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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

John Stuart Mill and Rick Santorum agree: what is going on here?

In 1859, John Stuart Mill, an important English philosopher wrote this about education: 
If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them. The objections which are urged with reason against State education, do not apply to the enforcement of education by the State, but to the State's taking upon itself to direct that education: which is a totally different thing. That the whole or any large part of the education of the people should be in State hands, I go as far as any one in deprecating. All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government. 
Yesterday, It was reported in the New York Times, that Rick Santorum,
 said the idea of schools run by the federal government or by state governments was “anachronistic.”
The Times article goes on to say that:
But it was the latest in a series of comments by the former Pennsylvania senator — who is tied in polls in the critical Ohio and Michigan primary contests — suggesting that he takes a dim view of public schooling. He and his wife home-schooled their children.
For the first 150 years, most presidents home-schooled their children at the White House, he said. “Where did they come up that public education and bigger education bureaucracies was the rule in America? Parents educated their children, because it’s their responsibility to educate their children.”
“Yes the government can help,” Mr. Santorum added. “But the idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools, is anachronistic. It goes back to the time of industrialization of America when people came off the farms where they did home-school or have the little neighborhood school, and into these big factories, so we built equal factories called public schools. And while those factories as we all know in Ohio and Pennsylvania have fundamentally changed, the factory school has not.”
Now, I cannot say that I am a big fan of Rick Santorum (or truth be told any of the other candidates for President.) Presidential candidates tend to agree with each other about education when they are not simply lying about it.
Here is Barack Obama on the campaign trail four years ago:
And don't tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend most of the year preparing him to fill in a few bubbles on a standardized test.  I don't want teachers to the -- teaching to the test. I don't want them uninspired and I don't want our students uninspired. 
He doesn’t want students taking tests all day, eh? He has a  funny way of showing it.
And here he is later on in the same speech actually quoting me (without mentioning my name):
We'll teach our students not only math and science, but teamwork and critical thinking and communication skills, because that's how we'll make sure they're prepared for today's workplace.
Of course presidential candidates have never been too keen on the truth, so why am I surprised he never did any of this?
But I am surprised by Sanatorium because he seems to actually mean it. He homeschools his own kids after all. So the real question is just how crazy an idea is this? Should the government get out of the eduction business?
To think about this correctly one has only to ask if countries run by dictators or by religious authorities would ever consider getting out of the education business? You can’t have a Communist country without an education system that teaches why your country is right and all other countries are wrong. You can’t really imagine that Iran isn’t controlling every word taught in their schools. Well, so are we. In a real democracy the government does not run the schools, nor produce the tests. The government must simply require as J.S. Mill said, that every child be educated.
While people who believe in democracy hold up the schools of Stalin or Hitler as the very paradigm of education gone wrong,  somehow we still think the government should be in charge of education. Here is my favorite quote by Mark Twain.
In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards. 

Government run schools are not a good idea. There is always a truth being taught whether that truth is importance of algebra and what passes for science or whether it is the proper things to believe about our leaders.  Schools feel and look like factories and prisons because children and being made to conform and forced to be there.  
We need to re-think education. The first step is re-thinking the role of government in education. Santorum is right about this and I am pleased to see a presidential candidate raise the real issues in education. Of course, the Media make fun of him for raising these issue simply because they cannot conceive of any alternative to government run education. (Possibly because they all attended government run schools that taught them the truth.) The media needs to get smarter so the conversation about education can get smarter. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The real damage done by testing in the schools: a conversation with Milo

I had a long conversation with Milo, my six year old grandson, the other day. Milo is very smart. (Yes, I know. What grandfather wouldn’t say that? But trust me, he is.) 
I asked him what he had done that was fun recently and he told me about a game he had been playing with a friend, which was good to hear about since Milo went through a long obsession with chess that I am happy to hear is waning.
I then asked him about school. I asked him if he liked taking the tests (which are everywhere these days - even in first grade) and I also asked him if he had learned anything interesting lately. I know that he doesn’t find school that interesting from previous conversations with him and from my daughter’s (the “me” below) postings about him. Here is the most recent one:
Milo: I wish they would teach real science in science class.
Me: What's real science?
Milo: Like chemistry, biology, dissection.
Me: What kind of science do they teach instead?
Milo: Paperwork.

