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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

What do You Know About Japanese Education? Part 2

You can find the original “quiz” in Part 1.

4. Japanese students take responsibility for keeping their school clean.

False. It is true that Japanese schools do not hire custodians or janitors. I am going to quibble and say that while Japanese students are given the responsibility for keeping their school clean, it does not mean that students willingly or cheerfully take that responsibility. The school administration divides the school into several areas, and assigns one to each classroom. Japanese schools are organized according to groups of students. In elementary school there is a resident teacher for every classroom, but the classroom is labeled according to the class designation. For example, a classroom would be labeled “2nd Grade, 3rd group,” not “Mr. Oshiro.” In middle school and high school, there is no resident teacher, the students stay put, and the teacher comes to them each class period.

The class divides itself into groups of about five students. With a typical class of 45 students, there will be nine groups. Each group is put on a rotating roster. Every two months or so, the group will clean its assigned area after school every day for a week. I use the word “clean” advisedly. I guarantee that you do not want to be in a restroom at 4:00 pm. One day I was in the restroom when a student came in. She stuffed the end of a hose into the faucet on one of the sinks, turned on the water full force, put a thumb on the other end of the hose and proceeded to spray the restroom for a minute or two. She turned off the water, pulled the hose off the faucet and left, clearly satisfied that she had “cleaned” the restroom. The school allotted twenty minutes per day for cleaning.

Where was the rest of her group? They certainly were not occupied cleaning other parts of the school as might be expected. The students had long ago perceived that it did not take five people to “clean,” so every day they play “jankenpon” (paper, scissors, rock) to determine which person will clean while the other four take advantage of twenty minutes of free, unsupervised time. I wondered if I had witnessed an anomaly. I wandered all over the school, but apparently everyone was already done cleaning. From then on, I often made a point of wandering the halls at the stroke of four to see if what I had observed was typical. It was.

In the course of my job, it was my responsibility to teach at a number of public secondary schools. I had long noticed that schools were uniformly dingy and dirty, student responsibility or not, and now I knew why. Japanese schools are never clean to American standards, except right after “O-soji” days. O-soji literally means “big cleaning.” Once near the end of every quarter, and also the day before an important person visits, the students do a grand job of cleaning the school, a task that usually takes them several hours. The school is immaculate then.

5. Japanese students learn calculus in high school.

False. I first read this statement years ago in a report by Terrence Bell, a former Secretary of Education. During a trip to Japan, he had asked to visit a high school. “High School” is another one of those words the Japanese understand differently than we do. Mr. Bell knew that Japanese schools were fairly uniform throughout the country and he expected to be taken to a comprehensive high school. He came home without any apparent realization that he had not visited a comprehensive high school. Mr. Bell could not visit such a school; they do not exist in Japan.

There are three different kinds of high schools, administered separately, with separate missions, separate facilities, separate staff, separate everything. One kind of high school is the academic high school whose mission is college preparation. When Americans are taken to a “high school,” an academic high school is where they go. Another kind is the vocational high school, whose mission is to train mostly boys for vocational work. The third kind is the commercial high school, whose mission is to train mostly girls for work in companies. The status hierarchy roughly corresponds to the order I have listed them. The vocational and commercial high schools do not offer calculus.

Typically, when Americans ask to observe Japanese classes, they go to English and math classes on the reasonable assumption that as non-speakers of Japanese, they will be able to understand what is going on in those classes. As they walk around the class, they may see calculus on the textbook page. Again American assumptions color the interpretation of observations. If calculus is on the page, the students must be learning it, right? What most Americans do not understand is that while American schools target lessons to most of the class, Japanese schools target lessons to the top 5 percent of the class.

Japanese teachers deliver education, and they deliver the same education to everyone regardless of individual differences. They do not customize lessons to ensure learning for the majority of students in the class. Students usually do not understand the lesson material. Those that do understand probably studied it a couple days earlier in a juku, a private tutoring school. Juku try to stay a few lessons ahead of classroom teachers, a task made easier by the national curriculum with a predetermined scope and sequence.

6. The Japanese public school system is doing an excellent job of educating its citizens.

False. Some critics believe the Japanese public school system is doing a great job as evidenced by Japanese students' performance on international tests. Other critics argue that creativity and initiative are sacrificed to performance on tests. The problem with international tests comparing Japanese and American student achievement at the same age is that almost all Japanese students attend juku, the after-school tutoring schools, throughout their schooling, while almost no American students attend anything comparable. Juku are often innovative, experimental and operate at the bleeding edge of excellence in educational practice. In fact, it would be easy to argue that it is the juku, not the public school system, which are responsible for Japanese academic achievement.

