Saturday, June 13, 2009

Now What?

I apologize for not having posted in a while. I have been quite busy with finishing out the last few days of school. It has been a busy year. My wife has started up her proofreading business with a smashing good year. Both of us got masters degrees (my second, her first), I have finished up my final days at the Baltimore County Public Schools, and in two weeks, we are off do our new place in Newark, DE so that I can start my Education PhD.

Now that I am done my school year, I think it is a good time to pack up my blog. I am now contributing to a new blog, Liberty and Skepticism, and have started a new blog more aptly titled Education Philosopher. This new blog, I think, will focus on the more philosophical side of education, as I will write for it during my PhD study.

I hope that anyone who reads and enjoys this blog follows the other. (I will probably try to limit that one to matters of education, as Liberty and Skepticism will cover the more philosophical and political stuff).

See you all there.

Reflections from the Finish Line

Yesterday was a hard day; it was my last day in the Baltimore County Public Schools. After two very difficult years, I have decided to give up public school teaching (at least for now) in order to pursue a PhD in Education.

As anyone who has been a schoolteacher knows, it requires a lot of energy just to make it to the end of the year; the stings felt on the worst days often seems stronger than the rewards felt on the best days. But once the finish line is crossed, one remembers the rewards a bit more than the lows; one remembers the lives one touched (and those one were touched by) more than the headaches, tears, and anger.

What I can say, now that I’ve had time to reflect, is that teaching irrevocably changed me…I think for the better. I have much more confidence in my ability to deal with difficult situations than I did before. I have much more strength than I did before. And, yes, I have developed a newfound ability to be stern (while remaining a degree of calm) in the face of challenges. In short: being a teacher toughened me, but in a good way.

And what took me most by suprise is the recurring thought I’ve had over the last few days that I will really miss my life as a public educator. On the average and bad days, I assumed that there was no way I could ever miss it at all! How could one actually miss a job where one felt futile more than one felt productive, where one seemingly struggled uphill daily for so little gain, where the emotional costs seemed to outweigh the benefits at every turn?

Maybe hindsight is always rosier than the view from the trenches, but I did not realize how much I actually got used to all of these things, probably because I got used to them so gradually. There was no precise moment where I said, “Now, I am comfortable in my life and persona as a teacher,” but looking back on it, I can say exactly that. It must have happened, but it happened over two years rather than in one instant.

One of the teachers I said goodbye to yesterday said to me something like this: “Now, go off and do bigger and better things.” Once she realized what she said, she corrected herself; “Well, I don’t know about that; what we do is pretty big and pretty remarkable. You know what I mean, though.”

I could only agree with her. While it might not feel like it at the time, my reflection from the finish line is that teaching IS pretty big and wonderful.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Discipline, Education, and the Concept of Moral Hazard

The term "moral hazard" has been bandied about lately as a term of economics and the question of whether the government should be "bailing out" failing companies. As an economic term, "moral hazard" means the hazard that comes from insulating an entity form failure and the conseuqences of it. "Running the risk of moral hazard" is the idea that a risk we take in insulating others from failure is that they will never learn from their mistakes and may take as big or bigger risks in the future.

While the term has been used in economics, I think it is high time we apply it to the world of educational psychology. More directly, we educators should remain cognizant that every time we "keep students from failing" by artificially insulating them from the consequences of negative actions, we are ensuring that they do not learn from mistakes. In other words, if the best way to learn from mistakes is to realize that they are mistakes, then interfering with the experience of consequences of mistakes means interfering with the best feedback mechanism one has.

Many times in my career as a teacher have I argued this position and many times, unfortunately, I have lost the argument. In a previous post, I referred to one such incident: me and several other teachers brokered a deal with a senior in danger of failing that if he does x and y, we would see to it that he could pass. Repeatedly, he broke the deal. Repeatedly, the other teachers (without me) rebroekered the deal - all to ensure that he could pass despite having broken the agreement on which his success depended.

Many other times, I have seen the risk of moral hazard come into play when teachers explain rules and cosnequences to students only to, when push came to shove, chafe and allow students to break said rules without undergoing the consequences.

Why do we teachers allow and evene encourage such moral hazards to occur?

