Hurting Children

After graduation, there’s that lurking temptation to do the unthinkable: to sell your soul and jump into finance. Now I’m not hating on any of you who did this. Business is an important, even necessary part of society. So we need people to do it. The work is hard; the hours are long; but I hear the pay is pretty good. And actually, I think that my job is from a social health perspective far worse. You see, I’m in the education field.

People who go into the high-paced financial markets, well, they really can do very limited damage. Right out of school, few of us are in a position to ruin countries economically or otherwise. They keep the harm to themselves. High levels of stress combined with few hours to sleep leave the worker mentally and physically drained. Then, in those few hours they do have to themselves, many seek refuge in drugs or alcohol. Not all do, of course. But even those who do don’t really leave a lasting gash on society. Ah, but then there are those like me. The quiet, horrible types who try to help out others.

At least in business, there isn’t any real pretension to altruism. In education, that’s all we claim to do. Invest in the children today to save the world of tomorrow, and the like. However, it’s seldom that easy. Oftentimes, people deign to do charitable acts which tend more to harm than to help. Remember that obnoxious girl who tried to order her food at Boca Grande in Spanish? It took her fourteen times as long as everyone else and made everyone in the restaurant (except, possibly, the girl—she didn’t stop, after all) feel uncomfortable. That sort of thing happens a lot in education, but the effects are more permanent. Try as we might, people like to simplify complicated processes because, well, that’s human nature.

I freelance for a publishing company in the math textbook division. Right now I write tests for an accompanying middle school textbook series. And let me tell you, while it’s hard to write a good math textbook problem, it’s very easy to write a bad one. Many states, and indeed the country at large, have pushed for more so-called real-world math. These over-contextualized problems do wonders to confuse and hinder understanding. The research shows how bad they are, but people seem to love them. Or, rather, they love to make their children do them. No one actually loves to do them. That’s why many parents won’t help their children do their math homework. (And whoa, what a message that sends the kids: math is unimportant; it’s okay not to be good at math; do it now and soon it’ll be over. Why don’t we accept a similar level of ignorance in other fields? It’s embarrassing not to be a “reading person” but perfectly fine not to be a “math person.”)

Motivated by the enthusiasm and reward real-world problems brought Agatha Christie (to be honest: I don’t know anything about Agatha Christie aside from this quotation, which pops-up in math education reading from time to time. In fact, up until recently I thought she was Angela Lansbury), I rely on her words. They float around in my head and guide my writing:

I continued to do arithmetic with my father, passing proudly through fractions to decimals. I eventually arrived at the point where so many cows ate so much grass, and tanks filled with water in so many hours I found it quite enthralling.

And so I try to sneak in problems that use only thinly veiled real-world examples, but are secretly robust, real math problems. I’d include some examples, but I’ve signed a non-disclosure contract.

Some of my problems don’t have numbers at all, and even ask students to draw and label their answers. Of course, for every problem I come up with that I think is mathematically constructive, I submit six or seven others that I think are damaging. And here’s the problem: I actively hurt children. I help to spread and reinforce American mathphobia, one problem at a time. Because of me (and those like me), children learn to believe that math is boring, calculation according to some magic set of standards that devious, smart, and totally absent people make up. Still, it’s nice to know that I’m fighting back the cancer of classically construed middle school math, albeit not by much.

And the textbook series that I’m writing for isn’t extremely terrible. The authors sprinkle in short and extended response questions among the rote drill calculations. Some of the questions are open-ended. And they’re big on listing the standards each problem uses. Yet the text introduces the meat of each standard through by example, leaving the student to abstract and generalize rules on his own. (This is quite generally a dangerous practice.) Obvious over-contextualization aside, these margin notes do encourage basic metacognitive reasoning. In a small, roundabout way, they ask the studenst to think about what they’re thinking about. More practically, the kids (and their parents) know up-front what material they’re accountable for. And they get to see that these problems weren’t made up completely at random. Someone thought about them. So the cost of the materials is justified, right? Yes, I think it’s a political ploy. A good one, though.

