain. I just imagined Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing ‘April in Hong Kong’, but it lacks something). More than rain splashed me: Friday was the IB Grade 12s’ last day of lessons before their reading period for the exams begins.

It was rainy, but the G12s, who come to school out of uniform that day, spent some early hours ‘preparing’ the IB Building for the occasion, including booby-trapping the elevator, affixing satirical posters, and raising a huge color banner of Chairman Mao with the IB Coordinator’s face digitally superimposed on the rest of the bust. Against this backdrop they all spent the morning soaking each other and sometimes their teachers with water guns and water balloons. The IB Coordinator received a thorough drenching, and I did not entirely escape the water guns, though spoilsport that I am, I wore my Bean foul weather gear and managed to stay dry underneath. I am not sure it would have protected me against a water balloon to the head, and at one point I thought the jig was up when I rounded a corner and saw dead ahead of me one of my students eye me appraisingly while hefting a water balloon. But I was reprieved as another. more gratifying, target presented itself.  By lunchtime the festivities were over, and the students had cleaned up the broken water balloons and sodden posters and banner. All that was left was the soaking wet building, which was wet to begin with because of the rain.

All the students had a good time, but one student’s face spoke eloquently for the group again and again. It had a look of utterly gleeful intensity. The student to whom this face belongs will probably get a 44 or 45 next July but was having a ball that morning, till the fun and festivity ended. It was a bit like the end of Carnival in The Count of Monte Cristo or Benvenuto Cellini. Carnival is Carnival, but at some point it ends. We don’t always get to continue what makes us gleeful, as this student has the good sense to recognize.

He (along with his teachers!) has more good sense than the founders of a chain of proprietary schools designed to ‘create an educational “ecosystem” that was unusually responsive to the interests of children, feeding them assignments tied to subjects they cared about’. Any teacher reading the article linked above will shudder deeply at three depredations on teaching. One is the administrative nightmare of e-constructivism combined with data shining out of every orifice but not shedding much light. Another is its reduction of teachers to a kind of genial idiocy in support of the ‘work’ done by the students. The third was put best by Flannery O’Connor: ‘Ours is the first age in history to ask the student what he will tolerate learning.’

Not just teachers should be shuddering, and not just about careers in inanition. The article reports that the children at these schools often have a tendency to be caught in ‘rabbit holes’ of special interest, neglecting their ostensible focus of study. Who’d have thought? I for one had an early inkling. In 8th grade I was invited to join a ‘gifted and talented’ class at junior high school, which was called Individual Studies. We spent an hour a day in a room Rich in Resources, during which we could study anything we liked. Dreary basset hound of learning that I was, I started working on a report on South Asian religion. Meanwhile my friend the Golden Boy spent months—months!—working on hexaflexagons and origami fortune-telling cutouts. All of us marveled at the way he coaxed Mrs S into allowing him more and yet more time to exercise his creativity with scissors, paper, and colored pencils. By the time the class was disbanded as a constructivist boondoggle he could have out-Gardnered Martin Gardner on these little amusements, but he didn’t end up gaining much. He himself later regarded his hexaflexagism as a joke.

I have written elsewhere that it takes a Jonathan Winters to make much out of a constructivist attic and that most students are not little Winterses. He was funny, but throwing over education in favor of squirreling is no joke. One of the parents of a student at the ‘academy’ said, ‘We are very comfortable with our kids being guinea pigs.’ Such generosity! But other parents might justifiably question the wisdom of doing so, and they would be right. It is one thing to gamble away ones own money and time at ‘creative disruption’ or ‘failing forward,’ but children? There are times when even a teacher who lets students find out things for themselves must drop that approach and offer good old-fashioned guidance. There are times when the carnival ends and the water guns are put away.

Going back at least as far as Hawthorne and Melville we find American myths of a place of rightness, whether in the forests outside Boston or the mountaintop viewed from the Piazza, where everything is all right (and don”t forget the ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain‘!). But myths made immanent can turn messy. Educationist mythologizers always forget the mess at the end of Individual Studies and get misty-eyed about that mountaintop.

I will take satisfaction from a plan afoot for this summer. A former student, now in his final year of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) program at Oxford, will be back to conduct an entirely extracurricular colloquium in philosophy, including readings from Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Rousseau, Gettier, and Nozick. Students are already promising to attend.