I believe that, just as in the current economic situation, it is hard to "hold the line" and enforce consequences when the consequences are severe. It is all well and good to say that companies that are irresponsible shall be allowed to go bankrupt, but it is painful to sit by and watch this happen. Thus, the government ends up caving in and taking the emotionally easy way out by not letting companies go under and people go unemployed.

In the same way, teachers allow such moral hazard becasue, as teachers, we generally do not like to hurt kids. We want to see kids happy, and we do not enjoy seeing kids fail. Unfortunately, we do not often realize that while this is a noble feeling, we often do more harm than good by protecting students form the consequences of their actions, and in the process, interfering with the feedback mechanism of natural consequences. She who places her hand on the stove and gets burned will not do it again. She who places her hand on the stove and is repeatedly saved from such an experience (by having their hand yanked away from the stove, etc) will never, or very slowly, learn that the stove burns. But as no one wishes to see a child get hurt, we protect them and unknowlingly slow down their learning process.

I have learned - and this will sound strange - to find a small (very small) bit of accomplishment in allowing students to fail of their own accord. I see it as a learning opportunity for the student. Of course, I don't actively want students to fail and do not try to make them fail; on the contrary, I want to do everything in my power to see them succeed SHORT OF PROTECTING THEM FROM DESERVED CONSEQUENCES. If this sounds strange, let me illustrate with an example.

One particular student of mine did just about everything wrong in the second and third marking period. He showed up late, talked back, did not do work, disrupted class, etc. I talked with him many times and warned him that he was heading for a failing grade. When his third quarter grade showed up as an "E," he did everyhing he could to try and convince me to change no avail. I explained to him that that was the consequence of his actions and that if he wanted to avoid failing the class, he must improve in quarter four. I would not change his grade or offer him any special benefit of the doubt.

From then on, he has improved greatly. He has been much better in class and is now earning a "B." I tell him as frequently as I can that I am proud of his change in behavior, and when asked what accounts for this new and improved showing, he simply tells me that he knows that acting up will result in a failing grade.

So, there you have it. Fairness means helping children succeed while holding to the rules when they don't. The minute one allows the rules to be overlooked and protecting kids from consequences of their actions, one is running the same "moral hazard" risk the economists talk about: we run the risk of interfering with people's ability to learn from, and correct, their mistakes.

What Does "In X's Interest" Mean?

Jonathan is overweight and considered morbidly obese. He frequents fast food resteraunts for most meals, and ignores doctors repeated warnings that, with every meal, he decreases his chance of living. He keeps eating fast food because it tastes much better than food he would make himself.

Tamara smokes marijuana every day. Despite the fact that it is illegal, she likes to smoke it because it helps her concentrate and relaxes her. She is not familiar with some of marijuana's health risks but obviously knows the legal risks. She continiues to buy and smoke marijuana despite this knowlege.


So are these activities in these two actors interests? Some say that eating fast food and smoking marijuana are in these two's interests because (obviously) these two engage in these activities. Others say that the activities are not in these two's best interests and that engaging in the activities is acting against their true interests.

To me, this difference of opinion resides in the conflict between what we mean by interests. Does 'interests' mean 'what one is interested in' or does it mean 'what is best for you'? If the former, then a case can be made that whatever we do because we like to do it is in our interest. We can make the argument that no one knows their interest better than others.

If, by 'interest' we mean 'what is best for someone,' then it is quite obvious that others can know our interests better than we. After all, it makes perfect sense to see that a child may not know what is best for her while a mother might (especially when the child wants candy while the mother pushes vegetables).

This question undergirds much of political theory. The question generally is not, or should not be, framed in an all or nothing way. Those who take the extremely libertarian (and really, anarchistic) view that only the individual can judge what is best for her will be foreced into many untenable positions (like the idea that 5 year olds should be able to choose to marry, drive, or do heroin, or that manic depressives should never be protected from suicide against their will). Those who take the opposite position - that others can often know what is best for the individual) have no reason to deny that the government knows what is best for us to read, see, or do.

Rather than being a black or white issue, the question generally is this: how can we recognize that there are occasions where y can know what is in x's best interest while also recognizing y's right to make decisions about her own life without x coming to dominate y? In other words, how can we respect y's ability to lead her own life while recognizing that there may be occasions where x may be in a better position than y (a kid, a mentally deluded person, a drug addict) to judge x's interests.