And this is the most frustrating part about it. The standards trick people into thinking that there is some golden set of content and skills that a person should have in order to be considered mathematically competent or numerically literate or whatever fashionable buzzword you can come up with. The fact of the matter is, there isn’t. Math isn’t about what you know, it’s about how to organize what you know. I don’t know much graph theory; does that mean I’m innumerate? No way. I can do more geometry than plenty of professional graphy theory mathematicians, I’m sure. They know what they like; I know what I like. The crazy thing is, I know how to reason the same way as the graph theorists. The take home: the mathematical content of a textbook is really a vehicle for the abstract reasoning behind it all. For this reason, curricula can really be a lot more flexible than they are. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to say that kids shouldn’t learn arithmetic. I will argue that maybe they should learn it another way. Even when we publish fancy standards in our books but forget to change the way we approach those standards, we really haven’t done anything. Kids have been learning how to add in just about the same way for over a century. Meanwhile there’s been lots of ground-breaking research done on how people learn, think, and understand over the course of the last one hundred years. Why do we so willingly ignore it?

But I do have a curriculum, and I use it. Meanwhile, I can only do so much to take into account the kids who’ll be using my books. We’re never going to meet. I don’t know anything about them, except, possibly their average age and vague geographic location. It’s important to have a good sense of what they know, how they understand it, and how they learned it. Projecting two years into the future about strangers is hard stuff. I have to write blind to my reader.

Whatever its impact, I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to work on textbooks. With some careful thought and hard work, maybe I can make a small contribution for the better in middle school education (before running back into academia to play for the rest of my life).

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Believe Again

Yes, yes. We’ve all heard that the pen is mightier than the sword. Somehow it’s easy to forget, though, just how powerful those silly little words can be. The Republicans seem to know. They’ve sent out now ubiquitous catch-phrases—who doesn’t know to Support Our Troops?—to rally Americans to their causes without actually giving any cause to do so. These slogans are short, to the point, and entirely devoid of content. And still they have proven to be incredibly powerful. Remember when Colbert talked Geoffrey Nunberg, linguist and author of Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show, into the ground with only three carefully crafted phrases? (If not, search through the archive tapes for the show originally aired August 21, 2006. Comedy Central has clips: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

Last night, I pointed out to my roommate DJ that a Democrat has finally smartened up and done the same. Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick, whose website browser icon is funnily DP—I wonder if his marketing team are aware of this—, has used similarly effective however empty campaign slogans. The weakest of his tag lines claims that Patrick is No Ordinary Leader. Now this is good, sure, but it’s not great. It tries to exploit the constant dissatisfaction that most of us harbor against whatever we currently have (be it our government, job, or any other part of life). More than that, it presumes that ordinary is bad and that unsual is good. Just to keep us in line, I’d like to point out—and I know that I’m using an unfair extreme–that Hitler was No Ordinary Leader. I’m not going to argue with you now, so take it at face value when I say that Hitler was bad. A good leader, sure; a bad man, certainly. But like I said, Patrick’s got better ones.

Next in order of efficacy, I think, comes his invitation to join him. Together We Can his posters say. My sister’s boyfriend Andrew finds this one particularly stirring. Last night he told me, “It evokes a partnership between me, the common man, and the candidate for the leadership embodied in the State’s chief magistrate,” or something. “Also, this guy went to some farmers out west somewhere and told them, ‘I’m not a farmer. I don’t know about this stuff. Tell me what I should do to help you.’ He’s really thinking out of the box,” he went on to tell me. My roommate DJ nearly drowned in his own tears (of laughter) upon hearing this.

Andrew proves my point. Perhaps now I should make it.

Together We Can is genius simply because it promises nothing. Patrick’s team were very careful never to use punctuation after any of their slogans on any of their signs. Of course not. They’re fragments. You can’t put a period after a fragment, after all. Doing so might point out raise the attention of a lazy reader. Then he’d realize that you haven’t said anything at all. To Andrew I asked, “Together we can what?” Patrick doesn’t tell us. Instead, he lets our imaginations run wild. That’s right, I am going to help run this State. I am important. Wrong. This slogan is so compelling because it calls on the reader to finish the sentence according to his personal whims and then pretend that it’ll happen, that he’s effected the change, and it spares him the hassle of doing any, real work. People love to feel like they’ve contributed something useful; on the other hand, they hate to exert themselves. This slogan let’s you think you can have your cake and eat it, too. (I’ve never understood that saying.)

But undoubtedly the best slogan I’ve heard so far, Patrick saved for until after he won the primary. Now it’s showing up on bumper stickers. Patrick asks us to Believe Again. I can’t begin to explain how impressed I was when I read this slogan. I wanted to run up and shake him and cry and clap my hands uncontrollably. It’s really quite amazing. This slogan reaches the largest audience possible. Being the most devoid of content, it has the greatest reach. Believe Again entices the voter to conjure up the most romantic, idealized form of government possible. But it doesn’t stop there, the implications are unstoppable. It’s an easy jump from government to general quality of life. Improving one naturally improves the other, right? No matter what you believe in, Patrick does, too—at least according to this slogan. And shouldn’t you support someone who holds such a coincident and intimate commitment to those things you hold so dear? It’s hard to argue against him, because you’d have to argue against yourself. Imagine a leader who would allow you to Believe Again.