The quality of education in Japanese schools is quite uniform throughout the country. Even the smallest rural school has a gymnasium, a library, and a fully appointed science lab. Although both Japanese schools and American schools are supported by taxes, in Japan the local tax base does not determine the affluence of a local school. Taxes are redistributed all over the country to ensure that every school meets certain facility requirements.

In order to prevent the drift of less competent teachers to poorer (usually rural) schools, all teachers are required to transfer every three years on an overlapping basis. No teacher becomes permanently installed in any school for an entire career. Seniority and other benefits transfer in full with the teacher. The district superintendents (kyoikucho) coordinate these transfers in consultation with the teachers. Teachers themselves may also initiate personal moves without loss of benefits.
A household move can be financially dangerous for an American teacher. The more experienced the teacher, the more fraught with economic risk an out-of-district move may be. It is often very difficult for seasoned American teachers to find employment in a new district. If they do find a new teaching position, they will be compelled to accept a steep pay cut because most districts give a maximum of seven year's credit on the pay scale, not the ten, fifteen or twenty years the teacher may actually bring to the district. Furthermore, American teachers may have to get a new teaching credential if they move to a different state. It is in the American teacher's interest to stay in one school district.

To be continued ...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

What do You Know About Japanese Education? Part 1

Here is a little quiz. Every one of these statements was taken from one Western publication or another. Which statements are true and which statements are false?

1. 99% of Japanese people are literate.
2. Japanese students must pass an entrance exam to get into high school.
3. Japanese teachers give lots of homework, even during summer vacation.
4. Japanese students take responsibility for keeping their school clean.
5. Japanese students learn calculus in high school.
6. The Japanese public school system is doing an excellent job of educating its citizens.
7. Japanese students behave better than American students.
8. Japanese students have more instructional days than American students.
9. Japanese educational standards are high.

99% of Japanese people are literate .
False. Americans expect that literacy means the ability to read with understanding nearly all the written material that is part of daily living, and to write whatever they need to write to conduct the business of life. For example, we expect that we can read newspapers, magazines, the names of food in a grocery store, bills that come to a house. I am not talking about a medical textbook, or a complicated study in an academic journal, just the everyday stuff. We expect that we can write informal letters to friends as well as business correspondence, and fill out forms, again everyday stuff.

Japanese literacy involves four different scripts. Hiragana is a phonetic script used for original Japanese words. Katakana is another phonetic script used for words that originated in other languages besides Japanese. Kanji, or Chinese characters, is a pictographic script. It is perfectly possible to read and comprehend Kanji without knowing the pronunciation.

All three scripts are used together in the same document, even the same sentence. If I wrote a simple sentence like, "I went to McDonalds" in Japanese, the word for "went" is "ikimashita." the "iki-" part is where the meaning resides and is written in Kanji. The "-mashita" part is the past tense conjugation and is written in hiragana. Of course McDonalds is written in katakana.
In fourth grade, students learn a fourth script, called Romaji, which means Roman letters. If a students writes the word "ikimashita" in Romaji (as I just did), the word is still Japanese, not English. The sounds are pretty close but do not precisely correspond to their English sounds.

Even literate Japanese people cannot compose a simple note to a friend without consulting the dictionary. A medical student whom everyone would agree is quite literate in Japanese might not be able to go to the grocery store and buy fish. The student knows the name of the fish but cannot recognize the written name on the label. It would be like an American going to the grocery and being unable to read the label to determine which package is a porterhouse steak and which is a T-bone steak. Literacy is very situational and the literacy of a Japanese housewife might be qualitatively different than the literacy of a Japanese banker.

Japanese people define literacy differently than the US does. The 99 percent literacy rate cannot be used as evidence that Japanese education is superior because it is not measuring the level of functional literacy Americans assume. Even well-educated Japanese are not literate in the sense most Americans recognize. The 99 percent literacy rate is referring to hiragana which is mastered by the second grade. The functional literacy of adult Japanese is far lower than 99 percent, at least by American standards. With four scripts to learn, the incredible complexity of Japanese literacy can be a hindrance to the functionality. Having to learn four different alphabets just to function does not make one more literate.

We all have a tendency to subconsciously read through the lens of our own experience. We read “literacy” and think of literacy as we know it. We read “pass an entrance exam” and think passing in Japan is the same as passing in America. So it goes with almost everything we read about Japanese education. Japanese and American educators may enthusiastically endorse “equal education,” but Americans would never endorse what the Japanese mean by the term. They mean that every child should receive exactly the same education regardless of individual differences. Parents insist on differentiation, believing anything else would be unfair bias.

