Saturday, February 28, 2009

Special Education: A Delicate Balance Between Inclusion and Differentiation

For my final "Portfolio" class, I have to include an article articulating a personal philosophy of special education. It has taken me a while to figure out how I might write an honest article while not risking a good grade by being a contrarian. Below is my best attempt.
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Special Education: A Delicate Balance Between Inclusion and Differentiation



Special education in the public school setting presently exists in a state of tension: the tension between the ideas of inclusion and differentiation. While inclusion refers to the act of including all students in the general education setting with the general education curriculum, the idea of differentiation is about keeping mindful of differences in faculties, abilities, and proclivities. Where the former idea strives towards some sense of universalization, the latter idea aims to recognize and accommodate plurality. Special education’s challenge, then, is to educate students with disabilities in a way that includes, giving the students some degree of “sameness,” while differentiating and recognizing sometimes intractable differences.

This job of the special educator is complicated when one realizes that, as these goals are in tension, any emphasis on the one results in de-emphasis of the other. If we decide, for instance, to place a student into a more inclusive setting, then we are tacitly suggesting that the student will experience less differentiation. Conversely, the more we want to differentiate for a student, the less included that student will be in the general curriculum of her “general education” peers.

Commenting on this delicate balance, Kauffman, McGee, and Brigham (2004) write of the ever-present danger within special education of “losing its way in the single-minded pursuit of full inclusion” at the expense of recognizing student differences. They go on to suggest that once this overemphasis on inclusion occurs, the pressure on special educators becomes more on the “appearance of normalization without the expectation of competence.” (original italics) An overemphasis on inclusion has led to the unintended negative consequence that “general education is now seen by many as the only place where fair and equitable treatment is possible and where the opportunity to learn is extended to all equally.”

As I see it, the bigger problem is the difficulty in maintaining balance between this idea of inclusion, where all students are to access the same general education curriculum, and the need for differentiation of the curriculum based on student abilities. While students with “milder” learning disabilities may be able to function in an inclusion setting with minimal supports of a kind fully implementable in an inclusion environment, students with more severe learning disabilities, who are also being pushed into an inclusion setting, may often require extensive modifications and differentiation of a kind that conflicts with the idea of inclusion. (To put it more directly, some students may require enough modifications and adaptations to the curriculum that their “inclusion” means little more than them doing different work than their peers while existing in the same room with them.)

By way of example, the following is a practical question that often plagues general and special educators in the inclusion setting: how can we modify the content enough to accommodate a particular student while maintaining the standards of which the general education curriculum demands mastery? This question gets to the heart of the tension between inclusion and differentiation. Include too much and one runs the risk of ignoring students’ needs for differentiation. Differentiate too much and a student’s education becomes so different that “inclusion” becomes so in name only.

Another problem created by the tension of the inclusion setting is one of difficulty in implementation. Differentiating in a self-contained classroom, where class sizes are generally smaller, is an unproblematic affair. Differentiating in an inclusion class, where class sizes tend to be larger, can be more difficult. When the student/teacher ratio is 6-10:1, it is much more workable for the teacher to spend individual time with each student, so as to differentiate her approach. When the ratio is 15-30:1, this type of individual differentiation becomes much more difficult. In some sense, students who are in an inclusion setting will be expected to “fend for themselves” more than students in a self-contained “special education” environment.

While certain accommodations – extended time, use of a calculator, student being provided with notes/organizers, etc – are easily and unobtrusively implementable in an inclusion setting, others are less so. Some accommodations, like verbatim reading of tests and quizzes, are intrusive to the general education environment (i.e., cannot easily be done in the classroom). Others, such as reducing the reading or work-load requirements placed on a particular student, are difficult to practice in an inclusion setting while maintaining equity (“Why does she only have to do 5 problems while I must do 10 to get the same grade?”) Others, like requiring the teacher to place the student in an area with reduced distractions, become down right impossible in many inclusion classrooms. In a variety of ways, differentiation can become all the more difficult in larger, inclusion classes than smaller, self-contained ones.

Why should the fact that these ideas of inclusion and differentiation are in tension matter to the practice of special education? In figuring out placement and service options for students, the special educator must stay mindful that more emphasis on the one requires diminution of the other. The more differentiation one demands for a student, the less inclusion that student will experience, and vice versa. Further, special educators must stay mindful that the goal for all students – to be as included as possible within the limits of each student’s ability – means that the goal should be to foster as much self-sufficiency in disabled students as possible. (As inclusion necessitates a certain level of self-sufficiency, differentiation should be used only when it is necessary, and only with the objective of teaching the student to differentiate for herself.)

Unfortunately, if often happens that differentiation is employed as much to hide of skirt student difficulties as to teach students how to overcome difficulties. It often happens that students are placed in inclusion classes before they have mastered the basic skills required in those classes, and differentiation is employed so as to render those basic skills superfluous – to allow the student to “get by” without having to demonstrate skills expected of other non-disabled students. As Kaufman, McGee and Brigham point out (2004), it happens quite often that “attempts to accommodate students with disabilities can undermine achievement.”

As mentioned above, there are several reasons that the inclusion setting limits the amount of differentiation that can or should be done. If inclusion is to be truly inclusive, students who require extensive differentiation may be best served in a “self-contained” special education environment. Conversely, when placing students in an inclusion setting, educators should very honestly ask if the student is truly ready to access the general education curriculum with as few differentiations as possible.

None of this is to assail the goals of inclusion and differentiation. Both are worthy goals for special educators to pursue. My argument is simply that special educators should always be mindful that too much differentiation takes away the “inclusive” aspects of inclusion, and pushing for full inclusion necessitates keeping differentiation to a minimum. In placement decisions, annual IEP reviews, and discussions about how to deliver IEP services to students, recognition of the tension between inclusion and differentiation may force us to be more realistic in how we deal with students. The answer we come to about how much inclusion and how much differentiation is needed will doubtless differ from student to student, but the special educator must be careful to avoid overreliance on either differentiation or inclusion and recognize the delicacy of striking a healthy balance between these contrasting concepts.



Works cited:

Kauffman, J.M., McGee, K, & Brigham, M. (2004). Enabling or disabling? Observations on changes in special education. Phi Delta Kappan, April 2004. 613-620

Social Promotion: The lesser of two evils?

In my opinion as an educator, the idea of social promotion is just about the worst idea in education today. For those unfamiliar, "social promotion" is the idea that we should pass students on to further grades regardless of whether they have met that grade's academic standards. From what I understand, this idea was brought about because it was thought to help students' self-esteem by avoiding stigmatization attached with "being held back."

Is this simply another bad idea foisted onto the education system by those who believe self-esteem is more important than academic standards? In a discussion I had with one supervisor, she eluded to data which shows that "holding kids back" for failure to meet requisite standards not only had no effect on their subsequent academic improvement, but also that holding students back increases the likelihood that those students will fail to get their diplomas.

I have run across an article seconding these arguments, suggesting that "holding kids back" is ineffective and increases the likelihood of drop-out. The authors write:

Grade retention is one of the methods often proposed and used to help poor performing students catch-up to their peers. At best, most research on the effects of grade retention portrays it as a practice that provides no benefit to the students; at worst it is considered a damaging practice.


These authors relay a study which found that "third graders who were retained showed no difference in test scores to those who were promoted and sixth graders who were retained scored worse than those who were promoted." In addition, they also note studies which suggest "that retained students are more likely to drop out of high school," than those who have not been retained.

The first thing I would note is that these results seem almost bordering on circularity to be of any real import. I am not a statistics guy but from what I remember from my Ed Statistics class, this is indeed a very flawed conclusion. Saying that being held back increases one's chance of dropping out or failing to earn a diploma is like saying little more than that those who are not cutting the academic mustard are those most likely not to cut the academic mustard.

The above statistics seem quite tautologous because when looking at students who get held back, chances are that you are dealing with those who are least academically motivated or inclined. So, it is being held back that caused the likelihood to ditch high school, or is being held back and dropping out of high school both due to an underlying lack of academic motivation and/or facility? (In the same way, one can suggest that the more homework one does, the more likely one will be to get an advanced degree, but this would be inaccurate, as inclination to do homework and getting an advanced degree are both symptoms of academic motivation, which is more likely to be the primary factor).

When in discussion with my supervisor, with who's views I disagree, she reminded me of the converse of the above truism: kids who are socially promoted are more likely to get their diplomas than those retained. At the risk of sounding course, no s###! Kids who are pushed through the school system are probably more likely to get diplomas...because they are pushed through the school system! This amounts to little more than saying that those who are not grade on their abilities to cook are more likely to be able to graduate culinary school than those who are retained because they can't cook well.

Good job!

The question is not, as my supervisor thinks, whether social promotion leads to more diplomas than retention. Instead, the question is whether social promotion leads to more DESERVED diplomas than retention. We would, after all, have a 100% graduation rate if we simply handed them out without making them contingent on any standards; all kids would pass because passing would be easy. This "ends justify the means" reasoning that proponents of social promotion use!

But would such a policy be right? The diplomas would be more plentiful, but would they be deserved? I can't see that they would. They would be ill-gotten in the same way that kids who are socially promoted in order that they may be handed (rather than have earned) diplomas would be.