To test my claims that these are, indeed, worthy of the Republicans, DJ asked quite blankly, “Are you suggesting we Cut and Run?”

To which I answered, “It’ll take No Ordinary Leader.”

To which he countered, “But don’t you Support Our Troops?”

But then I hit him full-force with, “Together We Can. I want to Believe Again.”

It was over. The conversation left both of us stunned.

DJ then noted that we should write for the Colbert Report, or, maybe I should write for the Colbert Report, or, possibly, just to them, to let them know that someone else figured out how to play the word game.

What’s worth mentioning is that Patrick’s slogans are even more sinister than the Republican’s because they aren’t immediately negative. (No Ordinary Leader comes closest to being overtly aggressive, but is pretty sissy when flanked by Cut and Run and Support Our Troops. Notice, however, that Support Our Troops also makes the people who say it feel like they’ve really accomplished something even though they’ve taken no physical action.) Patrick’s tag lines get stuck in your ear, and, while there, make you feel better about him and about yourself. How empowering! I really can’t get over just how brilliant they are.

Moral: If don’t want people to disagree with you, don’t say anything that they can disagree with.

Faith-based Hiring: Potentially a Problem

The reason why I ever noticed that depressing woman on the train was because of something she said that stuck with me:

I’m telling you about the past—the past has nothing to do with today.

This is the dogma of the New Capitalism, and, coincidentally, the theme of a book by Richard Sennett I’ve mentioned before. With many industries looking towards consulting these days, many of us place our stock in potential rather than years of practice. This women’s belief is the end of craftsmanship.

I’m led to believe that before the dotcom boom of the early nineties—a time I know almost nothing about first-hand—employers hired and evaluated employees based on the history of their performance. With time and experience workers generally got better at their craft. Nowadays, however, there has been a shift from the past to the future. We hear lots of talk about so-called potential and adaptability. The idea is that the world is a rapidly changing place and those who cannot keep up are left behind. To me, this is an interesting departure from something that is at the very worst measurable to something that is at the very best ill-defined.

Society, even very conservative sects, believe that innovation and change are the same things as progress. Outwardly, such a tenet forces a meritocracy, and isn’t that the framers of the fledgling United States had in mind; aren’t we fully realizing Jefferson’s hope to establish a “natural aristocracy” founded not on the arbitrary forces of birth but by ability and good work? No, I don’t believe we are. [Nor do I necessarily think that we should. But to explain why might require another entry or two.]

We must question how we judge ability. We treat potential as if it were a fixed trait, born into us, and therefore just as arbitrary and unfair as family name. Growing up, I learned that the first grade teachers at my school had pooled together to bet which among us would be valedictorian. And I remember teachers and other adults saying of me that “he’s just not challenged enough.” To wit, nothing yet had tested me, forcing me to actualize my potential. Even as late as last week, my friend told me that I have more potential than he does. Somehow people are willing to overlook the past six months, during which I lived off my father and sister at home, fully unemployed and with little motivation to change. The reason why: potential.

But how does this conception of ability stand up in reality; should anyone get the job simply because he has potential? Let’s look at a specific case. Your goal is simply to identify the best piano player:

  • Student 1 first sat down at a piano when she was 12 years old. Having never so much as plunked a single note on the beast before, she was able instantly to reproduce any theme, classical or contemporary, she heard perfectly. By 15, she was touring the country as guest soloist with more than a dozen symphony orchestras. She never had to practice once.
  • Student 2 by contrast started playing when she was 4. She practiced constantly. By the time she finished high school and began college, she logged between four and six hours of practice daily. Student 2 studied music professionally and had several instructors who helped her to refine her talent and musical interpretation over the years. Eventually, she broke into the competitive circuit, and though not initially, was able to distinguish herself. Now she also tours and guest solos and boasts the same popularity and acclaim as Student 1.
  • Student 3 is Student 1’s twin brother. By all accounts, he has the same capacity for virtuosity as his sister. In some cases, he can even play some of the most difficult passages on the piano with more ease and musical expression than his sister. Yet Student 3 does not practice his talent. Instead he chose to become a landscape designer. Today he manages fourteen professional golf courses and almost never listens to music, let alone plays the piano.

The question: who is the best piano player of the three described? The answer isn’t so straight-forward.