Milo said he liked taking tests. He liked working out the problems and, of course, does well on them.  
Now, I have been railing about these awful standardized tests for the last 25 years, long before NCLB made everyone aware of how awful testing really is. But, Milo made me realize that what I hate about testing is not the tests themselves. Milo made me realize that I liked taking the test as well when I was a child. I always liked contests and I liked winning. I am so against testing that I forgot that for a smart kid, they can be fun.
While teachers and principals correctly argue that testing is ruining our schools, the reasons that they cite, all of which are correct in my opinion, often do not include the main reason that I am so opposed to testing.
I became vehemently anti-testing when I began to question the validity of the curriculum being taught in the schools. As I began to invent different kinds of experiences for kids on the computer in the 80’s and 90’s. I came  to realize that my software would never be used. The reason was clear enough. I was building software that did not relate to the existing curriculum. “Broadcast News” was meant to teach how to analyze current events through pretending to be a newscaster. “Crisis in Krasnovia” was intended to teach how political decision making works. "Road Trip" was intended to allow kids to explore the country. My team built many programs like this and they were never used because they didn’t fit into the existing curriculum. Many factors make the curriculum intransigent: the colleges that insist on certain courses for their applicants, parents who think whatever was taught to them must be taught to their children, politicians who can’t think about education in any sensible way as well as many other factors. But the number one issue is the tests. If all that matters are test scores then you can’t really spend much time on any curriculum that doesn’t get tested. In other words the tests make it impossible to change the curriculum from the one Charles Eliot specified in 1892.
This is why NCLB and Common Core are so insidious. They allow no modification of the ancient idea of what constitutes an education.
This leads me to the second part of my conversation with Milo. I asked him if he had learned anything interesting in school lately and he told he me that he had been learning  about how the rhinoceros is an endangered species. He said they were being killed for their horns and that that was very sad. I asked him if he would be upset if he found out that wasps were an endangered species and he said wasps sting people and they are bad so it would be okay if they all died. I asked if he knew what wasps ate and if he understood that if there would be a lot more of whatever nasty stuff they dine on if there were no wasps. Of course his teacher had not mentioned any idea like that so this was lost on him. I asked if he was upset that people killed chickens and he said no because you can eat chickens. I said that you could eat rhinoceros as well and this was, of course, news to him.
My point is that the school, even when it teaches something that might not be on the test, still doesn’t teach kids to think hard about what they are talking about. It teaches truth. So while rhinoceros extinction may not be in the Common Core, memorization of officially approved facts certainly is. School ought not be about the teaching of officially approved truth.
And that, then, is why standardized testing is so awful. They don't test creative thinking or reasoning from evidence or how to have an argument.  They teach the truth. And the truth somehow always manages to include the quadratic formula but manages to exclude areas where the truth isn’t so clear.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

college is about status not education

I have friend who I won’t name who went to a university I won’t name. He is very proud of having gone to this particular school. He insists that is son will go there. He attends their football games regularly. He brags that he is the only member of his family who was ever admitted to that school.
Whenever he says something I think is silly, I make fun of him for not knowing much because he went to this dumb school. Now in fact, I don’t think the school he went to is dumb and I don’t think he is dumb but my razzing gets to him and we are friends so it just a way that we talk to each other.
The other day he insisted that his school was ranked in the top 20 universities in the country. This being my business I assured him that it was not and he got very angry and then eventually looked it up and realized that on some lists his school didn’t appear even in the top 200. Recently he bet me that his school was in the top 10 hardest schools to get into. Of course it was no where near that hard to get into.
Why am I telling this story? I do not believe that one receives a better education in one university than one receives in another (unless one is planning a research career in which case where you go to college may matter a great deal.) It doesn’t matter where he went to school, it does matter what he has done since school. But his alma mater matters to my friend a great deal.
When I moved, as a professor, from Yale to Northwestern, I was always being asked why I would make a move like that. People perceived me as moving down in class. And, I succumbing to the status issue we all live with, will usually respond “Yale” when asked where I was a professor if I don’t have the time to list all the places I have been.
This is the point. The obsession we have with going to college in this country, with test scores, with SATs, with rank in class, and so on is not an obsession about education at all. It is an obsession about status. If you can say you went to Harvard every one will say ooh and wow and suddenly people will believe you are very smart. 
Having taught at places that are thought of that way I can tell you that there are smart kids and there are dumb kids at all these places. What they have in common is an ability to please their teachers and do well on tests.
It is a very sad state of affairs that people spend tremendous amounts of money on exorbitant tuitions, push their kids from kindergarten onwards to get good grades, and obsess about test scores for small children, all in the name of status. Moreover, they attach status to schools that don’t even have that status. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the phrase “its a very good school” after having been told that someone’s kid went to some school no one ever heard of.
This isn’t just an American obsession of course. Exactly the same phenomenon exists in the UK down to even which college at Oxford is better than which other college and in France with the Grandes Ecoles and in every other country I know about.
I wish I could say it is all nonsense but it isn’t. Companies make hiring decisions based on which school one attended and your friends think about you differently based on which school you attended. But it is simply not about education in any way. A lecture is still boring everywhere. The same books and internet are available anywhere, and college has never actually been all that much about education any way. Graduate school maybe. College not so much.
We really have to start thinking about all this differently.
Here are some numbers to think about. Yale and Harvard are top research universities. They are really about researchers teaching students to do research. One out every 64,000 people in the US are researchers. On the other hand, there are 1 million lawyers, 6 million teachers, and 12 million health care workers. Colleges do not teach these three, graduate schools (and technical schools) do that.
Stop worrying about what college your first grader will go to. Leave him alone. Let him have fun and learn what he wants. Most of us never attended Yale (including me) and have managed happy lives.