Do teachers have it rough?

So I was reading an article this morning about how U.S. Teachers have it so much worse than most of the rest of the world. This conclusion is drawn on the basis of a survey:

Now we have international evidence about something that has a greater effect on learning than testing: Teaching. The results of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), released last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), offer a stunning picture of the challenges experienced by American teachers, while providing provocative insights into what we might do to foster better teaching — and learning — in the United States.

The article is interesting, as far as it goes — though one might quibble with the jump that gets made from “teachers think they have harder jobs” (which is what the survey actually measures) to “teachers have harder jobs.” I’m certainly open to the idea that at least public school teachers have a raw deal in this country in terms of their working conditions and the sort of bureaucratic structures in which they are forced to operate.

There were two things in this article in particular that caught my eye. The first was an almost casual reference to something rare and wonderful.

Along with these challenges, U.S. teachers must cope with larger class sizes (27 versus the TALIS average of 24). They also spend many more hours than teachers in any other country directly instructing children each week (27 versus the TALIS average of 19). And they work more hours in total each week than their global counterparts (45 versus the TALIS average of 38), with much less time in their schedules for planning, collaboration, and professional development. This schedule — a leftover of factory-model school designs of the early 1900s — makes it harder for our teachers to find time to work with their colleagues on creating great curriculum and learning new methods, to mark papers, to work individually with students, and to reach out to parents.

The emphasis is mine. What sort of wonderful world would we live in where we depended on the teachers themselves to design the curriculum (or curricula)? But isn’t that exactly what everyone seems hell-bent on killing these days?

A seocnd thing that jumped out at me was this statistic:

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. middle-school teachers work in schools where more than 30 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. This is by far the highest rate in the world, and more than triple the average TALIS rate.

That seems like an awful lot. Unless *all* the disadvantaged kids are smashed into schools with insanely high student:teacher ratios (not an entirely implausible notion), that means that there are a LOT of disadvantaged students to go around. I can’t do the math without knowing the student:teacher ratio data, but just intuitively it would seem that you’d need somewhere between 40 and 50% of students to be disadvantaged.

I suspect this has something to do with response bias. But when I tried to go into the survey itself and see the data (here) I was unable to either export a working data file or to find the United States’ results on the webpage. It seems much more trouble than it’s worth for a blog post.

If anyone has more success, please leave notice in the comments!

Those old Greek Myth posters

A quick bleg for those of you who might be able to help me.

Back in the 1980’s (and early 1990’s) there was a series of posters covering Greek Myths. I know, because I saw them in both fifth grade (1984-85) and in either 10th or 11th grade (1990-1991), in two separate California school districts. They were pretty extensive, with posters for Europa and Bellerophon as well as the usual suspects (Appolo, Hermes, etc.). I’m pretty sure they were part of an educational unit, and I seem to recall that they came with pages for students to color in.

The posters themselves were in a sort of very abstracted art-deco style, usually with just two colors (plus black and white). The Dionysus poster was purple and green and showed him eating grapes (held above his mouth, if memory serves). The Demeter poster was a sort of maize-tan color, and she had really big hair. The Bellerophon one showed him dumping the lead into the Chimera’s open mouth.

Anyway, I’ve spent over an hour trying to find them on the ‘net, to no avail. Does anyone else remember these posters? And does anyone know where I can find some?

Any hints or clues are welcome. Many thanks in advance.

(Oh, and so people will have something to argue about: Resolved, that teaching Greek Mythology in some exacting detail is an absolute requirement for any elementary school curriculum which purports to prepare its students for any sort of more advanced literary or academic endeavors.)

Repent. The end is near.

So this is a thing.

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Unlike most of our competitors, all of our writers hold advanced graduate degrees from respected universities. If they don’t, we simply don’t hire them. So what are you getting when you hire us to do your work? The person who will be writing for you will have approximately the same qualifications as the person who designed the assignment! What does that mean? Our people know the proverbial tricks of the trade whereby your professors trap you, make you lose points on ridiculous technicalities, and thereby prevent you from partying (or living quietly) as you would so desire.

I suppose this is what they mean when they talk about chickens coming home to roost. I suppose that universities sort of had this coming, what with the rampant overproduction of PhD’s.

Maybe this has been around a long time — Slate seems to have discussed it back in February — but I just found out about it, so the horror is still fresh.

Education, Politics, and Cultural Identity

No links to start discussion today. No quotes with snarky replies. Just a few thoughts that I’ve been working on for a little over a year now. I thought that it’s about time to toss a preliminary version into the public space and see what happens.

