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  • Simon Blackburn: An Unbeautiful Mind
    Polkinghorne holds the belief that unless some things last forever, everything is futile, a "meaningless empire of accident." This would wipe the smile off the face of many scientists. For science is not good about "forever." It paints a different picture of the world in which we find ourselves. Science teaches that the cosmos is some fifteen billion years old, almost unimaginably huge, and governed by natural laws that will compel its extinction in some billions more years, although long before that the Earth and the solar system will have been destroyed by the heat death of the sun. Human beings occupy an infinitesimally small fraction of space and time, on the edge of one galaxy among a hundred thousand million or so galaxies. We evolved only because of a number of cosmic accidents, including the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago. Nature shows us no particular favors: we get parasites and diseases and we die, and we are not all that nice to each other. True, we are moderately clever, but our efforts to use our intelligence to make things better for ourselves quite often backfire, and they may do so spectacularly in the near future, from some combination of manmade military, environmental, or genetic disasters.
  • Roger Scruton: The West and the Rest
    "It is thanks to Western prosperity, Western legal systems, Western forms of banking, and Western communications that human initiatives now reach so easily across frontiers to affect the lives and aspirations of people all over the globe. However, Western civilization depends on an idea of citizenship that is not global at all, but rooted in territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty. By contrast, Islam, which has been until recently remote from the Western world and without the ability to project its message, is founded on an ideal of godliness which is entirely global in its significance, and which regards territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty as compromises with no intrinsic legitimacy of their own. Although there have been attempts to manufacture nationalisms both appropriate to the Islamic temperament and conducive to a legitimate political order, they have fragmented under the impact of sectarian or tribal allegiances, usually giving way to military dictatorship or one-man, one-family, or one-party tyranny. Islam itself remains, in the hearts of those who live under these tyrannies, a permanent call to a higher life, and a reminder that power and corruption will rule in this world until the reign established by the Prophet is restored."
  • Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations 1776
    The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were perhaps very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. But without the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, every man must have procured to himself every necessary and conveniency of life which he wanted. All must have had the same duties to perform, and the same work to do, and there could have been no such difference of employment as could alone give occasion to any great difference of talents.
  • Kishore Mahbubani: Freedom
    But freedom does not only solve problems; it can also cause them. The United States has undertaken a massive social experiment, tearing down social institution after social institution that restrained the individual. The results have been disastrous. Since 1960 the U.S. population has increased 41 percent while violent crime has risen by 560 percent, single-mother births by 419 percent, divorce rates by 300 percent and the percentage of children living in single-parent homes by 300 percent. This is massive social decay. Many a society shudders at the prospects of this happening on its shores. But instead of traveling overseas with humility, Americans confidently preach the virtues of unfettered individual freedom, blithely ignoring the visible social consequences.
  • Harold Pinter: Nobel Lecture
    There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.
  • Charles Darwin: The Descent of Man
    As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.
  • Earnest Becker: The Denial of Death
    We have to go the way of the grasshopper even though it takes longer.
  • Johnson, Samuel: Rambler # 121 May 14, 1751
    "To learn is the proper business of youth; and whether we increase our knowledge by books or by conversation, we are equally indebted to foreign assistance."
  • Murray Rothbard: Education Free and Compulsory
    It is evident that the common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity. Since abilities and interests are naturally diverse, a drive toward making people equal in all or most respects is necessarily a leveling downward. It is a drive against development of talent, genius, variety, and reasoning power. Since it negates the very principles of human life and human growth, the creed of equality and uniformity is a creed of death and destruction.
  • J. M. Cameron: Review of Becker's Denial of Death
    Life, for Becker, is a desperate business, in which a steady heroism before the terrors of existence is in general the only thing to be commended.
  • Mark Lilla: The Politics of God
    In the end, though, what happens on the opposite shore will not be up to us. We have little reason to expect societies in the grip of a powerful political theology to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique crisis within Christian civilization. This does not mean that those societies necessarily lack the wherewithal to create a decent and workable political order; it does mean that they will have to find the theological resources within their own traditions to make it happen. "Our challenge is different. We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder: we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men. NYTimes Magaziine, 8/19/2007
  • Richard Fields: The Land of Opportunity
    Immigration to the United States is not a problem. It is a phenomenon. The only way the United States can stop this phenomenon is by destroying the capitalist economy that draws immigrants here. We need to move in the direction of more open immigration, not in the direction of militarized borders fit only for a police state. Though it's been obscured by layers of cynical campaign rhetoric, the issue of immigration comes down to whether we want to restrict individual liberty to native-born Americans or offer it to everyone. If freedom works for us — and it does — what possible moral reason do we have to offer it to those born in San Diego, and deny it to those born inches away in Tijuana?
  • Edward O. Wilson: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998
    On the surface it would seem, and was so reported by the media, that the Rwandan catastrophe was ethnic rivalry run amok. That is true only in part. There was a deeper cause, rooted in environment and demography. Between 1950 and 1994 the population of Rwanda, favored by better health care and temporarily improved food supply, more than tripled, from 2.5 million to 8.5 million. In 1992 the country had the highest growth rate in the world, an average of 8 children per woman. Parturition began early, and generation times were short. But although total food production increased dramatically during this period, it was soon overbalanced by population growth. The average farm size dwindled as plots were divided from one generation to the next. Per capita grain production fell by half from 1960 to the early 1990s. Water was so overdrawn that hydrologists declared Rwanda one of the world's twenty-seven water-scarce countries. The teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi then set out to solve the population problem in the most direct possible way. Rwanda is a microcosm of the world. War and civil strife have many causes, most not related directly to environmental stress. But in general, overpopulation and the consequent dwindling of available resources are tinder that people pile up around themselves. The mounting anxiety and hardship are translated into enmity, and enmity into moral aggression. Scapegoats are identified, sometimes other political or ethic groups, sometimes neighboring tribes. The tinder continues to grow, awaiting the odd assassination, territorial incursion, atrocity, or other provocative incident to set it off. Rwanda is the most populated country in Africa. Burundi, its war torn neighbor, is second. Haiti and El Salvador, two of the chronically most troubled nations of the Western Hemisphere, are also among the most densely populated, exceeded only by five tiny island countries of the Caribbean. They are also arguable the most environmentally degraded.
  • Murray Rothbard: Rights of Animals
    There is, in fact, rough justice in the common quip that "we will recognize the rights of animals whenever they petition for them." The fact that animals can obviously not petition for their "rights" is part of their nature, and part of the reason why they are clearly not equivalent to, and do not possess the rights of, human beings. And if it be protested that babies can't petition either, the reply of course is that babies are future human adults, whereas animals obviously are not.
  • Dr. Kenneth R. Miller:
    When asked, “What do you say as a scientist about the soul?” Dr. Miller's answer is always the same: “As a scientist, I have nothing to say about the soul. It’s not a scientific idea.” Dr. Mller, a Roman Catholic and biologist at Brown University is the author of, “Finding Darwin’s God” (Harper, 1999)
  • Richard Rorty:
    "...if we can work together, we can make ourselves into whatever we are clever and courageous enough to imagine ourselves becoming.”
  • Richard J. Herrnstein:
    "It is easy to lie with statistics, but it's a lot easier to lie without them."
  • Michael Slackman: Quiet Revolution in Algeria
    In Algiers there is a whole class of young men referred to as hittistes — the word is a combination of French and Arabic for people who hold up walls.
  • Albert Einstein:
    Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach age 18.
  • Neil Postman:
    "Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see."