It seems like, at root, educators once again speak from both sides of the mouth: on one hand, we talk about grade levels, passing classes, and graduating to the next grade. On the other side, we are afraid to hold kids to standards because some of them might drop out or get their feelings hurt. I sympathize with kids who are in danger of dropping out, but unlike proponents of social promotion, I am not willing to do away with the notion of standards in order to ensure that these students stay in school under artificial pretense. (That is how we wind up with students in Algebra II that don't know how to multiply, and students who can't read being in English 10).

In my opinion, social promotion is not the lesser of two evils (the other being student retention and possible drop-outs). The lesser of two evils is pushing students through to grades that they have no business being in for the sole purpose of making us educators feel better. THAT is the evil.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What Are the Special Educators DOING?!

Recently, I have been talking a lot about how the discipline of special educaiton has been steadily lowering the bar so that students can "succeed." The reasoning goes like this: since special education students are having a hard time meeting standards, it is easier to lower the standards than to raise the students.

Today, an e-mail crossed my desk (written by a supervisor) that provides a brilliant real-life example of this nonsense. Lately, it has been noted that special education students (and many non-special education students) have been performing poorly on tests ("benchmarks") and quizzes ("short cycles"). My supervisor and some of the higher ups have figured out a positively brilliant way to erase this problem: From now on, we will provide the following "accomodation" to special education students struggling with tests and quizzes:

Test scores will be given reduced percentage when computing grades.


That's right. Since our students are not performing well on tests and quizzes (which comprise 25% of the total grade, per Baltimore County policy), the problem must be that tests and quizzes are too much of these students grades. (What they will find, I confidently predict, is that lowering the test/quiz percentage won't help, as doing poorly on tests and quizzes is strongly correlated with not doing homework [15%] and classworks [60%]. Maybe these will be the next to be reduced!.)

Lowering the bar so that students can APPEAR successful when they are not? This is the very definition of that! Fudging the numbers? You bet. Providing students with the message that it is okay to fail because we will make failure look like "success"? Yep.

This last effect is why the suggestion irks me so much. Schools talk all the time about accountability but, as the above suggestion illustrates, we will gladly bend the rules so that students don't actually HAVE to experience the negative effects of accountability. (This is like the parent who tells their child not to hit or else they will forego dessert, only to avoid enforcing the policy because enforcement would make the child feel bad.) What this rule is inadvertently telling kids is:

(a) don't take our "tough talk" seriously becuase when push comes to shove, we will cave to what is convenient for you; and

(b) it is okay to fail the tests/quizzes beause we will actively help you do it by shielding you from the consequences.

To my mind, special education is not a synonym for immunity from standards and consequences. To me, the best way to help children get though hurdles is to help them - show them how to study, tutor them, and equip them to get over the hurdles, rather than to remove hurdles altogether. The irony is that both methods - equipping students to get over hurdles and removing hurdles - achieve the same results on paper: both lead to the appearance of success.

Unfortunately, special education seems more and more to opt for the latter option. It is easier. It involves far less work from the teacher and far less frustration for the student. It even jibes with the nurturing instinct that so many special (and general) educators have - our desire to see kids successful and aversion to seeing them frustrated. But here's what a policy of lowering and removing bars does NOT do: it does not teach students anything constructive. Not only does it avoid teaching them the information needed to face academic challenges, but it does not teach them how to deal with challenges constructively.

My last big objection to minimizing the ill effects of low test/quiz grades for special education students is that by doing so, we will virtually ensure that students manage to pass classes without demonstrating the requisite mastery of the subject. If a student was not able to pass the 9th grade English tests and, thanks to this "fudge the numbers" policy, ends up passing the class, imagine how lost she will be in 10th grade English. In such a situation - and such situations WILL occur - have we helped anyone? We have worsened the student's situation, we have engaged in the type of number-fudging considered unethical in buisiness practices...but at least we will make the school's numbers work better.

Things like this are going on too often in the world of special education. We have taken our noble desire to see all children succeed and, in our enthusiasm, forgotten that success is only success if one has to work for it. By helping kids pass classes by minimizing their failed test scores, we are handing them a shallow "success" that exists in name only.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Does Special Ed Law REALLY Do Damage?

In response to a previous post reviewing a book critical of the ADA, a reader asked this question:

It seems like the disability acts do more harm than good, but I'm curious how much good they do in your case.


This is a good question, because it allows me to share my own personal experience and frustration with the follies of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities in Educaiton Act).

The reader quated above recounts an episode of the TV show "Family Guy" where a school principal "enticed" average students to do poorly so that they can get into special educaiton, all in attempts to boost the school's test scores (special ed students' scores didn't count against the school.)

My situaiton in Baltimore County is slightly different, but the gist is there. All high-school students must pass the HSA (High School Assessment) tests. If students do not pass, they do not graduate, and the number of students who pass (as a percentage of the student body) affects the schools' ratings.

Well, special education students have to take the HSA's and their scores count towards the total. But, students who do poorly enough on the tests, and who have IEP's (which means they are in special ed), get to take the Mod-HSA,or, what some call the "HSA lite." This is a test that has three, rather than four, answer choices per question, has a lower required reading level, and is generally easier in content. But - get this - the Mod-HSA scores count AS IF THEY WERE HSA SCORES.

This may seem like a good idea to enable the students not at HSA level to graduate, but there is a hidden negative consequence: the school has active incentive to get as many people to take the Mod-HSA as possible. As the Mod-HSA is easier than the HSA, but is worth the same amount to the school's ranking, it is in the school's interest to ensure that as many students as possible take the easier test so that they can pass with higher numbers.

And if THAT isn't enough, students who fail the HSA more than twice - whether they are special ed or not - are allowed to do a project called the "Bridge Plan" in place of the HSA. While the Bridge Plan DOES NOT count towards the schools' scores - thus providing an incentive NOT to have students take the Bridge Plan - this also has a hidden negative consequence: students fail to take the HSA seriously because they now know that if they fail twice, they can just take the easier Bridge Plan. (Whether it is easier is debatable, as it is a thick and cumbersome project, although one need not study for it, as all the information needed is in the provided booklet.)

Another bad consequence, at least to me, is that all of these non-HSA options take away the whole rationale for the HSA. While I am not a fan of the HSA, and I do not like the idea that a student might not graduate because they failed to pass one test, I believe in sticking to rules. If we decide that the HSA will be a prerequisite for graduation, then it simply sends kids mixed signals to allow alternative (easier) avenues towards graduattion. (It is like telling a student that they need a "c" to pass the class, but then telling them that they can get an "f" as long as they do x project at the end of the year. By that point, the "c" rule ceases to be a rule.)

While the Bridge Plan is open to regular and special ed kids, its primary motivation was from the department of special education, who continually lowers the bar so that kids might pass. As the mindset goes, it is easier to lower the bar than to raise the kid. And this is precisely what I dislike about special education. It is world where "standards" exist in name only (and often evocation of them provoke cries of unfairness). It is a world where it is best to have the test read to Johny, rather than to lower Johny's self-esteem by holding him back until he can read the test himself. It is a world that spends most of its time "getting kids through" rather than "getting kids better."

So, to answer the reader's question, this is how it works where I teach: we pretend to hold kids accountable but give our special education students multiple routes (easier routes) so as to keep numbers up. This allows the schools to look like they are 'standards based' while hiding the fact that the standards are so flexible as to not be standards at alll.

That's special ed for you.

Does Anyone Else See the Contradiction? Obama Follies, Part 1

This afternoon, I came across the following headline. It is actually quite funny until you think about the fact that politicians (that probably think they are smart) are the ones coming up with these half-witted schemes. The headline reads:

Obama urges spending curbs, hands out $15 billion


Do you see the contradiction? How can a government that has just dropped $787 BILLION dollars of free government handouts also urge that we cut government spending?!? It would be like a parent urging her daughter not to smoke after buying her cigarettes, or a CEO telling her company the need to be thrifty while collecting a several million dollar salary. CUTTING SPENDING AFTER PASSING THE SINGLE MOST EXPENSIVE BILL IN HISTORY DOESN'T MAKE SENSE!

According to the article, Obama plans on cutting the deficit by "scaling back Iraq war spending, raising taxes on the wealthiest and streamlining government." The first of these will doubtless find little objection, and the second will find objection with libertarians like myself. (Why not cut spending to reduce deficits rather than raise taxes?!)

But the third - streamlining government - is a pipe dream, or a shift piece of rhetoric (probably the latter). How can government be streamlined when it just passed a $787 billion handout to companies? And how can we talk about streamlining government when, as the article notes, the administration is "attempt[ing] to bolster the severely weakened banking system without nationalizing any institutions"? In government language, "bolster" is always synonymous with "pass more regulations for," and "give government more control of." Does that sound like "streamlining" the government? I think not.

And here is a final doozy. In a direct quote, Obama shows that he is a true politician by coming up with something exactly THIS stupid:

"We cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences to the next budget, the next administration or the next generation."



So, tell us, boy genius: where is the $787 billion coming from, if not from the "next budget"? And how is spending $787 billion dollars to help out banks and auto workers not "spend[ing] as we please?"