One can say, and many have, that the difference is in deciphering whether x is "thinking straight." But this hopelessly begs the question because, in general, we judge "thinking straight" by the conclusion come to. If one is against pornography, then there is no way that the urge to consume pornography can be seen as "thinking straight." If one is against suicide, then there is no way that a person who wants to commit suicide (however rational they, or their reasons, might be) will be seen as "thinking straight." Thus, "thinking straight' as a criterion is too nebulous and up to personal opinion to be of value.

So is saying that something is in x's best interest if and only if it is justifiable. Justifiable to whom? And what is and is not justifiable depends on who the proposition is being argued to. If it is the anti-pornography judge, then arguments for pornography can never be justifiable (like they would be to one who sees nothing wrong with pornography). Different people see different things as justifiable, and there is no cosmic "justifiability" principle.

So how can we tell whether x is acting in her interest? I think the issue still comes back to what we mean by her interest. I generally take the side that in the absence of evidence that x has sometype of mental deficiency that grossly inhibits her ability to make an objective (or close to) decision, then we lack any ground to say that x is incapable of ascertaining her own interest. (In this case, children, drug addicts, and those suffering from mood or emotional disorders are all considered mentally deficient in this way. Everyone recognizes this of the latter two groups, but children can be seen as mentally deficient in the sense that they lack the intellectual capacity to make fully informed decisions.)

Further, I take the stance that, if a person is seen as mentally deficient based on psychologicl data, we must further ask about the gravity of the decision x is about to make. Unless her decision is one that will have drastic personal consequences of the type she cannot adequately assess, we should let her do as she pleases. Only when what she is about to do has drastic consequences (engage in consumption of a lethal drug, commit suicide, get into an otherwise dangerous and potentially life changing situaiton), should we interfere and prevent her.

Put differently, the two criteria I think should be used in deciding whether x can accurately appraise her interests and whether to intervene are (a) whether the person can justly be seen as mentally incapable of acting objectively or near-objectively; and (b) whether the "interest" in question has potentially disasterous and life-changing cosnequences.

Following this rule would make it so that we can recognize that the child is not capable of deciding to marrry but the adult can. We could see that an adult can decide for herself whether to smoke marijuana but may not be able to judge whether she should continue injecting heroin or cystal meth. We could achieve a libertarian end of "live and let live" without getting to the point of "live and let die."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

On Pathetic Republican Arguments

One of the key principles of rhetoric is to tailor your arguments to your audience. If you are arguing to Muslims, for instance, one should not use logic becuase they do not believe in logic. If one is arguing with democrats, one should do one's best to sound like Karl Marx (they love that stuff!). Etc.

According to this article, there are a handful of republicans with just enough intelligence to employ this strategy - at least they are trying! RNC chairman Michael Steele is trying a new rhetorical poisiton in the gay marriage debate, by arguing that it would hurt small businesses. Here is the quote:
"Now all of a sudden I've got someone who wasn't a spouse before, that I had no responsibility for, who is now getting claimed as a spouse that I now have financial responsibility for," Steele told Republicans at the state convention in traditionally conservative Georgia. "So how do I pay for that? Who pays for that? You just cost me money."

I am not sure that there is a technical name for this fallacy, but the problem with this argument is that it argues againt an effect that is not at all exclusive to the cause being argued against. It would be like arguing against riding on bicycles by suggesting that one could get injured (even though getting injured is not an effect at all exclusive to riding bicycles).

So, let's think about what the REAL implications of Steele's argument against dependents is. If we follow it to its logical conclusions, Steele's argument against forcing employers to pay for dependents could be seen as an argument not only against gay, but straight, marriage, or at very least an argument against having employers pay for ANY dependents (including children).

What is even more horrendous than the fact that Steele thinks he is smart enough to devise an argument is the fact that he is utterly transparent that it is not a sincere argument, but a rhetorical ploy!
Steele said that was just an example of how the party can retool its message to appeal to young voters and minorities without sacrificing core conservative principles. Steele said he used the argument weeks ago while chatting on a flight with a college student who described herself as fiscally conservative but socially liberal on issues like gay marriage.

This brings us full circle, back to the rules of rhetoric. A hidden rule of rhetoric is that while one should always tailor one's arguments to one's audience, one should never disclose that this is what one is doing. Otherwise, one opens onesself up to charges of insincerity and 'ends justifying the means" style of argument.