First, a few assumptions (which could easily be wrong):

1. It’s not incoherent for a country to aspire to multicultural pluralism.
2. A multiculturally pluralist country nevertheless will have some sort of shared culture.
3. At the most fundamental level, the primary purpose of the education given to children in any society, at any time, is to reproduce a culture and to give children the ability to fit into that culture. (This is straight from Dewey.) The sorts of things that are often said to be purposes of education — economic success, survival, the growth of powers, etc. — are the purposes of the various aspects of the particular culture in question.

The tension is obvious: if education is about cultural reproduction, then which cultures in a multiculturally pluralist country get to reproduce?

On the one hand, the answer seems obvious. “They all do. They have a right to reproduce themselves, and to exist. That’s what multiculturalism is.”

But we also have to educate for the “shared” culture, the over-culture that makes our multicultural country a nation in the first place. And we need to do that without interfering with the reproduction of the various subcultures.

When we, as a country, find ourselves contemplating something like the Common Core — which proposes to establish a “national” curriculum (and that is exactly what it proposes, despite the protestations of some of its proponents) — we’re faced with the question of what, exactly, our shared culture is that needs to be reproduced. And not only are we then in the business of picking and choosing what parts of the culture get included and which do not, we’re also inevitably going to have to deal with the notion of cultural change and how we should alter our culture by altering the values and practices that are transmitted to the next generation.

This is, of course, one of the reasons (if not the reason) that education is so politicized in this country: education has been institutionalized to a tremendous degree in the United States, and that means it’s something of a “winner take all” in terms of cultural (re)production. All of the fighting that goes on — whether it’s about textbooks or Howard Zinn or Heather Has Two Mommies or prayer in schools or “Evolution is just a theory” — it’s all about the struggle to seize control of the mechanism of cultural reproduction and establish the culture that is desired.

One strategy to avoiding this sort of life-and-death struggle, of course, is to “thin” out the notion of our shared culture. (Note — I touched very briefly on this issue in the third chapter of my dissertation.) Instead of having our public schools serve as a center of substantive values creation and the inevitable culture wars that follow, we might think to “dial back” the public school’s curriculum to include only those things upon which universal (or near-universal) agreement can be established.

Nearly everyone — even the Amish, the Gangsta Rappers, and the Hippies — seems to think that learning to add and subtract and read is a good thing. But while that might fly with mathematics, with reading it’s almost impossible to teach the skill without having something to read. And that means exposing children to ideas, which necessarily means presenting them to kids as “endorsed” by society.

So it’s easier said than done.

I suspect that the great push to make schools into job-factories, that is, institutions whose sole purpose is to prepare students for some sort of “career”, is a reaction to the cultural battles that (I think) reached their apex in the late 80’s and early 90’s. If the schools just limit themselves to producing economic widgets, and leave the culture to the local institutions, then everyone’s happy, right? We all share the thin “culture” of economic efficiency, don’t we?

Well no. First off, it’s not clear that everyone got the message that there was supposed to be a truce in the culture wars. There are many political factions (primarily but not exclusively progressive) who desperately, desperately want to teach substantive values in schools, and who aren’t happy until they win. (And they never win, because no matter what sorts of institutional change they manage, it’s never enough.) That’s one problem.

A second problem is that this sort of thin-culture “education” (if we can call it that) really requires that there be some local, supplemental institution providing a substantive, value-laden culture. Otherwise it’s just a skills-training center, and not a proper education for children at all. If a student is not given a culture into which they can fit, not given a culture in which they can take up a meaningful role… well, we’re ignoring the fundamental purpose of education. (And this might help explain why so many students are shooting up their schools these days, but that’s probably a cheap rhetorical point unworthy of me.)

Additionally, for the greater part of the last century, schools have served as a (albeit contentious) source of cultural values. Our national culture has gotten quite used to the seeing schools as sources of civic value, and we’re ill-equipped, I think, to have the rug pulled out from under us with so little warning.

This post grows over-long, so to sum up: there is a fundamental tension between the fact that we want (to the extent “we” want) to live in a multicultural society on the one hand, and the notion that we can have some sort of centralized education curriculum on the other. There may be a way to deal with this tension, but I think it first requires that we acknowledge that it exists, and that we explicitly attempt to deal with it.

Of widgets and failure

What’s a school to do if it looks like students just aren’t doing so well this year?


Report cards for Montgomery County’s 151,000 students were mailed Friday after a three-day delay that followed a mass recalculation of final exam grades for Algebra 1, according to the school system.