So try to figure it out if you can (especially those of you who like the really hard riddles): How exactly can one go about tightening government spending and streamlining government a week or so after spending $787 billion for government handouts?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Review of Greg Perry's "Disabling America"

Below is a review I wrote recently for Greg Perry's "Disabling America," a libertarian-ish critique of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In it, Perry takes the position that, like much other recent legislatkkion made on behalf of minorities, the ADA goes beyond putting the disabled on equal ground as the non-disabled, but makes them a quite privileged group by doling out entitlements galore.

As a special educator, I encounter disability law every day (IDEA), and see that while it was put in place with intent to help disabled students recieve a quality education, it just as often makes and keeps kids disabled. It does these things by granting "accomodatiosn" to children who may be doing nothing more than performing below expectations ("James is struggling in math. He must be learning disabled. Jane has trouble paying attention to the teachers' lecture. She must have ADHD.")

My real beef with IDEA is that many of the "accommodations" it gives do little more than reward kids for failure by expecting less and less from them the worse they do. I have been in many IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meetings where we discussed reducing the amount of work expected of x because x is failing certain classes. Thus, the less he does, the less he learns, the less he will be expected to learn in the future!


Enough! I offer you this review in hopes that you will read Greg Perry's timely book.
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Are Some More Equal Than Others? (a special educator's take)

The Americans With Disabilities Act is a sacred cow. Rarely do I hear anyone publicly say anything against it, and generally those who would like to (myself included) run the risk of being considered anti-disabled (or maybe "disabledphobic?"). This is what makes Greg Perry and his book such an asset. Perry, born with one leg and three fingers, has written a smashing critique of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and as a disabled man, probably has more latitude to do so than most of us "normals."

From the outset, I will warn you that this book is highly anecdotal and, to my mind, this is no flaw (as some will allege). We hear stories of cases involving employees who "discover" a disability (like alcohol addiciton, "chronic" back pain, or depression), so that they might sue the pants off their employers. We hear stories of disabled lawyers who sue hundreds of stores at a time (that they have been to all of the stores is often in question).

These, and other, stories will outrage, and this is by design. The subtitle of the book is "the unintended consequences of the government protection of the handicapped," and this is what Perry shows. The ADA, like other government legislation such as the USA PATRIOT act, and No Child Left Behind, doubtless started with good intentions. But like these other Acts, the ADA is rife for abuse and ends up hurting those it intends to help. As Perry notes, the ADA is rife with abuse in large part because the vagueness of what constitutes a disability; everything from drug addiction to affliction with the AIDS virus to situational depression can be called a disability under ADA, and once one is "disabled," the ADA gives wide latitude to sue and make cumbersome demands on everyone from one's employer to one's favorite mom-and-pop store. And why is the ADA counterproductive? It makes people afraid to hire and deal with disabled people by seeing them not as persons but potential liabilities and lawsuits. (It also, like affirmative action, sends people the message that an entire group of people is so bad off that they couldn't make it without hefty government assistance.)

Am a special educator, I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the ADA in education (which is actually governed by a sister law, IDEA). IDEA mandates that every disabled child - and the term is flexible enough to include practically anyone performing below grade level - be provided with an Individualized Education Plan and "accommodations" that often act as wheelchair used by a child who needs to learn to walk; in other words, much of the "help" given to students with disabilities - use of a calculator on all math work, being read to (even in high school) - do more to ensure that a child will stay disabled than learn to overcome their disability. I do not have anywhere near the malice that Perry does for IDEA - and think that in some cases, the law does some good when used well - but the chapter is eye-opening for those who've never thought much on the subject.

My biggest criticism is that Perry's book is highly emotionally charged and rhetorical. There are also times when Perry argues more out of emotion than thought. (He suggests, for instance, that most stores would become "handicapped accessible" on their own, but does not explain why, if this is so, the ADA was ever felt necessary. Nor does he see that many stores simply wouldn't bother to go through the expense in areas where, like most places, the disabled are a small demographic). The book is also quite repetitive, and I found myself skimming, rather than reading, the last two chapters. As a book designed to incense a lay audience, this book is heavy on rhetoric and anecdote, and light on statistics.

Overall, though, Perry's arguments will hold much sway with those of a conservative/libertarian bent. The ADA makes "some more equal than others" by singling some out for very special treatment while leaving others with the expense (handicapped parking seems always to be at the front of the store; the rest of us must park further away, as one small example).

Want to see a sacred cow butchered? Read Disabling America (at your own risk).

Friday, February 20, 2009

I am to be a PhD student!!

I just got news this evening that a journey that started around a year and a half ago is ending in my favor. After a long process of looking at PhD programs in education, I just recieved word that I was accepted for admissions by my first choice: the University of Delaware!

UD has one of the top 10 education programs in the country and I am very excited (I anticipate accepting the offer, contingent on financial considerations). I am to study under Dr. David Blacker, who specializes in the philosophy of education (and jurisprudence).

Of course, as in any good drama, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that in these economic times, UD is unable to garauntee funding to all entering grad students, and I will not hear about whether I will be supported for a while (I have no idea how long that is). I don't anticipate a big problem here, but one never knows.

It has been a long and passionate process - from looking at schools and narrowing down choices to filling out the arduous applications - but I feel like it is finally coming to fruition.

I am to be a PhD student in education. This is truly awesome.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

What is Moral Subjectivism?

On another website, a reader asked: ""Still can anyone here give a decent and concise version of sophisticated moral subjectivism to be addressed?"

This was my best response:

am not sure how "sophisticated" it is, but let me try.

I see moral subjectivism the way JL Mackie did: it is the negation of moral objectivism. Morals are not properties of the "out there" world and, as such, they are properties of the subject's mental world.

Put further, we may feel or think certain things to be right and good, but we are in error if we think there is any objective reason compelling others to see it the same way. No matter how knock down or drag out our argument is for the rightness of a particlar thing, that argument will always be our opinion of the mattter, not objective fact.

Subjectivists are not, as David seems to be getting at, nihilists. We have as strong ideas about moral oughts as anyone else, and we judge others and ourselves by standards. We also try to convince others to see things morally as we do.

What subjectivists can't do, though, is to think that any moral system - even our own - has necessary import beyond our own subjective minds. We may wish it were different, but in the absence of any great suggestion on how to detect the moral properties that some allege exist in the world, we see morality as a product of individual subjects making individual judgments.

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People have a big problem with subjectivism. How, we think, can our strong convictions that pedophilia, murder, homosexuality, bestaility, theft, etc, are simply subjective opinion statements? They feel like more; we want them to be more. We want them to be truths binding on all and all alike, and we want those who disagree with us not simply to be of differing opinion, but to be WRONG.

Heck, even I - a subjectivist - would rather subjectivism be false. Subjectivism is boring, as subjectivism has nothing positive to say in ethics or morals. The only benefit to being a subjectivist is that it allows me to be a pluralist and avoid dogmaatism. But still, I would rather believe that there were definitive rights and wrongs that transcended individual subjective judgment.

The problem is that there is really no evidence for objective morality. As JL Mackie wrote, we do not have any reason to believe that "goodness" is a property in the world and do not even know what such a property would be like (do we see it, smell it, hear it, feel it, or taste it?) Nor does it make sense to say that "good," "bad," "right" and "wrong" are objective terms, in the face of so much disgareement about (a) what they mean, and (b) concrete moral quesitons (is abortion good?).

Further, we know that "good" and "bad" are valuative terms much like "hot" and "cold." Like "hot" and "cold" (or "beautiful" or "ugly") these terms are vaguely descriptive. (We all know what is meant when we say that a song was ugly or say that the beverage is hot.) But we also know that there is no objective standard for what is "hot" or "cold" (my "hot" may be your "lukewarm" and her "cold" with none of us being objectively right or wrong.)

Subjective morality is this kind of view. Even if we all kind of know what is meant by saying things like "Johny did something very bad," or "Jenny is a good human being," there seemingly exists no objective standard - true for all - by which to judge what is good and bad. (And like terms dealing with termpurature, subjectivists see moral terms as often having fuzzy borders).

So, while being a moral subjectivist may confine me to never having the satisfaction of knowing that I am objectively right in my moral judgments, until I hear some good arguments as to where we can find moral qualities in the "out there" universe, I have to remain a subjectivist.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Problem With Utilitarianism

If someone asked me what my moral views are, I would probably call myself a rule utilitarian. To quote from Wikipedia's concise definition, I believe that "that moral actions are those which conform to the rules which lead to the greatest good, or that "the rightness or wrongness of a particular action is a function of the correctness of the rule of which it is an instance."

Even though I take a utilitarian view myself, I have a problem with utilitarianism, even of "rule utilitarianism," - at some point, utilitarians, who believe that moral actions are those that tend to maximize x )(happiness, fulfillment of desires, etc), will be asked to justify the utilitarianism itself. ("Why should we want to maximize x rather than y or z?") At that point, the utilitarian will either (a) have to justify their utilitarianism with some moral argument not itself utilitarian; (b) justify their utilitarianism with utililtarian reasoning; or (c) suggest that utilitarianism cannot justify maximizing x over y or z. (a) and (c) would render utilitarianism too flimsy by admitting that utilltarianism itself is not sufficient to account for all of the moral universe (which is important because once this is acknowledged, we have to question whether "the good" can be defined as "that which maximizes x" as there must now exist something "good (x) which does not derive its goodness from "its ability to maximize x." (b) would make utilitarianism troublingly circular, as justifying x by suggesting that "it effectively maximizes x" does nothing to answer the question "why justify x."

