Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Why High-School Diplomas Don't Always Mean What They Advertise

Below is an example of why one should not trust a high-school diploma to indicate mastery of much of anything.

Two weeks ago, I was approached by the school social worker to be party to a deal made for a student in danger of failing Algebra 2. A senior, this student was in real danger of not graduating in large part because he skipped much of the second and third quarter. The deal went like this: the student would promise to attend every single Algebra 2 class, attend every single one of my Study Skills classes (where he could recieve tutoring), and once these criteria were filled, the student would be allowed the chance to pass the class. I entered into this agreement with the stipulation that, as this student has had several allowances made for him, this would be his last chance. Miss a class and the deal is void.

The next day, he failed to attend my Study Skills class. Thus, per our agreement, the deal was void. Or so I thought.

Yesterday, when I was off because I had just gotten married, the social worker did what she promised she wouldn't do: she reinstated the deal. When I asked her and the vice principal why, they both told me - this only seems like a tall tale - that we just wanted to get the student through, and it would affect our numbers if we did not. Besides, they said, giving him the piece of paper might allow him to get a job that he couldn't get without the diploma.

So, you heard it here first (or maybe you are already familiar): diplomas often mean little more than that teachers and principals let a student skirt by so as to boost their numbers and pass the buck.

These are the days when I really question why we have diplomas in the first place. If they are not standards based, or if standards are so movable that they are merely inconveniences to be stretched, I am not sure what diplomas are to signify. Surely not academic mastery! That wouuld...gasp...expect something out of students and hold them to expectations. (How dare we!)

Thus, it may be in employers best interests to administer employment tests rather than relying on the fact that an applicant has a high-school diploma. Whether someone has a diploma seems to be little evidence that they can read, write, think, do math, or do little more than be passed along by lazy administrators and teachers.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

We Almost Got Through the Evolution Unit Without a Hitch.

My coteacher and I are administering the unit test on evolution starting in two days. Thus, the unit which entails treading on thin ice is almost over...but not without a snag. Over the past two years, my coteacher and I have fielded many questions and endured many explanations about such things as gaps in the fossil record, how evolution could produce such complex things as humans, and general disbelief that we are related to simians.

And today, another such comment occurred. During a brief video on transitional forms - "fishibians" to be exact - a student suggested that scientists stop "making stuff up." I treated this comment like any other - with a brief reiteration of the various lines of evidence for evolution.

But, unlike many other times in the past, this comment really bothered me. Generally, I can "brush off" such comments as made by students that are simply in disbelief that evolution could produce such varied and complex creatures (didn't we all experience a twinge of disbelief when first exposed to the theory?)

Her comment got me thinking about the low state of science education in this country and our underperformance in conveying how science arrives at its conclusions. To me, it is as absurd to ask whether one believes in the theory of evolution as it is to ask whether one believes in the theory that the holocuast happened. There is a difference between whether one believes it and whether it happened. But when we ask whether someone believes in evolution, it makes such a question sound like evolution is a story that depends for its validity on our assent. Of course, what is true is true regardless of whether someone mistakenly ignores evidence and chooses not to believe the theory.

What I and other science teachers try to do is to get kids to understand that scientists would not simply state a theory and write about the theory if there were no evidence for the theory. Scientists do not make things up, and the rare ones that try are quickly called out by the peer review and "open disclosure" policy in sceince that demands replicable experiments and that findings be made public for examination. (Anyone who wants to see how quickly science sniffs out frauds can examine the piltdown man hoax

But the crucial issue, to me, is how little we spend in our science classes talking about (a) the scientific process and how it works, and (b) how scientists come to know things like the theory of evolution from employing that process. We talk a lot about facts to do with cell biology, genetics, macromolecules, and evolution. But what we forget to talk about is how the scientific method was used to get these facts. We talk about the double helix model of DNA but neglect to talk about how Francis and Crick came to the theory, and how the theory survived the scrutiny of other scientists. We talk about genetics, but do not emphasize (or underemphasize) the magnificence of Gregor Mendel's experiments (and later experiments by folks like Hershey and Chase).

If we did this more - focused on science as a method used to solve problems and adduce evidence to suppport conclusions - then we might not get as many comments about how scientists are "making all this up." Stduents might better understand not only that there is evidence for evolution, but how that evidence points to evolution (and how evolution has survived test upon test).