Schools officials said late Friday that they added 15 percentage points to all Algebra 1 exam scores after they became aware that already-high rates of failure had risen markedly.

You’re not misreading that. Scores were too low. So they just gave everyone an extra 15 points on the final.

Now I’m not wholly against shaping grade outcomes to meet a predetermined distribution. Fixed curves are better at differentiating, and the competition they breed tends to really push students to excel. (Unfortunately, they have the side effect of making those on the bottom end of things feel like giving up.) This happens in the hard sciences and math all of the time, where a 40% on a final is often a B+.

But this is something different.

Erick Lang, Montgomery’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs, said the main cause of the failure spike appears to have been a loss of instructional time in the spring semester, as teachers prepared students for state exams required for graduation.

The preparation for state exams took two to three weeks out of the semester, he said.

* * * *

Lang said that officials added the extra points so that students would not be penalized for a problem they did not create.

So let me get this straight. I’m trying to be charitable here, and assume that the district isn’t just inflating grades across the board to cover up their own failure (which very well may be the case).

The district has an Algebra I course that covers, let’s call it A1, where A1 is the set of Algebraic topics {1,2,3,4}. And the district also has a test which covers A1. But the state has a test that covers A2, which is the set of topics {1,2,3,5}, let’s say.

So the teachers teach A2 as their algebra class, sacrificing the time that would have been spent teaching topic 4, and instead teaching topic 5. Because it’s a state test and presumably there are money, jobs, and other things at stake.

So then they give the district test, and a huge number of students are unprepared to be tested on topic 4, because they never learned it. Because the teachers weren’t teaching it. Because they were teaching A2 instead of A1.

And… wait for it…. wait for it…


Does that about sum it up?

This is what happens when you treat youth education like a mass-scale industrial process and not like the series of interpersonal relationships that it’s supposed to be. You get product defects that affect production runs of hundreds and thousands of widgets. Except those widgets are students. And no one is paying attention because they’re all trusting the system.

You know who should be an absolute authority on what sort of test is given as a final to an Algebra class? The Algebra Teachers. If you’re a teacher, and you’re letting someone else design your final exam (a questionable situation in the first place), and you don’t know exactly what’s in that final exam, then you’ve failed at your job.

And if you do know what’s in that exam, and you don’t teach it? You’ve failed at your job. And if you agree to teach a subject knowing that you can’t teach it in the time allotted? You’ve failed at your job. And if you don’t take a few hours at the beginning of the term to get a handle on exactly what you need to teach and how much time you’ll have to teach it? You’ve failed at your job.

And if you do all of the things you have to to succeed at your job, and you recognize the $#!+storm coming down the tracks, and you recognize that you are not in fact going to be teaching your students something on which they will be tested by the community, and you take the community’s money knowing that you can’t possibly do what’s being asked, why then you’re a fraud and a coward.

Now my purpose isn’t to rag on teachers, here. My purpose is to explain that the district seems to be putting out a story in which the best-case scenario is that every single one of their Algebra I teachers is entirely unfit for his or her position as an Algebra I teacher.

In the first case, I hope that the teachers realize this, and object. In the second case, I doubt it’s true. I smell a rat.

UPDATE: Fixed an effect/affect error.

Opting out of testing

And I mean really opting out. Dean Donald Heller of Michigan State’s Education School explains why he let his younger daughter drop out of high school:

We knew she was not as engaged as well, and to understand why, we talked to her, spoke with her teachers and counselor, and examined the curriculum in her school. What we came to realize was that her high school did not meet her needs as a learner. While she was an interdisciplinary thinker and was intellectually curious about a number of different creative areas, her school was highly traditional in its structure and curriculum. We concluded it had largely a singular focus: to improve performance of students on the state tests rather than to encourage them to grow intellectually and to develop a breadth of learning. Our daughter was performing well on tests, but she understood that she was not reaching her full potential as a student.

Read the whole thing. The last paragraph, in particular, is rather touching.

Public schools are of remarkably uneven quality, and their goals are not always perfectly in sync with the goals of parents (or of students). The mania — and it’s a bona fide mania at this point, I think — for standardized testing as a way of determining school, class, teacher, and student quality is driving schools in particular directions that may or may not equate to “quality” in the eyes of all of the school’s potential clientele. It’s hard to please everyone.

One the one hand, your children are only young once, and they are largely your responsibility. If you can do better for your kids, you probably should. If your kids can do better for themselves, well, then they probably should, too.