We might think if the Japanese person does not know a word, they can just look it up in a dictionary. Again, we would be assuming something about Japanese dictionaries. We would be assuming that Kanji are listed alphabetically. They are listed numerically. First you have to count the number of strokes in the radical (a basic meaningful component). If the radical has 5 strokes for example, you first find that radical among all the 5-stroke radicals. Then you have to count the rest of the strokes in the character and look for the character among all the other characters with the same number of strokes. Japanese people are perfectly fine with using a dictionary to write even an informal note. Americans would not usually consider someone who needed to look words up so often as functionally literate. In fact, when that medical student becomes a doctor, he will write medical records, not in any of the four Japanese scripts, but in English. Until relatively recently, Japanese doctors wrote medical records in German.

Japanese students must pass an entrance exam to get into high school.
False. I discussed the high school entrance exam in an article published in the Oct 1993 issue of the Kappan. I found that article on the web reprinted without my permission here under another author's name. After the opening introduction, the balance of this online article is my article verbatim with no source cited.

The following is an account of 15 years of teaching in both the private and public schools in Okinawa City, Japan. Susan Goya has reported the following facts about Japanese schooling.

Americans think a Japanese student must pass an entrance exam to attend high school, but it is a test of elimination. If there are 300 freshman slots available and 304 students apply, the test is given to eliminate four students. Passing scores can be as low as 5 percent.

On the other hand, competition for admission to universities and even to some prestigious high schools is truly fierce, because there are so few slots and so many applicants. Students preparing for a university entrance exam study not only academic material, but also statistics on the minimum passing score for each major in each college of interest to them - to determine where their best chances lie.

The Japanese people themselves perennially criticize the entrance exams, especially those for university, lamenting the “exam hell” that generation after generation has had to endure. The information necessary to pass university entrance exams is comparable to the information an American student with a Bachelor's degree is presumed to know. Japanese students must declare their major before they take the entrance exam for their target university. Most of the exams are given on the same days so it quite difficult to take the exam for a number of universities.

Changing majors is a huge undertaking. The student must retake the entrance exam for the new major and compete afresh for a slot along with all other students declaring the same major. Remember, passing an entrance exam has nothing to do with reaching a certain proscribed level of performance. It means doing well enough to avoid being eliminated. It has often been said that in Japan, the end goal is to get into college; while in America the end goal is to get out of college. Nearly all Japanese students will graduate college once they have been admitted.

Japanese teachers give lots of homework, even during summer vacation.

False. As I pointed earlier, and it bears repeating, the main problem with almost everything we read about Japanese education is filtered through our own cultural filter. We read "literacy" and think it means the same as the American concept of literacy. We read "pass a test" and think it means achieve to a certain predetermined standard. Likewise, we read "summer vacation" and think it means the interlude between grade levels.

The Japanese school year is twelve months long, from March to April. Summer vacation is about six weeks long. Teachers often assign a project. The teacher may specify the parameters of the project, or they may ask students to propose their own projects. During the year very little homework is assigned. Students do all the work for each class in separate bound notebooks. When the teacher does assign homework, the students submit the entire notebook. Since there are usually 45 students in a class, this means the teacher will be obliged to carry 45 notebooks back to the central teachers' room.

Japanese elementary teachers are assigned classrooms, but secondary teachers are not. In America, the students move from class to class; in Japan, the teachers move. The classroom belongs to a particular group of 45 students who spend pretty much the whole day there except for some specialty classes. The teachers have all their desks, as many as 60 arranged in rows, in the teachers' room. They go to class when the bell rings, and come back to their desk when class is over. Teachers have told me that it is just too much trouble to carry all those notebooks back and forth, and besides they do not like to have the students' notebooks in their possession because the notebooks contain all the work. In their view, if the teacher has the notebook, clearly the student does not, and therefore the students will be unable to study until they get their notebooks back.

(I suggested using three-ring binders so students could submit one sheet of paper as they do in America. Japanese teachers rejected my suggestion. In their opinion, students would quickly become disorganized and lose work with such a system).

Although teachers infrequently assign homework, it does not mean that students do not study. Either they study on their own initiative, or more likely, they attend juku, private after-school tutoring schools. American students do a lot more teacher-assigned homework, a lot less self-initiated study, but international studies suggest American students have little to show for all the teacher-directed study. ”

To be continued.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

In Loco Parentis Or Who's the Boss?