So, my coteacher and I are almost done the unit on evolution. But everything seems to indicate that we as a nation are nowhere near done teaching people about evolution.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

When Teachers Vent

Occasionally, teachers get together with other teachers - after school in an empty classroom, over drinks at a local "happy hour" - and vent. And once this venting gets going, it is hard to put the breaks on. I am guilty of it, and I don't feel bad about this because most of my teacher friends do it too.

What do we vent about? Generally, we vent about students: how difficult it is to teach this one, the latest story about that one, did you know this other one is in a gang, etc. To the outsider, this might appear a bit like pessimists giving voice to their pessimism, or see it as an example of a bunch of lazy teachers complaining about having to teach.

But, as an insider, I think these venting sessions are necessary. I would be the last to say that teaching is one of the hardest professions there is (maybe it would be if there were fewer days off and perks), but will certainly say freely that teaching is like no other profession out there. Not only is it unique in that our "clients" generally are forced to "buy" our "product" by force, but also because for 9/10ths of our day (save for cafeteria duty and transition between classes), teachers do their job in isolation from any peers whatsoever. In most professions, when things go wrong, one can talk to a coworker or peer in the office. With teaching, there is none of that. At the end of the day, I see many tired, stressed, and dragging adult faces when I leave the building, and I am sure my face looks the same as theirs.

So, naturally when teachers get to talking after school, they let it rip. They were not able to vent all day. When the knucklehead in second period told them to f*** off, she just had to keep her cool for 5 more hours (and try not to get angrier when someone in period 4 followed suit). My story today happened during second period, when a student ran out of my room because I refused to write him a pass, only to have an administrator catch him, bring him back to class, and TELL me to write a pass for him so that he might be appeased. Soon after, my class broke loose, and kids began throwing paper balls into the trash can, cursing up a storm, and generally ignoring anything I had to say (as they had just seen a peer get away with running out of the classroom).

But I had to keep my chin up until the end of the day because, as any teacher knows, when one loses their cool in front of the kids, the kids come at you all the harder triggering a nice downward spiral. But all of this stoicism gets to us.

And that is why the after-school venting sessions are so necessary to us. Other teachers are the only ones who understand how we feel, and letting go to them serves as a catharsis. When my colleage tells me her stories about teaching the same student who ran from my class, she is subtly telling me that I am not the only one who is having thsee problems - not the only one feeling like their mind is slowly being lost. And when the two of us complain about how difficult it is to motivate the unmotivated students, we are subtly letting each other know that we are not the only ones who feel like we are banging our heads against the wall with no results.

So, I know that many outsiders view with contempt the vision of teachers griping to eachother about their kids. But these people don't realize how lonely a profession teaching is, and how frustrating it can be both for that reason and for many others. to a teacher like myself, being able to vent to other teachers who understand what it is I am going through is simply better help than talking to a therapist who doesn't.

Monday, April 13, 2009

House of Cards: The Economic Down Turn and the Impossibility of Playing the Blame Game

Recently, I watched a MSNBC special entitled "House of Cards," about the origins of the current recession - the bursting of the "housing bubble." I assume that the special is based on the book by the same name, which I am going to read as soon as I can. It was quite an interesting, and maddening, special. Of course, I am not an economist, so the following essay will not be written as if I were one. Rather, I want to focus on something others may have missed during the special: while the media and public are wont to blame someone - government, wall street, consumer greed - for our current financial predicament, the special never gets involved in blaming anyone in particular. In fact, the special seems to make an implicit point that, like a house of cards, no one piece can be "blamed" for sending the edifice crashing.

But first, here is my attempt to summarize as best I can thespecial's depiction of the fiasco. The government (Bush administration and Congress) had a noble idea that we should do all we can to promote home ownership, and particularly minority home ownership. Thus, the federal reserve encouraged lenders to find 'creative' ways to give loans to those they might not otherwise give loans to. And that they did. An example of one type of new mortgage offer is depicted here:

“the pay option negative amortization adjustable rate mortgage.” It was designed to help first-time homebuyers who couldn’t actually afford the cost of the loan. Those homebuyers would have the option to pay only part of the interest they owed each month. The unpaid interest was added to the total amount of the mortgage. As a result, the mortgage balance increased; instead of the mortgage being paid down, it was getting bigger.

