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Harry

Whither Opportunity?

by Harry on December 7, 2016

In the light of the discussions of charter schools in the poss below, and given that I attended a graduate seminar of education policy students last night at which none of the students had read it, it seems worth re-drawing your attention to Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane’s edited volume Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances. Its already 5 years old, but it is really a brilliant achievement, drawing together numerous experts (if we’re allowed to listen to experts any more) with the task of summarizing everything we know about the relationship between economic inequality and educational disadvantage in the US. The take home is fairly simple: there’s a very strong relationship between economic inequality and educational disadvantage and after reading the whole book you might still believe (as I do) that it is possible to improve educational outcomes for poor children through improved schooling but you cannot believe that we could get large changes in outcomes without corresponding changes to the environments poor children grow up in—which would require massive reductions in both inequality and poverty.

I think its fair to say that the headline study was Sean Reardon’s finding that the achievement gap (measured by standardized tests) between rich and poor students has increased during the same 50 years during which the black-white achievement gap has decreased, as shown in the following graph:

se_graph

Other findings include Meredith Phillips’ finding that between birth and age six, wealthier children will have spent as many as 1,300 more hours than poor children on child enrichment activities such as music lessons, travel, and summer camp, and the contribution by Waldfogel and Magnusson showing that the gap in ‘enrichment spending’ between rich and poor has expanded massively in the past 40 years—and that affluent families spend more than $8000 a year per child on enrichment activities. A child from a poor family is two to four times as likely as a child from an affluent family to have classmates with low skills and behavior problems – attributes which have a negative effect on the learning of their fellow students, and the rich=poor achievement gap in k-12 is accompanied by a growing income-based gap in college completion.

One of the studies shows that local job losses can lower the test scores of students with low socioeconomic status, whether or not the students’ parents have suffered the job losses; another that and students learn less math if they attend schools with high student turnover during the school year (one count against school choice, but also against allowing landlords to evict tenants with children mid-year).

Of course, to most readers none of these finding will be shocking (though, the Reardon finding is quite noteworthy). But they are worth bearing in mind. I am startled by local school officials for example, who say that citing poverty as a reason for low achievement is an ‘excuse’, and also by academics in education I come across who are reluctant to admit that poverty has seriously detrimental effects on the poor and the ability of poor children to learn (if poverty doesn’t have bad effects on those who are subject to it, elminating it might still be nice but doesn’t seem morally as urgent as it, in fact, is). As I say, I’m only mentioning Whither Opportunity again now after meeting a whole group of grad students who are concerned with educational inequality and didn’t know of it, and being prompted by the discussions of charter schools. Also I’d recommend going to Leo Casey’s comment on one of the threads which gathers together some other useful links.

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Charter Schools in Perspective

by Harry on December 5, 2016

The thread following Henry’s post responding to Tyler Cowen’s comments about school choice reminds me that people might find this site—Charter Schools in Perspective—useful. It contains valuable and well contextualized summaries of the basic facts on the ground and of the research as of about a year ago, and resources for journalists, academics, and the general public who want to know more. It emerged from a project that I was involved with (along with one of our occasional commenters Leo Casey) a couple of years ago, supported by the Spencer Foundation and Public Agenda. Maybe it would be helpful for the incoming Secretary in the Department of Education.

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Richmond Park and North Kingston

by Harry on December 3, 2016

Rachel Reeves was on Westminster Hour at the weekend and sounded like a perfectly sensible person with whom one might have reasonable disagreements, until she was induced, as she should have anticipated, to talk about the by-election, at which point she defended Labour’s decision to stand a candidate not as if she was a loyal party member willing to say something stupid for the sake of unity, but as if she really believed that it was sensible and morally defensible behavior. This piece by Neal Lawson of Compass, if what it says is true—that some local party members preferred to refrain from nominating a candidate, but were told that the London Party would impose a candidate if they didn’t choose one) is… bemusing?

The fact that it was retweeted by Clive Lewis (I gather from my students that the phrase “I retweet that” means “hear, hear, old chap (or chap-ess)”, so I assume he approves, but what do I know?) is maybe a hopeful sign.

An aside, again on language use. I heard a Tory on the Jeremy Vine show this morning commenting on Tim Farran’s interview by saying that “I think Tim Farran has lost the plot”. “X has lost the plot” used to mean “X is disoriented and doesn’t know what they are talking about”. Said Tory MP, though, seemed to mean “I am disoriented and have nothing worth saying so will say something offensive about Tim Farran who seems to have had a great success, and is being pretty sensible and modest about the whole thing”. Is that what “X has lost the plot” has come to mean, or is it a phrase that now has many meanings?