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November 20, 2007

Arnold Kling on Race, IQ and Education

Liberals struggle with the idea that "inequality in the distribution of wealth, prestige, and educational attainment is, in part, a consequence of unequal distribution of the intellectual capacity needed for high levels of functioning."

Conservatives are more apt to accept the idea, a kind of original sin, and move on to things that lie more within the realm of what they can affect by their actions. They would probably say that one cannot deny the "unequal distribution of intellectual capacity," any more than one can deny the unequal distribution of athletic, chess, and musical abilities.

Conservatives might even say that abilities of the latter sort clearly do coordinate with racial and ethnic groupings. And furthermore, they might say, that if in fact Blacks, are better endowed with musical ability than native Americans, it wouldn't be a problem. For musical ability is not yet up there with cognitive capacity. Not to have it does not yet diminish us. Also our civilization does not (yet) give its highest rewards to more than a few musicians, athletes and chess players.

Intellectual capacity, however, coordinated with ethnic and/or racial groupings, would and should and probably does bother all of us, because our civilization most rewards across the board nearly all the individuals so endowed. The liberals are correct. It's not easy just to accept this and move on. For wouldn't it mean for those not so endowed the presence of an unbreakable glass ceiling severely limiting their life chances?

Arnold Kling in a TCS Daily article of 11/20/07, confronts the whole problem directly and lists four approaches for dealing with the difficult question concerning a possible linkage between race and innate cognitive ability.

His first approach, "segregationism," the view that IQ or cognitive ability differences across races justify segregation by race, he rejects out of hand. They don't, of course, that is, justify any separation by race.

Stephen Ceci, whom Kling cites at the top of his TCS Daily article, in a piece, Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns, from the American Psychologist, of February of 1996, in which he and others, all members of a Task Force established by the Board of Scientific Affairs of the American Psychological Association, were responding to Charles Murray's Bell Curve, makes it clear, not how much we know about the linkage between IQ and race, but about how much we don't know. (See below* for the principal conclusions of the Task Force.)

Kling also rejects the second of his four approaches, "denialism," the refusal to even admit that such differences might exist. Of the two remaining approaches he rejects the first, "compensationism," or affirmative action, that which would give preference to individuals based on their belonging to a racial group. This is the favorite approach of liberals, and perhaps even some conservatives.

Kling's favorite approach, number four, is what he calls "individualism,"meaning just that, "treating everyone as an individual." This makes sense, he says,

"because the variation in cognitive ability within racial groups is quite large. There are people of all races in all percentiles of the IQ distribution. Racial indicators are not very useful as predictors of any individual's IQ."

But, he reminds us, "individualism is difficult to practice in a world with strong ethnic group-identity."

Following a long illustrative example of FQ, or fishing quotient, in the place of IQ, Kling at the end of his piece moves on to educational policy. Education is of course the domain where unsettling questions concerning racial and ethnic groupings and innate cognitive abilities are most troubling.

Educators struggle with these questions on a daily basis. When the remedial algebra class is made up of all Black students is it segregationism or individualism that is at play?

According to Kling, neither.

"Education policy in the United States is based on a combination of denialism and compensationism. We throw the same instruction techniques at everyone. When we notice different outcomes by race, we look to compensate by using affirmative action."

Whereas educational policy, Kling affirms, ought to be based on "individualism."

I agree, as does most of my writing on this Blog during the past 12 months. His conclusion could very well have been my own.

"Overall," he says, "to do education properly, we need to take into account individual differences of ability. I do not think we should pay attention to race. Too much of our education policy seems to be driven by the opposite--we focus on outcomes in terms of race and leave the individual children behind."


*The following passages are taken from Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns

"It is customary to conclude surveys like this one with a summary of what has been established. Indeed, much is now known about intelligence. A near-century of research, most of it based on psychometric methods, has produced an impressive body of findings. Although we have tried to do justice to those findings in this report, it seems appropriate to conclude on a different note. In this contentious arena, our most useful role may be to remind our readers that many of the critical questions about intelligence are still unanswered. Here are a few of those questions:

1. Differences in genetic endowment contribute substantially to individual differences in (psychometric) intelligence, but the pathway by which genes produce their effects is still unknown. The impact of genetic differences appears to increase with age, but we do not know why.

2. Environmental factors also contribute substantially to the development of intelligence, but we do not clearly understand what those factors are or how they
work. Attendance at school is certainly important, for example, but we do not know what aspects of schooling are critical.

3. The role of nutrition in intelligence remains obscure. Severe childhood malnutrition has clear negative effects, but the hypothesis that particular “micro-
nutrients” may affect intelligence in otherwise adequately-fed populations has not yet been convincingly demonstrated.