Now, as stupid as banks were to concoct such doomed-to-fail schemes, consumers were stupid enough to sign on to them. Thus, home ownership went up, home prices went up (because 'loose' loans made it possible to raise home prices as there was now more demand) and banks went lower and lower, only to push home prices up and.... etc.

So who do we blame? The two most common suspects are the banks who created such hairbrained schemes and the government. Generally, those who have left-leaning sympathies blame the former and those with right-leaning or free-market symapthies blame the latter. Even though I have free-market sympathies, I blame both and neither (and can't understand WHY no one thinks to blame consumers for where they spend and misspend their money!).

The problem is this. Each group is responsible for a certain piece of the puzzle, but wiithout willing participation by ANY of these three groups, the party would have been cut short and the housing bubble wouldn't have soared to gargantuan and unjustified heights. Yes, the government cut interest rates and encouraged banks to do what they did, but if banks or consumers didn't take the bait, the point would have been moot. Yes, banks practiced predatory practices, issuing loans to people they knew could not afford the loans they signed on to, but the consumers eagerly joined the action. And yes, the consumers were stupid and greedy, but had the banks not played to that stupidity and greed, there would have been no transaction.

And this, to me, is one of the beauties of capitalism. In a centrally planned system, it would be easy to blame one party (the government and its economics board). But also, since all economic decisions would be centralized, mistakes like this one would be easier and more frequent, as there would be fewer checks and balances. In the current case, THREE distinct groups rather than one economics board) had to make the exact same mistake in order for catastrophe to strike. The problem is not that one group screwed up (which is all that would have to happen to send a centrally planned economy into a tail-sprin), but we all screwed up.

And here is the other great thing about capitalism. Were the president familiar with capitalism, he would recognize that one of its assets is that it punishes the guilty. If capitalism were allowed to work, the guilty banks would be penalized with bankruptcy and the stupid and greedy consumers (who bought houses they could not afford knowingly) would be homeless. (Of course, the government - just as guilty a party as the rest - would not be punished becuase they can just keep stealing money. from the public to stay in buisness.)

Thus, while some see capitalism as encouraging greed, if it were allowed to work in this situation, we would see that greed is just as often punished in a capitalistic economy.

But, really, the point here is that those intent on playing the blame game need to explain how the group they decide to blame could have done their damage without the willing complicity of the other two. I don't see how that could happen, and that is why I blanche at any suggestion that there is A guilty party (other than all the government and bank officials as well as consumers who let greed, rather than temperance, dominate their thin heads).

But give Obama seven more years, and this will surely not be the case. The next time the economy goes awry, we will be able to blame one party - maybe the nationalized banking comission, or the centarlized economic planning comission. Until then, I like not being able to blame JUST ONE party.

Nonverbal Communication, Autism, and the Interbrain Problem (Review of Tantam's book on autism)

Autism is one of the most tricky disabilities there is to understand. It is also one of the most prevalent As a special educator, I find autism puzzling and am always interested to try and understand it as a phenomenon. Recently I recieved a complimentary copy of "Can The World Afford Autistic Spectrum Disorder" to review (courtesy of amazon.com). It is a book that offers quite a novel theory about what autistic spectrum disorder is (primarily, the author says, an impairment in ability to pick up on an interpret nonverbal communication). For those not familiar, this view is in direct contrast to the predominant theory that autistic spectrum disorder is marked primarily by the inability to see others as intentional agents and, therefore, understand people as people. Anyone interested in the puzzle of autism should check this book out.


The title of Digby Tantam's book - Can the Wold Afford Autistic Spectrum Disorder - is a bit of a misnomer. The question only comes up, and is answered in the affirmative, in the book's last chapter. The majority of the book is devoted to a novel theory the author expounds that the primary impairment encompassed by ASD is that of nonverbal communication (rather than, say, mindblindness).

Theorists have debated for the past 10 years (at least) what the main impairment of autism was. Is it trouble with language? Lack of ability to see others as persons with intentions? Lack of ability to process emotions in self and others? The dominant theory, with Simon Baron-Cohen as its progenitor, is that autism is primarily a disorder marked by "mindblindness," or, lack of ability in tke autistic to see others as intentional agents, and hence, be able to "understand" people AS people.

