Some obvious comments about school improvement and the achievement gap.

by Harry on February 12, 2009

Various forces seem to have converged from different directions to force me to learn something about school improvement, and I, conveniently, have very easy access both to one of the experts and to a practitioner involved in improvement at a particular school. Here are some initial thoughts which may be too obvious for you to bother with. Comments on what I need to learn and how are more than welcome.

If you are charged with improving your school, you will usually be told something like this: our aim is to raise achievement for all students and to address the achievement gap. First thing is just that these are quite different, and conflicting, aims. If everyone’s achievement goes up by the same amount, then the gap remains the same. So if you also are charged with addressing the achievement gap, you’d better figure out strategies for raising the achievement of lower achievers by more than you are raising the achievement of higher achievers. [1]

How are you going to raise achievement of anyone? In normal industries there are two ways to increase output. Either you increase productivity, or you increase the inputs (in the case of education this is mainly going to come in the form of additional labour). Are you being given extra resources with which to purchase more labour? My guess is that, in the current environment in the US at least, the answer to that is “no”. So, you have to somehow increase productivity, that is increase the effectiveness of the teachers you already have.

So, what increase in achievement are you aiming for? Do you really think that you are going to close the achievement gap? That is, do you really think that you are going to get the lowest achievers in your school achieving at a higher level than the highest achievers currently do? (which is what you have to do if you are going to pursue school improvement at the same time). Think for a moment at the Herculean increase in productivity that would require. Do you really think there is that much slack in the school? Or do you mean, by addressing the achievement gap, something much more modest, like increasing the achievement of the highest achievers by 5% and that of the lowest by 10%? If so, and if you are going to be improving the school, then you still need to find something between 5 and 10% increase in effectiveness.

How are you going to do this?

Nobody denies that schools have lots of inefficiencies in them (or rather, some deny this publicly, but none do privately when pushed—my experience is that when a teacher denies there is any waste in their district, the easiest way to get them to retract is to ask what they did during their last in-service). But some of those inefficiencies are not within your power to eliminate; you cannot fire the worst teachers and principals, for example, or prohibit teachers from attending wasteful district meetings. The constraints are less strict if your district is on board with improvement, and is willing to implement district-wide policies that make sense. But still, you have limited space. Other inefficiencies are just difficult to identify. Mainly, what you want to do is improve the quality of the classroom teaching, and improve the fit between students and teachers (e.g., if you find that some teachers work especially well with middle-level achievers you assign them to classes populated by such children; if you find some work very badly with high achievers you don’t assign them to such classes).

But how are you going to do that? The truth is that while lots of people in the building “know” who the good teachers are, very few people in the building actually know much about what is going on in anyone’s classroom. If that’s not true in your building, then you already have a pretty good school, and while you should try to improve you should also understand that you can’t get much better than pretty good. If it is true, then the way to improve is to find out what is going on in the classrooms so you can improve it. The teachers who are successful should be observed by those who are less so, and should mentor them; the teachers who are especially successful with particular sub-populations should be assigned to them more often than they currently are.

But how are you going to figure out which teachers are more successful? The standard way of doing this is by listening to gossip and following your instinctive emotional reaction to the teacher in question. My guess is that the worst gossip is worth following up, but that otherwise you’ve just got a lot of noise.

You need a common curriculum, well articulated, and common assessments so that you can figure out which students are actually learning from which teachers. Mapping curriculum is a lot of work, and has to be done, in part, by the teachers themselves. Successful mapping is needed for figuring out who is teaching effectively, but it should, also, free up considerable resources. Think of all the time that beginning teachers spend working up curriculums that aren’t so great and that they don’t have confidence in (even when they are great) because they have nothing to check them against except their underdeveloped instincts. With curricular materials and lesson plans already available for them to follow and modify (and in which they can at least have the confidence that their school approves of them) time and energy is freed up for concentrating on teaching students. In a school with these resources some proportion of early career teachers who would otherwise have dropped out in frustration and because they are burned out may not do so – over time you have fewer beginning teachers and more experienced teachers in the building.

Doing all this is a lot of work, takes a lot of time and discussion, and requires capacity that lots of schools don’t have readily to hand. For example, many schools do not have people in them who know how to, and are willing to, run a meeting—design a timed agenda, draw in all stakeholders, facilitate discussion among people who have different experiences and real disagreements. Most people, in my experience, don’t even recognise that this is a skill. (My tip—if you are in a district that is running a school improvement effort, convince UTLA to release its special projects director (scroll down) to train people in all your schools to chair meetings—he’s the best there is).

Judith Little is frequently quoted at length (most recently in Fullan’s The New Meaning of Educational Change) and it’s worth thinking about the reaction to this quote if you handed it out among your staff:


School improvement is most surely and thoroughly achieved when: Teachers engage in frequent, continuous and increasingly concrete and precise talk about teaching practice (as distinct from teacher characteristics and failings, the social lives of teachers, the foibles and failures of students and their families, and the unfortunate demands of society on the school). By such talk, teachers build up a shared language adequate to the complexity of teaching, capable of distinguishing one practice and its virtue from another.

Teachers and administrators frequently observe each other teaching, and provide one another with useful (if potentially frightening) evaluations of their teaching. Only such observations and feedback can provide shared referents for the shared language of teaching, and both demand and provide the precision and concreteness, which makes talk about teaching useful.

Teachers and administrators plan, design, research, evaluate and prepare teaching materials together. The most prescient observations remain academic (“just theory”) without the machinery to act on them. By joint work on materials, teachers and administrators share the considerable burden of development required by long term improvement, confirm their emerging understanding of their approach, and make rising standards for their work attainable by them and by their students. Teachers and administrators teach each other the practice of teaching. (itals in the original, but the bolded part is my doing).

The question isn’t just whether this is going on in your school. The question is, if it is not, how will teachers react to the sentence I have bolded? In plenty of comfortable suburban schools in the US it would be anathema. Some of them, are also going to fear that any move in this direction will, ultimately, be used to evaluate them (and they’re going to be right!). But one way or the other, both improving the school and addressing the achievement gap requires that managers give close scrutiny to the effectiveness of teachers, and requires teachers and administrators to understand that they have to see their own learning about teaching the way they see their students’ learning and even their own learning about every other complex and difficult activity. If you don’t think teachers and administrators should be observing, evaluating, and learning from each other, then you need to think very hard indeed about where improvements are going to come from.

If, of course, you are an administrator or, as is more likely, you’re someone without management authority who has been put “in charge” of running a school improvement initiative, and you are in a school where the above quote will be ill-received, its probably not a good idea to move straight into evaluative mode! But you do need to figure out how to get people to the place where they see mutual observation and learning as worth overcoming their fears for.

Now for the depressing coda. The populations of schools that recognise they need to improve is not constant, but in flux. The amount of control that the school has over student achievement is limited. Out-of-school influences also have an effect. If the demographics are changing, then it is entirely possible that in 3 years time your achievement will be down across the board, and the gap greater, despite the fact that you really have improved, and addressed the gap. For a lot of schools this is very likely indeed right now, because the economic crisis will result in more kids being more disadvantaged, and more at who are quite disadvantaged becoming very disadvantaged. Make sure that you and your staff understand something about the limits of the effects of schooling on achievement, even as you try to improve those effects.

[1] “The achievement gap” is an unfortunate phrase. Policymakers often mean something quite specific (but counterintuitive) by it – the gap in achievement of some low level of proficiency in certain skills between children from different social and, sometimes, racial backgrounds. But teachers and administrators sometimes take it to mean more or less what it would mean in ordinary English. Since nobody seriously believes that the achievement gap in this sense is eliminable, it is setting people up for failure to talk about “Eliminating” or even “Narrowing” the achievement gap. Some other phrase altogether might be better; a less final one like “prioritizing raising the achievement of the lowest third of achievers”. If anyone can come up with a pithy phrase that captures that I’ll tell my dad to start using it.

{ 85 comments }

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jim 02.12.09 at 11:24 pm

Would that bolded sentence be well-received anywhere? Surely one of the attractions of teaching is its relative autonomy: it’s _your_ classroom. It’s one thing to share syllabi and teaching plans and materials; it’s another to teach in the full glare of the panopticon.

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Slocum 02.13.09 at 12:55 am

I can tell you exactly how schools around here ‘close’ the achievement gap–it’s pretty depressing. They do it with statistical shenanigans. If you take a state test and make it a bit easier (or grade it a bit easier — or even align your curriculum to it a bit better), then two magical things happen. First, overall passing rates go up — majority students improve their pass rates from, say, 80% to 90%, where further increases start to bump up against the upper limits of the test. In the meantime, minority students may increase their passing rates from, say 45% to 65%. So the school systems can claim:

1. Achievement has improved for everybody!

AND

2. The achievement gap has shrunk!

In theory, all students can be top scholars and the achievement gap will disappear completely if only you make the test easy enough that everybody passes. If you do this gradually, you can spend years claiming improvements in overall performance AND a shrinking achievement gap. Careers in education administration can be built using this method.

Of course, if you were a killjoy, you’d do the simple analysis of looking at the number of standard deviations between the group means, and you’ll find the gap hasn’t actually budged (at least until the test is so easy, that there can be no group differences). For that reason, such statistics are never calculated or reported. So be very skeptical of attempts to address the achievement gap that rely on tests where results are reported in terms of passing rates and where majority students pass at a very high rates.

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Witt 02.13.09 at 1:01 am

I might call it “raising the floor.” Then you’re not making a claim about whether the lowest-level students are going to equal or surpass the higher-level students, but you’re acknowledging that their absolute level of achievement is problematic and that to be able to function successfully in adult society, they deserve to be able to pass some minimum absolute (not relative) standards.

On another note, I’m familiar with a large, violent, chaotic, difficult urban high school tht is currently under threat of closure for “poor performance.” This wouldn’t be an especially bad thing if the students had any prayer of landing somewhere better. Unfortunately, they’re likely to end up in a version of the same school, just farther away from their neighborhood.

The challenging thing is that the cited reasons for closing the school are:
- Lousy achivement under No Child Left Behind (true, but unlikely to be solved by moving the students elsewhere)
- Large numbers of violent incidents (true, but numbers only exist because the principal is unusually diligent about reporting them. The school isn’t more violent than its fellow similar schools, it just looks that way)
- Large numbers of suspensions (yes, ditto above, and because administrators have chosen to back up their rhetoric about disruptive students with concrete punishments)

Now, the people who have been brought in to improve this district are no doubt well-intentioned and good human beings, at least for the most part. I don’t doubt that they look at the statistics at this school and think “No child should be forced to learn in such an environment,” which indeed is what I think every time I go there. But that they then make the leap to defining the problem as the statistics is something that is both perpetual and maddening in my experience of US urban public schools.