4. There are significant correlations between measures of information-processing speed and psychometric intelligence, but the overall pattern of these findings yields no easy theoretical interpretation.

5. Mean scores on intelligence tests are rising steadily. They have gone up a full standard deviation in the last 50 years or so, and the rate of gain may be increasing.
No one is sure why these gains are happening or what they mean.

6. The differential between the mean intelligence test scores of Blacks and Whites (about one standard deviation, although it may be diminishing) does not result from
any obvious biases in test construction and administration, nor does it simply reflect differences in socioeconomic status. Explanations based on factors of caste and culture may be appropriate, but so far have little direct empirical support. There is certainly no such support for a genetic interpretation. At present, no one knows what causes this differential.

7. It is widely agreed that standardized tests do not sample all forms of intelligence. Obvious examples in- clude creativity, wisdom, practical sense, and social sensitivity; there are surely others. Despite the importance of these abilities we know very little about them: how they develop, what factors influence that development, how they are related to more traditional measures. In a field where so many issues are unresolved and so many questions unanswered, the confident tone that has characterized most of the debate on these topics is clearly out of place. The study of intelligence does not need politicized assertions and recriminations; it needs self-restraint, reflection, and a great deal more research.
The questions that remain are socially as well as scientifically important. There is no reason to think them unanswerable, but finding the answers will require a shared and sustained effort as well as the commitment of substantial scientific resources. Just such a commitment is what we strongly recommend."

From the Task Force established by the Board of Scientific Affairs of the American Psychological Association in order to respond to Charles Murray's Bell Curve.

November 17, 2007

Sarkozy in a moment of calm speaks about education

At this very moment (Saturday, November 17, 2007) Nicholas Sarkozy is in the long awaited fight for his political life. The "syndicats" that in France control the train, bus, and metro transportation sector, and therefore the working lives of millions of French people, are striking, and no one knows when and how it will all end. Will it be with a victory for the unions, or for the new government of Sarkozy, who has promised (as have the leaders of the syndicates that they) that he won't back down?

But on September 4th of this year Sarkozy had education on his mind. This was just over two months ago, when things were quiet. No strikes yet, although rumblings were felt, and everyone knew that the big troubles were to come. But at this time before the storm the politicians were free and at leisure to make speeches saying pretty much whatever they wanted about whatever subject that interested them, knowing that until they talked about jobs and the economy their opponents were probably not listening anyway.

For his part, Sarkozy, taking advantage of the moment of calm, talked about education and chose to do so in the form of "une lettre aux enseignants," in which he summarized his "own," (or those of his advisors) beliefs about education.

For the most part the letter was boiler plate, full of non controversial, well worn clichés about education, probably not even of Sarkozy's own devising but written for him by a team of educators. What was interesting to me was the fact that what he was saying could with very few changes have been said (and probably is being said) about our own kids, teachers, and schools.

I thought to myself, has the Western world finally reached agreement as to what the education of the young should be about?

Sarkozy's letter to the teachers is long, some 23 pages and 6000 words, and I won't attempt to summarize it. If you read French you can read it here. Its length probably means that just a few of the teachers, whose politics are probably well to the left of Sarkozy's, have even read it.

Instead, I'd like to highlight just one point that Sarkozy makes, a true statement, I believe, about education, one that provides the grounds for the 100 year plus and still going conflict among our own endless line of educational reformers, the conflict between two valid but contradictory impulses in regard to what we should stress in the education of our young.

On the one hand we want to enable each child to find his/her own way, realize his/her potential. On the other hand we want to instill in the child, in the always admirable effort to promote and further our own civilization, our own values, our own ideas of what is just, true and beautiful. And there's the rub, finding the middle ground between the two. The reformers too often go to one side or the other.

Isn't it obvious that each child has his/her own way of being, thinking, feeling, and that he/she must be given the opportunity of expressing that way, almost whatever it may be? ("Chaque enfant, chaque adolescent a sa manière à lui d'être, de penser, de sentir. Il doit pouvoir l'exprimer.") But at the same time the same child must take, and make his/her own, a good amount of the extraordinary repository of skills and knowledge that the past has brought right up into the present. ("Mais il doit aussi apprendre.")

Still today our educational reformers seem to be on one side or the other, the progressive, child centered, or the conservative academic subject matter centered movements. I think of Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch. (See their "Bridging Differences," the Blog name implying their finally coming together, which they should, because in fact they're both right.)

For too long our solutions to the seeming dilemma of what and how we should teach, such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, have favored one side (the child) or the other (the subject matter), and as a result have mostly had little positive effect on the school lives of our children.

November 14, 2007

Cross Border Comparisons Among Students

We learn, not for the first time, from an article in today's New York Times, that the  highest-performing students in math and science are from Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. Another achievement gap. American students, we are told, lag far behind. The clear implication is that we need to improve our own performance in order to successfully compete in tomorrow's world.

A couple of things to say about this. First, this particular finding is not new. In the sixties Japan (the author of the so-called economic miracle), and then later, in the seventies and eighties, the Asian "tigers," showed us what their work forces, that is, the graduates of their schools, were able to accomplish in regard to the exceptionally rapid growth in size and strength of their national economies.

Second, we hardly needed the international comparisons. The brilliant performance of the Asian-Americans among our own student populations had been telling us the same thing for a long time. Asian-American students are already, at Berkeley, or are rapidly becoming, at MIT and Harvard, by their high scores on standardized tests, the largest single ethnic group of students at our top colleges and universities.

Third, and this is the sort of thing that no one ever says publicly, Asian kids may just be better at math and science. O.K., this is not necessarily true. It may not be an innate superiority, but something from the environment in which they have grown up, the parental influence, the work ethic etc., not primarily something in their genes. So better may mean better prepared, but how many of us really believe this?

We want to believe the opposite, that all kids can achieve at the level of the Asian tigers. We want to believe in the "proficiency myth," that proficiency in anything will follow effort and hard work. We want to believe that algebra, say, can be learned by all. We want to believe that only externalities, — poverty, the home environment, the classroom teacher, the class size and classroom discipline etc., are holding our students back, keeping them from achieving at the level of the tigers.