Tantam offers a different, and quite convincing, theory. Tantam suggests that autism is a disorder (sticky term, that) marked first and foremost by difficulty reading non-verbal communication. To use his term, autistics have difficulty with things involving the "interbrain" connection between people. Most of us are born with and have no trouble developing our ability to "read" people and the subtle cues - gaze, body language - that autistics often cannot pick up. He uses a computer analogy; if the interbrain is like the internet (that non-physical connection that we have between each other), then the autistic is the one who cannot log on.

The first two chapters of the book are devoted to illuminating to us neurotypicals how important nonverbal communication is to everyday life (as we often forget because nonverbal communication is so automatic to us). The next few chapters are devoted to outlining and defending the interbrain theory. Tantam finishes off by suggesting some things that autistics and particularly those who care for them can do to help them cope with this lack of ability to access the "interbrain" world of nonverbal signals.

I would suggest that anyone reading this also read Simon Baron-Cohen's book "Mindblindess," which outlines the main theory Tantam is arguing against. To my mind, I think that Tantam's theory, while still quite speculative, is interesting and suspect that mindblindess (inability to see others as intentional actors) and the lack of ability to "access the interbrain" are quite connected. When one cannot appropriately read nonverbal communications, it becomes all the harder to "see what others are thinking." If one has trouble telling that someone is angry (recognizing their arms crossed, their face turn red, and their voice get tense), then it stands to reason that it would be very hard to predict what that person will do. In other words, I suspect that one will not need to choose between Baron-Cohen's theory and Tantam's theory. I suspect that mindblindess and lack of "interbrain ability" are quite related (whether one causes the other or they simply develop in parallel.

The last few chapters will be the chapters most helpful for caretakers of autistics (like myself). The author suggests that caretakers can help autistics navigate the world of nonverbal communication by acclimating them to it strategically - at once making sure they are not bombarded, but stay connected to others. We can also monitor out own behavior to be as literal and as verbal as possible, making sure that we cut down on the number of nonverbal cues we personally send out.

And as to the question of whether the world can afford autistic spectrum disorder, the author's answer is an unambiguous: "We better." He acknowleges the difficulty in expecting neurotypicals to accommodate themselves to such a large degree to the autistic, but also argues that autistics often have traits that it would be a shame for the world to go about. In the author's own words, "If the future lies more and more in collaboration with machines, then we may need more people with ASD, not less." For all the difficulties (both for autistics and neurotypicals) that ASD can cause, it would be a real shame to deprive ourselves of the unconventionality, originality, and often outstanding intellect and talent often associated with ASD.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Would Privatizing American Education Threaten Democratic Values?: An Analogy Between Schooling and the Media

This article... argues that, in an increasingly fragmented world, privatised control of civic education in state-funded schools in England threatens the integrity of public education and the civic objectives of state schooling.

This quote is taken from an abstract for an article in a prominent education journal. It voices a common criticism towards the idea of privatizing American education, via either a voucher or a wholly private model. The argument is that, by getting rid of the "common school," education becomes unstandardized and, hence, threatens the idea of a common value set needed for a functioning democracy. Here is a nice summary of what the argument often looks like:

The Undermining America Argument: Choice will siphon off needed funds from public schools and, as a result, the quality of public education in the United States will suffer. In addition, choice will undermine democratic values and lead to segregation and division.

The problem I have with this argument is twofold. First, it contains an assumption that I am not convinced is valid: democracy relies on the citizenry sharing common values. While this statement is often bandied about as fact, it is generally never, but really should be, argued for. But this is a discussion for another time, as this objection is not the one which concerns us here.

The primary reason I object to the argument that a plurality of private schooling option would undermine necessary common values is simply that the conclusion is dubious. And such can be seen if we look at an analogy: that of the media, and whether it functions best as a monopoly or plurality.

The irony that one notices is that the biggest defenders of public "common" schooling tend to be on the political left. This has been true since John Dewey and Edward Thorndike all the way to the present day, as seen with Jonathan Kozol and Alfie Kohn. (Yes, the right supports public ed as well, but vouchers and privatization seem to be primarily a "right wing" phenomenon). But another argument found primarily on the left argues against the "monopolization" of the media. There is a disjunct between these two arguments. One the one hand, it is said that monopolizing education is healthy for democracy, and on the other, that monopolizing the media is unhealthy for a democracy.


Wouldn't one expect that those in favor of pluralism in the media would also be in favor of pluralism in education? Both the media and the education system, after all, have to do with the exact same thing: educating citizens. Why is it that there exists no argument that pluralizing media sources would result in an undermining of democratic values?