I used to have a benign view of the implications of in loco parentis (Latin: in place of the parents) acquired in my education coursework oh so long ago it seems. I recently did some research on the history and application of the doctrine of in loco parentis, and found it to be more all-encompassing than I had thought. At school open houses, I used to joke that in loco parentis did not mean “the parents are crazy.” I explained that according to the law parents are responsible for the education of the children, but parents subcontract that job to the schools, so schools are accountable to the parents. Similarly, although I am responsible for the maintenance of my home, I might subcontract, for instance, a plumbing job, and the plumber would be accountable to me.

I decided to investigate claims such as this one that in loco parentis is not so benign. These sources believe the doctrine is no more than a ploy of the state to usurp parental authority to raise their children as they see fit. At least that is the raison d'etre for The Alliance for the Separation of School and State , a right-wing site. Historically, courts had long held that a father's authority over his children was inviolate, stemming form the Roman legal doctrine, patria potestas.

Blackstone explained the delegation of authority aspect:

The rights of schools over their pupils were codified before the U.S. Constitution was written. In 1765 the legal scholar Sir William Blackstone wrote that, when sending kids to school, Dad "may also delegate part of his parental authority, during his life to the tutor or schoolmaster of the child; who is then in loco parentis, and has such a portion of the power of the parents committed to his charge." (my bold)

But I could not find an authoritative explicit statement anywhere that reflects the doctrine of in loco parentis the way I had always understood it. In fact, I found that as far as the schools were considered, the main value of the doctrine was in allowing schools to harshly punish students in ways traditionally reserved to the father.
By far the most common usage of in loco parentis relates to teachers and students. For hundreds of years, the English common-law concept shaped the rights and responsibilities of public school teachers: until the late nineteenth century, their legal authority over students was as broad as that of parents...


For example, in 1977, the Supreme Court held that the disciplinary paddling of public school students was not a Cruel and Unusual Punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment (Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651, 97 S. Ct. 1401, 51 L. Ed. 2d 711), and that students who were disciplined in a school setting were not denied due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Or here:
Students got whatever rights their school administrators saw fit to give. At Harvard in 1951, the Administrative Board could tell reporters that it would increase the punishment for a window smashing -- by however much it wanted -- "if a student's name is on the police blotter or in the Boston press." That was the power of in loco parentis.

The doctrine can cut both ways, Universities are in trouble for recommending student loan lenders who have a financial relationship with the school.
Bribes, or to put it euphemistically, incentives, require two actors: the giver and the receiver. Lenders are at fault for offering such inappropriate gifts and incentives to university officials, but unscrupulous university officials bear just as much blame for accepting these gifts. As administrators of educational institutions that not only teach, but also care for their students, financial aid officials are acting in loco parentis. They should be giving the same unbiased financial advice that a parent would give to her child, particularly because many students have little experience with financial planning when they take out their first student loan.

In loco parentis has taken on new meaning as epitomized by the title of this article, “In loco parentis: helping children when families fail them.” Schools have taken on more and more of the responsibilities traditionally reserved for parents. Parents welcome breakfast, lunch, daycare, counseling, health care services and more provided by the school, especially if the services are free. A principal in a Northern California elementary school told me the school spends so much time, money and effort on the delivery of these auxiliary services that the main mission of the school, education, is neglected.

School people complain about parental abdication while at the same time sending clear signals that parents are inadequate. Parents talking to teachers are talking to people who usually consider themselves experts, not co-collaborators. After all, the teachers are the ones with the teaching credential. My children's teachers would talk down to me until they learned I was a teacher. The change in their attitude and approach was instantaneous. Teachers entertain themselves in the teachers' lounge with stories of ridiculous parents, while parents tell their friends equally incredible stories of ridiculous teachers.

It is perfectly obvious that teacher credentialing has nothing to do with teacher quality. It only certifies that the teachers have been exposed to whatever information the state wants then exposed to. States have differing and often arbitrary requirements for teacher certification. Teachers who come from a different training environment (e.g. Montessori, Waldorf, etc) or who received their training in a different country may have different political views of education and be wonderful teachers anyway. We have to wonder why some states require homeschooling parents to be state certified to teach their own children. Even though I came back from Japan with a truly awesome teaching resume, it was illegal for me to teach my own children in California.

In order to homeschool in California, the parent must establish a private school using the same paperwork as any other private school. Or the parent can enroll their children in the independent study program of a public school where the coordinator of the program oversees the child's education. The schools often use the independent study program as an alternative to expulsion. In a strange reversal of in loco parentis, the state to whom the parents are delegating the education of the child re-delegates that responsibility back to the parents and controls the parents' efforts to teach their child. The in loco parentis gate swings wildly on its hinges.