I don’t disagree with much of anything in your post. But after 15+ years of observation, I am still at a complete loss as to how we even keep young people physically safe, much less create an environment in which the adult authorities feel emotionally safe enough to engage in the kind of teaching practice that you describe. The counter-incentives just seem so gigantic.

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salient 02.13.09 at 1:49 am

Thank you for sharing an excellent and astute post, Henry. I hope you weren’t asking those teachers about “waste” in public, though — the response to any allegation of wasteful school spending is a reduction in funding, and what teacher would want even tangential blame for funding reduction? Not to mention, somehow during the reallocation process the wasteful programs are the ones that skirt by untouched, because they’re navigated through the budget reallocation process by a single savvy individual as their pet project. So other, already-underfunded programs have funding axed instead.

It’s one thing to share syllabi and teaching plans and materials; it’s another to teach in the full glare of the panopticon.

As a teacher who burned out in high school and is now flourishing in an environment where there is more of this sort of supportive panopticon, I say yes, please. I can also assure you that I’d be speaking for many of the beginning teachers in my cohort (who attended graduate school to acquire education degrees while teaching) in saying yes, please.

Find me an inexperienced teacher in an even moderately turbulent school who wouldn’t gladly wear a HELP ME sign if it stood any chance of attracting help. And interactive help does require immersion and observation and evaluation, and so long as the evaluation didn’t boil down entirely to — Should you stay or should you go? — I imagine most novice teachers would happily participate.

The word “supportive” is key: evaluations for the purpose of development and improvement. Nobody especially enjoys job security, and nobody enjoys evaluations in which the entire point of the exercise is to “clear the bar” and be safely employed for another year. Evaluations need to be structured as interactive, whole-departmental, with shared concrete explicitly-stated goals.

I’d propose an alternative (roughly equivalent) means for testing whether a school is ready for improvement with its current faculty: assuming faculty members have some kind of monthly meeting in which they accomplish meaningful tasks together, do faculty members feel they spend too much time meeting as a department, or not enough? Unless schools have faculty that genuinely desire to operate as unified groups, it’ll be a Herculean effort to get any improvement plan off the ground.

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North 02.13.09 at 2:03 am

As an ex-teacher, I love all these ideas. I would have loved to have a curriculum – and lesson plans! with materials! – but in some of my classes, I didn’t even have a list of course objectives. I made them up. I didn’t know what I was doing, and could seriously have used an existing curriculum (or a couple of them: I think I could have picked the best curriculum for my own use out of 3ish options). But the joint-construction-of-knowledge cognitive framework you advocate for requires a tremendous amount of existing abilities and resources. In my large, violent urban school, they weren’t there. Maybe someone amazing could have facilitated that kind of meeting; but genius facilitators are in fairly short supply.

Which is to say: great ideas. I got no real hope that they’re going anywhere.

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salient 02.13.09 at 2:15 am

(Note – I am sorry for the error – I realize it’s Harry, not Henry – it seems I can’t compensate for a Preview button)

Anyhow, one thought, since you specifically requested ideas and suggestions:

What kind of research has been done that could help teachers better understand students who lack self-control? I’m not asking about the merely recalcitrant, but specifically violent students, fight-initiators or let’s say dispute-initiators to include those who talk smack first but throw punches second. Maybe we should include students who choose to verbally insult and harass others as well.

How can teachers establish a coherent and effective support network and rehabilitation plan for this category of students, and for the students directly & indirectly affected by them?

If we are able to find a feasible answer to that question, I suspect it will by-leaps-and-bounds improve the quality of American rural schools.

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Matthew Kuzma 02.13.09 at 2:46 am

You make a good point about teachers viewing their learning process about teaching as they do all other learning processes. But I think most people would find it harder and more uncomfortable to do their jobs while being evaluated by their peers, and certainly other professions have managed to achieve performance improvements without such measures, no?

One idea for sharing the teching experience and talking about techniques and skills would be to encourage co-teaching as a mutual learning experience. If you design a co-teaching experience with the goal of getting as many teachers as possible to work together, they will then have some common experiences to reference in their discussions of teaching practice. This has two problems I can easily see. The first is a class-size concern, since you don’t exactly have teachers to spare. This is a problem shared by any sort of peer-evalutaion system. I’m not sure what the solution to that problem is. The other problem is something I see as kind of an exciting opportunity: the problem of different teachers from different subjects needing to co-teach a class. The co-teaching classes could be a potentially invigorating foray for the students into the crossover between any two subjects: math and history might talk about the context in which whatever math is being studied was discovered, whether it’s trigonometry for hitting castles with cannons, or geometry for building boats and mapping coastlines. Ultimately, this approach would have quite a bit of overhead associated with it, in terms of specialty curricula that would need to be developed, and the planning needed for coordinating all the class and teacher schedules, but it could get some students excited about subjects that were previously irrelevant to them, and would create a cooperative environment in which to discuss improved teaching performance.

I absolutely agree with you about the issue of redundant curriculum design, and I think it’d be good to take it many steps further, coordinating curriculum design among all the schools in the country, or world. Why should all the 9-grade math teachers design their own curricula when there are probably only a few dozen different types among them, and when that work’s been done many times already?

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ScentOfViolets 02.13.09 at 3:29 am

I don’t mean to sound like an old curmudgeon, but the answer to improving performance is really rather simple: give the teachers some authority to actually kick out the malefactors and to award failing grades. If someone doesn’t shape up, ship ‘em out.

Hold the parents accountable for the failures of their children, and enforce accountability with real, believable sanctions.

This wouldn’t take a lot of money, only some backbone. Iow, this nonsense of great responsibility with no power has got to stop, as does it’s converse, great power with no responsibility (I can’t believe I’m riffing on Uncle Ben.)

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salient 02.13.09 at 4:01 am

This wouldn’t take a lot of money, only some backbone.

I’m trying to think of how to respond to this politely, and please forgive me if this sounds sarcastic, it’s meant sincerely.

We don’t have child labor anymore, and you can’t just vaporize students because they misbehave, and imprisoning an entire subpopulation of adolescents for poor performance or behavior is not only impracticable, it’s profoundly immoral. When teenage chain gangs start to seem like the most appropriate option, you know you’ve walked the wrong theoretical road.

So, these kids that don’t shape up: where exactly do you want these children to go?

And what kind of sanctions do you enforce on broke parents, many of whom are suffering from emotional and psychic traumas that are, collectively, a punishment far beyond your poor power to add or subtract?

Look, it’s really emotionally comforting to lash out at… negligent or negligent-seeming parents, or their misbehaving kids. I understand that. And I sympathize with how you feel. But it’s not a productive contribution. The ‘malefactors’ are, and are going to be, part of our society. Even prisoners, away from the public eye, are part of our society. And the whole of our society ought to be judged by how we, as an organized community, treat the populations we’d honestly rather wish away into nonexistence.

It is the height of irresponsibility and hubris to insist these children are not worth our investment and should be malefactor-labeled out of our cognizance. These children will continue to exist even if we kick them out of our arena and stop paying attention to them, and they have human rights. Many of these children (and by ‘these children’ I’m referencing the category I established upthread) don’t respect the human rights of others. That’s a problem. And it’s a problem not solved by shape-up-or-ship-out containment policies. We tried that, in a way. We called it the War on Drugs. And it made a lot of well-off, insecure, cantankerous people a little happier, for a while.

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ScentOfViolets 02.13.09 at 4:14 am

Salient, I’m going to respond politely, and not talk down to you, even though you seem to be one of those that it is really hard not to do so. Please don’t take that wrong.

You seem to be reacting to a lot of things I simply did not say. I also seem to recall children being permanently expelled from school in the 50′s, possibly as late as the 60′s, and I don’t see any great harm that was done then.

I simply require a certain minimal set of expectations, such as actually doing the homework, not being disruptive in class (in case I wasn’t clear, I’m talking about grades eight and up), that sort of thing. Nor am I restricting my comments to the, shall we say, not so well off, in fact, it has been my experience has been that some of the most egregious offenders are of the well-to-do class.

And try to refrain from this sort of boiler-plate:

It is the height of irresponsibility and hubris to insist these children are not worth our investment and should be malefactor-labeled out of our cognizance. These children will continue to exist even if we kick them out of our arena and stop paying attention to them, and they have human rights. Many of these children (and by ‘these children’ I’m referencing the category I established upthread) don’t respect the human rights of others. That’s a problem. And it’s a problem not solved by shape-up-or-ship-out containment policies. We tried that, in a way. We called it the War on Drugs. And it made a lot of well-off, insecure, cantankerous people a little happier, for a while.

And no, I don’t particularly like doing this to children, but the alternative is to leave them in class, soaking up very limited resources which would be much better spent helping others. We are talking about how to make the best use of limited resources, are we not? Take the two bad guys out of class, and it’s amazing how sometimes that’s enough to make the other 30 kids markedly improve. I’m sorry that you can’t deal with this as a reality, but, there it is.

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salient 02.13.09 at 4:37 am

I don’t see any great harm that was done then.

It’s easy to not see things. In another discussion, someone applying your approach to problem-solving might not see the harm done by, say, segregation. They might say: why not just contain all those unruly black kids? Keep them away from the white kids who want to do well. Now, I know that’s not what you’re saying, but I find it hard to see how you’re

soaking up very limited resources

It’s weird to think about a human being like a sponge. I’m not being any kind of literalist: I just don’t buy the idea that a significant subpopulation of people are inherently, irreversibly resource-drains. I just think we don’t know what the hell to do with them, and imprisoning them and then patting ourselves on the back for being “strict” and having “high standards” is easier than figuring out a solution that might be more, I don’t know, enfranchising?

We are talking about how to make the best use of limited resources, are we not?

Define ‘best’: what’s the goal?

Take the two bad guys out

Where?

I’m sorry that you can’t deal with this as a reality, but, there it is.

I don’t think you’re at all sorry. I think you’re pleased to call out someone who doesn’t understand the ‘tough love’ approach to rehabilitating children. (And I don’t see any point in restricting our discussion to high school when the same problems are occurring years sooner in the same kids that act out in high school.)

I’m refraining from sarcasm as best I can, but I tend to smirk at all the “tough talk” along this line, that takes a rather voiceless population and “puts it in its place.” To get what we want, we just have to imprison or vaporize {subpopulation we’d rather wish away}! That’s reality! Just need to get with it!