The reason is that those in favor of citizens having a plurality of media sources to choose from argue, rightly, that a diversity of voices is good for democracy and when news sources become monolithic, a well-educated citizenry is threatened. An extremizing of this argument can be seen here:

Arguably, the US's much-vaunted "free media" practice a form of adroit self-censorship that's all too reminiscent of Soviet models of the past. Example: could a state-owned American media machine have been much more avid as a cheerleader for the US occupation of Iraq?

In other words, the minute we have an entirely state-run media (or corporate run monopoly on media) then the easier it is for society to be indoctrinated rather than educated.

But I fail to see how this argument would not also work brilliantly as an argument against a monopoly of state-run schools! Let's try it out by taking the above quote and changing a few words:

Arguably, the US's much-vaunted "liberal education" practice a form of adroit self-censorship that's all too reminiscent of Soviet models of the past. Example: could a state-owned American school system have been much more avid as a cheerleader for the US occupation of Iraq?

The point I am trying to make here is that, if critics of privatization of schooling as a threat to common values were consistent, they would also be equally against pluralism in journalism and the press. If different people get their news from different places, we will ot all receive the same news, and therefore (allegedly) democracy will break down.*

Of course, we rightly realize that a plurality of media sources does not hurt, but helps democracy by offering people a choice on what news to receive, and keeping everyone in check by making it extremely unlikely that the type of indoctrination hinted at in the above quote could take place. People can choose their news and news organizations must compete with each other.

The exact same can be said for why pluralization of education outlets is a benefit to democracy. Allowing choice in educaiton means that one source (federal or state governments) do not control the curricula for every child. This means that, while certain schools will choose to indoctrinate in certain ways, a diverse populace will be sustained. Schools will be forced to compete for business, and as a result, will strive to produce better education than competitors. (Can you imagine how low the quality of news would be if the federal government or Foxnews were the only game in town with no one to compete against?)

In closing, democratic values are not threatened, but strengthened by, a plurality of news media sources. No one (save for Dr. Sunstein) takes seriously the argument that, for a democracy to function, we must all receive the same news. Thus, I don't see how the education situation is not directly analogous. No one should take seriously the idea that for a democracy to properly function, all students must receive exactly the same education.

*[Ironically, legal professor Cass Sunstein actually does make a similar argument in his book Republic.com, where he argues that the proliferation of media sources is a bad thing because it produces a fractious polity which, apparently, makes democracy less workable rather than more robust. Not many agree with Sunstein, for good reason.]

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Why Ebooks Must Fail? Hardly.

Recently, I read an online article, entitled "Why Ebooks Must Fail." In short, the article is an economic argument against the viability of ebooks (for ebook readers like the Amazon Kindle and Sony Ebook Reader) from the perspective of the publishing industry. As an owner of an Amazon Kindle myself, I took great interest in the article. I also think the arguments are dead-nuts wrong.

The author's point is that the book publishing industry is built on and depends on a certain model of doing business and that "ebooks don’t follow these rules."

In brief, publishers act as middlemen between authors and the buying public. Publishers contract with authors and pay authors advances (that will be recouped by future book sales). In addition to paying authors, publishers must pay for marketing and design of the book. In order to afford this, they "presell" books to stores, not all of which will be sold (but the publishers make money in these presales and have incentive to presell as much as possible so that they can get as much money as possible.) In order to encourage stores to buy as much as possible, publishers will accept returns of unsold copies for full monetary credit.

So, in order for publishers to be able to spend money on author advances, marketing, and production is that they make money "preselling" books (even if they have to give some back later in "buying back" unsold copies) they still get short-term cash flow via "presale."

And the author's argument - why he thinks ebooks must fail - is because ebooks do not work this way, and cannot be "presold" to "brick and mortar" bookstores in the way that paperbacks and hardcovers can.

Ebooks are effectively sold on a consignment basis - meaning the money for the sale is distributed after the sale is made, not up front. Stores don’t buy inventory, they put the file in a database and distribute copies as they are sold. This means that ebooks don’t have a huge returns problem, but it also means they cannot generate short-term cash flow like print books do.

