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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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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lake Wobegone of the Future

What would happen if some popular policies of today were taken to their logical conclusion? If all the children are above average, would they not be “re-centered” like SAT tests? I do not know if the author, Richard Salsbury, pondered the question when he wrote his story Law of Averages. Maybe he did. But whether he did or not, the story reads like a parody of all that is wrong with education today.

It is the meritocracy turned on its head in the name of preserving the self esteem of all. (Snark alert)

“ are other kids supposed to cope if they think you're above Average?"

Although the story takes place fifty years in the future, but even today there are many students who hide their academic achievement in self defense. Even if they go ahead and achieve, it may mean they are in the job market before society is ready for them, like the boy I know who graduated with a degree in chemistry when he was eighteen. No one wants an eighteen year old chemist, Doogie Howser not withstanding.

Girls have been playing dumb forever.

"Honey, think about this: what are you going to do if you score too highly in a knowledge test*?"
     "Well I haven't so far, have I? It's easy to fool them. I know how much the others know and I just answer the questions as if I were one of them."
     "That's not going to work forever. These tests are designed to catch you out...”

"The point is, Hannah, that people feel bad if someone else knows more than they do."

Because we all know how important self esteem** is. That is why everyone gets a certificate of participation at science fairs these days. Maybe the student's science fair project is nothing but an Internet cut-and-paste job, but as long as they feel good about themselves...

In the education system of the future, teachers can be called on the carpet for even so much as threatening to punish a student for misbehavior. But Hannah's teacher, a rebel in the mold of 1984's Winston Smith, recognizes Hannah's potential and takes the chance.

In the first private lesson (Hannah's teacher) ever gave me, she said, "If you are ever less than convincing (about publicly being only average) I will have you punished."
     That made me realise how serious she was, and how trusting - I could have reported her for threatening me.


They called a trauma counsellor for me. She said it must have been a terrible shock to be punished for misbehaving...

There was one student who the teacher knew was below average.

Lois surreptitiously tore the sheet (upon which she had been skillfully sketching a portrait of the teacher) off her pad and screwed it up into a ball. "You think I'm stupid, don't you?" she said.
     There was an intake of breath from the class. They weren't used to hearing language like that.
     "No, Lois," Mrs. Jeffries said, "you're Average, like everyone else here...

You're all more clever than I am," (Lois) muttered.
     Mrs. Jeffries saw her chance, and replied thunderously. "I will not have language like that in my class, do you understand?""

In Mrs. Jeffries view, Lois is not merely below average, but a danger to everyone else. So she does something about it.

"Lois, listen to me. Your last score in the knowledge test was Average. No matter what else happens, that's what matters. You're no different from anyone else."

Ask any middleschooler. Being different from everyone else is the kiss of death.

"Listen, Hannah. If she fails a knowledge test then she'll be made to sit two more, and if her score is low on all three they'll take ... some very drastic measures."
     "How drastic?"
     "They can't make Lois any more intelligent, so they'll lower the standard across the country; they'll make Lois' level of ability the new Average. They think it's fair to do that. A computer will automatically rewrite the curriculum and ... young people will be even more stupid." She started chewing her lip. "You can see now why I changed her marks."
     "But ... there must be other children below Average."
     She nodded. "I think most of them skip school altogether - they can't face the shame. But Lois' parents think she's Average. They insist she attends."

Lois' parents remind me of parents we have all seen, except they insist that their children must participate in the gifted program. I don't know why. Society attributes no more genuine prestige to the gifted than it does to teachers.

But the teacher's efforts were in vain. She loses her job, and there is no one to change Lois' marks on the next test go-around. Hannah hears an announcement at an assembly and draws her own conclusions.

The presenter cheerfully called it "a set of improvements to the education system, designed to make it more fair."
     What he meant to say was: "They tested Lois Durrell and found out she was stupid, so to make sure she doesn't feel bad about it, everyone else from now on will be stupid too."

Nevertheless, Hannah recognizes, if dimly that maybe Lois was above average after all.

When I saw that sketch you were doing of Mrs. Jeffries I felt jealous. That's why I said it was rubbish - to cover up for the fact that the exact opposite was true. I always wanted to be able to draw like that. I rescued that piece of paper from the bin and it's become my most treasured possession.