Yeah, “imprison or vaporize” is dramatic language, but you haven’t answered the question: where do these rejected/failed-out kids go?

I don’t particularly like doing this to children

Then don’t hash on people who are trying to think up alternatives, okay?

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salient 02.13.09 at 4:43 am

Oops. Incomplete first paragraph, but it’s obvious from context where I was going with it. Anyhow, a fuller response to this:

Take the two bad guys out of class, and it’s amazing how sometimes that’s enough to make the other 30 kids markedly improve.

I know a teacher who used to joke, if we held an assembly with all the kids at our school and announced that from now on, once a week we’d choose a miscreant student to disembowel in front of everyone, they’d learn to shape up real quick. Of course, it’d be an empty threat until the first execution. He’d say it would take two: with a grin, he’d note that after the first one, the kids would figure it was a one-time shock gag and continue as normal, but after the second, they’d catch on.

So yes, this is a dramatization if you like, but at any given school if you took one miscreant a week out to firing squad, you’d have a “perfect” school after a couple weeks. Amazing how that works. That doesn’t mean it’s good policy.

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Brennan 02.13.09 at 5:37 am

“my experience is that when a teacher denies there is any waste in their district, the easiest way to get them to retract is to ask what they did during their last in-service”

“School improvement is most surely and thoroughly achieved when: Teachers engage in frequent, continuous and increasingly concrete and precise talk about teaching practice “

I would like an explanation on how one person can find the above sentences significantly out of place in the same article. I think the intent of the first was to poke a little fun at teachers who think that schools, on balance, are efficient. At least I hope so.

I would hope for significant work on curriculum, grade-grade agreements, and strong teaching teams, and I think all that reuires many more in-service days…

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Matthew Kuzma 02.13.09 at 6:49 am

The issue of disruptive kids is a huge one. I have a friend who quit teaching precisely because he wasn’t up to the task of enforcing discipline with the limited tools available to him.

There really are disruptive kids who “soak up limited resources” in the sense that their presence in the classroom diminishes the learning experience of every other child there, if not outright annihilating it. There really are kids who take more than half their teacher’s time, let alone more than the 1/30th a uniform distribution of resources would allot. This isn’t a matter of minor imbalances in resource distribution, it’s a matter of kids who genuinely ruin the classroom for everyone. They exist and they need to be dealt with somehow.

You’re right that we can’t kick kids out of school, and we can’t really do much to get parents to care any more than they’re inclined to, but we can certainly do more than we are doing now. The old saying about horses and water is relevant here, in that the mandate the schools have to teach everyone simply won’t be possible; there will always be some kids (maybe only a tiny tiny fraction) who simply can’t be brought to care under any circumstances. There’s no sense letting them continue to be a disruption to everyone else.

At the same time, it’s a terrible idea to think that any kid who can’t conform to a certain ideal is a problem student. One of the biggest mistakes the schools have made is to believe that one size fits all in classroom experience. We’ve come a long way with charter schools and magnet programs in differentiating between different interests and learning styles, but where disruption and difficulty comes from incompatible learning and teaching styles, we need get a lot better at teaching kids as they are rather than as we wish they would be.

Regardless, let’s not get stupid about this debate. When a kid is disruptive to a class, he or she is causing problems. We’re not writing anyone off by admitting the fact that they’re being disruptive and causing problems. They can’t go home, but they don’t have to stay here. And we don’t have to pussyfoot around the fact that they’re causing trouble, either. Actions have consequences and insisting that you bear the consequences of your actions rather than foisting them onto innocent bystanders is not cruel or degrading, it’s justice.

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James Kroeger 02.13.09 at 8:54 am

How are you going to raise achievement of anyone? In normal industries there are two ways to increase output. Either you increase productivity, or you increase the inputs…

On just about every planet I’m aware of, it is well understood that when you want to improve the quality of the output in some industry, your costs are going to increase. Why is it that we can accept this truism in most industries, but then expect that there must be some other way when it comes to the education industry?

It is absolutely necessary that we increase the quantity of resources that teachers have available to them if they are going to be able to improve the quality of their output. What resource is it that teachers find themselves most in need of? The answer is TIME.

Teaching smart kids in the suburbs is easy money. They are ‘low maintenance’ kids who can be taught with the utmost of efficiency. It is the marginal students who need the extra time. That time is not available when the student/teacher ratio is large. The most dependable way to improve test scores in schools that have a significant number of marginal students is to reduce student/teacher ratios to maybe 8-to1. That means hiring more teachers and building more classrooms. Gee, if you want a quality product, I guess you need to pay for it.

Matthew Kuzma:

There really are disruptive kids who “soak up limited resources” in the sense that their presence in the classroom diminishes the learning experience of every other child there, if not outright annihilating it.

This is quite true. The solution is to remove any of those kids from classrooms who don’t want to be there. As a teacher, I should be fully authorized to have any child removed from my classroom who either does not want to be there, or who has a problem with being chronically disruptive. I need that authority in order to provide the students who do want to be there with the highest quality educational experience.

What should be done with the malcontents? I think they should be given more choices. Instead of requiring that they be in school, they should have the opportunity to work full-time, instead (from say the age of 14). Maybe if they’ve worked for a living for a few years, they’ll find the incentive within themselves to go back to school and behave themselves. One option that should not be available to them is “hanging out” or watching television or doing nothing. They must either be going to school or working full-time at jobs they are able to perform to the satisfaction of their employers. These kids would have to be monitored constantly.

If a kid does not want to go to school and does not want to work or cannot hold a job, then he/she should be required to report to a ‘place’ (I didn’t use the word ‘bootcamp’) where they will work anyway. These kids need to have a totally structured day, where they are kept busy, nearly all of the time. All of this can be done in the name of ‘expanded choice.’

Wherever a kid ends up, the door should always be open for him/her to earn her way back into the school system, if he/she can convince the school authorities that he/she is willing to behave and do the work required, on a conditional basis.

This kind of approach restores the proper kinds of incentives to all involved. Students who behave will not be distracted by the malcontents. Their grades will improve. The students who don’t want to go to school should have an opportunity to attend classes where the student/teacher ratio is very small, optimizing their ability to learn. They will understand that attending school is a privilege that must be earned. The number of students in the boot camps will gradually decrease to very small numbers over time.

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mpowell 02.13.09 at 9:55 am

The issue of what to do with kids who are very strong distractions is a very difficult and interesting one, but I don’t think it needs to hijack this entire discussion. I think there are many schools where improving the teaching process itself could yield considerable benefits without addressing this other issue at all. Regarding the issue of evaluation, I think that the kind of direct evaluation we are talking about in the rest of the professional world is, in fact, quite rare. However, teaching can easily become far more autonomous than most professional environments will be. Usually, frequent interactions with colleagues is the norm and you get a chance to more or less directly evaluate everyone else’s output. In your average high school, I imagine that beyond test results, this is almost entirely missing. It certainly would be worth fixing.

Also, I don’t think it’s unusual in the professional world to expect improvements in efficiency overtime without increases in cost. This is pretty much the entire premise of growth in our economy. Better tools, better training and better management technique are all expected to improve the output of our work force per unit time. Of course, it is easy to see that there may be up front costs if you have to hire someone for the specific purpose of organizing curriculum meetings or peer evaluation processes, but there is no reason to believe a priori that student learning/teacher hour invested cannot improve taking all things into account.

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blah 02.13.09 at 10:45 am

‘I just don’t buy the idea that a significant subpopulation of people are inherently, irreversibly resource-drains.’ (salient)
Not irreversibly or inherently. You are the one who seems to insist that the only options are to either lock them up and throw away the key or to let them ruin school for everyone else. I’d love to hear any new or good ideas about what we could do for these kids, but pretending that everything is fine as they ruin school for everyone else isn’t it. It’s been tried and I was there.

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Pete 02.13.09 at 10:54 am

“defining the problem as the statistics”

This blights far more fields than education. Medicine in particular, but also crime.

I feel that the problem with disruptive students is caused by failure to address the D word in an intelligent way. Perhaps the solution is to offer everyone the right to an education, but not necessarily force them to take it as children.

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mpowell 02.13.09 at 10:56 am

Just to be clear I was responding to this:


On just about every planet I’m aware of, it is well understood that when you want to improve the quality of the output in some industry, your costs are going to increase. Why is it that we can accept this truism in most industries, but then expect that there must be some other way when it comes to the education industry?

from 15.

It is perfectly sensible to talking about efficiency and funding as two separable issues. Whether you are starting a new company or bringing in a business consultant, what you are saying is, “we think there is a better way to do this- one that will generate more revenue from a fixed capital base”. That is the whole idea of market capitalism. Let people with different ideas of how to do things compete for capital and the people with the best ideas will give the best returns on capital. There is no reason to believe that our education system is already doing this optimally. No one seriously concerned about the outcome is recommending that market capitalism will work for this case, but since we are not relying on market capitalism, we must develop alternative strategies for helping people and incentivizing them to maximize the return on our social investment.

I am belaboring this point a bit because I have noticed what seems to me to be a lazy tendency on the left to airily dismiss educational issues with a, ‘we have to increase funding if we want better performance’ attitude. There is nothing wrong with advocating increased funding for schools. But it is still true that for the same net cost, different educational strategies can have substantially different education outcomes.

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James Wimberley 02.13.09 at 11:07 am

“Bilge pumping”. (For paperwork use Witt’s “raising the floor”.) If you don’t pump the bilges in a leaky ship, it sinks. Not so good on the self-esteem front, though.

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Stuart 02.13.09 at 1:17 pm

School teachers in the US seriously have to create their own curriculums? Bizarre.

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Slocum 02.13.09 at 1:33 pm

A few additional comments. First of all, the focus on disruptive students and chaotic inner-city schools is misplaced, I think — these cannot be the main factors in the achievement gap, because achievement gaps in racially integrated districts across the country that are generally, well-funded, well-run, and high-performing. I live in one of those districts (Ann Arbor), but there are many with similar characteristics and achievement gaps (Evanston, Madison, Princeton, etc). Many can be found as members of the ‘Minority Student Achievement Network’.

If the gap exists stubbornly persists where there’s integration, money, good social order, and a strong, repeated focus on the gap itself, I think we have to conclude that conditions of inner-city schools (bad as they may be) just aren’t the root problem.

I’m also skeptical of this:

Teachers and administrators frequently observe each other teaching, and provide one another with useful (if potentially frightening) evaluations of their teaching. Only such observations and feedback can provide shared referents for the shared language of teaching, and both demand and provide the precision and concreteness, which makes talk about teaching useful.