Parents can be forgiven for suspecting that the state wants to control the transmission of culture and values to the next generation. Homeschoolers, even nonreligious ones, understandably want to take back their children. Some have even gone to jail because of hostile superintendents of education. The Home School Legal Defense Fund (HSLDF) has extensively documented the level of control states may seek to exert and the legal actions states have initiated, ostensibly because the education of future citizens is in the state's interest. Parents suspect that state funding for enrollment is the true reason. Many homeschoolers operate underground to avoid state meddling.

States worry that if homeschoolers were not highly regulated, the children would receive an inadequate education. On the contrary, parents who voluntarily choose to homeschool are clearly and highly committed to the education of their children. Homeschooled children typically attain exceptionally high levels of academic achievement. In the view of these parents, schools have betrayed their trust and have overstepped the responsibilities of in loco parentis. That is why they have boycotted public and private schools.

For an overview of homeschooling and a list of links, see this website.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Problem of Gratuitous Self-Esteem in Schools

In this Daily Kos diary there was a comment which got my attention, especially this part:

We have had a surge of self-esteem exercises and students think they are amazing if they bring a pencil.

A psychologist I knew was dismayed that her college interns expected lavish praise for merely doing the minimum. Students have been trained by years of marble jars on teachers' desks to seek validation for trivial reasons because they are starved for real self-esteem based on genuine success instead of the fake success offered in schools today.

The solution is the skillful interlacing of the five strands of success:
1.High expectations
2.Intrinsic rewards
3.Instructional planning
4.Classroom management

High expectations

We do not really expect much from students or respect their capabilities. One parent told me that it was unreasonable to expect seventh graders to remember to write their names on their papers. Another parent told me that it was the teacher's job to make sure students have fun in school. Any teacher could go on and on about parents. I am saying that the school system itself does not expect all that much. As just one example, many people believe they cannot draw because they have no talent. We call a certain school program “Talented and Gifted” because of an underlying societal belief that the ability to achieve is basically a gift, not something that can be learned. I have observed many instances of the accomplishments of young children, accomplishments achieved with no observable stress or deprivation.

1.During my twenty years overseas, I met many kindergärtners fluent in at least two languages, languages they acquired with no apparent effort in the normal course of growing up.
2.I have seen children in Montessori schools learn an incredible amount of solid math reasoning without picking up a pencil or paper. Some of these students excelled at algebra in the fifth grade and calculus at the age of fourteen, all the while reveling in the fun of math.
3.I witnessed first, second and third graders at Bob Hope Primary School, Okinawa, master basic principles of two dimensional art (light and shadow, proportion, point of view, shading, composition, color basics and color mixing). It was clear that with appropriate guidance all children could demonstrate technical skill regardless of innate talent.
4.I watched a group of about twelve homechoolers aged 8-15 perform the culminating piece of a major project. They had researched and written a play about the immigrant experience at Ellis Island. The project also included an immigrant fair where the the community participated in a reenactment of the Ellis Island intake procedures. I played the part of the registering official, speaking only in Japanese to simulate mutually unintelligible languages. The kids, including my children, worked hard but loved every minute of it.
5.I have conducted biology and chemistry labs for homeschoolers. Although the labs were designed to help high school aged students fulfill state requirements for lab science, the younger siblings were completely enthralled with the labs. I let children as young as nine or ten participate. They had no trouble using the equipment, following lab and experimental procedures, recording data and discussing the analysis of the data. The only area where their skill was not the equal of the older students was the lab write-up. It was an eyeopening experience for me.
6.I knew a ten-year old who had a semester-long apprenticeship with a local veterinarian every Friday. His job was to do the dirty work and keep his eyes open. The vet told me he had to let the boy go after about three months when he discovered that the certified lab tech had foisted her duties (like prepping a cat for surgery) on him. (Personally, I think the vet should have fired the vet tech but it was none of my business).

Children thrive in an environment of high, yet achievable expectations.

Intrinsic rewards

Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University has found that intrinsic rewards lead to more lasting achievement with more positive affective results. Students are much happier with successes associated with intrinsic rewards. Nevertheless, teachers receive a ton of training in the design and implementation of classroom token economies. Research has also shown that when the extrinsic rewards are withdrawn achievement levels fall.

Instructional Planning

There is a reason why genuine educational success is an interwoven braid. Strong instructional planning contributes to achievement. Montessori schools are well structured. The art lessons were organized in a logical sequence. Instructional experiences were not only well-planned, but were also open-ended enough to allow students room to shine.

Classroom Management

It is obvious that classroom management has to contribute to high achievement. But classroom management means much more than discipline. It includes, for example, arranging the furniture and establishing routines. I put my desk in front of the chemical cabinet in my science classes, sending a clear “Off Limits” message since students are reluctant to go behind the teacher's desk. Well established and well rehearsed routines greatly reduce the potential for disruption and waste of instructional time.