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Letters of Recommendation

by Harry on November 29, 2016

It’s letter-writing time.

I enjoy writing letters of recommendation. I enjoy it more than I used to because I have more practice, because I have had plenty of positive feedback, and because I have learned to get to know more of my students better than I used to. But I also enjoy it because of the opportunity it gives me to reflect on the students, their skills, and their characters. Sometimes I am a bit surprised by the letter—last year a student asked me for a letter for Law school, and I knew it would be a good letter, but articulated, during the writing of it, aspects of her as a thinker and as a person that I really admire and hadn’t fully appreciated before having to write them down. It turned out to be better than merely very good, as I had anticipated.

Letter requests rarely come as a surprise these days, and for a good number of students I have little passages written in my head while I am teaching them in anticipation of the request. But this is a part of my job that I was not trained in at all. Just like teaching, you might think, but at least when I started teaching I had watched other people do it, whereas I had never even read letters of recommendation when I started. I have, by now, read thousands of letters of recommendation: even so, most of them have been for Philosophy graduate school applications, which is not what most of my letters are for, which tend to be for professional programs and (to a much lesser extent, because letters are used much less) for entry-level jobs. (When students put me down as a reference for a job I insist they give out my cell phone number, because I know I tend to respond rapidly to a voice mail (because I still, every time, expect it is going to be from the school telling me one of my children has done something awful! – and although I am basically phone-phobic, I have really enjoyed the many brief chats with Human resources people, which often seems more efficient than letter writing.

So, below, this is I write letters for students about to graduate. Please comment in whatever way seems useful – advice for me, or other letter-writers, especially if you are a consumer of such letters.

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New(ish) Crime Writers: Sophie Hannah

by Harry on November 28, 2016

After the last post in this series (what, a year ago?) a reader wrote to me enthusiastically about Sophie Hannah, assuming I’d have already read her. In fact I hadn’t: amazon had recommended her to me, so I had bothered to look her up and note her lineage but, to my embarrassment, the fact that she is a poet put me off a little bit. Still, a reader bothers to email me with a recommendation, I should try, right? I ended up doing something unusual: I read the Zailer/Waterhouse novels in order without a break, starting with Little Face. Hannah has a unique talent. Most of the books are psychological thrillers, and involve multiple deceptions among the characters, including between various of the detectives; in fact, in both Little Face and The Truth-Teller’s Lie (the first two) I occasionally worried that something supernatural was going to be involved (which would have been a cheat – as an aside I am curious what readers think about James Oswald’s crime novels, which I find completely addictive, but worry that I am being conned by). They are far from straightforward police procedurals, and the relationship between Zailer and Waterhouse is deeply unhealthy (and for a long time it’s hard to tell whether Waterhouse has some sort serious mental illness or is just extremely unpleasant). Yet there’s a sort of coziness to them – none of the plots are predictable (to me anyway), but the characters around Waterhouse (including Zailer) are stable and mostly likeable, the invented local geography is consistent and becomes familiar over the course of the novels, and the domestic lives of the characters involved in the labyrinthine plots are detailed lovingly – Hannah loves and cares about middle class English mothers who get the short end of the stick, but she shows her love by putting them in unbelievable (though possible) and awful situations!

I’m not sure I’d recommend reading all 10 in a row, but I’d certainly recommend reading them all over the course of a couple of years. So, thank you, unnamed reader!

Additional Comment
I haven’t read her Hercule Poirots, but hear they are terrific, so probably will read them after Christmas. I did decide to read The Orphan Choir, to see how well she did the actual supernatural. Now, I don’t really like the supernatural, and I didn’t really like The Ghost Choir but I could see that if she decided to write 3 more, the 4th would be outstanding. Still, I hope she sticks with crime.

WARNING: For reasons that I can’t imagine Sophie Hannah seems unusually prone to having her titles changed: most books are published under one name in the UK and an entirely different one in the US. So, beware duplication!