Steele's suggesting that one can "retool its message to appael to young voters and minorities without sacrificing core conservative principles" will have the likely effect of achieving none of those goals. Arguments for gay marriage (especially those from the young) do not generally focus on economic arguments, but on civil rights arguments (showing that economic arguments will not likely triumph civil rights arguments in their minds). And as for sacrificing core conservative principles, if the principle is (as it always has been to the GOP) that homosexual marriage is immoral, then the principle is sacrificed as soon as one makes the gay marriage argument void of arguments from morality.

(And just for kicks, let me see if I can beat Steele at his own game. Wouldn't his argument against forcing employers to add dependents on to healthcare plans be a GREAT argument IN FAVOR of abortion? After all, the ability to abort potential children certainly would minimize the number of dependents one would claim for insurance purposes, wouldn't it?)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Does This Sound LIke Something From the USSR?

I just read a quite scary (to me) article today about the forced "govermentizing" of banks, in the form of the government buying bank equity shares. The article is called "Paulson gave banks no choice on government stakes: memos" According to the article, the press now has hold of documents outlining Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's talking points to banks telling them that the government will be buying bank shares and informing banks that they have no choice about this fate.

But there was one quote that caught my attention. Am I crazy, or does this sound like something out of the USSR. (Just add a Russian accent, if you'd like.)

"If a capital infusion is not appealing, you should be aware your regulator will require it in any circumstance," the document said, citing Paulson talking points.

It has been a while since I've read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and I am not really a big fan of Rand, but I can't help but think back to her book and (if I recall it correctly) the government takeover of the railroads.

Scary, scary stuff.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Is "African-American" a Valid Educational Category?: A Pragmatic View

Recently, a sparring match has surfaced between William Seletan and John McWhorter over whether test performance statistics should subcategorize by racial makeup. The hubbub is over a recent NYT article noting that No Child Left Behind is failing to close the black/white achievement gap. The question: why even keep score of such an arbitrary categorization of race?

Seleatan's point is that in the age of genetics, race is hardly the most pertinent or salient category. He writes that McWhorter is relying on an arbitrary categorizing when he:

[is] for airing "findings that shed less than positive light on black people." Not bad parents. Not people with low-performing kids. Black people.

McWhorter suspects that Seletan's motive is simply to put a hush on any statistic that might make black's look bad.

Just as that is antithetical to what getting past race is supposed to mean, we will not pretend that it's okay that black students don't read and do math as well as white kids in order to provide a way for people like William Saletan to demonstrate that they aren't racists.

To be honest, this is a hard discussion to think about and there are good and bad points made on all sides. But my pragmatic inclination is to say that what counts as a valid category is any category that has something pertinent to say (as measured by whether most people believe it does). By this pragmatic light, race is still a valid category (even if it is not a valid genetic category). We still - and especially black intellectuals - talk of black culture as somehow being seperate from white culture.

While my personal sympathies lie with Saletan - I really cannot see how different skin colors are valid educational subgroups) - my social symphaties lie with McWhorter. The very fact that we as a society are so obsessed with the "black/white achievement gap" (that does bear out statistically) means that there is something to subcategorizing educational statistics by racial groupings.

And I further agree with McWhorter that as long as we are talking about the black/white achievement gap, we should be divulging and publicizing statistics reporting on it, even if it makes one group look bad. And as a teacher, I will go even further to suggest that current statistics suggest that blacks DESERVE to look bad right now! Whether race is a valid genetic category, the statistics tell a story of a whole group of people going awry in many areas, such as criminality, educational performance, and single parenthood. I agree with McWhorter that to put rosy dressings on such statistics would do a disservice to the black community, who obviously needs to hear (and get angry at) such statistics.

So, I think it would be unfair for Seletan to win this argument if only for the fact that, in a pragmatic sense, we are a society that DOES see "racial makeup" as a valid social category. As long as we are talking about the "black/white achievement gap," and as long as such a gap is borne out statistically, refusing to break future stats down by race would be the equivalent to posing a question only to censor the answer. And as long as we are concerned with how blacks are performing as an academic group (no matter how loose that grouping is), I think it would be nothing short of pussyfooting not to let them (and others) see their dismal report card.