Naturally, the opportunity for genuine success encouraged by the other four strands is a great motivator. It has been said that nothing succeeds like success. Gratuitous success does not genuinely raise self-esteem; real success does.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Technology has Betrayed Education

Technology was supposed to revolutionize education. Schools went for technology in a big way. Technology, for most schools, meant computers. Apple gave a boatload of computers to schools all over the country. Administrators contracted professional development training in technology for practicing teachers. Colleges of education created technology courses for teaching candidates, first as electives, and eventually as requirements, in many certification programs. Foundations began mandating a technology component in grant proposals as a condition for receiving funding. Society expected schools to provide computers either in stand-alone computer labs or in classrooms. Virtually every school in America has computers available for student use.


Schools have computers and they have been using them. A few schools got on the computer bandwagon early, in the 1980's, when the first widely available computers stored data on cassette tapes. By the 1990's, a whole generation of primary children grew up with DOS-based programs like Reader Rabbit and Oregon Trail. A program called Operation Frog was a great help in teaching my junior high students anatomy and allowing them to virtually not only dissect a frog, but put it back together again.

It has been over a quarter century, and now we know computers were not the panacea everyone expected. Why would we have thought they could be? Common sense tells us that people have achieved high levels of academic achievement for hundreds, even thousands, of years, long before computers were invented. There is a school, Waldorf , dedicated to the proposition that computers are not only not necessary, but also potentially detrimental.

In the late 1990's, I judged a science fair that led me to agree with Waldorf. Most of the judges were mothers who may or may not have understood the judging criteria. Nearly all the projects were prepared with a computer; a number were nothing more than cut and paste jobs from Internet sources. One submission stood out. Prepared by a Waldorf student, it looked like a project from the 1960's. It was a beautifully hand-colored project about the solar system. According to the evaluations, most of the judges down-rated the project because it did not possess the glitzy appearance that computer graphics and typefaces gave all the other projects. The actual content, the quality of the research and written text, meant nothing.


Undoubtedly, there are teachers who have exploited the potential of computers to enhance students' educational experience and achievement. But in general, computers have been less than helpful:
1. Computers are handy for keeping disruptive students occupied and out of trouble.
2. Computers are overused for drill and kill.
3. Learning to read on computers is not the same as learning to read the printed page. Eyes scan a screen differently than they scan a printed page. Distance issues and posture problems (see photo bottom of page 10) with the neck are also evident.

4. Digital math manipulatives are unclear. The transformations seem too magical and often fail to communicate the mathematical process.
5. The focus of education has shifted from knowledge and applications of knowledge to information access. We have often heard that that the important thing is finding information, not knowing information.
a) Students no longer need to know their math facts—just pull out the calculator. However, students often fail to evaluate the reasonableness of a calculator answer. Furthermore, even at the college level, students use the calculator for trivial math. I did an experiment with a math class recently where I allowed them to freely use calculators for a test. I walked around and watched their inputs. It was surprising how many felt the necessity to input calculations like -2+1. Some of them complained that they did not have enough class time to finish the test.
b) Students often do not have enough knowledge to figure out what search terms they should use to find more information on a given topic. Worse, they frequently cannot evaluate the credibility of web sites.
c) Students fail to use the Internet to find or confirm knowledge when they need it. They frequently believe they already know enough. They take these habits into adulthood. A good example are the numbers of young people who got into predatory mortgages by relying on the representations of the loan officer. Famous last words: So and so told me....
6. For a while spelling went out the window as students whined, “Why do I need to learn to spell? the computer can spellcheck.” Email could not even spellcheck for a long time.
7. Students are not learning to create complete presentations; they merely read their PowerPoint slides.
8. Students are developing little tolerance for teachers who use “old” technology like overhead projectors, or no technology like blackboards or whiteboards, believing their education is somehow being shortchanged by the absence of current technology. Such a misplaced belief can contribute to student bad behavior.
9. More examples?

Positive Uses

Nevertheless, computers can be used positively in schools:
1. Computers can be used to teach computers. Most employers want employees to be able to use at least the Microsoft software, Word, Excel and sometimes PowerPoint. Everyone should know how to use a word processor and be able to find and evaluate information on the Internet. Some employers expect employees to use other commercially available programs like QuickBooks and/or be computer savvy enough to quickly master a proprietary program like Raintree for medical offices.
2. Computers can be used to train and enhance certain skills students are already using. In the work world, employees train with Computer Based Training (CBT) wherein they develop skills they are using everyday. The software is integrated with what students are actually doing rather than teaching them to do something they may or may not do.