*I am not a Wikipedia fan, but this article is a comprehensive and well-cited overview of SAT history and issues. There has been so much tinkering, some justified, some questionable, that no knows for sure how to interpret them.

**A typical statement of the popular view of self esteem.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Education Professors: Blind Leading the Blind?

I don't know about you, but my education students have often groused about what they perceive as the lack of teaching experience among those tasked to teach them how to teach. Every term, after my self introduction, my students come and tell me how happy they are to finally have a professor with significant teaching experience. But my students are only speculating. Perhaps they surmise a lack of experience because their other professors do not claim any when they introduce themselves.

On the other hand, I found myself also often speculating. I would listen to my colleagues and shake my head. Once I checked all the online resumes of my colleagues in the education department. I was disappointed. Most of my fellow education professors lacked what I would consider significant teaching experience. Maybe they spent some time as a guest in an elementary or secondary classroom for the purpose of completing a thesis or dissertation. But real, in-the-trenches experience? Not there. I mean, the kind of experience where you are held responsible for the academic achievement of anywhere from 20 to 180 students at a time while receiving no administrative support and routinely suffering the indignation of having your professional judgment undermined, because as everyone knows, US teachers are no good. The experience of maintaining classroom control in difficult circumstances. The experience of being called a professional while expected to teach from a scripted, “teacher-proof” curriculum.

Most of my colleagues had never really taught students. For many years afterwards, I wondered if my university was unique, or if the lack of teaching experience is a common characteristic across the board, anywhere in the country. I knew conducting such a study would be difficult. Department chairs would be unlikely to grant me access to curricula vita, the fancy academic term for resumes. I did not want to conduct a survey. Respondents self-select, and I was not sure I would be able to trust the data. Respondents often try to tell you what they think you want to hear, or what will reflect positively on them.

I made an attempt to find resumes online, just as I had for my own university, but the results were sparse. Intermittently I repeated the attempt. In November 2009, I finally felt I got enough hits in my Google search to take a random sample. I did not include myself even though I have decades of teaching experience. I could have collected data from hundreds of resumes, but after seventy I got tired. It seemed I had more than enough. A clear picture was emerging.

A full 25 out of 70 resumes had no teaching experience listed. However, I cannot positively conclude that the professor had no significant teaching experience, only that there was none listed. It is possible the professor omitted it from the resume. People often leave earlier job experiences off resumes in favor of more recent experience. If I were looking at typical one-to-two page resumes, omission of early experience is perfectly sensible---except these online resumes were very long and detailed. They can run to ten pages or more, and list every conference or workshop ever attended, every publication even if only a letter to an editor, and evidently, every education job ever held.

I can only speculate why so many professors of education neglect to list any teaching experience. The most ready conjecture is that professors who list no teaching experience actually have none. But in the interest of being fair, I will only go so far as to say 36% of education professors did not list teaching experience. I did not count what appeared to be short-term guest appearances or student-teaching experience. Many of the professors who did have significant teaching experience had never been student-teachers. The student-teaching requirement is actually fairly recent. I, myself, with 35 years of teaching experience have never been a student teacher.

Another 26% either did not specify the number of years teaching or taught three years or less. In fact, a mere two years is the most common number for years of experience, accounting for 9 out of 70 resumes. Therefore, a total of 43 education professors (61%) our of 70 have little or no significant teaching experience. Furthermore, what teaching experience there is tends to be very old. Thirty professors have not taught for twenty years or more. Only five had teaching experience within the present century.

The big surprise was that my random sample turned up two very famous and well-published education professors. One had zero experience listed; the other taught high school math for two years in the early seventies. I have greatly appreciated the published insights of both of these professors over the years, and have cited them liberally during my long career. Clearly their lack of “significant” teaching experience has been no disadvantage to them. It makes me wonder how important experience really is.

The student we can observe most closely is ourselves. Perhaps careful reflection on the eighteen plus years each of us spent as students can be nearly as informative as actual experience. Perhaps education students are asking the wrong question. It is not how many years of experience, but what was learned from experience. An old quip asserts that some veteran teachers have twenty years experience, while others have one year twenty times.