Potential alone, perhaps, isn’t good enough. Student 2 was able to equal Student 1 in success because she worked hard. Student 3 was not as successful a piano player as the other two because he didn’t work hard at it. And chances are no one will ask Student 3 to guest solo with an orchestra any time soon—despite his potential—because he lacks a good track record.

It is very hard, if not impossible, to measure potential because of this sticky business known as persistence. Sustained effort can and often does overcome the random distribution of powers and abilities. The son of a very rich man can die poor. The orphan children can grow up to be very rich. Be wary of tests which purport to predict ability. Tools like the IQ, which were designed merely as a diagnostic to assess the present—not the future—, have been misappropriated. The SAT, whose history begins as an officer exam for the US Army during World War II and has changed little since, is notoriously bad at guessing how students will fare in college. So bad is it, that they’ve changed the name from the Scholastic Aptitude Test to SAT. It’s no longer an acronym. The letters don’t mean anything, which reflects, I think, on just how much the test itself means.

Viewing ability as an innate, fixed trait can be extremely harmful. Girls outperform boys in math and science until about age 13. Perhaps in my next post I’ll explain some reasons why, and maybe respond to those infamous comments by former President Summers about women in science soon. For now, you can re-read what I’ve learned about praise.

And please, do not misread me. I am not advocating the end of testing. Far from it. But we should remember exactly what tests do under perfect situations: the most any test can do is to give an approximation of circumstances at the present. I’ll write a little more on testing for understanding soon, too.

Contract Time

The dining hall workers at Harvard have, for several decades, been receiving a pretty raw deal. Perhaps in June, when they renegotiate their contracts, things can be improved some. For those of you who aren’t as familar with the situation as you’d like to be, I’ll outline a few of the more greivous details.

  • The staff gets paid only six months out of the year. Harvard would tell you they work between nine and nine and a half months each year, and, technically, Harvard would be right. However, whenever the students are on vacation, the College gives the dining hall staff a unpaid vacation. For Christmas, some hall managers force their employees to use up their personal and vacation days over the holiday. Harvard is generous enough to pay wages on Christmas Day, but not for those who work less than 20 hours a week.
  • During the summer, Harvard hires out its dining services to about seven hundred contractors. Because their six-month cannot sustain equitable living the entire year, term-time workers have to find another job over the summer in order to survive. Some move cannot afford housing in the summer and must move in with family, sometimes requiring workers to relocate across state lines. Others who are bound to leases must compete with their colleagues for jobs. There is no humane reason for Harvard’s large, summer outsourcing.
  • Harvard dining hall worker pay does not respect seniority. After working two years, a worker make the same wages as another who had faithfully served for thirty-five years. And while the cost of living continues to rise, Harvard dining hall workers’ wages have not. Some workers must supplement their full-time jobs at Harvard with one or more part-time jobs even during the school year.

Meetings to organize within the Local 26 and things you can do to help will be announced here in the coming days.

Role Models and Welfare

On my way into Town last night, I turned on my favorite NPR affiliate WBUR to hear what was going on in the world. I caught the tail end of After Welfare, a radio documentary by the American RadioWorks on the 1996 federal welfare reform legislation which ceded funding to the states and some of its subsequent effects. The piece closed with a very interesting focus on marriage. Evidently, the bill Clinton signed into law has in it some very specific wording that promotes low-income marriages. The idea runs something like this: two low incomes can provide for a child better than one. In Oklahoma, just over two million dollars pay for one of the more radical programs to result from the shift to the states. It is called the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative.

Aimed at low-income expectant parents, couples volunteer to complete a 12-hour course during which they learn, review, and discuss what it takes to stay in a long-term relationship. I believe much of their time is devoted to ever important communication techniques. It’s hard to know what if any effect OMI and others programs like it will have. And we won’t know for years, but it’s worth trying, I suppose. Studies show that as a group single mothers hold some of the most conservative family values. They believe that being a mother is one of, if not the single most important thing a woman can do. They want a traditional, nuclear family, and the majority [in the study I can’t remember below] oppose abortion.

While you may not be suprised to learn that even poorer people don’t want to sabotage their own lives, many critics of the 1996 law were afraid that low income women would have more and more kids in order to up their monthly check from the state at the expense of tax-payers and their hypothetical children. Some ground-breaking research, which I can’t name off the top of my head, in which about 160 single, low-income mothers were interviewed, shows that these women didn’t get married not because they somehow lack morals and values—as others might suggest—but because they revere the institution of marriage as holy. They’re holding out for someone who can provide a stable, healthy environment for them and their kids. The only difference, it seems, between them and their middle- and upper-class counterparts is resources.