We could have made a much more meaningful comparison, our Asians against theirs. Wouldn't it be interesting to see if our Asian students do better than those of Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan? For if so wouldn't that mean that our way of life, our educational system are more effective, if not better, than theirs? I don't know if this comparison has ever been made.

Two final thoughts about all this. One, why do we go on comparing diverse or heterogeneous student bodies, such as those of the typical American suburban high school, with the homogeneous student populations of Singapore or Taiwan? Isn't this apples and oranges? Diversity means among other things diverse gifts and talents, and to measure any single one of them, such as math aptitude and or math achievement, among a diverse population will inevitably lead to lower test scores overall. Didn't we know this?

And two, achievement (and ability?) across ethnic and racial boundaries is not equal. The best distance runners are East African. The best chess players are, or at least were, Russian. The best musicians are now Black and Latino, whereas they perhaps were French and German? The best physicists and mathematicians are Indian, Jewish, Chinese, French, and German? The best basketball players are Black. And so on. Why are we afraid to say things like this?   

Isn't it obvious by now (wasn't it always?) that innate ability is not equally distributed? And there's nothing wrong with this, just as there's nothing wrong with children in the same family having different abilities and natural talents. To go on expecting American students to match or better the achievement of students of other countries is to go on adhering to the proficiency myth. And in any case it's just not going to happen that our diverse student bodies are ever going to lead the pack in regard to achievement.

If our country is truly exceptional it must be because it has within it the whole world. We are a country of immigrants. (The anti-immigrant forces among us are shooting themseves and us in the foot.) Within our country are representatives of all racial and ethnic groups. We really don't need to resort to international comparisons. The unequal levels of achievement, the achievement gaps, are all here among us. We don't have to look for them elsewhere.   

October 30, 2007

Groundhog Day and the Dropout Problem

Most news items, especially local items such as fires, homicides, and the inevitable scandals involving our business, political, and religious leaders, are not really new, or news, but further re-occurrences of myriad and alike past events. As one grows older one realizes this about the news, and in fact, those of us who still read the print publications, prefer the opinion pages where at least someone is trying, although probably in vain, to say something for the first time.

It’s probably no less true that for most of us each new day is not new but a repeat of the day before. This is easily seen when someone asks us to describe a day in our lives. One day we can do, but to describe a second day, that is not just a repeat of the first, is more difficult.

There is a character in the movie Groundhog Day, Meteorologist Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, who alone in the movie realizes that each day is a repeat of the day before. He’s caught but unlike the other characters he knows it, and in order to eventually free himself from the endless, lifeless repetition of his acts, he has to become a different and better person.

Now it seems to me more and more that those who write about the schools are repeating, evidently unknowingly, things that have been said about the schools, probably since their founding in the 19th century, but certainly since the time of Sputnik when the schools suddenly became, wrongly of course, our best hope for our outperforming the Russians (and later the Chinese) in space and elsewhere.

Gerald Bracey made all this clear (for the first time?) in a Commentary article in Ed Week of February, 2005:

Media stories about public schools show the reporters as non-Bill Murray characters in “Groundhog Day.” In the 1993 movie, the same Groundhog Day repeats itself over and over again, but only Murray’s character sees the repetition. About schools, the media report the present with no apparent historical awareness that it’s the same story once again. As a consequence, Americans keep waking up to headlines declaring that, apparently for the first time ever, the public school sky is falling. The public doesn’t seem to notice the recurrences, either.

It seems, however, that the reporters did not read or hear what Bracey was saying. For just today I read two stories by writers for the Associated Press on the dropout problem, two stories that are almost word for word repeats of countless stories I have read during the past 30 years or more.

It’s not that the writers are wrong in what they are saying. It’s that what they are saying is not news but merely a repetition of the old. Also, and more important, what they are describing, the so called dropout problem, may not be the problem at all, but only a symptom of something else, the existence of which these reporters haven't yet registered.

Although at first he didn't know what it could mean Phil Connors in the movie Groundhog Day did see right away that each new day was exactly the same as the day before. Eventually he was able to move on. Whereas these and many other education writers don’t seem realize that what they are saying, in this instance about the school dropout problem, has been said many, many times before.

Yesterday the two AP writers, Nancy Zuckerbrod and Stephanie Reitz “woke us up” with these headlines respectively, “1 in 10 Schools are “Dropout Factories,” and “Mentoring, Alternative High Schools on Rise to Reduce Dropouts.” If you had never encountered the “dropout problem” you might be impressed by the use of the term “factory” in regard to dropouts, and by the “folk” wisdom of the use of mentoring and alternative high schools as a cure for the same.

The factory school analogy goes back at least to 1900. The first alternative schools, set up to provide a viable alternative education for those not being served well by the mainstream, probably go back just as far. I take from my own files this passage: “In 1987, the Boston Public Schools and the Mayor's Office signed an agreement to fund a network of community-based, alternative education programs to provide options for students who were at risk of dropping out of high school.”

Mentoring on the rise? Maybe, but I don’t think so.  Mentoring is the very first thing that people do for others who need help in making life decisions. The Big Brothers Big Sisters programs are mentoring programs, in many instances with the expressed purpose of keeping at risk kids in school. These programs were founded over 100 years ago. If there is more mentoring it's because there are more kids.

I take the following passages from the two articles mentioned:

“Most [dropout factories] have high proportions of minority students. These schools are tougher to turn around because their students face challenges well beyond the academic ones - the need to work as well as go to school, for example, or a need for social services.”

“The fact that kids are entering high schools with such poor literacy skills raises questions about how much catch-up work high schools can be expected to do and whether more pressure should be placed on middle schools and even elementary schools…”

“Many of the state schools with high dropout rates are in lower-income, urban communities, where a teen's academic success can be influenced by poverty or social problems in their families and neighborhoods.”

“Springfield superintendent Burke and several other educators say getting students to feel involved and interested is critical, and that schools should be centers of encouragement and high expectations rather than frustration and anonymity.”