As I feel like the preceeding chapter contained too much philosophical jibberish, let me illustrate the point by rehashing a recent discussion on the atheist ethicist blog.

Its author, Alonzo Fyfe, is an advocate of desire utilitarianism, where moral action is defined as "that action which tends to fulfill desires." In his words, " A good desire is desire that tends to fulfill other desires." Conversely, a desire is not good when it tends to thwart other desires.

The desire utilitarian does not measure utility exclusively in terms of pleasure, happiness, well being, or preference satisfaction. Desire utilitarians say that the good is found in all of the things that we desire. It is found in happiness to the degree that we desire happiness, and it is found in pleasure to the degree that we desire pleasure. It is found in the company of family to the degree that we desire the company of family. All value exists in the form of desire fulfillment.


Aside from some problems I have with this style of utilitarianism (it is impossibly vague, malleable, and, at root, way more subjective and psychologistic than it aspires to be), it is question begging (as all forms of utilitarianism are). "Why is fulfilling desires considered "good"?"
Desire utilitarians could go for strategy (a), (b) or (c) above.

(a) "Fulfilling desires is "good" because fulfilling desires is what makes people happy and what makes people happy is good."

This is no good, because it tacitly admits that "good" is not defined by "ability to fulfill other desires. Therefore, it negates the desire utilitarians' claims "good" is defined in utilitarian terms.

(b) Fulfilling desires is "good" because fulfilling desires leads to fulfilling desires, which is "good."

While this option is the only one that stays "in bounds" of desire utilitarianism, the above answer is nonsensical because it is whoppingly circular. Further, it does not answer the question of why fulfilling desires is good (but only pushes the problem back a step.)

(c) Utilitarianism lacks the abillity to justify fulfilling desire (over some other variable) as the ultimate good on its own terms.

This seems to me the most honest answer. Utilitarianism always suggests that "good" is synonymous with "that which maximizes x" but cannot justify this as an ultimate valule on utilitarian grounds without being meaninglessly circular.


So why would I consider myself a rule utilitarian? I think that that moral actions are those which, if everyone acted the same way, would maximize liberty to pursuse their own happiness (within non-coercive bounds). But how can I justify my desire to see liberty to pursue happiness maximized?

I certainly cannot do it on utilitarian grounds (as liberty does nothing to maximize others' liberty). Like liberal pluralist William Galston, I throw up my hands and suggest that liberty is to be valued as a good simply becuase, if I had to guess, I would suppose that most people value liberty and would want to avoid coercion as much as possible.

Put differently, I am a rule utilitarian because I think that the best way to explain the morality of not stealing from others, helping others, and obeying traffic laws is that, the more people who do these things, the more liberty we and others will get to enjoy. While we sometimes have to do things (follow traffic laws, refrain from killing our bosses), the best reason to do these things - what makse them "good" - is that living in a world where there are traffic laws and rules against murdering bosses is more conducive to liberty than ones that are not.

Still, utilitarianism's fundamental flaw is that it, by itself, will always be incapable of justifying its particlar vision of what to maximize ("the good is what maximises fulfillment of desires,"). It will always have to resort to some extra-utilitarian justification somewhere along the way, lest it become viciously circular.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Nasty Nexus: The Unsavory Mix Between Public Ed and Private Motivational Speakers

I have recently been doing some scattered research on possible dissertation topics, and one subject that has always interested me is the phenomenon of public school districts sinking millions of dollars into "programs" pushed by educational "consultants" (read: motivational speakers). It is a troubling trend to me because these companies, whose goal and expertise is the "hard sell" of educational ideas, are like vultures that happen to prey on under-critical schoolboards that have no monetary accountability (as they are spending the tax payers' money).

One such speaker is Flip Flippen. I first heard of Flippen when working for the Carroll County (MD) public schools. The previous year, the district had bought whole hog into Flippen's "Capturing Kids' Hearts" program. (Thankfully, the school where I worked refused to sign on, despite huge pressure from the district.)

Like most "education consultants" (motivational speakers) Flippen is not, and has never been, an educator. His claim to fame is in speaking to businesses (for a good fee). In typical motivational speaker fashion, Flippen's new book, The Flip Side bears jacket endorsements from NFL greats like Terry Bradshaw to MLB greats like Nolan Ryan (neither of which, I think, are known as extraordinary business men).

What is significant about all of this is that two years after the Carroll County School System sunk millions into Flippen's program, they quietly dropped it. (Flippen's frenzy-starting book "Capturing Kids' Hearts" also appears to be out of print according to amazon.com.) A colleague at the time described a Flippen workshop he had attended recently as a "come to Jesus" revival of sorts. It was quite systemically designed to make the participant feel good and excited (Flippen's got an enigmatic speaking style similar to Tony Robbins). My colleague, I think accurately, suspected that Flippen was able to exdrcise his charisma on some very gullible school-board members who, unlike business persons, don't have to scruitinize what they spend money on, as the money is not hard earned.

Anyhow, what made me want to write about this trend - and it does not stop with Flippen! - is a blog-entry I came across, bearing an eerily familiar description of Flippen's education seminars:

I went to the workshop in August, and Capturing Kids Hearts was far worse than I expected. I have written letters to both my state senator, and representative asking them to investigate this group and pass a law giving teachers protection from some of the tactics used in the workshop...

I had jokingly referred to co-workers having “drunk the kool-aid” because of their devotion to “Capturing Kids Hearts”. It wasn’t too far off the mark. The tactics used by the presenter reminded me greatly of cult recruiters or Amway/timeshare sales people. Their leader is the savior of schools...

This is the second time in 5 years a workshop did this the other was required this was strongly recommended.


As an educator, I have had to endure many motivational speakers pontificate on the strength of their system - the latest was Brian Mendler - and I am simply shocked at how gullible these school systems are. For-profit folks like Flippen and Mendler can make a hell of a lot of money pushing their product to school districts, who giddily sink millions into books (every teacher at the Mendler seminar was provided with two of his books, paid for by the county, who has better things to spend money on).

It is simply a shame that there is such an admixture of profit-seeking motivational speakers with financially unconcerned and unconstrained (and fad-loving) educational bureaucrats.

The Tyranny of Undertesting: Why Underreliance on Tests Helps Kids Fail

The grading policy for Baltimore County High Schools goes like this:

Classwork - 60%
Homework - 15%
Tests/Quizzes - 25%

For those who don't see the problem with this, let me explain. Under this schema, it is entirely possible that a student can pass a class with a 70% C having done all classwork, some homework, and have gotten 0%s on assessments. As most teachers' policies is to grade classworks and homeworks (primarily) on completion rather than accuracy, this means that it becomes possible for students to pass a class without having demonstrated any real mastery of the material.

What made me think about this today was a meeting I sat in about a student who recently got placed into a less intense math class than the one he previously in. While the student passed algebra I last year with a C, the guidance counselor explained to me that she and the math teacher feel that he did not at all master the Algebra concepts, and thus, they could not keep him in Algebra II. We wondered - briefly - how it was possible that he passed Algebra I with a C and it did not take long to spot the reason.

As an educator, I see it all too often: students "skirt" by with C's and D's under a system where this grade ignores whether they mastered content, and only attests that they have done the majority of the work put in front of them (correctly or incorrectly). Thus, students are passed on without any obligation to really learn the material, and as a result, are ill-equipped for the next grade.

If it were my decision, I would place test/quiz grades at about 40% of the grade, so that a student who may not be a good test taker can pass without brilliant scores, but to eliminate the overly large possibility of students passing classes without demonstrating mastery of the content.

Critics would certainly tell me that this simply raises stakes too high, and that classworks and homeworks can do the job of assessments in testing students knowledge of the material while not penalizing poor test-takers or boiling the class down to one's ability to regurgitate facts. My response: first, ability to regurgitate facts is not per se a bad thing (unless that is ALL that is measured); second, homeworks/classworks cannot fully do the job of assessing student knowledge because they are more often graded on completion (and generally done when students have access to books/internet/peers.

I am fully aware of the dangers of TOO MUCH emphasis being put on tests, but I am not sure others are aware of the dangers of TOO LITTLE emphasis on tests. (Most of my graduate special education professors talk of the 'tyranny of testing' but never talk of the 'tyranny of undertesting.') As a result of Baltimore County's thoroughly misguided grading policy (where tests/quizzes count for 25% while classwork/homework counts for 75%), we are failing students by allowing them to pass into classes without having demonstrated adequate mastery of the subject. In other words, not making tests a bigger part of the grade ensures that they can dig themselves into bigger and bigger holes the further through school they get.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

My Ambivalent Feelings Toward Philosophy

At one point in my life, I wanted to be a philosopher. There was nothing I enjoyed more than sitting down with a book of philosophy, read through it, turn its ideas over in my head, and develop, or redevelop, my own thoughts.I still love to do all of that, but have given up on the idea of being a philosopher. If I can be blunt, philosophy has become to me like stamp collecting is to its enthusiasts: something that pleases me immensely, but not something I see enough point in to see a career in it.