The founders of the proprietary schools in the article linked above say that they want their students to know ‘skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future, rather than forcing them to acquire knowledge deemed important by historical precedent’. This is a double shovel-load of baloney. First, many of tomorrow’s jobs are also today’s jobs and planned for, while those that aren’t haven’t been imagined and can’t be planned for. Second, knowledge is only one of the three basic kinds of learning, the other two being skill and understanding. Historical precedent has prescribed learning that successfully promotes such skill as verbal fluency, consecutive thinking, meeting an argument, and marshaling one’s forces to solve a problem or answer a question, to name only a few. And encounters with great thinkers advance us in understanding, or should. Socratic encounters with the lesser thinkers that are one’s teachers also have these beneficial effects.

Water games should be a holiday from these endeavors, not an alternative to them.


The Counterfeit Condemnation

Those darned teachers’ unions! They work as always, according to The New York Times, to come between the people and good education. If only they and Congress would continue to support standardized testing, ‘value’-‘added’ ‘metrics’, and the Common Core as Duncan has taught us to do, things would be fine in US education.

I have never been close enough to a teachers’ union to know personally whether it was ‘an old-stone savage…[that] moves in darkness’, though that seems improbable given what I do know[1]. Nonetheless, for the sake of argument I will assume that is true and that they are the primary enemy of good education, just to see what comes of the argument. Let us also assume that they have somehow rightly and justly vanished or exist nominally with no power.

We may further suppose that VAMs of students’ ‘achievement’ as determined by standardized tests in English and math are connected to personnel actions for teachers—say, terminations, raises and promotion—and administrative decisions such as school closures. What does that get us?

1.     Norman Polikoff of USC has shown that the correlation of VAMs to students’ learning is very low. The state of Tennessee used English test scores as the VAMs of their music and PE teachers, which suggests the possibility of negative correlation, except in PE classes where students drill grammar instead of sports. These findings are supplemented by those of New York City’s Independent Budget Office that the VAM formulas are deeply flawed.

2.     Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford has shown that in places that have adopted VAMs only 20% of teachers who score as ‘proficient’ do so the following year. This is not because they are in the habit of falling into persistent vegetative states but because the ratings are as volatile as a game of chance.

3.     Maria Ruiz-Primo of the University of Colorado (Denver) has shown that the ability of tests to capture learning decreases the more distant they are from learning itself, and that state and national standardized tests are the least likely of the test types she has examined to capture what students learn.

4.     Raj Chetty of Harvard has found that ‘value added is difficult to predict based on teacher observables.’ This means that it is difficult to know what a teacher’s VAM rating will be by observing how he conducts a class. How evidence-based!

These writers’ findings on education, taken together, suggest that VAMs are a useless and capricious measurement and that any system which uses them to evaluate teachers will be acting arbitrarily. The effect of such a system will be wayward, counterproductive and demoralizing. What intelligent person would choose a career working under such conditions? What right-minded policymaker would insist that such a system continue?

Other results would ensue. Salary scales would tend to flatten for senior teachers (assuming there are any) since no one would be fighting to keep them. Charter schools, looking for ways to make a profit at someone’s expense, would certainly flatten their salary scales. Many ‘CEOs’ of charter schools already publicly say that they don’t want teachers who have been around a while. Instead, they want short-timers, backpackers, and interns young and compliant enough to be used and then discarded after a few years (hence charter schools’ 24% annual faculty turnover). Alternatively, raises would be given on the basis of VAM ratings. Few teachers would survive the Volatile Arbitrary Measurement crapshoot with the two successive years of highly effective ratings needed to receive ‘merit’ raises. More disincentive, if such were needed, to clever and promising young people to become teachers.

Please note that in all this reform nothing has been done to improve the quality of teacher education or the standard of teachers’-college graduates. How bad are the teachers’ colleges? We could quibble, but if a study can find that only 7% of them offer ‘strong support [to student teachers] from program staff and cooperating teachers,’ most of them must not be very good.

Finally there is the fact that before students can be made college-ready or career-ready, they must be work-ready. Work-readiness does not come miraculously to most young people: it must be nurtured and developed by sound child-rearing, which does not mean permissive-indulgent ‘parenting’ and schools that give away the store. In the article the Times linked to its editorial, a boy called Imari Nicholson, after failing chemistry, pulls up his socks and aces it because he wants the college-readiness an A in chemistry will bring him. He implicitly rejects crapthink solutions provided by indulgent educationists or parents—or he doesn’t have such teachers or parents.

The Times would do well to look at all the things that can come between a child and a good education:  poor or dysfunctional upbringing, fecklessness, poor teacher education, poor school administration, lightweight curricula, counterproductive demands by government, administration by idiotic statistical systems instead of finesse and good judgment—and, yes, self-serving teachers’ unions. To concentrate on just one of them will all but guarantee that nothing changes and that some things worsen.