If we had never read about the dropout problem we would be thoroughly persuaded by the truth of these observations. But we’ve heard these things over and over again, “forever” it seems.

I find myself responding to these and other similar articles in some combination of the following. First with boredom, because I’ve heard it all before. Then with tears of discouragement because so many good kids are still being mostly lost. For we are well aware of all the bad things that do happen to many of them following their dropping out of school. Indeed, that’s the source of our constant attempts to keep them in school, our fear for them, of what will happen otherwise.

Finally, I settle back into my long held conviction that the problem is not of the kids doing, but of our doing and of the schools themselves. In years past this realization led many radical reformers to want to abolish the schools entirely. And this may still be the best solution for many of our students at risk of dropping out.

In any case we ought to abandon the all out attempt to keep these kids in school, and rather assume that our schools, especially our middle and high schools, as presently structured are not the best place for them to be. Isn’t that obvious?

Alternative schools by and large have failed miserably, the exceptions to this being when by alternative we mean an alternative, a vocational program for example, to the college preparatory curriculum that is more and more imposed upon all of our young people. Mentoring programs, although positive and beneficial for other reasons, have also failed to keep kids in school.

Kids, probably half of our young people of high school age, are telling us that they don’t want to be in school as it’s presently constituted. Why don’t we listen to them, instead of devising schemes to somehow keep them in and from dropping out?

In the movie Phil Connors got out of the endless repetition of his days by seeing things differently and going on to live differently and better. We need to see school differently. We should be looking not first at the school and what we need to do to keep all of our kids in school, because we can't. We should be looking first at the kids, and at what they need and what we might do to meet them on their own ground.

Many kids have been telling us, in my own experience for some 50 years now, that math, science, history and language classrooms are not what they most want and need. Why do we go on subjecting all of them to this regime that is probably only for some an appropriate use of their time? Well, in regard to school reform, we’re still living the same day over and over again, and, as a result of our not seeing further, nothing much is being changed for the better.

October 17, 2007

Math, English, Science, Social Studies, and Foreign Language

Republican law makers in Colorado still don't get it. Somehow they still think education will follow from their setting education requirements. I didn't see them make this proposal, but I don't think they were laughing when they did so. I'm pretty sure they didn't consider their proposal a cruel joke (it was).

The lawmakers probably actually believed that by legislating statewide high school graduation requirements of four years of English and Math, three years of Science and Social Studies, and two years of a second language, that kids would learn these subject matters, if for no other reason than in order to graduate. Oh that it were that easy (it's not). And they won't.

How would the assessment of whether of not English, Math, Science, Social Studies and the foreign language had been learned be made? Easy according to the law makers, by a proficiency exam, or by multiple proficiency exams, as I suppose they meant, measuring student achievement.

Haven't the lawmakers been reading the endless numbers of words written about proficiency and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001? Proficiency exams, unless the proficiency bar is set at the skill and knowledge level of the weakest among those taking the exam, will always have outcomes with a normal Bell curve distribution, that is one half above and one half below the average.

That's one serious weakness in their proposal—what they propose is just not possible. But there's another perhaps even greater weakness. The math, English, Social Studies, Science, and foreign language curriculum (actually this has been standard fare at the American high school for generations... it was my fare when I attended public high school in the forties) is a college preparatory curriculum. And so far no one has shown us that all kids are able to do college level work, let alone even want to do that work. (At least if they wanted it then they might have a chance. Most don't, and if forced to go along will eventually drop out, if not in high school in college, probably in the first year.)

The Colorado lawmakers are not at all alone in being fooled. Probably most educators are fooled into believing that college should be for everyone. And if they didn't believe that they would be hard put to defend their position to all those parents, probably the majority, who want and fully expect their son or daughter to attend college.

The result is that the kids are really on their own. Very few of the adults in their lives understand that they want something other than four years of Math etc. Parents and educators want one thing and they want something else. Most of them will rebel, most of these by not doing the work, a good number by dropping out of school, and a select few by doing their own thing, for which this country is grateful, such as  founding a Microsoft, Apple, or Google Inc.

October 02, 2007

The Reality of too many of our Schools

Many of those who write about the schools seem to be totally without a sense of reality as to what the schools are. Especially those who would return the schools to an imaginary time in the past when the schools were going to be the glue that was to hold our country together. The schools are not now, nor have ever been, that glue. What the schools are, and what the schools ought to be, or might have been in the past, are worlds apart and no amount of well intentioned prescriptions are going to close the gap between them.

For an example of the unreality of those who write about the schools, I go to the web site of The Forum for Education and Democracy and read the following:

In pursuing its mission, The Forum uses the following guiding values:

   1. Public education is foremost about enabling each young person to develop his/her strengths; use his/her mind well; and become connected to his/her community.
   2. The work in schools should be intellectually challenging, connected to the skills needed for real world success, and personalized so that students are known to those who teach them.
   3. Public education is fundamental to a democratic, civil, prosperous society.
   4. Public schools are critical institutions for breaking the cycle of poverty and redressing social inequities.
   5. Public engagement, community support, and adequate resources are essential to the success of public education.
   6. Parents and communities should be involved in all attempts to improve public schools.
   7. The work of education for democratic citizenship is not only the responsibility of the public schools, but is shared by other cultural institutions and should be supported by them as well.
   8. Public policy choices effecting public education should always be assessed on the basis of their contribution to equitable educational resources, their impact on local control, and whether or not they support the public education's most central mission - the development of democratic citizens.
   9. Our young can only learn when basic needs, nutrition, health care, and housing, are met. Our commitment to education is also demonstrated by our commitment to provide these basic needs.

Now, there is not a tenet in the above that anyone interested in the best possible education for our youth would disagree with. These purported characteristics, children developing their individual strengths, doing intellectually challenging work, becoming connected to society, are what we would want in the best of all possible worlds for our own children as well as for all children. But what we want is not at all what we have.