Unfortunately, I think philosophy began to lose its esteem for me in graduate school. I was a political science major, but I always gravitated towards philosophic areas: philosophy of jurisprudence, moral philosophy, philosophic attempts to justify a liberal state, etc. Reading books in sociology, political science, and politics could be interesting, none of them seemed to grapple with the truly interesting and challenging questions tdhat - as philosophy does - steps beyond the facts of the matter, and gets to the ideas behind them. Yes, political economists could weight capitalism versus socialism economically, but Isaiah Berlin, Robert Nozick, and Richard Rorty could grapple with the moral issues behind these two set-ups.

While I loved philosophy dearly, and cherished spending time with it after classes were over, I only realized much later that I was slowly becoming frustrated with it. I was coming to a realization - one I still keep to this day - that philosophy's inability to solve so many problems left me doubting that its banter was ever going to lead to anywhere concrete. Further, I started to question the entire enterprise's goal of coming up with logically cogent and consistent systems to explain x, y, and z as a valid enterprise; what reason was there to suppose that x, y, and z are reducible to a logically cogent and consistent system at all? (It is not obvious that the world "designed" itself to fit into a system, yet that was the necessary presupposition undergirding much philosophy.)

To make this latter point more concrete, one of the areas I began to question the validity of was my much beloved moral philosophy. The goal of the moral philosophers - defenders of categorical imperatives, utilitarianism, consequentialism, natural law, etc - was to develop a system that could, if properly used, help us reach the right decision in moral cases. The articles and books outlining and defending these thought-up systems would be followed by critiques aiming to show that the defended system is flawed because the results it would get in a certain situation do not accord with our intuitions of the good, and so on. ("X theory, if properly used, would lead to result y, which does not accord with our intuitions. Therefore, it is back to the drawing board."

As this went on indefinitely - new systems developed and refuted, which led to new systems... - I began to wonder why it never seemed to occur to anyone that perhaps moral intuitions are not reducible to a neat system. I relayed this concerns to some of my philosophy professors and friends with a typical reaction: a grudging admittance of its possibility followed by a quick change of subject back to moral system.

I became more and more dissatisfied with this situation. While I never stopped reading philosophy, I began to take it less seriously. (One of my professors had a specialty in the philosophy of science fiction, and I recall several discussions with him where he tried, in vain, to convince me why "possible worlds" speculating was not a waste o time.)

It was fortuitous, then, that at the exact time my doubt in the efficacy of philosophy for anything was at an apex, I came across an essay by Stanley Fish, called "Truth and Toilets." Fish is something of a "postmodernist" (though he never called himself that), who acquired a nasty reputation amongst philosophers for denying that "abstract principles" had any meaning that was not wholly non-subjective meaning, or had any real use outside of communicative shorthand. ("Justice" means "the stuff the utterer thinks are just," and no more.)

In "Truth and Toilets," Fish takes a very cynical view of philosophy, seeing it as rhetoric that has little import on the act of living life. One of my favorite quotes is:

When the dream of finding invariant meaning underwritten by God or the structure of rationality is exploded, what remains is not dust and ashes, but the plasticity of the world human beings continually make and remake.

In short, in the wake of formalism's failure - the failure of the search for neutral principles - everything remains as it was. (Fish, Stanley. The Trouble With Principle. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2001 (294)


What I take Fish to be saying here is that there is nothing about life that stands or falls with philosophy. Whether we can find a cogent and consistent moral system is of no real consequence to morality as it is actually practiced in life. (None but philosophers stop and think about whether their moral acts are consistent with a particular system of morality.) Whether we can find a solution to the problem of free-will is absolutely immaterial to how we live (we will always live as if we have free will, even if "free will" does seem contradictory and queer to philosophers.) Under this view, philosophy may be interesting, intellectually stimulating, and even personally gratifying. But it is also impotent to affect much of anything (aside from the person who chooses to be engaged in it.)

This is the most sensical philosophy I have heard to date. My ambivalence about philosophy comes from the push and pull between seeing philosophy as largely useless to actual life, and still having a large passion and craving for it. I love the intellectual exercise of philosophy and find that my life is thinner without it. (I tried for about two years to wean myself from it, focusing on the day-to-day of career and leisure, but to no avail; I came back.)

This ambivalence is no trivial matter for me. While I love to read books, for instance, arguing a particular moral or political order on philosophic grounds, I simply have lost the ability to take seriously that philosophy is capable of doing anything outside of presenting fresh rhetoric for one person's opinion. I can no longer see the difference between the sunday morning "talking head" shows and political philosophy (they are both people giving their opinions, with the exception that the latter may use bigger language and contain more sustained rhetoric.) So while I suspect that I will always love philosophy, I also suspect that I will always hate it just a tad (because I wish so badly that, when reading it, I could say that I was doing something productive). My relationship with philosophy, then, is like the summer fling: you are attracted to her, but also resent the fact that the relationship could never really be a serious one.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why Are We So Stuck on Progressive Education?

Here is an interesting indictment of progressive education from a parental point of view. Written in 2005. the article is written by an education consultant who happened to be a parent of children attedning a public school steeped in many progressive ideas about education.

What were these "progressive" ideas with which this parent disapproved? Ideas like "whole language educaiton," dislike of worksheets and anything that smacked of "instruct and drill" - all of these things start from a common premise of "progressive ed:" learning by listening to the teacher instruct is synthetic and "inauthentic," while learning by self-discovery of the student is natural and "authentic." The best example of this idea that learning shold be self-discovery, rather than knowledge acquisition from an external souce, is best seen in the author's discription of whole language educaiton.

Whole language is progressive education’s belief system applied to reading. Its theorists believe learning to read is as natural as learning to speak, and therefore it isn’t necessary (and indeed it could be harmful) to directly and systematically teach and drill children on the sound-letter relationships, called phonemes.

They believe learning to read is primarily an exercise in recognizing whole words..


The same trend of replacing "instruct and drill" educaiton with more natural "self-discovery" method can be seen in the author's discription of the way his children's school taught math.

The NCTM standards document openly disdains “paper and pencil practice” of basic arithmetic computational skills, and it demands that calculators be used even in kindergarten. It emphasizes how math should be taught (through hands-on activities and problem solving rather than teacher-led instruction and practice)...


Teaching language by ignoring instruction in phonics and expecting students to start with reading sentences, and teaching math by ignoring instruction on basic mathematical operations and expecting students to engage in conceptual problem solving. Both of these techniques make the mistake of seeing operations like reading and math as something basic that children can figure out themselves if just "guided" the right way. Of course, it is quite absurd to believe that children will discover on their own how to sound out new words - "gauche" or "bivouac" - if they do not learn basic and more complex phonics, and equally as absurd to think that a child will discover how to divide 25.86 by 7 unless taught division FACTS.

As predicted, whole langauge education went bust about a decade ago, as did the idea that students can learn math without learning math FACTS. The problem, though, is that progressive ideas never really seem to die, but rather simply change shape and tact. As a high school special educator, I can certainly attest that progressivism is alive and well at my high school. While we (grudgingly) accept the fact that lecture must occur, we still have not lost our progressive disdain for worksheets, drills, fact learning, and textbook work. In my graudate courses, we still talk of Dewey (and Vygotsky!!) as if they rule the day, constructivism as the only way to properly educate, and the tyranny of testing students recall of facts (in favor of "holistic" and "authentic" assessment.)

But here is the killer question. Why has progressivism stuck around for so long, even though it has failed, time after time, to produce the results it claimed it could? Our author paints the situaiton well:

But the overwhelming body of empirical research is basically an indictment of the progressive education model. And it’s not just recent research—educators have had experimental research evidence for decades that unequivocally conclude that current progressive theories don’t work—evidence that large numbers of educators have chosen to ignore


That such evidence exists against progressive education may be denied by some, but any read-through of Project Follow Through, Maureen Sout's "Feel Good Curriculum," or any work by ED Hirsch should suffice to demonstrate that it does.

Thus, the question remains: if the desired results continue not to be produced, then why has progressive pedagogy (in various incarnations from "progressivism" to "constructivism" to today's "brain based learning,") continue to flourish?

I suspect that the primary reason progressivism's approach remains en vogue despite its failures is because educators like children and we dislike to disappoint or upset them. Progressive education feeds off of this desire by giving us a way to "toss" the "instruct and drill" method that students dislike, in favor of more friendly activities, like playing math games with blocks, and letting kids design their own project specifications.

That educators have an emotional connection to progressivism (the softer approach) can be seen by their constant caricature of the "old way" of education as draconian, authoritarian, and dry. Progressive education, by contrast, is often accompanied by pretty phrases like "educating the whole child" (as opposed to educating only part of the child?!), "authentic education" (rather than fraudulent education?!), and "child-centered education (was there ever an education that did not have the child as its aim?!). If the old education is the authoritarian father, then progressivism is the nurturing mother (this, in a field with far more mothers than fathers in its employ).

This emotional pull is, I feel, the force that keeps progressivism kicking after all of these failed years. As the author says, the fact that we keep going back to "more of the same" (first progressivism, then constructivism, now "brain-based ways of learning" - the same ideas dressed differently), despite repeated failures to make gains defies logic. And I am not sure logic was involved. My guess is that the stubborn persistence of progresivism in education has more to do with the emotional sway it has over educators lost in its nurturing language.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Is Tenure for School Teachers Necessary or Productive? (No.)