Unfortunately, one never gets a straight answer as to why this inevitably spells death for publishers, other than the sense that publishers depend on the short-term income of "presales." But am I crazy, or do presales seem to be almost the equivalent of a loan made by bookstores (where the bookstore is simply paying the publisher in advance of the actual sales)? Actually, it is unclear why publishers wouldn't be making the exact same amount of money if bookstores payed publishers AS THE SALE OCCURRED rather than BEFORE THE SALE OCCURRED. (Think of it this way: a loan shark pays you winnings before your team actually wins, with the stipulation that you pay the money back if the team loses. How is that ANY DIFFERENT quantitatively from the loan shark who waits to pay you until after your team wins?!)

The other thing that annoys me about this article is that the author seems to forget that this situation is not at all unique to book publishers. Record companies have gone through a DIRECTLY ANALOGOUS situation when CD's gave way to mp3's. And they are doing fine, because they figured out a way to adapt.

Record companies play a role directly analogous to book publishers. Record companies "sign" artists to their label, give them monetary advances to be recouped by the artist's future sales, and pour money into marketing and sales of the artists' records. Also, like book publishers, record companies "presell" to record stores and promise to "buy back" the remaining unsold units. This was how they got their "short term" income to be invested into marketing and production - that is, until the mp3 trade changed the rules.

As evidenced by the first two years of Napater (a file-sharing website), there were initial growing pains, and the record industry was forced to change their rules about many things, nonetheleast of which was the fact that mp3's (which have no physical existence) cannot be presold, and hence, record companies had to learn to wait until "units" were sold to the public to be paid.

One could easily see our author's article having been written about the mp3 industry, arguing that mp3s must fail because they do not accord with the record/CD model of doing business. But the record companies did adapt, and it took a small number of years for them to do it.

The author also complains about the fact that publishers will have to adapt the way they do marketing and advertising, suggesting that these are new costs (all to sell books which are less expensive than their physical counterparts).

Ebooks will still have to be sold and marketed, just in different ways as there will be far less reliance on an upfront advance buy-in, but far more reliance on ongoing marketing through the use of content and metadata - as well as user-generated content and promotion tools to get the book marketed. These are completely new expenses for publishers who traditionally think of marketing as publicity and display advertising for new books, not ongoing support and marketing for long-term sales.

New expenses? Yes and no. While the expenses of e-marketing may be new, they would simply REPLACE the expenses of marketing physical books to "brick and mortar" establishments. The expense of designing websites, blurbs for existing websites, etc, will simply replace the costs of designing in-store displays. And I have to imagine that the cost of involving authors in cyber-chats to promote their books would be less expensive then flying those authors to bookstores and putting them up in hotels for book tours.

Of course, as much as I want e-books to replace regular ones (I don't miss regular books at all!), it will be several years until publishing goes fully digital. As such, the transition will not be as "all-at-once" as our author dreads, and the "cash flow problem" will likely not be catastrophic, as it will happen very gradually, allowing publishers to adjust gradually (just as mp3's replaced CD's over several years, and record stores even still exist).

Why won't the change happen quickly? Because ebook readers are quite expensive. The Kindle 2 lists at $359, and it is unlikely that the casual reader will buy it. At its prohibitive price, buying ebook readers is not in the economic interest of most readers (who may go through several books a year, but not enough to justify the one-time cost of $359). Where I read enough books a year to make the cost worthwhile (or at least a non-factor) I don't see too many readers eager to give up the, at this point, more cost-effective option of "real" books.

All of this means that publishers won't be suddenly starved of the "short term" income provided by preselling books. They will not wake up one day and find that this income is gone. Instead, what will likely happen is that publishers find a gradual diminution in "presale" revenue each year until one day, the last bookstores close their doors.

But in their place will be ebooks stores. And while publishers cannot presell ebooks to these stores, they will still get the same amount of money, but in a more "real time" scenario; instead of getting the money from book sales in advance, they will get them, say, on a monthly basis (or even in absolute real time, as the sales happen).

And I cannot think of one reason why publishers cannot function this way. Just as most other businesses do, publishers can learn to make their money as sales occur, rather than before sales actually take place. Record companies have gotten used to doing this. So can book publishers.

In the end, "Why ebooks Must Fail" may be better named, "Why the Old Model of Book Publishing Must Adapt."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Reflection on, and Review of, Gatto's "Weapons of Mass Instruction"

Recently, I read John Taylor Gatto's book "Weapons of Mass Instruction." Gatto, a former New York City Teacher of the Year, has become an outspoken advocate of abolishing compulsory education. While I share his libertarian sentiments, I similarly distrust his solution of "open source education" which basically means that every child is on his or her own to get an education however they can (i.e., some may be homeschooled, some may become apprentices at an early age, and some may have to "learn on the street.")