I challenge you to visit the schools and look for the presence of even one of the values mentioned above anywhere other than in the school’s mission statement. You won’t find it. Rather, as Steven Wolk has made clear in a recent Phi Delta Kappan article, Why Go To School?, what you would find instead are,  “children primarily filling in blanks on worksheets, regurgitating facts from textbooks, writing formulaic five-paragraph essays, taking multiple-choice tests and making the occasional diorama, that is, a total lack of opportunities of having even one original thought.”

And further Wolk reminds us that a generation ago John Goodlad in his book, A Place Called School, after observing classrooms across the country and more than 27,000 students, wrote, “I wonder about the impact of the flat, neutral emotional ambience of most of the classes we studied. Boredom is a disease of epidemic proportions…. Why are our schools not places of joy?”

Why is this so? Why are the schools so little of what we would have them be? The best answer to this question is that the schools are nearly powerless to undo, let alone overcome, the influence of the environment in which the children are living while attending school. Reread the nine tenets above. How many of them are accurate descriptions of that environment?

For example, Number 7 reads: “The work of education for democratic citizenship is not only the responsibility of the public schools, but is shared by other cultural institutions and should be supported by them as well.” Do you know anyone, other than the writers I refer to, for whom “education for democratic citizenship” is a high priority, let alone his or her responsibility?

The other day I read that, “High numbers of students in Gaza UN-run schools are failing math and Arabic tests.” Now what would be your first response to this headline? That the UN run schools were failures? Of course not. You would be amazed that schooling, any kind, even takes place in that cursed land. In all, about 195,000 children in Gaza, a territory with 1.4 million residents, attend UN schools. You wouldn’t blame the schools but without hesitation you would attribute the poor showing to “violence, overcrowding and poverty.”

The lesson here for us is that we need to cease speaking of the schools we would like to have, and instead see the schools for what they are, probably much more influenced by our own versions of “violence, overcrowding and poverty,” than by our mission statements representing wishful thinking of what the schools should be. In short, the nine admirable guiding values taken from the Forum for Education and Democracy’s mission for the schools are not yet of this world. What is of this world, the actual lives of children, should have all our attention.

September 16, 2007

“Who is the vice president of America?”

As a postscript to my previous Blog this piece will concern the all out attempt, as reported in today’s NYTimes (September 16, 2007) of the Newton School, a pre-K through 8th. grade school in Newark, NJ. to raise its test scores from their most recent abysmal levels. This effort will be led by the Newark Teachers Union in collaboration with the Seton Hall College of Education.

The story is just one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of almost identical stories of failing inner city schools all trying, under the gun of NCLB, to raise the achievement of their mostly poor and minority students, and so far with little or no success.

However, it is not this particular one, nor the thousands of other similar reform efforts that interest me. Rather it was the visit to Newton of Newark’s Mayor, Cory A. Booker, and here I cite the Times reporter’s account of his visit:

The Newton faculty members had planned to introduce the “new Newton” to students during a schoolwide assembly in the afternoon. But it was postponed after Mayor Cory A. Booker stopped by as part of a tour of some of the city’s 77 public schools. Mr. Booker bounded from room to room, dispensing $1 bills to students who had mastered New Jersey history (what is the capital?) and politics (who is the governor?).

Then Mr. Booker came up with a stumper, worthy of $5.

“Who is the vice president of America?” the mayor asked a fifth-grade class. “Come on, I know some people want to forget...”

“George Bush?” guessed one boy.

“George Washington?” said another.

“George Washington Carver?” a third chimed in.

Though the mayor prodded the eager students, no one could name the vice president. Finally, Mr. Booker put his money away.

“All right,” he said. “You have a lot to do this school year.”

Now Cory A. Booker is one impressive guy. A B.A. from Stanford where he played football and made the All-Pacific Ten Academic team, a year at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, a J.D. degree from Yale Law School in 1997.

Since 1998 Booker has lived in inner city Newark, the last six years in Brick Towers, a notorious public housing project in Newark’s Central Ward. At present he occupies the top unit in a three-story rental on Hawthorne Avenue on Newark's south side, an area described as "a drug- and gang-plagued neighborhood of boarded-up houses and empty lots."

So what might you have expected from the Mayor in the way of observations and comments during his visit to the Newton School? Certainly not what the reporter describes. Questions like what is the capital of NJ, who is the governor, who is the vice president of the U.S., and with dollar awards for the correct answers.

For this man, whose own education was the very best that our country can provide, there was only this parting comment following the kids' failure to come up with the right answers to his questions, “All right, you have a lot to do this school year.”

Not that any of this makes any difference in the lives of these kids, these words or any other words from this Mayor. But to tell the kids that such things as knowing the names of state capitals and governors, and probably kings and rivers, is what education is all about, well that may be a misdemeanor if said only once, but surely a crime if said repeatedly.

The Mayor should have talked with the kids about what they did know, because education is, or should be, all about doing something with what you know or what you have. These kids, like all kids are alive and have all sorts of knowledge and all sorts of interests and it is with these that the school ought to begin.

The Mayor might have asked them about things important to them, about the adults in their lives, about the people and actions that they admired, about what they wanted to do with their lives, about what they wanted from the school, all things that concern the kids themselves. Instead of sending them away with the impression that the name of the vice president of the United States was all that important.

September 15, 2007

What kids don't know is less important than what they do.

Michael Deshaies in this week’s National Review on line brings to our attention the Intercollegiate Studies Institute report on civic literacy in higher education. See also the article in USA Today by Tracey Wong Briggs.

The report was based on an analysis of the answers given (or not given) to some 60 multiple-choice questions (Take the Test) about America’s history, government, free-market economics, and foreign relations. 14,000 randomly chosen freshmen and seniors on 50 college and university campuses took the test.

Of interest (?) was the fact that scores were hardly different on average for the freshmen and seniors taking the test, 52% and 53% respectively. Nor were there significant differences among the colleges, although the least prestigious schools, Rhodes College in Tennessee, Colorado State, and a few others, showed greater gains from the freshman to the senior year than did the most prestigious schools, such as Brown, Georgetown and Yale, where senior scores were even lower than those of the freshmen.