Not only because it would be difficult to get teachers and their unions to buy into such a process (yes, they would fight it), but also because of the idea that mutual coaching is the key to improvement, which I doubt. I’m always skeptical of reports of progress in the achievement gap, because the pressures to manufacture results is intense. But the one approach that seems to produce statistically reliable, meaningful improvement for minority students is Direct Instruction. But rub is that ‘direct instruction’ has a strong ‘back to basics’ flavor and reduces teacher autonomy, both of which are anathema to the unions and most of the education establishment. I find it hard to read things like The Reading First Controversy and not conclude that the politics are intractable, that they have and will to continue to obstruct progress. But perhaps the political disputes become less intense under Obama? I’m not counting on it (see, for example, Arne Duncan and Neoliberal Racism). Sigh.

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salient 02.13.09 at 1:37 pm

They can’t go home, but they don’t have to stay here.

It all sounds very sensible on its face: just get rid of the problems, and all your problems are gone! The magic of tyranny!

I think this is the centerpiece of the power-of-exile debate: equip teachers with the power of exile, and problem behavior will eventually fix itself. Students will see it is in their best interest to behave well, and will do so. Is that a fair characterization of the philosophy behind power-of-exile? It’s like trusting in the market: rational actors will start making rational decisions in response to a given stimulus, like threatening to exile them and actually exiling a couple worst-offenders.

We tried that one year in our school: we had an ‘alternative school’ to which worst offenders could be banished. Removing the ‘two worst students’ didn’t work, because the ‘alternative school’ was not seen as a horrifying enough threat. We sincerely debated whether or not to install little three-wall cubicles in the alternative school and stick each student in a cubicle. It was half a step from part-time prison cells. The operative goal was: how can we, legally and with the support of our school board, make ‘alternative school’ punishing enough for the threat of exile to be credible? It was only abandoned because we couldn’t find sufficient funding; the school board was talked into mild, tepid, tentative support.

Threat of exile does not work when a large subpopulation of students don’t want to be in school. And by “don’t want to be” I mean to say: the students feel that they are suffering just being at school. So, not having any better idea of how to deal with what they understand to be a feeling of suffering, they lash out. The default 2nd response is to advocate for optional education: we shouldn’t educate students unless they want to learn, unless they want to be there. Let them go disappear themselves, if they don’t want to attend. Again, it’s acknowledging there’s a problem only to wish it away.

Education is also a process of social indoctrination. This is a Good Thing. We are, ideally, teaching students to value enough about society and their community that they feel compelled to contribute constructively to its maintenance and progress. If you want to remove students from the classroom, that’s fine, but what alternative structure are we going to put in place to socially indoctrinate them?

Requiring them to work sounds like a bemusing dodge (work where? where are all these unfilled jobs? for what wages and under what working conditions? and if they can’t or don’t find a job, which let’s be honest the vast majority of them won’t, what happens to them then? and how will this help us with the population of students who don’t have the social skills necessary to work at a job long-term?)

We don’t want all these kids ending up in prison. And I don’t buy the idea that over time the population of nth-grade kids will suddenly wise up to the threat-of-exile phenomenon and all start behaving competently. Do you? I think they’ll just feel all the more alienated from an oppressive-seeming school. I think the threat of exile will lead to a large group of reluctant, unenthusiastic students who can’t stand school, find education unpleasant, and dread the thought of attending, even if they resignedly behave. And they’ll act out in little destructive ways whenever they’re not being closely watched, to relieve those feelings.

Students who have learned (let’s say from a poisoned home environment) to behave just terribly, need to develop other behaviors. Really, they need to become a fundamentally different person. A stern talking-to, exile, or imprisonment won’t encourage this development. These students need to undergo long-term rehabilitation: that’s the model we have that shows promise.

I’m going to assume we want to rehabilitate these children, especially those who are young enough to be effectively rehabilitated. Let’s also assume we can install programs for young enough students that rehabilitation is feasible. So here’s the open question I want an answer to, that I would want researched: Rehabilitate them how?

Once we have a sound rehabilitation program in place, I’d be more supportive of equipping teachers with the power to exile. But this idea that we can kick out the miscreants and require them to find jobs doesn’t seem at all practicable, much less effective at indoctrinating them. I harbor the very naive suspicion that only in the United States would we be so resentful of the disenfranchised as to advocate for a behave-in-school-or-find-a-job-or-go-to-prison program.

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harry b 02.13.09 at 2:11 pm

Thanks to all for comments, and encouragement. I don’t have time for much response now but a couple of things.
Salient, don’t worry about mixing me with Henry, everyone does it. And thanks for the suggestions and excellent comments, really helpful.
James Kroeger — I meant the quality of the output, not the quantity (which, in this case, I don’t know how to measure). The quality of the output is the contribution that the school makes to the students’ learning. Contrary to what you say, a lot of suburban schools don’t do very well on this measure — they have students whose high performance is not something the school contributes a great deal to, and, in fact, many schools with much lower “scores” have much better output, in this sense. Spend some time in either kind of school and you’ll see all sorts of ways that teachers could do better without more spending except the undeniable need for upfront costs of the kind mpowell describes, and without the large scale reforms that dominate public discussion (I’m not saying we don’t need those, we do). Here’s an example (nodding to Stuart here); every June retiring veteran teachers dump the syllabuses and lesson plans they have developed over the years in the wastebasket. This represents billions of dollars worth of investment, but its a rare school in which a principal identifies the best retiring teachers and offers to team them up with the incoming teachers to transfer and tutor them in the curriculum and lesson plans they have developed. Small upfront costs, with potentially huge long term savings of time, effort, frustration. There’s a lot more like this.

salient again – no, I have these discussions in private, I promise! A lot of public discussion is pointless because there are such incentives to dishonesty and unreasonableness.

slocum — yes, there are lots of tricks, and I’m aware of most of them. Here’s a non-trick that confuses people. 10 teachers are teaching 9th grade English, and black/low-income/other demographic group get disproportional numbers of Fs from two of those teachers. Those teachers are identified as not working well with demographic group of interest. BUT since teachers assign grades, it may be that they do especially well at getting that demographic group to learn. We simply have no idea without common curriculum and common assessments. I’ve talked to teachers who, sincerely, don’t understand this until it is very carefully spelled out.

Last thing for the moment. I didn’t specify the domain of schools I’m interested in at the moment, which is not urban schools with 95% poverty, or suburban schools with 5% poverty. It seems to me that the needs of the former are so great that school improvement efforts are going to be very difficult indeed, and are pointless without a real influx of resources. The effort I’m observing at a slight distance is in my own district, which is reasonably well resourced, and has a lot of high quality teachers, but in which the resource base is declining in real terms while the demographics are changing rapidly — the poverty rate in the elementaries is now about 40% on average, and in the high schools it is about 30%, and all 4 high schools have over 20% poverty (and rising) whereas 15 years ago only one of them did. I imagine that Slocum’s district is rather similar (but I may be wrong about that — I should find out). This seems exactly the kind of place where it should be possible to do in-school improvement with some success.

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ScentOfViolets 02.13.09 at 3:25 pm

mpowell 02.13.09 at 9:55 am

The issue of what to do with kids who are very strong distractions is a very difficult and interesting one, but I don’t think it needs to hijack this entire discussion.

True. What I am getting at is the broader principle of triage. In my classes, the other big problem – actually by far the larger – is the problem of work ethic. A rather distressing percentage of students for whatever reason simply will not do the homework. Near the end of the semester, when the inevitable supplicants come in wondering if they’re going to pass, and what they can do to improve their grades, one of the excuses that get trotted out is ‘test anxiety’. If that’s the case, I look at their homework scores. If they’re turning in every assignment, perhaps making a 70% rather than their exam average of 50%, I’m receptive to the idea of awarding a pass. If they’re turning in one assignment in three, and doing no better than they are on the exams, my limited reservoir of sympathy shuts off.

These are the types of students, ‘who can be led but will not drink’, on which I am not exactly eager to lavish what are strictly limited resources. Otoh, there are plenty of other students who do need extra attention to bring them up to speed and who are willing to work. I’m merely suggesting that in a discussion which explicitly acknowledges this reality we do at least some sort of triage. Note that I have no problem with slow students, students with inadequate preparation, or who, as a catch-all ‘lacks aptitude’; like a lot of other teachers, my unofficial office hours can easily be twenty hours a week. I am merely requiring, iow, that my students not be oppositional.

The same for the parents. Salient seems to think these poor overburdened dears shouldn’t be held responsible for their kids education. To which I reply, if that’s the case, then just why should I be held responsible, given the conditions with which I am hobbled?

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salient 02.13.09 at 3:32 pm

Salient seems to think these poor overburdened dears shouldn’t be held responsible for their kids education.

I am requesting a very specific explanation of what you mean by “held responsible” and the specific consequences for noncompliance. I believe my request is reasonable.

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ScentOfViolets 02.13.09 at 3:37 pm

Unless you acknowledge that they should be held responsible, I don’t think having any further conversation with you would be productive.

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harry b 02.13.09 at 3:41 pm

scentofviolets, if you think that after having read all of salient’s comments then you are remarkably incurious.

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Righteous Bubba 02.13.09 at 3:42 pm

Unless you acknowledge that they should be held responsible

It’s pretty obvious that if you don’t define what you mean nobody’s going to agree to it.

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ScentOfViolets 02.13.09 at 3:43 pm

Perhaps you could point out where he does say this then?

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ScentOfViolets 02.13.09 at 3:47 pm

Um, if I “don’t define it”, how could anyone disagree then? If I said “The clouds look zoople today”, would you disagree? Assuming you don’t know what I mean.

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Righteous Bubba 02.13.09 at 3:54 pm

Um, if I “don’t define it”, how could anyone disagree then? If I said “The clouds look zoople today”, would you disagree? Assuming you don’t know what I mean.

I would say “What do you mean?” and wonder who graduated you from circle-time and made you a teacher.

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Jake 02.13.09 at 3:59 pm

If you haven’t read them already, see “Most Likely to Succeed” in The New Yorker and “The Other Crisis” in The Atlantic. Both show unusual ideas I haven’t read about elsewhere, and “The Other Crisis” address your point about closing achievement gaps being a natural trade-off with improving educational outcomes overall given limited resources.

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ScentOfViolets 02.13.09 at 4:00 pm

That’s a retreat from your former position. Which is rather bizarre, imho. You seriously don’t know how to parse the sentence “Parents are responsible for their kids education”?