Professor Skip Gates of Harvard’s Afro-American studies department recently produced a several part PBS documentary on blacks in America. He found that many boys in impoverished areas grew up to do what their role models did: sell drugs and go to jail. But why? Because they didn’t know what else to do. Why go to school and learn things that might be useful years from now and make no money in the interim when you could sell some drugs and make a few thousand dollars in a few days? The problem of immediate gratification is ruining large portions of society. The sort of education we need here is of the utmost personal kind. It is important that children, as President Bush says, be exposed to as many possibilities as, uh, possible. If a parent tells a child that he can be whatever he wants to be when he grows up, the statement has very little empowering effect if the child can’t think of things to be.

So when I say that these women’s middle-class counterparts have more resources, I intend more than material means; I’m also talking about psychology and education.

If these women believe that motherhood is the highest form of success they can acheive, it’s no wonder that most low-income babies, while perhaps not planned, are purposefully not prevented. Among other things, we need to get more and different kinds role models and mentors to work especially within low-income populations.

Even when presented with alternatives, it’s easy to believe that you’re born into your part in society, that lots are cast. In America, parents reinforce this misconception all the time. When interviewed, American mothers will list innate ability as the single most important factor in determining a person’s long-term success. Chinese and Japanese mothers, on the other hand, choose effort and persistance. As a result, American children can easily believe that those things which come easy to them are the things that are meant for them, and the stuff that’s hard isn’t. Again, pretty unsuprisingly sociologists suspect that one reason kids join gangs is a thirst for immediate gratification. Gangs will get you where you want to be fast.

And that’s why good math education is so crucial. (I could see you waiting for it, so I won’t disappoint.) Math is the sort of subject that requires lots of forethought and whose reward is delayed gratification. Of course good mathematical training won’t cure all of society’s ills, but [because this post is already long I’ll keep this brief and end abruptly claiming wildly that] the psychology of mathematics couldn’t hurt.

Applied Math Curricula

This article from a 1993 edition of the Phi Delta Kappan somehow summarizes hundreds of pages of a digest of hundreds of research studies that wasn’t written until 1999 in only seven pages—and a drawing takes up most of the space of the first one. I agree with almost everything in it, except the bit about math movies at the end. Also, I might take issue with some of the suggestions curriculum reform. For example:

In addition, topics not previously explored in traditional curricula must be added. Changes from an agrarian society to a technical/information society demand the literate citizens be familiar with such concepts as mathematical modeling, discrete mathematics, and data analysis. An example of discrete mathematics would be the decision process whereby a street sweeper is routed through a town so that the fewest number of streets possible will end up being swept twice.

Now, sure, we ought to rethink what we teach our kids. The author is absolutely correct. The standard American math curriculum hasn’t budged much in the past century despite radical changes in American society, culture, and technology. To ignore the passage of time is stupid. But I’m not entirely sure what the author is proposing here. To me, she’s suggesting we load up our kids with graph theory and Fourier analysis. This is great if we want all our kids to go into algorithmic optimization, data compression, and signal processing. Maybe that wouldn’t such a bad thing. In my experience, Fourier analysis can be hard. But such a suggestion presupposes that everyone, everywhere will end up in the high-tech sector. Even then, my friends who do lots of computer science [most of whom actually work in finance] don’t rely on mathematics proper so much as things in computer science, and then, that they picked up in college.

Also it’s worth mentioning that we can’t just continue to add things to the curriculum and expect a change in our students’ abilities or understanding of the subject matter. Right now the curriculum is too broad and lacks substantial depth. As is, kids have to memorize lots of seemingly unrelated, mathematical facts. They’re presented in isolation and learnt in isolation. If you’re going to revamp the curriculum, fine: just don’t tack on more and more things and then look for a miracle. But moving on.

The author cites a statement by the Mathematical Sciences Education Board. Following fold, it’s reproduced for your benefit and my scrutiny in part below:

Almost no time is spent on estimation, probability, interest, histograms, spread sheets or real problem-solving, things which will be commonplace in most of these young people’s later lives.

I agree. We pay little attention to any of those things; it’s a shame, too. Probablility and statistics are perhaps the most important “real-life” mathematics we could be teaching. I’ve always found it funny that calculus has dominated as the capstone math course at many high schools. College freshmen use it as a measure of their peers mathematical prowess. You’re especially frightening if you took a multivariable calculus or linear algebra class. Statistics isn’t as nearly frightening. Too bad, because if it were, maybe more people’d offer and take it. I routinely run into Ivy-league educated people who don’t know “correlation is not causation.” I’m a bit worried and confused by their inclusion of “real problem-solving.” I don’t know what it means, but I can guess.