The picture of professor teaching experience is not entirely bleak. The good news is that 8 of 70 professors (11%) had more than ten years. The professor with the most experience had 17 years. Half of the professors with more than ten years of teaching experience got that experience in the 1980's. There was one professor with 16 years experience whose last year of school teaching was 2005.

Recency by itself may not be relevant. Naturally, older professors likely taught longer ago than younger professors. It is also not clear if professors do anything to stay in touch. I teach summer school in a kid's program held at a community college. I fully recognize that my summer school teaching is significantly different than academic year teaching. I do not assign homework, give tests or grade performance. Things are pretty laid back. Discipline is rarely an issue. As an aside, I have observed that student learning in this no-stress summer school environment is not less than in an stressful academic year environment.

I teach both “fun” subjects, and academic subjects designed to supplement their regular school curriculum. Kids sign themselves up for the fun subjects, and parents sign them up for the academic subjects because “it will be good for them.” There is quite a bit of student resistance to the academic subjects. Sometimes I win them over before the end of the session, sometimes not. I often feel if the sessions were longer than three weeks, I would have 100% buy-in. It is unclear from the resumes how many other professors have regular contact with elementary or secondary students, even if not “significant” in the way I have defined the term.

One thing apparent from the resumes is that teaching experience is slighted even by those who possess it. The resumes give only the briefest summaries of teaching, such as “1977-1979 HS math.” I cannot speak for my colleagues, but my teaching experience during a stint as a high school math teacher included guidance counseling, grant writing, club advising, and all kinds of other responsibilities. I can list many accomplishments during my teaching career. The lack of detail regarding teaching experience on so many very lengthy resumes may be a reflection of the value of teaching in our society.

The saddest fact of all is that colleges of education consider applicants with a PhD and minimal experience superior to applicants who devoted themselves to students until they were gray-headed. They have nothing to offer the colleges of education but experience, but their experience is unappreciated.

Raw Data:

Friday, February 12, 2010

Characteristics of Japanese Textbooks

It is the chicken and egg puzzle. Which came first, the teaching philosophy or the textbook? Do teaching methods and philosophy determine textbook content, or does textbook content drive subject matter teaching? Long ago in a faraway land I taught in an international private school that decided to seek WASC accreditation for the first time in its quarter century plus existence. I was the only teacher who had ever been through the accreditation process before. The school decided to divide us up into committees, not by grade level, but by subject matter. I was a secondary science teacher so naturally I was on the science committee. The primary teachers were asked their committee preference and distributed to subject-matter committees more or less evenly.

The fourth grade teacher was appointed the chair of the science committee. Our first assignment was to write a science curriculum whose scope and sequence encompassed K-12. At the next meeting, we passed around our work. I was aghast. Everyone had simply copied the table of contents from their textbooks and called it "the curriculum."

I said, “Okay, I think we need to make a decision. Do we want to proactively decide what it is important for our students to know and be able to do, or do we want to let a textbook publisher tell us?

They responded, “The publishers are surely the experts. Why shouldn't we just go along with what is already in our textbooks?

I grew more incredulous. “Seriously? “Do we really want to tell the accreditation people that we think our student population, which comes from all over the world, needs to memorize the state birds and flowers of America?”

The room grew silent. Someone said, “I see what you mean.” Someone else said, “What can we do?”

I suggested we go back and do it all over again, this time thinking about what we really want students to know in science.

“You must be kidding,” someone said. “You want us to start over? That'll be a lot of work.”

After some discussion, the group decided to start over.

As we search for factors that contribute to the perennial excellent performance of Japanese students on international studies, we should examine their textbooks.

Japanese students are required to buy their books every year starting in first grade. The material is divided into two volumes, one for each half of the school year, and printed on cheap paper with paperback covers. First and second grade texts are about the size of a Good Housekeeping magazine. From third grade on, the dimensions are smaller, 5 ¾” by 8 ¼” by 3/8”. Students generally carry all their books home every day. Six textbooks altogether weigh less than a Michener paperback. Normally the Ministry of Education approves for adoption about six textbooks per grade, per subject. Each text follows the same sequence of lessons.

The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has more information on the Japanese textbook adoption process.