Somehow I doubt that you’d have the same difficulty if I said “Parents are responsible for feeding and clothing their children”. Given the equivalence of the two constructions, I would wonder if you’ve had any education past jr. high. Do you want to stop the snark?

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salient 02.13.09 at 4:02 pm

The effort I’m observing at a slight distance is in my own district, which is reasonably well resourced, and has a lot of high quality teachers, but in which the resource base is declining in real terms while the demographics are changing rapidly

Ok. Madison area, right? MMSD?

* The whole enterprise will bomb if you don’t get lots of input from the teachers at each stage. Here’s some first steps:

* initial input stage, 1. Have each teacher come up with a “one hour departmental meeting wish list”: if by 25-hour-day magic they were given one hour per week to meet with colleagues to accomplish something, what would they want to accomplish with it?

* initial input stage, 2. Have each teacher make some kind of list of resources they really, really wish they had available. Specify these are “paper” resources: documents, lesson plans, curriculum maps, etc (prohibit fancy technology requests). Require that teachers consult with at least one other teacher in the department and submit their resource-lists in pairs.

* Somebody’s got to get a handle on what demographic changes are expected and keep teachers informed of these anticipations with sensible, short, factual, and *informal* annual reports. Annual e-mail updates with reasonable 5-year projection attempts suffice. I think there’s some kind of “director of curriculum” in the district, but really, Arlene Silveira will be able to find someone to delegate this to. Teachers would read the reports if they’re given during the summer. DO NOT waste district meeting time ‘presenting’ the report; nobody will listen or pay much attention.

* Buy every new teacher a copy of Harry Wong’s “The First Days of School” — this book has been known to save lives.

* Short-term: Focus on intra-departmental collaboration. Goal: “A strong and unified department.” Someone upthread mentioned cross-disciplinary pursuits, and that’s a good idea except it’d turn into a royal mess without a basis of unified well-organized departments. So leave the cross-disc stuff to the Math Task Force and Reading Task Force, as they’re better equipped to address those needs coherently.

* Long-term goal: Organize parents and volunteers as some kind of Assessment Task Force whose real responsibility is to perform routine grading tasks for inexperienced teachers who waste ungodly amounts of time doing tasks a volunteer could do. There might also be some means for bringing in volunteers to work say once-a-week as assistants in the classroom of inexperienced teachers. This gets a handful of parents/volunteers involved and invested, and frees up time for the intra-departmental meetings.

* What’s the teacher’s aide situation? What kind of assistance with routine but time-consuming tasks are available to teachers currently?

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salient 02.13.09 at 4:04 pm

You seriously don’t know how to parse the sentence “Parents are responsible for their kids education”?

So are you suggesting we charge parents with neglect if they fail to make their kids behave in school?

I mean, that’s what we do with parents who fail to feed and clothe their children. Do I understand you correctly in saying that we should apply the same consequences to parents whose children are continuously disruptive in school?

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ScentOfViolets 02.13.09 at 4:05 pm

Sigh. Answer the question, Salient. Then we can move on to options for remediation, or if you like, penalties.

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ScentOfViolets 02.13.09 at 4:07 pm

Better yet, until you say otherwise, I’m simply going to assume that you think that parents have no responsibilities at all to see that their children are educated. So I won’t have to engage in any more pointless back-and-forth. And since I disagree with this sentiment, there’s no point in any further conversation.

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Ray 02.13.09 at 4:12 pm

If no-one knows what you mean by “holding parents responsible”, how can anyone be expected to agree? Patting teachers on the back and saying “there, there, it’s not your fault – the parents are responsible”? Naming and shaming irresponsible parents in the local press? Kicking kids out of school and confining them to the family home, because the parents are responsible?
What is it?

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ScentOfViolets 02.13.09 at 4:30 pm

Sigh. A general question: does everyone think parents are responsible for their kids education? This isn’t supposed to be a hard question, any more than if I asked if people thought parents are responsible for seeing that their children are fed and clothed. Nor does this presume, as some seem to think, that there is some sort of dichotomy here, wherein if parents are responsible, then the teachers are not. Which is yet another good question to point out the absurdity of this sort of caviling: does everyone think that teachers are responsible for the education of their students?

If you respond either yea or nay, then obviously you understood the question and the terms it employed. Saying that you fail to understand this question of responsibility when it pertains to the parents strikes me as being disingenuous under those circumstances.

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Righteous Bubba 02.13.09 at 4:58 pm

Saying that you fail to understand this question of responsibility when it pertains to the parents strikes me as being disingenuous under those circumstances.

So what? I think you’re disingenuous for being unwilling to say what you mean. You can spell it out or keep tut-tutting that nobody’s going to trade what’s behind Door #3 for what they have.

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Pete 02.13.09 at 5:00 pm

I suspect nobody is willing to answer “yes” to that question because the next thing you’ll say is that they must accept that certain things follow from their responsibility, and nobody particularly wants to find out what’s in that rhetorical trap.

Suppose, ad arguendo, without prejudice, etc, we say that parents are responsible for their kids education. Then what?

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ScentOfViolets 02.13.09 at 5:17 pm

I suspect nobody is willing to answer “yes” to that question because the next thing you’ll say is that they must accept that certain things follow from their responsibility, and nobody particularly wants to find out what’s in that rhetorical trap.

How is this a ‘rhetorical trap’? Either parents are responsible, or they aren’t, irrespective of anything I might say. But, I am glad that you have pointed out that no one misunderstood the question, the way they pretended.

Doesn’t speak well for their intellectual integrity. Like Righteous Bubba, who damn well knew exactly what I meant. Do you realize just how contemptible that sort of ploy makes you? If you want to say that, yes, parents are responsible, but you can’t think of anything to enforce that responsibility, or that you think it is repugnant to try to force them to any sort of accountability, just say it and be done with it. None of this coyness, or attempts to somehow make me out to be the bad guy. You strike me as someone who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a classroom, not if you think those sorts of tactics are defensible.

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Righteous Bubba 02.13.09 at 5:20 pm

Like Righteous Bubba, who damn well knew exactly what I meant. Do you realize just how contemptible that sort of ploy makes you?

No. Spell out how contemptible it makes me to ask you to explain your position.

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salient 02.13.09 at 5:26 pm

And since I disagree with this sentiment, there’s no point in any further conversation.

That’s fine. There probably are some foundational differences in how we approach the question that make it very difficult to understand each other. I apologize for my inability to make sense of the word “responsibility” as you have used it. (I think of responsibility in these contexts as “one faces consequences for noncompliance”.) The way I see it:

There’s these people who say “abortion should be illegal.” I ask them, okay, so let’s say we make abortion illegal. What consequences should there be for noncompliance? I often get answers about how I’m supposed to just know, because the answer is so obvious.

Same thing when I hear someone say “parents should be responsible for their children’s behavior.” Okay, let’s say they are, at least for the purposes of this discussion. Now let’s move one step further: let’s figure out what that statement means, in concrete terms. What are the consequences for noncompliance? Does “holding the parents responsible” mean anything more than “abstractly criticizing parents of problem students for raising such horrible kids”?

I see a difference between providing your children with necessary material goods, like clothing and food and shelter, and being able to control their behavior. … I think most parents (of children old enough to talk) can see a difference. … Regardless, I think holding Parent X responsible for Their Child Y’s behavior often makes sense. For example, if Child Y breaks a window, then Parent X compensates the window’s owner by arranging to have the window repaired with all due haste, and paying for it.

I just want to know how we’re going to generalize this to misbehavior in school, where monetary compensation doesn’t make sense. Pay the teacher fines for misbehavior? Or if we compare it to neglecting food and shelter: do we arrest the parents for negligence, have Social Services process the problem student, and put them in foster care? (Good luck getting foster parents to take on children if they’re potentially jailed for the kid’s misbehavior.)

P.S. I’d say that teachers are generally held responsible for educating their students, and the consequence for noncompliance is generally tiered depending on severity of noncompliance, ranging from verbal warning to written censure to termination of employment.

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salient 02.13.09 at 5:42 pm

You strike me as someone who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a classroom, not if you think those sorts of tactics are defensible.

I ask my students to state the premises they are adopting in order to make an argument, and I ask my students to provide clear definitions for any words I find unclear. I do this in order to help ensure that agreement or disagreement is based on mutual understanding of vocabulary and mutual acknowledgment of viewpoints different from one’s own. I feel this is a sound pedagogical practice.

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Sebastian 02.13.09 at 6:18 pm

Wow is this the same almost stereotypically bleeding heart ScentofViolets that turns up at Megan McArdle’s website? It is like whiplash to read the same unthinkingly scathing comments turned around the other way. The tone is the same but the content is almost diametrically opposed. Weird.

Are you a contrarian depending on the blog?

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Gary Franceschini 02.13.09 at 6:24 pm

As long as we insist on treating children like widgets popping off an assembly line we will continue to struggle to improve education. The attitude that all children can learn at the same level is antagonistic to what we know about child development – individuals have strengths and weaknesses, predispositions and prejudices – but our approach of everyone-at-the-same-level-in-everything is generic and defeatist in extremis.

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marcel 02.13.09 at 6:46 pm

Nitpicking:

Or do you mean, by addressing the achievement gap, something much more modest, like increasing the achievement of the highest achievers by 5% and that of the lowest by 10%?

If the highest achievers score more than twice as high as the lowest ones, the (absolute) gap rises in this scenario.

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Stuart 02.13.09 at 9:51 pm

The attitude that all children can learn at the same level is antagonistic to what we know about child development – individuals have strengths and weaknesses, predispositions and prejudices – but our approach of everyone-at-the-same-level-in-everything is generic and defeatist in extremis.

I spent almost my entire career at school paying very little attention because everything was always done so slowly – instead of one or two examples to establish the way something works, you would spend an hour on it going over dozens of trivially similar exercises. The one (significant) exception was the final year of primary school maths (about age 9), where instead of group learning there was a load of little booklets, each covering a topic (starting with really basic arithmetic, and scaling up through various geometry and algebraic stuff). The idea was you could get any topic you hadn’t passed the matching test for (and had passed any prerequisite lower level modules), work through it, and then take a test whenever you were ready. It was the only time I really enjoyed going to school because for once it didn’t seem like I was wasting my time. Of course then at secondary school I had to wait for 2-3 years while everyone else got caught up on those same subjects, which pretty much killed any interest I had in maths.

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Gotchaye 02.13.09 at 10:34 pm

I think it’s pretty widely understood that treating every student identically is hardly ideal, though. Some schools still do it, but that’s mostly a budgetary thing, right?