They want our kids to pretend that they’re the CEO of a juice company, and they need to figure out whether to make more cranberry juice or more grape juice according to a number of contraints. Maybe they’ll do the linear programming themselves, or maybe they’ll plug it into a computer. In any case, these sorts of highly contextualized, so-called real world problems are, in researched fact, a bad, bad, bad idea. Not only do they not interest most children—most children are not, nor do they dream of being the CEO of a juice company—these sorts of problems actually hinder transfer of abstract principles and problem solving structures to other types of problems and disciplines. What does go, however, are abstract relationships.

With a little practice and a lot of thought, it’s not hard to come up with motivating questions that live soley within the realm of mathematics. There’s no need to introduce confusing and distracting details from the physical world.

But, if you must, I could see the addition of more mathematics into the school day. What if we had two math classes, but disguised one of them as “real-world problem solving”? Then we wouldn’t have to compromise learning how to think through problems in an abstracted way that promotes the formation and understanding of relationships, and we’d have a venue for an integrated approach science, math, and technology with applications that is so hot nowadays.

Anyway, I’m meeting with the author sometime next week to talk about these sorts of issues in person. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Teachers in the New Capitalism

After reading my first post about the effects of the New Capitalism on education, Liz kindly sent me this article on the changing conception of career with regard to teaching from the Phi Delta Kappan. As I had mentioned before, onece upon a time, people choose a job for life. Indeed this is the case with the retiring class of teachers today, but those who are replacing them fall into three categories: the lifers, the explorers, and the capstoners. The first group wants to stay in teaching for a long time; the second sees teaching as a springboard to other things, but are still serious about education while they’re there; and the third have already done other things, are probably late along in life, and want to retire into teaching. In 2001 it was projected that we’d need about 2.1 million more teachers than we already had by 2010. I’m not sure what the numbers are now, but I’d find it hard to believe that many qualified, elementary and secondary school educators just walked onto the scene. So it’s important that we invite and make use of all three types of people. The trick, then, is how to keep them once we’ve got them, and how to make them into good teachers.

For a moment, let’s pretend that the new lifers, the teachers who decided in third grade that what he wanted to do was teach, went to a teaching school, has full certification, and loves and wants to teach forever are the standard. [Of course I take great issue with the way math teachers are trained; but for now, I’ll hold those gripes aside.] The explorers aren’t sure they want to teach long-term, but they know they want to teach for a few years. These are the folks programs like Teach for America and the Massachusetts $20,000 signing bonus for new teachers—article on its limitations here—are after. I’m a bit weary of this lot. Most of them don’t stick around; many know that they’re going on to graduate and med school after a few years. They don’t have the time, experience, or training to be good teachers. And while they are usually very serious about their work, the reality of the situation is a bit bleak. After two years of working for Teach for America, volunteers bring raise their students on average from the 14th percentile the 17th. That’s not an awful lot. Even if we pick our teachers from an newly graduated, Ivy-league educated pool, studies have shown that merely being an expert in your field doesn’t make you an expert teacher in your field. [This is shocking, I know.] That’s why pedagogical training is so important. Knowing the facts is one thing; knowing how to teach those facts is another.

Likewise, the majority of capstoners lack any formal instruction in teaching. What’s worse, they often can’t afford the time or money to enter into a certification program. If we’re going to keep either of these groups around for the long haul, and to attract more into the lifers’ group, we need to train and support our fledgeling teachers. As I’ve said before, less than one percent of school budgets go to professional development nationally. Even then, programs like Programs in Professional Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education focus on upper-level administration, not on entry-level teachers. Of course, there aren’t that many places to spend money on training. Many advanced courses—graduate level classes in history, science, math, etc.—are taught during the day and require full-time attention. And these classes are not designed with teachers in mind: they’re for the serious academic, and so, don’t pay much attention to the difficulties presented by the specific subject content. [This body of knowledge is called content pedagogical knowledge; you can’t teach chemistry the same way you teach art history. The fields are not the same, so your approach to them shouldn’t be the same.] here just isn’t an infrastructure to support our educators.