Teaching Logic with Presidential debates

by Harry on November 8, 2016

My excellent colleague Michael Titlebaum told me about an exercise he did with his Logic class. (It’s a First Year Interest Group class—20 first years who take 3 thematically linked courses, the composition of the program is disproportionately first generation, low income, and minority students—the idea being that students will get connections with each other around academics, and develop relationships with faculty early). I asked Titlebaum to write the exercise so I could include it here: mainly because it is an excellent example of the kind of pedagogy we should use more with our students in large public institutions like mine [1], but also, partly, because it is funny, and might entertain you on election day… Here’s his story:


I’m teaching introductory logic to twenty first-years in a special small-format class this semester, and the political season offered an opportunity too good to pass up. In class on October 18 I spent the entire lecture going over with them various logical fallacies and illicit rhetorical strategies. Then on October 19 I had all the students over to my house for pizza and debate-watching. I divided them into two teams, then had them score points by calling out instances of fallacies as they happened in the debate in real time.

The first astonishing thing was how many fallacies we found. 45 minutes in, my students had called out over 60. (And that was only on the two candidates—we ruled out scoring points off the moderator, despite Chris Wallace’s many loaded questions.) At that point we took ad hominem, red herring, hyperbole, and smokescreening off the table, mostly because I couldn’t count them fast enough. (Smokescreening is responding to a question by piling on related points or complications until everyone forgets the original question and the fact that you haven’t answered it.)

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I (still) believe

by Harry on November 8, 2016

The best election song of 1980…..Or maybe ever.

Good luck, everyone!

The latest issue of Law Ethics and Philosophy has an open access symposium on Family Values, with contributions by Sarah Stroud, Anca Gheaus and Luara Ferracioli, and a fairly comprehensive response by me and Adam Swift. To simplify, Stroud criticizes us for being too unforgiving of parental partiality; Gheaus criticizes us for being too permissive with respect to parental authority over children, and Ferracioli introduces two adequacy criteria that, she argues, our theory does not meet. Of course, you’ll want to be sure to read the book first so you’ll know what it’s all about! It’s a good symposium in that there is enough, and sharp enough, disagreement to be interesting, but enough common ground that several issues get clarified, and progress is made.

While you’re at it, you might also want to check out the other symposium in the same issue, prompted by Philippe Van Parjis’s provocative (to put it mildly) and brief piece “Four Puzzles on Gender Equality”. Here’s the abstract:

There are dimensions along which men seem to be disadvantaged, on average, relative to women. For example, they can expect to live less years; in a growing number of countries they are, on average, less educated than women; they form an electoral minority; and their greater propensity to misbehave means that the overwhelming majority of the prison population is drawn from their ranks. These disadvantages, if they are real, all derive from an unchosen feature shared by one category of human beings: being a male. Does it follow that these advantages are unjust?

The interesting responses are by Paula Casal, Pierre-Étienne Vandamme, Jesus Mora, Valeria Ottonelli and Gina Schouten. It’s entirely accessible to non-academics, not just because it is free on the internet, but also because most of the papers (including Van Parijs’s) are short, and largely free of technical language. I mainly don’t teach my own work, so despite its pedagogical value I probably won’t use the Family Values symposium, but I can’t wait to teach the Van Parjis symposium in my undergraduate political philosophy class in the spring!

The Stone Tape

by Harry on October 30, 2016

On the iplayer, a repeat of the brilliant radio adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape. I saw The Stone Tape much too young (when it was first broadcast—I think my mum bought our first colour television specifically for it) and still remember the sense of complete terror it caused. Listening to the adaptation last year brought it all back. Listen with headphones, in a dark room, and don’t get interrupted, if you can manage it!

Tom Hayden is Dead

by Harry on October 25, 2016

Tom Hayden, a leading member of SDS, and the person with most responsibility for drafting the Port Huron Statement, is dead. The Times obit, with its spectacularly wrong first sentence, is here. Despite the inaccuracies it is well worth reading. More interesting, more accurate, and passionate is Christopher Phelps’s piece in Jacobin, announcing the death and responding to the Times. For a start, the Times says that Hayden “burst out of the 1960s counterculture as a radical leader of America’s civil rights and antiwar movements” which, Phelps rightly responds, ‘gets it exactly backwards’ (and includes, amusing photographic evidence that I won’t reproduce because I want to induce you to go there and read Phelps).

Hayden’s youthful trajectory points, rather, to the early New Left that began awakening in the stiflingly conformist atmosphere of the late 1950s, one whose radicalism was focused in thought and action aiming to surmount race, bureaucracy, and war — and not on the experimentation with hair, dress, music, and psychedelic mind expansion that captivated the hippie counterculture.

The hippies were by and large apolitical; Hayden and his kind were political from start to finish.

The Times obit does, however, end well, with a quote from J. Edgar Hoover that anybody from that era would be pleased to have as their epitaph:

“One of your prime objectives,” J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime F.B.I. director, said in one memo, “should be to neutralize him in the New Left movement.”