I’m finding this all very interesting, though I’m supremely unqualified to comment and would gladly welcome correction. In subjects like math and science, my understanding is that Chinese students do much better than American ones. What are they doing in terms of teacher accountability? And how do they deal with problematic students? I have to wonder if there’s something we could be learning from them, though it’s also entirely possible that we’re not going to be willing to do some of it.

I guess my general feeling has always been that teaching isn’t scientific enough. In the vein of the suggestions about fostering more communication among teachers as to what works, it seems to me to be a good idea to work towards establishing state- or nation-wide lesson plans that won’t vary quite so much from teacher to teacher. I’m sure there are plenty of wonderful older teachers who can judge their classes individually and modify a lesson plan that they’ve developed over years to best serve those particular students, but don’t we need to just tell newer or less competent teachers what and how they need to be teaching?

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Dan S. 02.14.09 at 2:25 am

Buy every new teacher a copy of Harry Wong’s “The First Days of School”—this book has been known to save lives.

Probably quite literally. Although whoever’s idea it was, at _ Middle School, to have last-period announcements over the somewhat-distorted loudspeaker reminding new teachers to meet in the library and don’t forget to ‘bring their Harry Wongs’ caused quite a bit of unintentional amusement. Among the kids, too.

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shah8 02.14.09 at 4:02 am

You know…

Reading threads like this one makes me think that Season 4 of The Wire is going to have a huge and subtle impact on conversations like this one…

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Jim Harrison 02.14.09 at 7:05 am

Underclass kids arrive at school with huge deficits. Various measures may or may not improve their performance marginally later, but the problem isn’t really in the schools so debates about the arcana of pedagogy are rather beside the point. It’s like arguing about the best way to treat smallpox two hundred years after the discovery of an effective vaccine.

What might help–over and beyond the rather utopian solution of changing the class system itself–would be a determined effort to educate parents, especially single mothers, so that their kids wouldn’t show up in preschool with 20% of the vocabulary of middle class kids. Instead of simply urging parents to read to their kids, you have to get parents to read themselves. I believe this approach has been tried with great success. It is, unfortunately, expensive and also tends to make the newly empowered adults uppity. I don’t know how you get around either of those two problems.

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tft 02.14.09 at 8:28 pm

Early childhood education is the only public policy, short of eliminating poverty, that can possibly help narrow the achievement gap, IMHO.

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virgil xenophon 02.14.09 at 9:08 pm

As one who grew up on a Mid-Western college campus in the idyllic (by comparison) 50s and went to a Lab School where almost everyone was either the child of a professor or the child or a professional in town and where there were no drugs and the town was all white and whose Mother and one of her sisters taught in the secondary school school system for a combined 58yrs, lety me put my oar in the water here.

What no one has addressed are the cultural and economic/industrial changes in our society that have taken place which make all discussion of class-room learning techniques almost irrelevant insofar as they have been overwhelmed by these changes.

When we were an industrialized society, half of those who “did not want to be there” could drop out, assume well-paying jobs on the factory floor, earn enough to support a family and become productive members of society. The other half ended up where they still do today–in jail or reform school–or dead. The problem is that with the disappearance of manufacturing there is no place for the other 50% to go, so they remain in the class-room as disruptive elements. Then too, drugs were not the factor they are now. Not only does the presence of drugs directly affect student behavior, as does the associated violence–many of the “underclass”–both black and white (and brown, to a lesser extent)–have parents(usually a single mother) who is/are compromised by drugs and/or alcohol which results bin a home environment where learning, discipline and the teaching of the social graces of respect for others and good manners is not a high priority.

And it is just not the environment. This dysfunctional situation has gone on long enough by now so that we are starting to see indications of something no one wants to talk about because of it’s explosive class and racial implications: namely altered genetics. There is strong evidence that drugs and alcohol can alter one’s genetic make-up and that of one’s resultant off-spring. Add to this the fact that so many mothers in the under-class are having children by multiple fathers who often are long gone by the time the children are born and whose names are often unknown to the children, and thus the passage of time has made it all but inevitable that many of these offspring–already compromised by altered genes–have unknowingly inter-married and produced further genetically compromised children of their own. Whatever this implies for the learning potential of these children–it is not good.

Taken together, all of these sociocultural societal changes do not bode well for the future–let alone the present–and are well neigh intractable. What we have here is a Darwinian evolution of society at work here. And there are many developmental/evolutionary dead ends in the fossils found in the historical archeological record. What we are witnessing and struggling with may be the slo-motion, multi-generational sinking of the Titanic that is American/Weatern culture while we are scrambling around trying to re-arrange the deck chairs with no more prospects for success than those of the passengers on the original Titanic.

In the Air Force “behind the power curve” is a term often used when one gets in an irretrievably bad situation in a jet that cannot be rectified simply by adding more power. I unfortunately think that is exactly the position our society is in today regarding elementary and secondary education…….. …………..Only we don’t have an ejection seat.

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salient 02.14.09 at 9:13 pm

Jim – I believe you’re referencing Freakonomics in the second paragraph. I wasn’t able to determine whether your final comments were meant to be sarcastic: “uppity” is a radioactive word, even in sarcasm.

tft – I would agree, ECE an important means for providing appropriate social indoctrination, which we’re assuming many student populations do not receive from home (it’s a safe assumption). For these populations, the resulting effect on achievement-gap narrowing is significant and well-documented. However, for student populations who enjoy reasonable home environments, the effect of quality ECE on achievement gaps is less pronounced, which suggests that instituting ECE is only one of several approaches to improving student achievement.

Metaphorically, we can say a head start helps but doesn’t compensate for a road with lots of potholes.

Anyhow, Harry’s question regards the Metropolitan School District in Madison, I believe, which has a respectable ECE program in place. So what else can be done? It’s worthwhile to consider the “mpowell principle” introduced upthread: given finite resources, different uses of those resources will induce wildly different educational outcomes in a student population. I would begin by collecting information from teachers about what resources they feel they need, and I would focus on providing low-$-cost, high-time-cost services and resources to teachers.

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salient 02.14.09 at 9:20 pm

virgil – The Bell Curve Redux?

I believe your interpretation is refuted by those examples of successful educational programs, operating in the midst of poverty-stricken U.S. populations, that we have. Of course, it seems that in the U.S. it is not a political priority to invest sufficient resources in these programs, or in research that seeks to improve them. This is why I believe your interpretation is dangerous: it may discourage investment in programs that show strong promise.

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virgil xenophon 02.14.09 at 9:25 pm

And, not to threadjack, but the lack of ejection-seat concept doesn’t apply only to education. I never will forget while as a young Capt. in the Air Force while stationed in England at the time of the dash back to the safety of Earth by Appollo 13, a Navigator in my Squadron remarked to me: “you know, we’re just like those guys in Apollo 13.” Only half paying attention, I absently-minded asked how so, to which he replied: “Just like them, we here on Earth are rapidly running out of air and water……..only we don’t have any place to go…”

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tft 02.14.09 at 9:38 pm

Salient, I’m not sure what you mean about the article and its focus being the Metropolitan School District in Madison. Not that it matters.

For any child who would start K with a deficit, ECE programs are all that can help. What can we do once kids are in school and failing? A combination of things, maybe, but I wasn’t talking about that. I was talking about the best hope for getting kids ready for school, and it starts in preschool. That’s all I was saying.

I’m glad you agree.

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virgil xenophon 02.14.09 at 9:41 pm

Salient/

If educational money were the only answer, the D.C. school system would be comprised of nothing but Nat. Merit Scholarship winners. My point is that the sociocultural problems of society at large may/is negating educational money and programs no matter how innovative and that such successes as are achieved have been found to be highly localized and highly transitory. In 1960 (at the beginning of JFK’s Presidency) East St. Louis, Ill., was designated an “All-American City” (i.e., a city that “works” and has a high quality of life) by the American Chamber of Commerce. Look at it now. No amount of monies expended on education alone are going to teach the students of that school system to read at grade level–let alone turn them into Merit Scholars.

Ponder this: If a successful approach to these problems had been found that was possible to be replicated everywhere, don’t you think it already would have been?

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virgil xenophon 02.14.09 at 9:45 pm

PS to Salient:

And how long do you thing it will be before East. St. Louis will be designated an All-American City again?

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virgil xenophon 02.14.09 at 10:03 pm

“we can say a head start helps, but doesn’t compensate for a road with a lot of potholes.”

That’s my point exactly–THE ROAD–and it’s not simply because it might have potholes. The very shape, composition and length of the “societal road” is changing all the while–and new entrants are constantly lining up at the starting line–which itself keeps moving in a staggered fashion. My point is that the road is changing faster than new entrants can be trained for the race–and in fact is morphing to put up roadblocks
and/or deposit quicksand retard the newer entrants even as we speak–cultural roadblocks (drugs, lack of respect for knowledge, i.e. “thinking white” and respect for women “hoes” ) beyond the power of the educational system to overcome.

Want to improve the educational system? Look to the entertainment industry in all it’s forms and the mass media. The dysfunctional culture one observes in all too many inner city classrooms is a direct by-product of the dysfunctional cultural norms triumphantly trumpeted via mass media by the entertainment industry. Again, evolutionary science at work–and not for the better.

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ScentOfViolets 02.14.09 at 10:17 pm

In subjects like math and science, my understanding is that Chinese students do much better than American ones. What are they doing in terms of teacher accountability? And how do they deal with problematic students? I

My understanding – which is confirmed by my own parochial experience – is that Asian students do better because they do their homework. Every fall, such is my position in academia, I am obliged to teach a section of what is essentially remedial algebra. Math you should have learned had you been paying attention over umpty-odd times you’ve been exposed to it in middle school, jr. high, and high school. Things like order of operations, solving rational equations, etc. And the number one predictor of whether or not a student will pass the class with at leas a C- is this: whether or not they actually do the homework.

It’s also my experience that this carries over into the more advanced math. The people who do well in calculus, differential equations, etc. are the people who attempt to work all of the problems assigned. The ones who fail, or who crawl out with a low C, tend not to have done a lot of homework. And when I mean ‘done’, I don’t mean ‘done right’, I mean ‘attempted’. And invariably, the ones who do all the problem sets tend to be disproportionately, um, non-American.

In short, the American kids don’t have as much of a work ethic, and this is due in large part to the fact that the parents don’t force them to do their homework, or even do cursory checkups on their offspring. In fact, when I taught privately at the 8 – 12 level, parents wanted simultaneously a) their children to be awarded high grades, b)for their children not to have to do too much work, and c) that they perform well on standardized admission tests. Guess who was to blame if any of those three criteria were not met? And whose side did administration take?