One criticism I did not put in my book review was that Gatto demonstrates a Rousseauean faith - a faith I do not share - in the "natural" education written about in books like Emile and those authored by Maria Montessori. Here, students choose their own educational trajectory and, through sheer will, educate themselves (possibly with teachers playing the role of 'facillitator'). This idea sounds good in theory, and would probably work for some highly-motivated and passionate kids. But (a) youth and short-sightedness are otften positively correlated, and I shudder to think of how many kids would not become educated (about anything socially productive or marketable) if left ot their own devices. (b) I think that this approach mistakenly assumes that students know what their interests are from the get-go (where many actually find new interests via education that they would not have chosen on first blush).


I began this book with high hopes. I am a libertarian and, like Gatto, a teacher who is very unsatisfied with our (mis)education of children. Like Gatto, I strongly feel that the "one size fits all" system may be more accurately summarized as a "one size fits a few quite well, and the rest can fend for themselves" system.

For all that, I found Gatto's case to be surprisingly weak. First, Gatto breaks a cardinal rule of those aiming at reform: tearing down a system need always be accompanied by putting something explicit in its place. Gatto's "open source education" proposal is far from explicit. "Let kids get education on their own, each in their own way," is about the extent of his suggestion, and the suggestion begs many questions: what about those who come from unmotivated or ill-equipped (financially or intellectually) families? How can we ensure that students pursue not only what they are immediately interested in, but also become well-rounded? Gatto might not feel these questions to be important enough to address, but many others do.

He attempts to allay our concerns about open source education by reminding us that many folks have been successful without formal schooling. Abe Lincoln, after all, became president with only a fourth grade education. NASCAR driver Danica Patrick does not possess a high school diploma. Craig Venter, of the Human Genome Project, was a D student who passed high school by the skin of his teeth (Gatto fails to mention that he went on to get a BS and PhD, which would ruin his argument against the value of formalized education).

All in all, Gatto provides us with about 30-35 examples of people who have achieved a lot without formal education. I am sure, if you give me about a week, I could come up with at least as many examples of students who did not achieve much without a formal education and an equal number of examples of those who have achieved a lot that would credit formal schooling as a key component to their success. Unfortunately, Gatto's argument here is so highly anecdotal that one is tempted not to call it an argument (but an appeal to emotion).

He does make some interesting observations about formalized schooling's inability to (he says it is a deliberate lack of desire to) foster skills like critical reasoning. I wholly concur, but fail to see how the inexorable conclusion to this is to abolish formal schooling. (Gatto is convinced, in a very conspiracy-theoristic tone, that the government is deliberately dumbing down students to make them better sheep. He never really cites evidence for this.) Gatto's argument here is analogous to a person cooking a recipe and when the results turn out less-than-tasty, automatically making an argument that the utensils (rather than the recipe) is the problem. In other words, the fact that schools often turn out ill-equipped and ill-learned kids could as much be attributed to HOW we instruct rather than the fact that we do it under compulsion. (Other nations don't seem to have our problem turning out kids who can think.)

Frankly, I am surprised that Gatto does not even consider the idea of revamping the school system we have, maybe into a competitive voucher system. And if creating an education system relevant to student interests is the concern, then a voucher system may achieve a similar objective to Gatto's ideal without leaving everything up to chance and luck of the draw, as his "open source education" does.

When it all comes down to it, I admire much that Gatto stands for. Like him, I am deeply dissatisfied with the system of schooling that I teach in, and am convinced that we can make schooling fit individual students better. I, too, decry the increasing centralization of education (and notice that it is accompanied by lessening performance.) But I don't think that Gatto's solution is TOO laissez-faire ("anything goes") in a way that leaves too much up to chance (especially for those who are not lucky enough to have parents who can homeschool or ambition to self-study). He does not provide any reason to suppose that a voucher system could not allay many of the problems he discusses, but in a way that guarantees at least some degree of guarantee that all students have the opportunity to receive schooling.

For a much more interesting, plausible, and fact-based book on educationa reform from a libertarian perspective, read "Education and Captalism."