For a long time it was assumed that the problem lay in attracting new teachers. But in light of the New Capitalism, we see that the real problem is retaining new teachers. We can keep them longer if we give them better facilities, higher wages—these tactics work and are employed just about everywhere—but something we have systematically denied to teachers, something we’d expect in any other field, is the a chance to grow professionally. Before the New Capitalism workers climbed up and down the ladder. In education, the analogue is weak if present at all. We have long expected a classroom teacher to stay in the classroom, to teach the same material year after year, in approximately the same way—repeating the cycle mechanically each fall. It’s no wonder technology zealots believe they can automate the learning process, sending our kids to computers. Society has long held his opinion.

Of course, professional development has the added bonus of continually raising the abilities and therefore qualities of our teachers’ instruction to their students.

Children: Separate and Left Behind

Yesterday, the Associated Press published an article explaining “a growing national debate over whether the nation’s newest education experiment is — unexpectedly — encouraging school segregation.”

Because of the penalties listed in the No Child Left Behind Act, schools who “underperform” lose funding. If you’re a public school administrator, and your school’s doing just fine, what are you going to say to a poor, stereotypically troubled and troubling child who wants admission? No way. It only makes sense, right? If you take him, his tests scores could jeopardize your already delicate budget. And that kid who just immigrated and can’t yet speak English and so will almost certainly fail the mandatory state assessment — well, she’s out, too.

It’s economically advantageous to segregate against poor students under the law. So, now we see school doing just that. But to say it’s unexpected, as the AP says, is simply just wrong.

The same sort of argument came up when there was a big push for vouchers for charter schools. It’s true, test scores generally rise when public schools have to compete with charter schools. However, it’s a zero-sum game. For every student who jumps ships from a public to a charter school [or the other way around], that students state allocation leaves with him. Some say this puts the onus on schools to be the best they can so that they don’t lose students. But that’s a fairly unreasonable expectation unless you provide sufficient funds.

Imagine a doctor denying a patient treatment, “Oh, no. No medicine for you, not until you get better.” That would teach America never to get sick again. Sure, we ought to have standards, but this is ridiculous.

Charter schools were bad, but they weren’t everywhere. They were only a local evil, plaguing, for the most part, cities and large metropolitan areas where there are enough students and therefore government subsidy. My small hometown of 10,000 residents can only furnish enough kids to graduate less than sixty each year — not nearly enough for the economics to provide us with a charter school. Our partner school, the one with which we share football, hockey, and my senior year, cross-country teams, is even smaller. [To be fair, each class starts with about 120, but after you figure in attrition to private and vocational institutions, drop-outs, and death (there are less than a handful in the last category), it’s suprising if there are more than 50 students left in good standing by senior year.]

No Child Left Behind is worse: it’s national. No one can escape it. [Even if a state tried to, they’d forfeit almost all federal support. So while it’s not compulsory to comply in theory, it is in practice. Isn’t that tantamount to extortion?] The flow of well-to-do, advantaged populations to well-to-do, advantaged schools will continue, as it always has. But now, schools are going to be [and this article says they are] on even more careful watch to keep the disadvantaged out.

What we need to do, you see, is get rid of the many millions of dollars it costs to develop, administer, assess, and analyse large tests like the MCAS [which, despite the lone open-ended math essay question still ask SAT-type, multiple choice which do not prove a kid understands anything other than how to take a test; the AP sucks less, but still an awful lot. They let me take a TI-89 calculator which can do symbolic manipulations to the exam in high school.]. Instead, we need to invest it in the teachers. Less than 1% of school budgets nation-wide are dedicated to professional development. I can’t wait to be a comfortable, gentleman academic.

An Op-Ed.

I wrote this with the intent of sending it to the Boston Globe, but since time marches on and I’m not the most time-sensitive individual, I pass it off to you to read here. Notice how my professional writing is still vaguely colloquial:

In his opinion piece, “Kids take back seat to gay agenda” (Boston Globe, 15 March 2006), columnist Jeff Jacoby argues that gay activists have pursued their cause, “the normalization of homosexual adoption,” to the detriment of children. He defends the Catholic church’s right to discriminate against homosexual couples. He claims that millions of Americans believe the parents in a family must be of both sexes, and further comments, this is “neither a radical view nor an intolerant one.” Since Catholic Charities can no longer place children with anyone, Jacoby concludes that gay activists and colluding media and state government officials have propelled gay equality forward while relegating children to the back, much like a few rotten apples spoiling the whole bunch. Jacoby is wrong in two different ways.