But on the other, carrying that train of thought out to its logical conclusion suggests that the public school system is basically a remedial measure for parents without the desire and/or ability to do better for their kids, in terms of cognitive and social development. We might not be unjustified to start thinking of schools as a sort of “safety net” for parents and students.

But that’s a very different view of public education than is held by many — and probably most — people in this country. Public education is more often seen, I think, as a sort of public institution at large, and the primary way of producing an informed citizenry, with private schools and homeschooling and such serving as a sort of minor variation on the theme. Our public schools, we might think, are part of the fabric of our democracy.

Then the paradox: to serve the entire democracy, we must serve the disadvantaged. But serving the disadvantaged requires tremendous resources, and often involves the schools essentially replacing parents who are unable or unwilling to raise their students in a manner considered by the voting public to be “responsibly”. Yet more tightly schools focus their services on the most disadvantaged students, though, the more I think we can expect schools to bring upon themselves the mantle of being remedial institutions that “the right sort of people” want little or nothing to do with. And that will probably mean less public support for those schools as well.

It might be the case that public schools (and we, their supporters), to ensure their survival and their place in civic life, must accept that the best we can hope for is to marginally improve the lives of disadvantaged students, and that fixing them entirely is simply not a realistic undertaking.

Curbing discipline… or kicking discipline to the curb?

Student Code of Conduct set to change as district aims to curb discipline.

That’s the headline from Catalyst Chicago about policy changes happening in the Windy City’s public schools. And what I find really interesting about this is that the goal of the policy shift (which we’ll discuss in a moment) really is to curb the discipline activities of the schools, to “rein in one of the highest suspension and expulsion rates in the country”.

There’s been a great deal of discussion over the last year or so about the seemingly out-of-control nature of school discipline in the nation — almost all of it driven by the executive branch’s concerns about racial (and to a much lesser extent, sex) disparity in suspension and expulsion rates. But there has also been (at last!) some growing recognition that certain types of institutional discipline policies aren’t really all that productive in the first place, and may actually be at odds with the mission of schools. (Which, I take it, is at least ostensibly to prepare students academically and culturally for integration into the larger, adult society.)

So now, in the face of all this theory, we’re starting to see some solid implementation. So what’s going on?

Among the proposed changes:

–Elimination of the vaguely-defined “persistent defiance” as misbehavior for which students can be suspended or expelled. CPS officials say “persistent defiance” is used unevenly to justify harsh discipline, in some cases against students who shrugged their shoulders or threw pencils across desks.

–Children from pre-kindergarten to second grade could no longer be expelled without a network chief’s approval. In the past, only preschoolers and kindergarteners were excluded from expulsion, though records show they were still suspended.

–Another offense, “unintentional physical contract with school staff,” would no longer warrant suspension.

–Police would only need to be notified when students are found with drugs or guns on school grounds, or in emergency situations. The current policy lists 27 offenses for which police need to be notified, including participating in mob action and use of the CPS network to spread computer viruses.

–Unauthorized use of a cell phone would drop to the lowest category of offense.

Most of these seem to me to be quite commonsensical to me, and I’m glad to see that they’re being implemented.
[Read more…]


Joanne’s back. Time for me to disappear. Thank you to Joanne as always for letting me fill in, and thank you to everyone (even the people with whom I disagree) for making this blog a special and interesting place.

Dealing with Cheating

This week, The Atlantic has an interesting — though I would contend deeply flawed — article by Jessica Lahey about cheating in schools. (I discovered this Article via Lahey’s blog, Coming of Age in the Middle.)

Lahey’s premise, I think, is summed up in the following paragraph:

While I’d love to place the blame for this offense fully on my students’ shoulders, I can’t. My teaching methods and classroom habits are often as much to blame as their response to them. If my teaching practices create an atmosphere in which students resort to cheating rather than rely on their own hard work and discovery, I’m doing something wrong.

Lahey’s article itself is based on a recent book by James M. Lang:

In his book Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, James M. Lang, Associate Professor of English at Assumption College, recounts his experience with cheating, and his personal journey to rid his classroom of its influence. Lang undertook his research on academic dishonesty because, “My personal experiences with cheating were probably a lot like yours: students occasionally cheated in my classes, it baffled and frustrated me, and I was never sure how to react.”

The basic ideas that Lang (at least per Lahey) is advocating are pushed on three fronts. Please bear in mind that I am relying on Lahey’s summary, and have not read Lang’s book myself.

First, a plea for a focus on “mastery” over “assessment” that amounts to the same sort of attacks on inert learning made by others, including Dewey and Whitehead. The basic notion here seems to be that students feel entitled to cheat because inert learning turns the experience of school into a formalistic and instrumental game where success is measured solely by grades.