When we think of tenure, we think of academic freedom - the liberty of teachers to delve into controversial ideas without fear of losing their jobs. We think of professors like Bertrand Russell who was denied various teaching positions due to some controversial writings he produced (as a professor). Tenure's rationale, then, seems to be a desire to leave professors free to engage in research without having to think about whether their choice of subject or position will affect their employment status.

This concern of academic freedom, though, doesn't seem to have the same import at the primary and secondary school level. Unlike professors, teachers do not engage in research and publishing in addition to teaching duties, do not often have complete freedom to write curriculum, and, even if they do, are strongly advised not to engage in teaching that could be considered controversial or edgy. Because of this, it is tough to see why primary/secondary school teachers need tenure to protect them.

One of the most universal criticism of tenure - at any level of education - is that it makes it difficult, bordering on impossible, to fire incompetent teachers. Once a teacher/professor has tenure, she is stripped of the market pressure to perform that exists in any job where fear of termination could be a motivator. In a recent blog entry, Stanley Fish writes of a professor who, up until now, has been protected by tenure (and even now, it will be extremely hard for the University to terminate him). This professor - Denis Rancourt - is supposed to teach physics, but tells his students that he will teach whatever he feels like teaching (often political activism).

While tenure protects incompetents like Rancourt, many feel that, at the college level, the cost is worth the benefit of ensuring that academics are free to pursue their scholarly interests without fear of termination. The University of Delaware's Linda Gottfredson, , who does controversial research on the relationship of IQ to factors such as race, health, etc, produces very scholarly important research that, without tenure, she may not engage in for fear of termination. Even if tenure protects some bad professors, it is often argued that without its guarantee, professors like Gottfredson would let the topics of their research be motivated by economic concerns, rather than the pursuit of truth.

We know that the same cost of tenure - the insulation of incompetents from firing - exist at the primary/secondary school level, but do the benefits? No. As mentioned, primary and secondary teachers do not have the research responsibilities that do college professors. Thus, the only "controversial" stances they could take would be in the classroom, which has always been ill-advised (witness the sad examples of James Keegstra and Jay Bennish as unfotunate examples of teaching "controversially" to high school students).

I am quite at a loss to find any benefit in primary and secondary school teachers recieving tenure. If academic freedom is the rationale for tenure, then the only question left is whether primary or secondary school teachers have such academic freedom concerns that they should be granted the freedom to pursue ideas that might otherwise get them fired. I simply cannot see that teachers of 5, 12, and 17 year olds would ever need that kind of freedom (and would be concerned if teachers, like Keegstra, took positions in their classes that could conceivably result in termination).

According to this article the push for tenure amongst primary and secondary school teachers:

The start of the tenure movement paralleled similar labor struggles during the late 19th century. Just as steel and auto workers fought against unsafe working conditions and unlivable wages, teachers too demanded protection from parents and administrators who would try to dictate lesson plans or exclude controversial materials like Huck Finn from reading lists.


This, too, is a rationale that is antiquated. Rarely do teachers control whether Huck Finn should be required reading, and rarely would a teacher be fired over their lesson plans. Whether Huck Finn is part of the curriculum has become an administrative issue, and the lesson plans that (public school) teachers teach are heavily dictated by the demands of a curriculum that they didn't write. (Whether this should be so is debatable, but I think this decision is correct for public schools.)

Again, the rationale for tenure amongst primary and secondary school teachers seems to be antiquated and unnecessary. One of the only articles I have found to argue for the justice of tenure for primary/secondary school teachers has the following abstract:

This speech responds to arguments for reform or abolition of teacher tenure acts. The author argues that, inadequate as tenure laws may be, they provide in many States the most practical safeguard against managerial caprice in the educational establishment. Court cases that uphold or prove the value of teacher tenure laws are presented.


Teh large problem with this argument is that "manegerial caprice" is not exclusive to the education industry, and protection against it is hardly a reason to argue that schools are unique in needing protection from it. One can certainly argue that, without tenure, good teachers might be fired simply because they are not liked by peers or superiors, but this could just as easily happen at a bank, a restaurant, or a law firm. It is unclear why schools are unusual in needing protection from "managerial caprice." If it is argued that schools are particularly susceptible to such political decision-making, then this seems more like a "childishness" problem, rather than a problem warranting exceptional "tenure" protection.

A Gallup Poll report suggests more of the same:

Those in favor, including teacher unions and state school board associations, have long held that tenure is necessary to protect teachers from dismissals based on unpopular opinions, arbitrary administrations, or simply the ebb and flow of cultural tides. "I'm in favor of job security for all types of work, including teaching," says Todd, a 45-year-old respondent from Maine who is "somewhat familiar" with tenure and likes what he sees. "Teachers put in a lot of time and they deserve to know their job will always be there."


As we have discussed, dismissal because of unpopular opinion is much more likely with college professors, and "arbitrary...ebb and flow of cultural tides," is not a factor that is exclusive to schools.

But a new argument is that since teachers works so hard, they deserve job security for life. I am a teacher, and can attest that we do work hard. But I can also attest that (a) good teachers (the ones the quote focuses on) wouldn't need tenure to be able to keep their jobs; and (b) there aer plenty of other professions with people that would "deserve" job security if the criteria is how hard the work is.

Anyway we slice it, justifying tenure for primary/secondary teachers is a stretch. Unlike college professors, we don't have much occasion (or is it advisable) to hold opinions in the classroom that would warrant tenure protection. Second, we do not, by in large, control the curricula and, therefore, do not need "academic freedom" for curricular purposes. "Job protection from arbitrary administrations" is a weak argument, as there are many other professions that could fire based on unsound reasons. And, lastly, arguing that teachers deserve tenure because they work so hard ignores all of the other professions that work as hard or harder, yet do not need tenure and do not argue for it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What Would You Do? A Teacher Faces a Moral Dilemma

The kid almost had tears in his eyes and, while I hate to say it, I contributed to that situation. Earlier in the day, I had called this particular student - off task at the time - out in front of the class. I told him to stop wasting his and my time and to start doing his work, and threatened to send him out if he did not straighten up. Later in the day, his biology teacher - my co-teacher - sent him out of the room, and when the student begged to be let back in class, I told him no and shut the door.

Here is where the dilemma comes. When I told this student's counselor that he might want to talk with the student, the counselor shook his head and said: "Poor _____. Just another thing wrong in his life." When I inquired as to what the counselor meant, he said, "Well, ______ is basically the man of the house. He works a job, and is failing in school."

Every teacher - at least, I think every teacher - goes through something like this. We are hard on a student only to find out that the student's "story" is one which tugs at our heartstrings. (I had this happen a few years ago, when I found out that a failing student was, in fact, homeless.) So, what do we do? Do we give the student a possible "break," and ease up a tad, or do we stick to the hard-and-fast rules while ignoring the student's particular story?

In talking with teachers old and new, I find that teachers' newness correlates positively with their tendency to let students' backstories affect how they deal with the student. The more of a veteran you are, the "harder heart" you develop.

Is this a case of teachers becoming desensitized to student backstories? I suppose there is a bit of that, but my guess is that, with experience, teachers become less idealistic and more utilitarian and pragmatic after a while. Let me explain. As any veteran teacher will tell you, one of the keys to success in the classroom is that rules have to not only be established, but enforced and enforced consistently. As with the law, rules need to be administered and applied without respect to persons or context. When exceptions to rules are made, two things result: (a) hordes of students will test the limits of these exceptions; and (b) students will quickly see that rules are negotiable.

While I am familiar with no study done on the subject, I am willing to wager that the trajectory of most teachers careers have them start of as contextualists and end up as absolutists with respect to rules. There is nowhere better than a classroom to learn the lesson that unless rules are rules (without respect to persons or contexts), then they become movable guidelines to be taken advantage of by anyone with a sad story (real or fabricated).

I do feel bad about what happened with the student whom I called out in class. I can imagine his situation and the stress he must be under, being the man of the house while failing his classes. I can even see in his face that he wants to give up very badly. It pains me. But, like a good judge, a good teacher cannot let their feelings get in the way of objectively and fairly enforcing rules. When classwork is assigned, it applies to all and all alike. If we put slack in our rules depending on whether students' circumstances move us, it is as unfair and, I suggest, unethical.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Are the SAT's Discriminatory? Yes, and...?

Many educators and education professors have suggested that the SAT is a faulty test because it unfairly discriminates in favor of those who grow up in affluent, book-laden, and educationally rich environments. Against this, John McWhorter has written a recent article arguing, in essence, that throwing out the SAT is " throwing a baby out with the bathwater."

I cannot expand much on the content of McWhorter's wonderful article, but I do want to clarify his argument a little. What McWhorter is really saying, and I agree, is that even if the SAT discriminates in favor of students who know fancy words like "lugubrious" and can do advanced algebra, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this fact. In fact, discriminating between students based on who can handle the material being tested better is basically what tests should do.

The major line of argument against the SAT is that the test discriminates against those who may never have had occasion to learn "college words" or learn advanced math (even if the lack of opportunity was due to no fault of their own). Of course, this begs a question: are students who do not know how to do these things the students who are capable of being in college? As McWhorter points out, "as most of us would suspect[,] mastery of advanced vocabulary is vital to understanding the texts presented to a college student." If a student can't perform to a certain standard on the SAT vocabulary test, then regardless of whether their lack of ability to do so is environmental or not, this student may well not have the requisite knowledge that college demands.