First, Jacoby ignores the other, very valuable and very laudable work done through Catholic Charities outside of adoption. In addition to adoption, Catholic Charities offers over thirty services, among which include child care, mentoring programs, substance abuse counseling, and homeless shelters and transitional housing. Each year the United Way awards Catholic Charities with a grant, most recently for $1.2 million. Had the State issued a waiver to the anti-discrimination law, it would have put all programs run through Catholic Charities, not just the adoption services, at risk. Most funders, including the United Way and the state government, refuse to grant financial assistance to organizations that discriminate. Many of the budgets of these programs are already sensitive to even slight fluctuations in current funding; if Catholic Charities were allowed to ban homosexual adoptions, the resulting decreased financial backing would ensure a curtailment effecting several other vulnerable populations throughout the city who were not directly involved. In essence, the State’s ruling saved many more charitable programs. Furthermore, it is worthwhile to remember that the Church chose to close the adoption services, not Catholic Charities, and not the State.

Second, the view Jacoby claims to be “neither radical nor intolerant” has no founding in contemporary research, and is, therefore, not only intolerant against gay couples but is also harmful to children. According to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, between 6 and 14 million children were living with a gay or lesbian parent as of 1990. The dozens of studies to investigate the psychology of children of LGBT parents have been motivated primarily by family law, and thus directly address the effects on children of having gay versus straight parents. Evidence shows pretty convincingly that children are not harmed in any way merely by having homosexual parents. In fact, it shows quite the opposite. According to one study by Hoeffer published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, daughters of lesbians, on average, have higher self-esteem than those of straight women; their sons are more caring and less aggressive. Additionally, children of homosexual parents are no more likely than the general population to be homosexual themselves. In light of these statistics, we have no choice but to deny Jacoby’s interpretation of the views of “millions of Americans” and call his opinion what it is: unreasoned, unjustified, and harmful to children.

Soldiers by the Sixth Grade

It seems that every time I go to church choir [this is once a week, on Thursdays], I end up talking to the choir director, who moonlights as the director of the music program for one the local school districts, about all that I find wrong in the world. Usuaully it’s secondary education that upsets me most — especially when there’s an educator nearby.

No Child Left Behind [PDF here] (NCLB) has already upset, as you might remember, because it very blindly replaced all the social, emotional, and physical and health education out of the Jump Start legislation organized by some very well-meaning and pretty smart people in the 1950s with a single word: literacy. This law is was just a clever political move. Give the public something they can hold onto, repeat quickly, and give it a name that sounds pleasant. I won’t rant about the artificial metrics the law forces on schools, or how these exams cannot be compared from state to state, and why the underlying principle of it is “Oh, yeah, you’re sick, huh? Well, you can’t have any medicine until you’re better.” Much like the abortion bill in South Dakota, NCLB lacks any foresight and doesn’t consider the consequences. But instead of being four pages, it’s 670.

And if you look on page 559, you will find the heading for SEC. 9528. Armed Forces Recruiter Access to Students and Student Recruiting Information. There you will find tucked away very neatly a most disturbing consequence of this bill. Looks like someone was planning ahead after all:

“[E]ach local educational agency receiving assistance under this Act
shall provide, on a request made by military recruiters or an institution of higher education, access to secondary school students names, addresses, and telephone listings.”

This sort of thing happens all the time at colleges and universities. And sure, that almost makes sense. After all, kids there have gone through most of the developmental processes that deem them a functioning, thinking adult. Remember last summer when I almost took a commission in the navy to train nuclear engineers for subs and carriers? Well, while it’s hard to defend the military’s right to know my name and number, it’s almost undensible to do the same with sixth graders. And don’t think that because you’re at a private or religious school you’re not effected. There’s a good chance you are. I’d suggest that parents read subsection (c) and check with their kids’ schools.

My favorite part of this section comes last. Connecticut has consistently been a thorn in the Secretary of Education’s side. Last last summer, the state sued because the Secretary refused to grant a waiver for annual testing made mandatory by NCLB. Connecticut has had state-wide testing long before Bush came around. They had done such unreasonable things as wait until ESL students learn some English before forcing them to take the test, which, by the way, is conducted in English. The Department of Education didn’t like that and so denied them the waiver, requiring the state to spend millions just to develop the test in what would be over 150 languages. Throw in costs to administer and grade the things, and we’re talking several times what it costs to run an entire, medium-sized school district. I haven’t heard anything since last Connecticut’s case since last summer. I’d be curious to know if anyone else knows what’s happened since.

Anyway, I’m thinking about marching down to my old high school to ask if they’ve passed out a form for parents to easily refuse consent. Tonight’s after-choir conversation almost got me riled up enough to start an after-school math tutoring program there voluntarily. But then again, I might get for the city of Cambridge to do exactly the same thing. I’ll wait until after I receive an email.