[1] For example: If it were true, how could the highly unionized system of education in Massachusetts produce what are widely recognized as the US’s best school results? Or, for that matter, Finland’s highly unionized system?


Look Both Ways

One should feel gratified to look back on the departure of Bunkin’ Duncan from the Department of Education and the seeming death of No Child Left Behind, except for the persistent sinking feeling that nothing has really changed. Duncan’s replacement John King Jr. sounds as if he supports the same kinds of things Duncan did. As for NCLB: its successor act, a kind of zombie bill called Every Student Succeeds[1], seems to keep it all too, except that it de-federalizes enforcement. We may expect it to prove that bad ideas, bad policies, bad implementation and bad ‘measurement’ lead to bad results at the state level just as they did at the federal level. So much for looking back. What lies ahead?

The US will continue to have two-tier education. The first tier will comprise successful primary and secondary schools full of motivated pupils and the universities they ‘feed’. The second tier will have lots of Potemkin villages of ‘learning’ filled with disaffected desultory ‘students’ who learn little at any level—primary, secondary, or tertiary—and for whom ‘failure is not an option’ only because true education is not an option.  Though exceptions like Oakland Technical High School’s Paideia Program and New Orleans’s Xavier University will continue to be first-tier, they will prove the rule that for poor students or students of color the options are comparatively unattractive.

The US will continue to have a two-tier culture of teaching and learning. In the first tier will be those who live in places like Massachusetts with its remnant of Puritan respect for education[2], or who come from personal and family circumstances advantageous to students and from places like East and South Asia, where education remains a prized and respected attainment worth working hard for. The second tier includes the substrate analyzed by Richard Hofstadter in Anti-intellectualism in American Life, but it includes more as well. I mean the large population who while not harboring an animus against education, do not get to experience education at its best and do not particularly want to try it. They are likely to think that the Homework Lady is rigorous in her demands. Wait till they meet the Boss, assuming they can find work in the global economy.

The states will be no more successful implementing ‘value’-‘added’ ‘learning’ under ESS than was the federal government under NCLB and RAT. It is not that states are necessarily as bad as the feds at doing education administration. Massachusetts proves otherwise. It is that no one can implement VAL because it is based on something that does not exist. Worse, it operates like a chance mechanism, a stochastic process, a roll of the dice.

The Sirens of Online Learning will continue to make mischief, and many poor souls will listen. These postings have included many explanations why OLL is a second-rate alternative to live education, so let me just present the latest, which came out this week. It is a study showing that old-fashioned toys are better for babies’ language acquisition than bells & whistles are because they leave it more likely that the parents will interact with the babies. Human interaction is a key to education at all levels from infancy to adulthood, and OLL is just a gimmicked-up version of letting the gadget do the baby-sitting. But it is cheap, and it is seductive: just think: no more salary bills or pesky persons.

Nothing important will be done to put a stop to scandalously bad teacher education, nor will anything important be done to keep school administration out of the hands of incompetents or monsters of the deep. It is well known that some teachers’ colleges graduate teachers who are less knowledgeable than suburban high-school students. It is less well known that teachers as a profession are dead last in rating their work environment and their relations with their supervisors.

Teaching will be a less popular professional career option and will attract fewer bright prospects. The 24% average annual teacher turnover rate in charter schools suggests that they will have to keep manning the shovels at full steam to stay open. (Someone should man the personnel department instead.) Public schools don’t do much better. And if lessons continue a trend to make them idiot-proof, it won’t be long before only idiots will give those lessons. And then there is always that Stalinist principal[3]. We know that places like Wisconsin are making it harder for teaching to be attractive. It is appalling to think that all these averages and general statistics include schools that are very good, which means that like the Little Girl with the Little Curl, when they’re bad they’re horrid. Bright young people may do charitable turns, but except at the good schools they won’t stay. Why should they? Baloney like DoE’s TEACH ad campaign won’t make a difference. Some schools and districts will attract more clever new teachers than they know what to do with, and the others will not. It is sad to think that even with its demonstrable second-ratedness, online learning may become more popular just to (try and) fill the gaps in humanity.

[1] Too bad it wasn’t called All Students Succeed.

[2] The Boston Latin School, a public school founded in 1635, comes to mind. All students are still required to take Latin and to declaim publicly in English or another language. There are five applicants for every place.

[3] Unlike in Finland, where bright teachers are taught and then trusted. The linked article in Smithsonian magazine is worth reading from end to end.