What is unfair about that? It is sometimes argued that penalizing a student with a college-inhibiting low score on the SAT for something that may not have been the student's fault is unfairly discriminatory. (Why deny a student the opportunity at college simply because their parents could not afford private school, books, or tutors?) This is best answered as a question: Are the purpose of college admissions tests (a) tests designed to filter applicants based on their ability to demonstrate desired skills; (b) instruments for administering social justice?

For those who might actually have answered (b), here is a thought experiment. Before becoming a lawyer, every student must take their state's bar exam, testing their readiness to practice law (the same way that every medical student must pass a series of exams before practicing medicine.) As law is highly specialized, the purpose of such tests are to "weed out" the prepared from the unprepared. It would be a catastrophe if we argued - as we do about the SAT - that the tests are unfair because they discriminate against those who might not have had the money to go to a top 100 law school. Even though the tests might discriminate thus, the fact is that the "weeding out" process of the tests is necessary to ensure that only those who are prepared to practice law actually practice law.

The same logic should be applied to the SAT tests. The question is not whether they discriminate (they do), but whether the things it tests are actually those things that are prerequisite for a successful college career. We need to get past the idea that the SAT's are wrong because they discriminate against students (who may have gotten higher scores had they lived in more affluent or academically rich environments). Until that sad day where we make college admissions a tool of social justice, and suggest that mathematic and vocabulary ability is unimportant to predicting college success, then I agree with McWhorter: Long Live the SAT.

Academic Underachievement in Black America: A Personal Analysis

We can beat around the bush all we want. We can talk about discrimination all we want. We can talk about overt and covert racism all we want. But the fact is that black students of all social backgrounds are lagging far behind. What follows is my view of what's happening.

I teach at a smack-dab middle-class 98% black school. The kids who attend attend with ipods, cell phones, nice clothes, new sneakers, and often come to school sipping on Starbucks. It is no exaggeration to say that the black middle class students I teach were the goal of the civil rights movement... in all but one respect; the kids I teach are, by in large, "just getting by." We hear a lot of talk (from them and their parents) about "passing," rather than "excelling," and "getting through" rather than "getting ahead."

This is a problem that is not just about the high school at which I teach. It is a problem nation wide; the "achievement gap" between black students and their white and Asian counterparts has been widespread news for years now.

The problem is that when we "talk" about it, we tend to press for external explanations and places to lay blame: it is due, we hear, to covert racism, to internalized low expectations by teachers, to the low self-esteem that comes with being black, etc, etc. What we do not talk about - Bill Cosby tried it - is the responsibility black parents and black students have for this situation.

As an educator, what is appalling to me is not simply that the widespread trend of students not studying for tests or doing homework (what student WANTS to study or do homework?!), but the fact that I hardly ever hear a parent voice concern. What I do hear from parents are defensive queries about why I gave their child - who did no homework for my class - a failing grade, why we took away his ipod, and what we, the school, will do to make sure that neither of these things happen again. When students get in trouble, the parents invariably defend their children. What I do see is students who are failing one class while getting D's in all the others being allowed by their parents to play extra-curricular sports (and I have heard students tell their peers that the only way they would get grounded is if they brought home two or more failing grades).

Now that I've written about what I do see, here is what I don't see. I don't see very many students working part time jobs (which, oddly, I saw all the time when I taught in a very affluent mostly white school). What I don't see is students caring whether or not a bad report goes home to their parents. What I do not see is students coming into school with a respect for the enterprise of education (if your parents respect education, their children will respect it either out of love or fear).

I cannot speak about "minority schools" outside of my own purview, but these are the things I have seen taking place (and not taking place) in my school. And from those I've talked to in similar predicaments, my experiences are quite typical. Even as a white man, it makes me concerned - concerned that the hard-earned black middle class will become a memory as quickly as it became a reality.

When I came to teach at this school, I was excited at the shiny facilities and the thought that I would be teaching the neglected black middle class. I was excited about the hope that existed there, and the thought that I might be teaching the group that could prove any racists that still existed wrong. Now, two years later, I am ready to leave - my optimism collapsed into cynicism, and my enthusiasm no longer in tact. I can no longer take the disappointment of seeing a group that, by all accounts, should be doing well, doing poorly and not being bothered by that fact.

We can talk about covert racism, victimization, and inequality all we want (and I fear that we will talk about them longer than we want, for fear of having to deal with the hard truths). At my school, and many others, the "achievement gap" is not about racism or poverty, and the only oppressors these students have are themselves. The achievement gap is largely about a widespread undervaluing of education by parents and students alike.

I agree with Dr. Cosby that it boils down to this: the crisis in black America is a crisis brought on by a lack of responsibility-taking and an excess of excuse-making and blame-throwing. For black America to work, "responsibility" is the key.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bertrand Russell on What it Takes to Be a Good Teacher

Like my previous post, this post talks about comments made in Bertrand Russell's essay, "Education and Discipline.". Particularly, Russell talks about some characteristics he thinks good teachers must have.

Late in Russell's essay, he writes about the value in seeing children as ends in themselves versus seeing them as potential adults.

If you have the sort of liking for children that many people have for horses or dogs, they will be apt to respond to your suggestions, and to accept prohibitions, perhaps with some good-humoured grumbling, but without resentment. It is no use to have the sort of liking that consists in regarding them as a field for valuable social endeavour, or what amounts to the same thing√Ďas [sic.] an outlet for power-impulses.


In other words, Russell suggests that the successful teacher enjoys children as children, rather than children as potential adults, and enjoys "being with" rather than "molding" children.

I disagree with Russell here. While teachers would lose their sanity if they did not in any way enjoy the presence of students, if this were their primary joy, my fear is that they would not get around to teaching much. As the whole rationale for teaching is to impart information to students, and the whole rationale for doing that is to make them better off then they were before, teaching requires that one not only enjoy being in the presence of students, but that one stay focused on the goal of shaping students.

To put it a bit more directly, teaching requires that one see students as potential adults and see themselves as instruments to bring students closer to that goal. While Russell's above quote suggests that it "does little good" to regard children as "field for valuable social endeavor," I am hard pressed to see what the rationale for teaching would be if one did not.

Russell goes on to say that, "[t]he desirable sort of interest is that which consists in spontaneous pleasure in the presence of children, without any ulterior purpose."

At the risk of sounding crass, I can only read the words "ulterior purpose" as a synonym for "teaching." At the risk of sounding more crass, if a person solely takes joy in "spontaneous pleasure in the presence of children," then one is best to be a counselor or buddy, rather than a teacher. That is because teaching cannot take place - and would be superfluous - if the teacher did not believe that they could impart something onto the child that the child should have - in other words, seeing the necessity to steer the child in a certain direction they might not naturally go toward.

I have of en thought privately about how many teachers - particularly those in early-years education - seem to love kids more than to love teaching kids. There is a big difference, one that I think Russell overlooks. Loving kids is simply to enjoy being in their company. Loving to teach kids is to enjoy equipping students - sometimes it will be against their will - with tools that (at least the teacher thinks) they need. Contra Russell, good teaching means not just enjoying students, but enjoying the ability to help mold them into something greater than they are now. This means, to some degree, viewing students as an incomplete means, and not as a complete end.

To tie this to my personal experience as a teacher, the teachers I know (myself included) to like being around students (to a degree). What we enjoy infinitely more than this, though, is the feeling that a child learned something from us and the experience of school, for which we know they will be better off. If we simply enjoyed kids, we'd work in day care or volunteer for Big Brother/Big Sister. Teaching is more than this: it is the willingness to see students as potentialities that we can play a part in actualizing.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

An Interesting Balance: Bertrand Russell's View of Authority v. Freedom in the Education of Children

Over the past week, I have had occasion to read and re-read Bertrand Russell's brief essay, "Education and Discipline". While I often regard Bertrand Russell's social essays (as seen in such books as In Praise of Idleness) as flighty and ill-thought-out, this essay highlights an interesting dichotomy that has been present in the philosophy of education for the last many hundreds of years: the tension between liberty v. authority in education.

In fact, I think that Russell rightly recognizes this issue as the key issue in the philosophy of how to educate children. Do we follow Rousseau and Montessori in the belief that education of children sh old involve a minimum of (or any) coercion - education as spontaneous discovery by the child - or the more "classical" idea that education should involve an instructor coercing the child to submit to their authority.

Russell, quite rightly, sees the danger in both. About the former idea of non-coercive education, he writes:

The belief that liberty will ensure moral perfection is a relic of Rousseauism, and would not survive a study of animals and babies. Those who hold this belief think that education should have no positive purpose, but should merely offer an environment suitable for spontaneous development. I cannot agree with this school, which seems to me too individualistic, and unduly indifferent to the importance of knowledge.


About the idea that education is about molding the child to submit to the authority of educators, Russell writes that:

Thus an unduly authoritative education turns the pupils into timid tyrants, incapable of either claiming or tolerating originality in word or deed


Too much authoritarianism in education, Russell notes, leads either to over-submissive and timid children or to rebels who become so disillusioned with authority that they "suppose that opposition to authority is essentially meritorious and that unconventional opinions are bound to be correct." Being a rebel for the sake of rebellion is equally as unwise as being too timid to challenge authority.