John Peel’s 40th Birthday Programme

by Harry on October 19, 2016

from 1979 is on Listen Again for about 3 more weeks: Here, and here. Enjoy.

Viv Stanshall Day 2016

by Harry on October 14, 2016

Today is Viv Stanshall Day (its a moveable feast). Why? Who needs a reason? But… every day when I make my first check of the election news I think of Viv and wonder whether even he could have made it up.

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Adrian Grey-Turner, 1955-1986

by Harry on October 12, 2016

(This is an updated version of something I posted 10 years ago, on the 20th anniversary of my friend’s death)

About 33 years and 3 weeks ago You and Yours had one of those “off to University” shows, helping parents and about-to-be new undergraduates to understand what the first few weeks of University was going to be like.[1] Although fitting the latter category, I only listened because at the time You and Yours was among my regular listening. One comment struck me, and has stayed with me ever since. A woman in her thirties, commenting on Fresher’s Weeks, said that “in that first week of college you meet people who will be your friends for the rest of your life”.

I was skeptical. And it turned out to be untrue for me. I’m in much closer touch with several friends from secondary school than anyone from college (I did meet CB sometime in 1984, but only for a few minutes, and not again till Sept 12, 2001, so he doesn’t count). My first day at Bedford College was spent almost entirely with a girl who decided the next day to leave (not, I hope, because she spent the first day with me, but because she was trying to escape her home town of Egham, to which my college suddenly announced it was moving). I’m still in touch with two other people I met that week, but I’ve seen them each only once in the past ten years, and have spoken to one of them only a few times more.

But it was also that week that I met Adrian.

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Spending money on classrooms

by Harry on October 10, 2016

Michael O’Hare has a nice piece about building on campus. The central point is that capital is so cheap, compared with labor, in our business (even at UC Berkeley apparently!) that if better buildings make us more productive the university should invest more in building than they do (at least, if they will invest in the right kinds of buildings):

Consider an improvement of some sort to a classroom with fifty seats, used for 1200 hours a year – new projector, paint the walls, new chairs, whatever. If it could increase learning by the students by 5%, what fraction of the cost of the room would it be worth spending? The answer is 100%: you should be willing to throw the room away and build a whole new one.

A typical senior faculty office is about 10×12 feet…. In that office you can get a desk and a chair, bookshelves all over one wall, a couple of file cabinets, and a chair for visitors. If we’re lucky, there’s a tree outside the window, and the élite of profs get a squirrel in the tree. Throw in a printer and a scanner and you need another small table and it starts to get quite tight.

What would increase productivity in my business? I nominate: another real table that seats four, and a couch. Why a couch? For naps; actually everyone would do more, better work with naps, but profs work long hours; the research on this is done and it’s not debatable. The meeting space is because our work requires a lot of small meetings, often unscheduled, with colleagues and with students alone or in small groups.

Three thoughts based on my own experience:

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Why have classroom discussions anyway?

by Harry on September 19, 2016

A couple of people observed that, in this post about making classroom discussions actual discussions, I didn’t give any reasons why students actually should discuss. And, I have to say, that when I first started teaching I didn’t understand why, either. Here’s why.

I was a voracious reader and an intent listener. I used to (from age 4 at the latest) demand that my parents let me go to bed early so that I could listen to the radio (not music – but Radio 4: documentaries, comedies plays and, when I was 9, a 13×1 hour radio dramatization of Nicholas Nickleby, on Sunday evenings. By the time I was in college, listening to someone talk about philosophy for an hour was almost effortless – I did the reading, listened carefully, and took extensive notes. I also wrote a weekly essay… So who needed classroom discussion?

And when I started teaching, in the US, as a TA, leading discussion sections, I guess I assumed my students were much the same. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I lived a lot in my own head, and was not especially perceptive about people or the way they learned (despite having been to a good number of different schools, each with quite different demographic profiles; I even managed to attend two different colleges in my 3 years, the first one having closed down while I was there!). The first class I TA-ed had an excellent professor, who was friendly, engaging, and clear. And in section I supplemented her lectures, which more, mini-lectures, focused on details and, to be fair, allowing students to talk more than they could in lecture. The best students did the reading, and were on top of what was going on; and many of the rest remained confused, often because they hadn’t done the reading, but sometimes even when they had. This was clear in their writing, which I graded, and was often quite confused even though they had been in class and section.

How could this be? I have a much better sense of the answer 30 years later (as one might hope).

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