Second, an attack on “high stakes testing” that provides supposedly provides a large incentive to cheat. If you make the choice one between college and homelessness, students are going to do whatever they have to in order to “succeed” academically.

Finally, Lang provides an encouragement for teachers to show that they believe in their students, so that their students can believe in themselves and don’t feel like they need to cheat to get ahead.

These are all good bits of advice, I think. Learning should be about learning. That’s simple enough. And school should be a place where failure (and the learning that comes with it) is an option: it should be a place to practice. And yes, students are children and you should be nice to them. None of this is controversial.

It’s not at all clear to me that this has any bearing on the question of cheating, though. Let’s posit a teacher who breaks all of these “rules” for a cheating-free classroom — a formalistic, emotionless martinet of a teacher who insists that students’ entire grade be based on their ability to fill out pointless worksheets. A student faced with such an instructor has many options. They can shut up and endure, knowing that this, too, shall pass. They can speak up, either to the teacher (let us imagine this would be futile) or to the administrators. They can organize a revolt — don’t laugh, I’ve seen it happen. Or they can abandon their honor and their integrity and cheat.

Lahey seems to be saying that this last option would be justified by the teacher’s bad conduct. But the bad conduct of others is not, as far as I know, sufficient grounds for treachery and dishonesty on my part. Consider the following letter from a student, which Lahey quotes on her blog approvingly: (NOTE: See update below)

It boils down to this: we are told that cheating is wrong because we are attempting to earn a grade that we do not deserve. A grade earned by cheating is not a grade reflective of our true achievement. But my contention uses identical reasoning. I cheated because the grade I would have otherwise been given was not reflective of my true learning. I never cheated in a subject that I did not learn on my own terms. That is supported by my performance in AP testing. I took 9 AP tests in high school, scoring 5s on all of them except the one I self-studied for, on which I earned a 4. Never did I cheat on any of those tests, because I felt that they were fair representations of my learning. But in AP Biology, I cheated on literally every in-class test. The curriculum and test techniques of my absolutely atrocious AP Biology class were not fair representations of my knowledge. I felt cheated of the education I deserved, and thus to earn the grade I knew I deserved, I had to cheat the system. This is only one example. I also cheated throughout physics, introduction to statistics, Spanish, chemistry, and so on. But never did I cheat a subject that I did not learn on my own terms.

Pride. Now, I am not particularly religious, but I do know that Pride (or Vanity) is the Devil’s favourite sin (or at least Al Pacino’s) because it allows the sinner to feel good about all their other sins, and ensures that a life of sin will continue unabated.

This student says that s/he needed to “cheat the system.” That sounds harmless, right? Like Italians fudging on their income tax. The system is rigged. So screw the system, right?

Well, yes — to the extent you are able to do so without compromising your honor and integrity. But when you cheat, you’re not a soldier for justice, not a freedom-fighter struggling against an oppressive system. You’re a liar, mean and base. (You might also be a freedom fighter, but you’re a mean and base freedom fighter, not a towering bastion of virtue like you think.)

The truth is that most students are going to have some terrible teachers — just like most people will, at some point in their careers, have a supervisor, boss, or employer who is a jerk. The fact that you’re stuck in the sphere of influence of a total tool is not a reason to throw morality out the window and decide that you can do no wrong.

So yes, teachers should focus on substantive learning rather than formalistic assessment. Yes, tests shouldn’t be do-or-die affairs (at least not at the high school level). And yes, we should be nice to and supportive of students.

But that has just about nothing to do with the problem of cheating, which is at base an ethical problem — not a practical one.

UPDATE: In the Comments, Lahey herself has taken issue with my characterization of her use of the student’s letter as “approving.” Obviously, as a matter of intentio auctoris, either she’s a liar or I’m in the wrong. She’s probably not a liar, and so I sincerely apologize for mischaracterizing her intention. Although as a matter of intentio operis (if you believe in such things) the issue is a little murkier. The letter is posted in the context of the Atlantic piece, which seems to endorse the view that teachers bear some responsibility for student cheating. The letter seems to confirm and echo those views to an extent. Anyway, I don’t place a lot of weight on intentio operis interpretation, and even if I did, my use of the word “approvingly” would be at best misleading.

The coolest thing all week.

Via Nerdy Teacher, I give you…

Thug Notes.

Like Cliff Notes, or Spark Notes. But different.

Note: May be NSFW, at least for the more uptight workplaces out there.