Thus, there is danger in both extremes. Leave children too free and children will never learn how to live in a world with others (peers and authority figures). Be too authoritarian towards children and one is bound to create children who do not know how to deal with freedom (who will either be afraid of it or rebel against it out of spite). In Russell's words,

What is wanted is neither submissiveness nor rebellion, but good nature, and general friendliness both to people and to new ideas.


By developing children with "good nature," Russell means that we are trying to raise students who can be well-adjusted and content in later life, which requires a balance between cultivating the child's individuality and preparing her to be a social being.

Of course, these two ends of education - individuality and socialization - are necessarily in conflict, and it is rare to hear philosophers of education recognize this conflict. Dewey overemphasized socialization as much as Montessori overemphasized individualization. To be sure, though, while these two ideas are diametrically opposed - the more individualized you are, the less socialized, and vice versa - they are not mutually exclusive; it is quite easy to recognize that both elements - individuality and sociality - can peacefully coexist in the same individual.

So the struggle of educational theorists, philosophers, and policy-makers is to juggle these two ideals - figure out how to teach children to be independent but also carry the wisdom to know how to do this as a social creature. If the job of education is to sew in each child the ability to become a well-functioning adult, we must recognize that being a well-functioning adult entails both individual authenticity and an ability to function in society.

Russell's appraisal? "I do not think that educators have yet solved the problem of combining the desirable forms of freedom with the necessary minimum of moral training." For me, the problem is that Russell writes as if this is a "solvable" problem - that the question of how much individuality and how much sociability to instill in students is a problem with a definite, universal, and identifiable solution.

Contra this, I believe that individuality and sociability, as terms necessarily in tension, will never yield to a once-and-for-all resolution. I believe that educators and theorists will always have to re-examine and re-answer the question of how to "healthily" (a subjective term) balance the one with the other. As long as we live in"communities of individuals" we will have to struggle with how to teach just enough respect for community with just enough individuality, but I simply can't see how this will not always bee a most delicate balancing act.

I do admire Russell's essay, though, for highlighting this duality, as very few in the philosophy of education seem to. If there is any wisdom to be spoken of on this topic, I think Russell had it right: any education that unqualifiedly sees coercion and authority as absolute goods or evils can absolutely be called unwise.

Brain Breaks: Where's the Evidence?

Early this week, my "mentor teacher" and I were talking about some particularly off-task students in my classroom. She mentioned the idea of giving students "brain breaks." As she is familiar with my skeptical ways, she abruptly followed her recommendation with an assurance that the need for "brain breaks" is thoroughly evidence-based, based on the latest brain research ("brain-based learning" is another fairly recent fad in education). Unfortunately, I decided to find out for myself, and what I found - typical of the education world - is that "evidence based" often, in educator slang, means "cited in an article which was cited in an article which was...." You get the idea.

Now, the idea that students require brief "brain breaks" for every twenty-or-so minutes of real learning has strong intuitive appeal. When we introspect and, especially when we look at students, it is hard to quarrel with this idea. 90 minute periods are long, students get restless, and the idea that students require breaks for every x number of minutes "just makes sense."

But "just makes sense" is different than "has an evidentiary basis." So, when my mentor teacher suggested that brain breaks did have a strong evidentiary basis, I asked her where I might be able to find such evidence. She pulled out three books outlining the idea of brain breaks. Out of those, two did not cite any research (even though both suggested that validating research existed), and one dropped the name of an educational theorist - not a researcher - who postulated that breaks may be good things for kids.

I spent some time online as well, figuring that as there exist tons of websites extolling the virtues of brain breaks, I could certainly find references to the research that validates them. I must have gone through 30+ websites, all to no avail. I chased down any articles that were cited, only to find that articles which were cited as evidence of brain breaks were articles that themselves cited other articles, which in turn, cited other articles. I have not yet found the "holy grail" articles that vitiate this circle by outlining original evidence (rather than citing articles that cite articles). Those websites or articles that did not cite other articles simply and blithely said things like "research shows that..." without going into what that research is. This gives the impression that once one says that research exists on something (whether it does or not) enough times, people just start to assume the truth of the statement.



I am not saying that such articles do not exist, but I suspect that if there is really that much scientific research validating "brain breaks" (as adherents are quick to suggest), then articles doing so would not be so hard to find citations for. This is not just a problem with the idea of brain breaks, but with so much in education (the virtually unquestioned theory of Multiple Intelligences for instance, which has gained credence primarily by "intuitive appeal," anecdotes, and a few very poorly designed studies.) In the world of education, "evidence-based" is not a very trustworthy descriptor.

So, I will probably try out brain breaks in my classes, and I suspect that they will work, at least in their ability to better keep students focused and alleviate the drudgery of 90 minute periods. (I do not expect that they will raise academic scores, but this is a prediction only.) But I will not suggest that they are evidence-based until I can find, or someone can show me, the evidence (not an article that cites and article) of their efficacy.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Review of Rand-Influenced Book on Education

Today, I reviewed Jerry Kirpatrick's book "Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism." It is a book that defends (a) a free-market capitalistic model of educaiton; and (b) the appropriateness of Dewey's and Montessori's methods of education in that framework.

I gave the book 2 out of 5 stars.

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First off, Jerry Kirkpatrick has written one of only a few books that defend education in an environment of the free market. For that, he deseves some praise. While I find fault with much that he says, I am in agreement with Kirkpatrick that schools need to be opened up to the competitive forces of the market.

Kirkpatrick is concerned to defend a particlar type of education - that utilizing the insights of progressive educators John Dewey and Maria Montessori - as the only proper plan of education in a capitalistic society. He suggests that in a capitalistic society, the "old way of educaiton" that teaches students to submit to the school's authority would be in contradiction with capitalism's anti-authoritarian structure.

My first objection is that, despite Kirkpatrick's argument, I do not see how any social structure REQUIRES a certain type of education. I do not see how a mixed economy or socialist country could not just as easily have a "lecture" style of education as it could a Montessori style. To suggest that a philosophy of educaiton and a philosophy of social organizaiton must be alligned is like saying that that a nation's philosphy of science must be alligned with its philosophy of social organization.

Secondly, Kirkpatrick takes it as unquestioned that Montessori's anti-authority method of education meshes well with capitalism's anti-authority structure. I do not see this as correct. When students move past high school, they will experience many "authoritarian" relationships, like that between them and employers and that between them and moneylenders. (I have even heard it argued elsewhere that an "anti-authoritarian" style of education leaves kids ill-preared to function in a capitalistic system, which involves learning to obey rules, laws, and mores.)

While I am not against the Montessori method of educaiton, I suspect that Kirkpatrick's confidence in it is exhuberant. Many well-argued books have been written outlining the dangers of current schools' infatuation with "progressive education" ideas ("whole child" education, "whole language" education, education as self-discovery rather than subject-discovery). The interested might read Stout's "Feel Good Curriculum" and Hirsch's "The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them," as starting points.

In brief, Kirkpatrick makes a big mistakes, probably related to his belief in Ayn Rand's philosophy. First, he is very much against coercion, extremizing this view into the idea that coercing children is an unqualified wrong. It is interesting to note, though, that even in a capitalistic society, the need to coerce children is recognized in an almost universal agreement that kids below a certain age need to be restricted in certain ways, as they lack the executive functioning skills to self-regulate. Kirkpatrick recognizes that students need freedom, but does not recgnize that students also need a good amount of structure. Before one can be self-disciplined, one needs to be taught discipline. (One cannot just "discover" how to be disciplined.)

Kirkpatrick goes on to describe what an educaiton system in a free market would look like. I think the discusison is a bit facile to be honest. Kirkpatrick is confident that a free-market system would do away with grades, rankings, standardized tests, degrees, and certificates. I see this as a very hasty and wrong judgment that misinterprets a key role of schools: to signify to future employers, colleges, etc, that the child has mastered a certain content and acquired certain skills. Without diplomas, grades, and tests, the very term "graduation" loses all meaning. (How would we know when a chlld is graduated? How would we know when to pass a child on to the next level? How would future employers know how their perspective employees did in school?)

Kirkpatrick also sees rankings, letter grades, and degrees as very bad things. Of course, as an educator, I can attest that the grading system is what often keeps kids motivated to work harder, and without it, students would find it very hard to know where they need improvement and how much improvement they need. If there were no such things as "exit requirements" I question whether many people would see any point to education at all (aside from those who learn solely for the enjoyment of it).

Quite simply, I think Kirkpatrick's book could benefit from a lot of rethinking. Particularly, he discusses his own ideas, but not once discusses existant or possible criticisms (as for his championing of Montessori and Dewey, there are many, many critics he could have dealt with. He chose not to.) As for his facile confidence that a free-market would gravitate towards a Montessori appraoch, he did not bring up the fact that the large majority of private schools in existence are non-Montessori schools with more "authoritarian" structure. (Is there a reason to suppose that this trend would reverse? We don't know; Kirkpatrick doesn't bring it up!) There are also many critics of a free-market approach to education that not once do we hear Kirkpatrick grapple with.

I give this book two stars. One star is for being one of the handful of books discussing education in a free market framework. The second was for Kirkpatrick's very learned, but skewed, history of the transition from "classical" to "progressive" education.