What should we conclude from this, if anything? Deshaies says that it is shocking that seniors at the most elite universities know less even than the (when they were) freshmen.

Deshaies: “This shocking phenomenon we describe as negative learning. Considering that a university education can cost almost $200,000 and an undergraduate, on average, leaves campus nearly $20,000 in debt, students and parents are entitled to more.”

This study, of course, isn’t the first time that we're told how little our high school graduates know about their own country. That was Diane Ravitch’s and Chester Finn’s message in their 1989 book, “What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?” Innumerable other but similar assessments of what our students don’t know have been made before and since. Regularly and predictably these assessments of what many see as the effectiveness (ineffectiveness) of our public schools have led consistently to major national reform efforts, most recently the No Child Left Behind law.

Deshaies says it’s obvious what must be done. We will need a major new reform of the now ineffectual teaching in our schools and colleges of American history and government. He says, that, "one way to improve instruction is to develop academic centers of excellence on campuses to revitalize the teaching of American history, political science, and economics.” (Deshaies himself is the communications director at one of these centers, the Jack Miller Center for the Teaching of America’s Founding Principles.)

Again and again the American public is informed just how little our students know, and how little they have learned, even while in college, of our country’s history and government institutions. Nothing seems to change. We get up and live the same day all over again, just as Phil Connors in the movie, Groundhog Day.

Are we testing the wrong things, and/or teaching things that can’t be taught or that kids have no interest in learning? The test takers usually don't even ask these questions. Shouldn't they?

In fact, is it of any importance that more than half of the seniors in the study could not identify the correct century when the first American colony was established at Jamestown, that fewer than that recognized that the line, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," was from the Declaration of Independence, that nearly half of all college seniors, did not know that the Federalist Papers were written in support of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and finally, that fewer than half of these same seniors could identify the Baath party as the main source of Saddam Hussein's political support?

Deborah Meier and Florence Miller reviewed, “What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?” in The Nation of January 9, 1988. They write, “When Jean Piaget noted that 6-year-olds gave surprisingly ignorant answers to his simple questions, he didn't rush into print with the information. How interesting, he thought. The answers I expected are not self-evident. Thus began a life's work of examining children's ignorance.”

Meier and Miller say that, Ravitch’s and Finn’s view of ignorance is all to familiar and probably fruitless, in that “they miss the vital connection between knowing and not knowing, and because they do so, not knowing is [becomes] failure, or bad schooling--a case in need of a remedy, a cause for alarm, a reason to rush into print.”

And in fact that’s what most educators conclude when they see the results of these general tests of "essential" knowledge, that the schools are bad, that which is sufficient cause for alarm (the Nation at Risk) and cry out for remedy (No Child Left Behind).

However, after experiencing this nonevent for the nth. time isn’t it time that we came to a different conclusion? Meier and Miller are right to say that the ignorance we uncover is perhaps more interesting in itself than in what it may imply about the effectiveness of our schools and school programs. But they don't go to say or to show why that ignorance is interesting.

Here’s what I think. What kids know at any given point in time, unless it’s what they’ve learned for a test and the point in time is the eve of that test, reflects much more their own interests, friends, their family environment, and most of all their out-of-school activities, what they do with their own time, for only when, as John Dewey told us, kids fully engage themselves in the activity do they learn. And only in that way does what they learn become a part of their general knowledge.

How many high school seniors or college freshmen do you know who are actively engaged in, say, reading the Federalist Papers? I first read them and remembered them when as a college graduate and new teacher I needed them for something that I was interested in. Isn't that the way we all learn?

As much as we stress the importance of possessing knowledge of America, its history and its institutions, for our becoming, and being, responsible and participating citizens of the Republic, it’s not an importance that we can simply pass on by our words. How often have you made a child feel the importance of something that is important to you simply by your words?

I try doing this all the time with my grandson, and of course it doesn’t work. Just the other day I had been talking about and having him listen to some of my music. Why did I do this? I knew better. In any case at the end of the day my grandson still preferred Kanye West’s “Stronger” to Schubert’s Notturno Adagio In e Flat.

In this sense much teaching is like preaching. Telling kids the way things are and then expecting them to assimilate (your version) of the way things are. The preacher tells his parishioners the way things are and then expects them to change their lives accordingly. It doesn’t work. I’m sure that for many high school students, and college freshmen, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and many other essential pieces of our country’s history, that these “important” topics are more like Schubert’s Notturno than West’s Stronger.

So what is to be done? Well one thing let’s try to test kids on what they know, because with that we can help them. To find out what they don’t know is no help to them or to us. Certainly no one is going to try after the fact of the test failure to make American history and government subjects of high priority during their remaining years of college. An effort of that kind is test prep and is of no lasting value to anyone.

So what is to be done? Yes, find out what they know. Determine what those 14000 college students have learned during their high school and college years, and estimate how much of that learning, probably very little, did come from their classes. We will probably find out that what they had learned most well came from the situations and circumstances over which the school and college authorities had little or no control. Probably no one "taught" them most of the things they know.

Finally, instead of putting students down as being mostly ignorant of so many important bits of our past we might begin to treat them with respect, as knowledgeable people in their own right, as knowing, and knowing how to do, things that are important to them.

September 10, 2007

Evolutionary Precedent for the No Excuses School

We read, in a recent Atlantic article by Olivia Judson, that Sam Bowles, the economist turned evolutionary biologist, has shown that groups of supercooperative, altruistic humans could indeed have wiped out groups of less united folk.

Bowles's analysis "suggests that individuals who could not conform, or who were disruptive, would have weakened the whole group; any group that failed to drive out such people, or kill them, would have been more likely to be overwhelmed in battle. Conversely, people who fit in—sharing the food they found, joining in hunting, helping to defend the group, and so on—would have given their group a collective advantage, and thus themselves an individual evolutionary advantage."