Actually Nos. 1 and 2 go together. Learning to use the computer to produce a useful project and actually not only complete the project but use the skills ever after. In the early 1990's, I taught math, science, and computer to junior high students. I fully integrated all three subjects, rearranging the math and science curriculum to enhance each other and teaching students to use the computer to, for example, produce data tables and lab reports. In those days, the computers in my school did not have the Internet. Anybody remember those days?

Computers are an important tool in modern life, but they are only tools. Technology can only supplement fundamentally sound education, not produce such an education.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Schools are in the Business of Creating Low Achievement

Currently education reforms efforts operate like cosmetic concealer. Reformers focus on superficial solutions when the problems are profound. Researchers often fail to identify unexamined assumptions, leading to fatal flaws in the research. A good example is test scores. Test scores are low so we need to raise them. So we mandate and implement all sorts of myopic strategies for raising test scores. Then if test scores go up, the cosmetic concealer has been successfully applied and we can declare the problem solved. These strategies are myopic because they do not begin to address the deeply embedded, underlying features of the system. As long as superficial features take up our time and attention, we hardly notice, much less address, the deep systemic problems.

The public accepts increased test scores as an encouraging sign of improving academic achievement, in part because powerful education stakeholders, via the media, have conditioned us to consider test scores an acceptable proxy for achievement. Whether test scores do indeed serve as a valid proxy is a major unexamined assumption. Once in a while, the public becomes aware of an incongruity in the assumption. But we do not stop to question it closely.

For example, in the case of Head Start, whose goal is to give kids the advantages and opportunities they might not be receiving at home, early gains are lost by the third grade. Why is this happening? What is going on in school that is undermining the progress that the kids have already achieved? Is their achievement leaking out? Was it never there to begin with? Or is there a problem with the tests? The public simply is not demanding answers. On the contrary, society seems resigned to accepting low levels of academic achievement. Why could that be?

Let's ask Judge Joe Brown, an African-American TV judge, on Fox TV. On May 9, 2008, speaking to an African-American defendant, the judge declared, “There are not enough jobs to go around. So society is depending on people like you to get themselves in trouble, get locked up, and take themselves out of the job market.” Judge Joe Brown did not originate this idea; sociologists have been saying the same thing for fifty years. The judge is right. The unemployment rate is about 5 percent right now. Imagine what the rate would be if all people were educated to their full potential and much fewer were warehoused in prisons. Think too of all the people the criminal justice system supports. According to at least one account, criminal justice is one of the biggest growing occupational fields today. People who have accomplished high levels of academic achievement expect to be rewarded with a relatively high level job. Society needs to create people to take what society deems to be low level jobs. A PhD does not want to drive a taxi.

So children are legally compelled to go to school where they are exposed day after day and year after year to being molded to the specifications of society. One of the ways school shapes children is through a combination of low expectations and mislabeling the curriculum. Here are some examples:

1.Critical Thinking

What passes for critical thinking is not critical thinking. A second grade critical thinking workbook (critical thinking workbook? a workbook?) asks, Do you like African elephants or Asian elephants? Curriculum tells students year in and year out that any kind of opinion is critical thinking. In college, students often misinterpret an evaluative essay question to be an opinion question. When they lose points, they complain that everyone is entitled to their opinion and therfore there are no right or wrong answers to opinion questions. If so, there would be no point in ever having essays questions which ask for an opinion.

They do not understand that an opinion may be well defended or poorly defended. They have become used to assignments for which they are asked to give opinions without basis. For example, after a lesson on global warming, they typically might be asked how they would solve the problem. Scientists themselves have not figured that one out. Students are also encouraged to consider responses that are tantamount to “I think because I think” to be excellent critical thinking because they get good grades when they write such nonsense. After a lesson on the features of viruses and the debate among scientists as to whether viruses are living things, students might be asked whether they think viruses are living things. The most obvious approach would be to compare viruses to the characteristics of living things and evaluate whether they measure up or not. A response like, “I do not think viruses are living things because I think only living things can make other living things sick” is worthless.

Critical thinking is not just another subject like math or art. Critical thinking is integrative and interdisciplinary requiring research, analysis, synthesis, evaluation and defense. It is not supposed to be just one more piece of an already fragmented curriculum. By mislabeling poor thinking as “critical thinking,” schools betray that they do not really expect students to exhibit good thinking.