The dirty secret of academic success (or rather, the lack of it) is that the blame falls mostly and squarely on the parents. Very little falls on the teachers for any supposed insufficiencies. So if you’re talking about triage, and what to do about limited resources, I suggest that something is done about the parents first.

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tft 02.14.09 at 10:24 pm

America is one of the few countries that submits ALL scores when comparing nations. Other nations often submit only high scores, making the comparisons moot.

Other reasons for foreign high scores are homogeneity, cultural appreciation and respect for education, and less media pollution.

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salient 02.14.09 at 10:26 pm

If educational money were the only answer,

I agree that “more money” is not the only answer. In fact, even when “more money” would be an acceptable answer, there’s usually no more money to be had. I always try to approach this category of problems under the assumption that we are working with finite, relatively stable but not increasing, resources and funding. I also assume that every teacher-hour must somehow be compensated for: I remember the 18-hour days five days a week for eighteen weeks!

such successes as are achieved have been found to be highly localized and highly transitory.

I agree that continued diligence, and a willingness to adapt to changing populations, is absolutely necessary. The fact that success is achieved, even transitory success, refutes your Bell-Curve interpretation of populations.

If a successful approach to these problems had been found that was possible to be replicated everywhere, don’t you think it already would have been?

Of course not! Here’s two reasons why the obvious answer is no.

First, I don’t think anything can be “replicated everywhere” equally well, so the premise is very problematic. As I think you’re sensibly pointing out, there are translational barriers: what works for one population doesn’t necessarily work for another. Since student populations are inherently very transitive — no one person is in the nth-grade population for longer than a couple years — translational barriers fluctuate a good deal. This requires continual adaptation of the way we address the population’s needs.

Second and more importantly, while I’d like to live in a world where every successful approach to education faces no institutional barriers to widespread replication, we just don’t live in that kind of world.

No amount of monies expended on education alone are going to teach the students of that school system to read at grade level…

I assume you’re arguing in good faith, so I’ll bite: I disagree with the statement above, assuming that sufficient money is spent wisely on appropriate programs. Well, let me be accurate: students entering the system after the implementation of reform would stand a much better chance of reading at grade level. I think doubling the proportion of 3rd-5th graders reading at-level by 2019 would be achievable.

And how long do you thing it will be before East. St. Louis will be designated an All-American City again?

Hmmm. I will tell you after you answer this: how long will it be before New Orleans and Galvaston will be designated fully recovered cities? Any answer accurate to within 48 hours will be satisfactory. And I reserve the right to withhold my answer unless and until the accuracy of your answer is vindicated by history. :-)

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salient 02.14.09 at 10:35 pm

The very shape, composition and length of the “societal road” is changing all the while

No, your point is that due to some kind of genetic predisposition to intellectual deformity of some unspecified type, entire populations are doomed to be unable to walk the “educational road” successfully. So even if we pave them a rather nice smooth road, they won’t stand a chance. It’s the Bell Curve “why is there poverty?” argument applied to education. I don’t think it’s at all accurate.

But anyhow: careful with your metaphor construction, or the allegory police will march you to rhetorical-trap prison. The walls are made of double entendres there!

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virgil xenophon 02.14.09 at 11:50 pm

Salient/

The point about the constantly changing shape of the societal road is that those under the more dysfunctional influences–be it drugs, ‘tude, genetic alteration, etc., –are least able to cope with the smoothly paved straight and wide parts of the road, let alone the rough spots and altered surfaces. But any any case, the road is changing faster than we as “official” society can prepare these types to cope–be it inner city blacks, white suburban blue-collar, rootless aspiring hip-hop wannabees or white suburban upper-middle-class children of professionals who live the drug-store “uppers/downers” life.

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virgil xenophon 02.15.09 at 12:33 am

Salient, Addendum:

Please do not construe my comments to mean I think we should give up on this part of the social stratum. Indeed, I firmly believe it is condescending to believe the majority cannot learn and that programs of social enrichment–music, art, field trips to museums, etc., are very helpful and necessary to inspire and bring out the best, (I’m a product of a Univ. Lab school, after all) but I’m afraid even the most concentrated of efforts in this area are simply overwhelmed by the countervailing currents of the culture at large.

Trust me, (or maybe not) I don’t mean to throw cold water on efforts to improve teaching techniques, curriculum or resources; these are all necessary pre-requisites
in devising new ways to cope with the changing road, but hardly sufficient. Increasingly I have come to believe, along with Dr. Johnson as he wrote in his dairies, that there is a vast gap between that part of society government is able to directly influence and society as it is actually lived on a daily basis by the majority of it’s citizens. I am not, obviously, optomistic about the direction in which our society is
evolving. And if you worship the great God of biologically driven creatures responding to their environment, Charles Darwin, than these dysfunctional transformations on both an individual and culture-wide basis are all pretty much inevitable unless the entire thrust of the culture is changed. And Good Luck with all that.

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shah8 02.15.09 at 5:00 am

Virgil Xenophon, you really don’t know what you’re talking about. Evolution, genetics, and culture do not work the way you seem to think it works. At a minimum, there is no Road. Evolution and Culture are random walk phenomenons–there is no direction! At the meta-level, your attitude is actually pretty irrelevant to the topic at hand and ultimately millenialist. Sure nothing ever gets done or stays solved or is even solvable, but we are alive and intend to be alive and we must pretend to care about the everyday tasks that prepare our future. For example, free will does not exist, but we pretend it does so we can order our society efficiently. Generations of people work on religious monuments without expecting it to be finished in their lifetimes. We do many things that seems pointless and wasteful from a certain viewpoint. The things that we do gives meaning to our pointless lives. Managing to do them better is still worthwhile even in the face of the contrary forces (which don’t include evolution).

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salient 02.15.09 at 5:16 am

Trust me, (or maybe not) I don’t mean to throw cold water on efforts to improve teaching techniques, curriculum or resources

I believe you. All the same, I appreciate that you mentioned it, along with this:

I’m afraid even the most concentrated of efforts in this area are simply overwhelmed by the countervailing currents of the culture at large.

That perspective makes complete sense to me, even if I choose to set it aside and approach the topic of education reform from other angles.

Anyhow, I think distinguishing the influence of culture from genetics is very important, and I find it very hard to believe that the former has the kind of influence on the latter that you seemed to be claiming (if interpreted literally). However, given your further comments, it seems to me you are using words such as genetics and evolution somewhat metaphorically, or at least… not strictly literally, a kind of memes-as-genes-of-society conceptualization of prevailing currents in cultural change over time (interpreted literally, there’s no evidence Darwin would support your last statement there, but I can see how you are invoking some idea of ‘Darwin’ — butterflies on trees, the predominant effect of environment on natural selection, how can we raise butterflies with the vibrant-wing-characteristics we want when the trees are all ash-coated, etc). I think the metaphorical framework probably has some potential, but it runs a strong risk of treading into Bell Curve territory. I think your comments in the last post, especially “I firmly believe…”, clarified that you are developing a very different kind of theory than the Bell Curvers, a less literally biological theory.

I don’t think the conceptual framework of social evolution, even as a metaphor, is an especially helpful one to adopt in order to think through education reform. Of course, as you implied with Good Luck, you’re not actively involved in education reform; you wish reformers well from a distance. So there’s no earthly reason why you would or should develop a perspective according to whether or not it meets that criterion.

Virgil Xenophon, you really don’t know what you’re talking about… The things that we do gives meaning to our pointless lives.

But what if Virgil’s development of a social evolution theory gives meaning to Virgil’s allegedly-otherwise-pointless life? How can a nihilist judge what behaviors and theories are preferable?

I don’t see myself as ‘pretending’ to care or feigning caring (although Scent of Violets was right to criticize me for making boilerplate statements that imply feigned-caring: it was fun to go back and reread my stupid “height of irresponsibility” paragraph upthread in the voice of Anna Russell, but the fact that it worked so well as parody doesn’t speak well of my attempt at sincerity). Well, anything can be meta-interpreted as insincere: so you are free (!) to believe what you like.

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virgil xenophon 02.15.09 at 8:44 am

salient.

One last comment as things have pretty much wound down. I forgot to mention that as a denizen of New Orleans I might be in a better position to judge it’s rate of recovery than are you. Be that as it may, I would only point out that the real similarity is between the pre-Katrina New Orleans and E. St. Louis in that the miserable state of both city’s education systems and the malaise and topor of the economy and housing of both cities is/was something that “evolved” over time and definitely is/was not an act of God/nature as was the damage to Galveston. Katrina’s damage, such as it was, was entirely man-made in the same fashion that the city’s housing and economy decayed–the result of mal-administration and cultural sloth which poorly maintained the levee and drainage systems and oversaw their original faulty design. Much as E. St. Louis decayed for much the same reasons.

Here’s the problem. Consider air pollution. A scientist writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in a 1969 article, (IIRC) in discussing the problems of nuclear proliferation, once argued by analogy using the difficulties of controlling air pollution. He stated that he had devised a machine that in theory could cleanse the entire Earth’s atmosphere of particulate matter–only problem is that it would take all the ergs of energy produced by every machine on Earth for 24hrs to run it. And that’s not counting the cost of planning and building it. “But just think,” he said, speaking of the pollution, “It all gets up there for free,” i.e., no millions of man-hours of committee meetings planning how best to pollute; no dollar costs of dedicated pollution production, etc., its all a natural by-product.

So in the same way the pollution of the national culture and of personal traits which so produce a climate inimical to sound learning is also seen as a costless by-product of the carrying out of daily commercial interests. But think of the cost in time, effort and money measured in the tens of millions of dollars and man-hours of planning, coordination and exhortation it takes to slow or reverse these dysfunctional societal maladies which so affect the educational process. It’s not even a contest.

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shah8 02.15.09 at 2:19 pm

Okay, it sounds to me that you’re talking more about game theory.

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Daryl McCullough 02.16.09 at 5:08 am

Stuart writes:

…there was a load of little booklets, each covering a topic (starting with really basic arithmetic, and scaling up through various geometry and algebraic stuff). The idea was you could get any topic you hadn’t passed the matching test for (and had passed any prerequisite lower level modules), work through it, and then take a test whenever you were ready.

Okay, this is my own pet idea of the way to improve teaching: extend that approach to all subjects. In my fantasy, it works this way: break up the curriculum (all the way from kindergarten to university) into collections of topics that are small enough that is possible for a student to master the topic completely. Forget about the subjectivity of giving letter grades or even percentages; if a topic is well-defined enough, it is possible to give a pretty objective assessment of whether it has been mastered. For examples from the earlier grades, addition, subtraction and multiplication and division are topics that should be completely mastered. If a child gets only 85% of such problems correct, that means that the child doesn’t understand some aspect of it. We need to figure out what is missing, and correct it, rather than say “well, 85% is pretty good, let’s go on to advanced topics”. In mathematics especially, topics build on each other; if someone doesn’t completely grasp arithmetic, then he or she will have a hard time learning algebra and calculus.