I thought of the No Excuses school, where students have to conform to the values of the group or not be allowed to remain in the group. Here in Bowles work we find evolutionary precedent for the No Excuses learning environment. The so-called No Excuses schools, such as the MATCH School, Academy of the Pacific Rim, Roxbury Prep, and a number of others, all Commonwealth Charter Schools in Boston, seem to have achieved a definite "collective advantage," at least as measured by results on standardized tests, over other Boston public schools with similar student bodies in regard to economic and ethnic background. Is it because in these schools the disruptive individual is not allowed to remain in the group?

It's a fact that too many of our schools have allowed the disruptive individual to remain in the classroom and thereby more or less undermine the real learning that might otherwise have gone on. Why is this so? In the name of what do we go on sacrificing the best interests of the group to the "worst" interests of the disruptive individual?

In this regard see two recent letters appearing in Ed Week in response to a Commentary piece by Jonathan Kozol. While explaining the flight of the young teacher from the inner city school Kozol seemed to ignore the effect of the disruptive student attributing the teacher's flight solely to the influence of No Child Left Behind.

Perhaps this situation, as incomprehensible as it is in many respects, results from  our refusal to turn anyone away from our public school classrooms, seeing this all tolerant and all inclusive attitude as representing a kind of higher morality than one where only those individuals, willing and ready to fully accept the learning conditions of the classroom and school, are allowed in.

For the moment too many otherwise intelligent and thoughtful educators don't see our undisciplined school environments as a threat to our very survival whereas evolutionary precedent is suggesting that is exactly what they may be.

July 12, 2007

Schooling, not Education...

Schooling, not education, is what mostly goes on in those places we call schools. for schooling as a rule has little direct relation to learning. When learning does take place it’s usually in spite of, not because of the school. What happened that schooling and education have grown apart? (Were they ever together? Perhaps in schools for adults. Perhaps at Plato's "school" in Athens.)

Education, or learning, is what life and the best schools are all about. Learning, which is life long, depends primarily on just two factors, the teacher and the student.

Now most educational reformers think that by positively impacting other factors, such as class size, length of the school day, standardized testing, school uniforms, disciplined classrooms, progressive classrooms, the degree of school autonomy etc. student learning can be given a boost. It can’t, of course, as has been abundantly shown by the history of failed school reforms.

A good teacher and a motivated student are the only two factors that can by themselves significantly boost the amount of learning that goes on, in school, or more commonly, in life. For learning to take place the teacher (which could also be a good book, work of art, or even the natural world itself... Lincoln's teacher was a book, Darwin's was nature) needs to be both knowledgeable and caring. The student needs to be ready, to listen and to want to learn. Absent either one and learning does not take place.

The tragedy of our schools stems directly from the fact that they are not primarily concerned with recruiting the very best teachers and with arousing the curiosity and interest of their students.

OK, that’s not easy to do, and there’s the rub. But rather than work on the “hard problem” (teacher recruitment and student motivation) we busy ourselves with endless “solutions” to the "soft" or easy problems mentioned above, length of school day, order in the school and classroom etc.

What happened that we have now in our schools so few excellent teachers and so few motivated students? For the first the answer is easy. Our country early on gave its respect, and resulting monetary rewards, to those who care for our bodies, our doctors, to those who protect our contracts, our lawyers, and to those who grow our economy, our business men, not to mention our media and sports celebrities. To those who would “school” our children, care for their minds, we gave, and continue to give as little respect and dollar recompense as possible.

Why we did this is not so easy to answer. Perhaps it was because those of us who made it to the highest levels of power and influence in our country always knew how little our own success depended on what we had done in school. Schooling was a minor factor in our lives so why should we by our tax payments heavily subsidize an industry whose major function seemed only to be holding children safely and securely in a place apart, in school, until they were of age and were ready to enter society.

So in regard to the one factor, the teacher, things will not change until we decide to give the teacher the respect and monetary rewards that the importance of the position (being close to the child during the child's formative years) demands.

What about the other factor, student motivation? What happened that most students in our schools, most often before they reach the fourth grade and ten years of age, will lose their natural curiosity and interest in everything they encounter in the classroom? What happened that so many of them by the time of Middle School have little or no interest in what their teachers are doing and saying?

Many have tried to answer this question. The most common answer is hormones. The advent of puberty. The child’s interest in his or her body, in sex, trumps the beginning algebra, foreign language, history and literature classes. The real question is, given this fact of the child's interest and preoccupation with other than school subjects, why do we act as if it were not so?

The right teacher may somehow get through the child’s growing physical awareness of body and self to the child’s mind. This is what happens to those children with particular aptitude and talent for the lessons of the classroom and who are naturally obedient. We call these the "good students" of whom there are always a few in every classroom, their presence enabling those teachers who do remain, to remain. This is not, however, what happens with most children.

Is school destined to fail because it doesn't give proper place and importance to the physical changes taking place in the child's body, let alone to the popular culture that most occupies the child's time everywhere but in school?  There are those who would put middle school aged children to work on a farm, especially one with lots of animals, and where bodily functions may be readily and openly observed and discussed. And there are those who would bring popular culture into the classroom. But both "reforms" have failed to make schools also a place of learning.

Most of all in regard to the second of our two factors, the child’s motivation to learn, we need to give the child a lot of slack, and not pretend that the child is with us when he's not. We need to take into account and deal with the fact that the child is only a little bit with us in the classroom and a lot more somewhere else. The classroom lessons in math, science, literature and history while endlessly fascinating in themselves are probably of little or no importance, probably boring, to the child.

What is important to the child, especially in the tween and early teen years, are the “life lessons’ that they are experiencing all the time. These “lessons” may stem from their close contacts with their friends, from the many hours spent with their games, from the music, films and other forms of the popular culture that surrounds them, from their trips to the mall, shopping and just hanging out.

It's not at all that children are not able and ready to learn. In all the respects just mentioned they are far more knowledgeable than we are. There is no question about their ability to master what interests them. Ask them about the things they are curious about and are motivated to learn, their music, their computers, their video games, their interactions with their peers, and they will quickly lose us, as we lose them in our classes, but in this instance because of our absolute ignorance of what they are knowledgeable about.

Children are of course learning all the time. That’s what being alive means. It’s just that very little of that learning goes on in the places we call schools.