There are lots of good reasons to integrate the curriculum. For one, an integrated curriculum reflects the integrated nature of real life problems and promotes critical thinking. In practice, integrated curriculum is nothing but themed units. For example, the teacher might pick “the ocean” as a theme. In reading class, the story will involve the ocean somehow. Science may involve a topic from oceanography. The story problems for math will add and subtract fishes or shells or whatever. In reality the curriculum is as disjointed as it ever was.

At the next level, if “the ocean” is the organizing concept, then maybe the teacher would show how to determine the age of clam shells, or how Fibonaci numbers work in the spiral of sea shells. At an even higher level, the teacher would choose math, literature, science, social studies, art, and music topics where the ocean is integral to understanding the connections between the topics. In “The Old Man and the Sea,” Hemingway describes the anatomical effects of the old man's battle with the fish. This would be a good time to study the anatomy Hemingway describes. The anatomy illuminates the novel and the novel illustrates the anatomy. It would also be a good time to study not only Cuba, but American expatriates in Cuba. I am not saying that elementary teachers should teach Hemingway, but how about a fifth grade book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” What an opportunity for a compelling social studies unit. By mislabeling themed units as integration, schools betray that they do not really expect students to synthesize knowledge.


Grades are intended to be a reflection of understanding, but they can be more like a fun house mirror with a distorted reflection. The problem is students do not know they are looking at a distorted reflection. A good grade is taken to indicate solid understanding. Students who get an “A” in math thus "know" they are good at math. However, the “A” may only mean the student has a good memory for recipes. The student is able to remember and execute accurately the mechanical recipe for solving a particular type of problem. A student can go a long time like that, but sooner or later, very often in algebra class, they find out they never really had a profound understanding of math. I cannot tell you how many struggling algebra students have complained that they do not understand why they are having so much trouble with algebra because they have always gotten an “A” in math. I often find they are harboring basic misunderstandings of place value, fractions, and other topics.

I surprise college students on a regular basis by telling them that they will not be able to earn an “A” or “B” by relying on partial credit. Too many of them respond as if I were breaching some implicit unwritten social contract. By mislabeling good grades as evidence of understanding, schools betray that they do not really expect deep levels of understanding because such understanding is not essential to earning a good grade.

Many educational buzzwords mislabel, resulting in a kind of Newspeak that allows society to maintain a structure for perpetuating and reinforcing the status quo. Here are few for the dear reader to think about: empower, diversity, self esteem, mentoring, student-centered, collaboration. I will leave it to you to consider how such words obscure more than they elucidate. Perhaps some of you will be able to add other words to the list.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Why “Good” Schools Need “Bad” Schools

Good schools need bad schools. That is one reason education reform cannot work. Here-today-gone-tomorrow education fads give the appearance of constant effort, keeping researchers employed, giving administrators something to implement, and making busy teachers even busier. These fads, masquerading as reform efforts, deflect attention from the need to maintain bad” schools for the benefit of “good” schools.

Standardized tests drive this strange relationship. Most standardized tests are norm-referenced as opposed to criterion-referenced. Norm-referenced tests compare the test taker to the whole population of test takers. Criterion-referenced tests compare the test taker to a set of criteria.

Therefore, norm-referenced tests often express the score in terms of percentile. For example, if you score at the 85th percentile, it means you did better than 85 percent of the test takers. By definition, the 50th percentile means that half the test takers did better than the other half, and half the test takers did worse than the other half. Percentile deems the median to be the average. It does not matter how well a student learned or how well the teacher taught, half of the students are destined to be "below average" on a norm-referenced test (like nearly all standardized tests). Therefore the main problem with percentile is that the existence of a schools with above average performance necessitates the existence of schools with below average performance. It is impossible for all boats to rise.

A second problem with norm-referencing is the inherent competition. Academic achievement is an individual, personal achievement, or should be. All children have the potential to improve their academic achievement; all boats have the potential to rise. Norm-referencing undermines that potential. A third problem with norm-referencing is that it can actually disguise truly poor performance with a mask of apparent excellent performance. A bad score could be better than the 95% worse scores. A misleadingly high percentile could give the test taker a false sense of their performance. A fourth problem is that not all norm-referenced tests are expressed as percentiles. A good example is SAT tests which seem to be in terms of an actual score, but actually the scores are recalibrated periodically to ensure the mean and the median are the same.

Research has shown that time on task under the guidance of a skilled teacher is the major determinant of academic achievement. Every test reduces instructional time. It is ironic that so-called experts who should know better recommend more testing as the answer. Classroom teachers do not need tests to know how their students are doing. The system, however, does require some nominally “objective” measure of student performance. Maybe we can live with some tests; what we do not need is more tests, especially more norm-referenced tests.