For subjects that are less black-and-white, we can’t demand perfection, but we can demand excellence. Written essays must have coherent ideas, the sentences must be grammatical, the spelling must be correct. If factual claims are made, those claims must be backed up. If an essay is turned in that does not have these qualities, then it shouldn’t be accepted; the student should work on it some more, and correct those deficiencies. Giving a “bad grade” is of marginal usefulness, either as a motivator for students (if a student thinks of himself as a “C” student, then getting a C is no motivation to do better), or as an evaluation of student achievement.

The idea here is to focus on the student’s achievements, not the teacher’s brilliance or failings. The teacher should be thought of as the student’s ally, not his judge and jury.

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ScentOfViolets 02.16.09 at 2:58 pm

If a child gets only 85% of such problems correct, that means that the child doesn’t understand some aspect of it. We need to figure out what is missing, and correct it, rather than say “well, 85% is pretty good, let’s go on to advanced topics”. In mathematics especially, topics build on each other; if someone doesn’t completely grasp arithmetic, then he or she will have a hard time learning algebra and calculus.

Exactly so. In my own subject, there are plenty of people who are weak on basic algebraic constructs like simplexes and exact sequences, and are still weak when they hit something like the Koszul cohomology. In the ideal world, nobody would be allowed to advance without a certain minimal ‘mastery’.

Unfortunately, in the real world it’s hard to ascertain mastery because a lot of students will not do even 70% of the homework. Whether they are sufficiently versed on the topic is difficult to evaluate; some of them are, and many aren’t. That’s the biggest problem of today’s schools, and where other countries seem to beat us out: again, Asian students aren’t necessarily smarter, but they actually do the assigned work. If you like, the market for education is subject to regulatory capture, just like any other. Only in this case, the rent seekers happen to be the parents.

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ScentOfViolets 02.16.09 at 3:08 pm

Giving a “bad grade” is of marginal usefulness, either as a motivator for students (if a student thinks of himself as a “C” student, then getting a C is no motivation to do better), or as an evaluation of student achievement.

A thought suddenly occurs – why not hold people back if they don’t achieve mastery, and cut them loose at 17 or 18? You could graduate the diplomas awarded, something like the military does with it’s general discharge, honorable discharge, other than honorable discharge, bad conduct discharge, etc. You could also let people have the option to stay in the system as long as it takes to graduate – if they don’t at 18, why not at 21? A person who might graduate with a GPA of 2.9 at the age of 20 instead of GPA of 1.9 at the age of 18?

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Daryl McCullough 02.16.09 at 6:58 pm

ScentOfViolets writes:

Unfortunately, in the real world it’s hard to ascertain mastery because a lot of students will not do even 70% of the homework. Whether they are sufficiently versed on the topic is difficult to evaluate; some of them are, and many aren’t.

Well, we could put the burden on the student to prove mastery. Divide a year’s curriculum up into a hundred (or more) microtopics. For each microtopic, there would be something like a qualifying exam for proving mastery. Some might be amenable to using a machine-gradable test, while others might take the form of an oral exam in which the student is asked to answer questions and to explain the answers.
In my opinion, it is best if the person testing the student is not the same person who is in charge of teaching the topic. The student’s goal is not to please the teacher, it is to master the topics.

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harold 02.16.09 at 8:28 pm

I have heard that here in Bay Ridge the “non-eliste” high schools have classes that are less than forty minutes long and that these “classes” frequently consist of handing out makework worksheets, unrelated to each other or to other aspects of the curriculum.

Some of the ideas I am reading here seem really good. But it is important to change belief systems. For success to occur, teachers, parents, and pupils must first believe it is possible.

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virgil xenophon 02.16.09 at 11:58 pm

“But it is important to change belief systems”

Harold@78 makes my point exactly. In large part the innate belief systems held by the youth of today and their parents doesn’t come from nowhere. Ming the Merciless is not exactly sitting on planet Mongo beaming his sloth and slacker ray down to earth bathing students in it’s rays. No, these dysfunctional attitudes arise from the general culture within which they are born and raised. And until our current general cultural trends are reversed; and the lionization of ephemera, “bling,” the drug culture and the kings and queens of the hip-hop world–and the general attitudes absolutely hostile to deferred gratification of any kind exuded by such public personalities in their every public performance/utterance are somehow made to seem “uncool” in the same way that, say, smoking is now so regarded among the professional classes, then there really IS NO hope of “changing belief systems.” But to make these changes would require a massive campaign the likes of which the left in general and most who comment here would strenuously oppose. SO—given that fact, I would say to everyone here bemoaning the current state of American education: Don’t bitch, because none of you would contribute one cent of your money or ten minutes worth of your time to oppose the cultural mores which cause this miserable state of affairs in the first place.

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harold 02.17.09 at 1:25 am

I have to basically agree with Xenophon. Plato and those other unpleasant people were generally right. Alas?

But I am not so pessimistic. I think people will get tired of the present state of things. They have in the past. Perhaps it will require only a little push, when people are ready. And then, one can only hope that the puritanical reaction will not go too far.

(Of course I meant elitist — fingers & brain not working today)

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Tracy W 02.17.09 at 1:21 pm

Matthew Kuzma: But I think most people would find it harder and more uncomfortable to do their jobs while being evaluated by their peers, and certainly other professions have managed to achieve performance improvements without such measures, no?

Which other professions?

Large engineering companies hire separate test engineers, who evaluate what the design and maintenance engineers have done and provide feedback. This doesn’t always prevent errors, but when companies fire the test engineers problems they generally regret it. I understand that one of the reasons air accident rates have fallen over the decades is that co-pilots have been deliberately trained to actively challenge the pilot, and a way to increase hand washing by medical staff is to openly observe them and provide feedback.

How organisations reduce error rates has been an interest of mine since I happened on the book “The Logic of Failure” years ago. There are many ways of achieving performance improvements without adding peer evaluation (eg an ample supply of alcohol-based handwash gels also increases handwashing), but I can’t think of a profession that has eschewed peer evaluation and gotten better results by doing so.

SoV Hold the parents accountable for the failures of their children, and enforce accountability with real, believable sanctions.

So you support shutting down schools and giving all the education money to parents? (After all, if schools aren’t responsible for the failures of their students, why bother paying them?)

I am in favour of being able to send disruptive students elsewhere in the school system where at a minimum they can’t disrupt other students. I am in favour of explicitly training teachers in classroom management and supplying teachers with backup from school administration and experts they can call on. I think a lot of problems in education are wrongly placed on the teacher’s shoulders rather than considering the whole school system. But if schools are going to hold parents accountable, then I see no point in paying schools.

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Tracy W 02.17.09 at 1:37 pm

Jim Harrison: Various measures may or may not improve their performance marginally later, but the problem isn’t really in the schools so debates about the arcana of pedagogy are rather beside the point.

Please have a look at Direct Instruction’s results – see http://www.projectpro.com/ICR/Research/DI/Summary.htm

It is entirely possible for a problem to be fixed somewhere other than at its cause. For example antibiotics have saved the lives of millions of people even though the antibiotics are often prescribed by a doctor and supplied by a pharmaceutical organisation despite a lack of any causal evidence that any of the parties involved caused the bacterial infection. I was born with a minor case of dyspraxia, that was treated by a speech therapist, despite that we still have no idea what causes dyspraxia. Indeed, at the time I started treatment, they didn’t even know it was dyspraxia.

It’s like arguing about the best way to treat smallpox two hundred years after the discovery of an effective vaccine.

This implies that there is a vaccine available. If so, what is it? Where is the evidence similar to Dr Edward Jenner’s evidence for the effectiveness of cowpox as a vaccine for small pox?

What might help—over and beyond the rather utopian solution of changing the class system itself—would be a determined effort to educate parents, especially single mothers, so that their kids wouldn’t show up in preschool with 20% of the vocabulary of middle class kids.
So instead of educating the kids, you educate their parents? Why do you expect this to work if educating kids fails?
I believe this approach has been tried with great success.
And the evidence that your belief is correct is? (I believe that we are doomed to disappear into non-existance when we die, I have no proof of this belief, I don’t expect anyone else to believe it on my say-so and rather wish I didn’t believe it myself, so I’m not particularly impressed by claims by other people what they believe).

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ScentOfViolets 02.17.09 at 5:33 pm

So you support shutting down schools and giving all the education money to parents? (After all, if schools aren’t responsible for the failures of their students, why bother paying them?)

This makes no sense whatsoever . . . especially given the fact that teachers are also responsible for the education of their students. Why would you think otherwise? Did you read the whole thread before commenting?

I am in favour of being able to send disruptive students elsewhere in the school system where at a minimum they can’t disrupt other students. I am in favour of explicitly training teachers in classroom management and supplying teachers with backup from school administration and experts they can call on. I think a lot of problems in education are wrongly placed on the teacher’s shoulders rather than considering the whole school system. But if schools are going to hold parents accountable, then I see no point in paying schools.

What part of the concept of joint accountability do you find difficult? Do you think parents should be held accountable for their children’s education?

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Daryl McCullough 02.17.09 at 11:40 pm

ScentOfViolets writes:

What part of the concept of joint accountability do you find difficult? Do you think parents should be held accountable for their children’s education?

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”

I don’t think people know what you mean by “holding parents accountable”. To hold a physician, for example, accountable means that if he does something irresponsible, careless, or incompetent in his official capacity as a physician, he can be sued, or stripped of his license, or he can be subject to other kinds of sanctions that I can’t name off the top of my head. So are you suggesting that parents can or should be sanctioned in some way for failing to provide adequate educations for their children? It’s hard to know what kind of sanction would harm the parents more than it would harm the children.

If you are just saying that, morally, parents ought to make sure that their children get adequate educations, I think people might agree, but what is supposed to follow from that?

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ScentOfViolets 02.18.09 at 4:44 am

Let me put it this way: are parents responsible for their children’s education? This isn’t some sort of trick question, it’s not an either/or question, it isn’t a prelude to some sort of gotcha! or some sort of false dichotomy setup, wherein if you agree that obligates you to agitate for seven years in the big house, and if you disagree you’re either being dishonest or crazy.

The question of ‘holding them accountable’ is quite a separate one.

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