The best part is what is inside the textbooks. Surprisingly, not much text. Here is a page from a third grade, second half mathematics textbook.

Someone had the very smart idea of translating and marketing Japanese textbooks (wish I had thought of it). Here is the English translation of the comparable page.

In a common scenario, a Japanese teacher would have divided the class into groups of four, called “han.” An American teacher might have students designated as Table 1, Table 2, etc. The Japanese teacher would give the students the problem: Figure out how to divide 256 sheets of origami paper evenly among four students. The paper comes in shrink-wrapped packages of 100 sheets, sub-packaged by tens.

Each table would work on the problem with paper, pencil and manipulatives. Every year, each child is required to purchase their own set of manipulatives. Then a spokesperson from each table would come to the front and present the table's solution and method. The class would discuss the pros and cons of each group's solution method. Finally the teacher would demonstrate how the conventional algorithm expresses the class consensus. The algorithm is not the math; it is an expression of the math. The distinction is an important one often lost in American elementary math classes. Concept first, then procedure. The class might take a whole period on one problem.

Science textbooks are similar, characterized in the early grades by an emphasis in hands-on experience the child can perform independently. I have reproduced the page with the most text from the third grade science book.

Take a look what fifth graders are doing in science class.

Children are natural-born scientists, and science, real science, should be part of every American child's school day, beginning in preschool.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Tragedy of Disheartened Teachers

There are three kinds of teachers: disheartened, content and idealistic, according to a new study released by Public Agenda. Disheartened teachers comprise a huge 40% of the teaching force, but it is not like they are randomly distributed. Some students are very much more likely to have a disheartened teacher than a content or idealistic one.

The view that teaching is “so demanding, it’s a wonder that more people don’t burn out” is remarkably pervasive, particularly among the Disheartened,—they are twice as likely as other teachers to strongly agree with this view. Members of that group, which accounts for 40 percent of K-12 teachers in the United States, tend to have been teaching longer and are older than the Idealists, and more than half teach in low-income schools. They are more likely to voice high levels of frustration about the school administration, disorder in the classroom, and the undue focus on testing. Only 14 percent rate their principals as “excellent”” at supporting them as teachers, and 61 percent cite lack of support from administrators as a major drawback to teaching. Nearly three-quarters cite “discipline and behavior issues” in the classroom, and 7 in 10 say that testing are major drawbacks as well.

I am going to come back to the disheartened in a bit. They deserve more attention.

The “content,” a group almost as large as the disheartened, likewise are not randomly distributed. In fact, “complacent” might be a better description of this group.

By contrast, the vast majority of teachers in the Contented group (37 percent of teachers overall) view teaching as a lifelong career. Most say their schools are “orderly, safe, and respectful,” and are satisfied with their administrators. Sixty-three percent strongly agree “teaching is exactly what I wanted to do,” and roughly three-fourths feel that they have sufficient time to craft good lesson plans. Those teachers tend to be veterans—94 percent have been teaching for more than 10 years, the majority have graduate degrees, and about two-thirds are teaching in middle-income or affluent schools.

Ironically, veteran teachers fill the ranks of both the “disheartened” and the “content.” When veteran teachers from both groups get together, it is like they come from different planets. The old locus of control issue threatens camaraderie.

A locus of control orientation is a belief about whether the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation)." (Zimbardo, 1985, p. 275)

The content believe they are happy and successful because they are great teachers. The content sometimes take a judgmental view of the disheartened. Discouraged teachers, in the view of the content, should take matters into their own hands and pursue every avenue to becoming a better teacher. Yep, that's their problem, they are disheartened because they are not good teachers, or so the content console themselves. The disheartened have been so beaten down by forces outside their control, they see the content as hopelessly na├»ve in their cushy high-end schools. Once upon a time, both groups of veterans started out as young “idealists.”

However, it is the Idealists—23 percent of teachers overall—who voice the strongest sense of mission about teaching. Nearly 9 in 10 Idealists believe that “good teachers can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents.” Idealists overwhelmingly say that helping underprivileged children improve their prospects motivated them to enter the profession (42 percent say it was “one of the most important” factors in their decision, and another 36% say it was a “major” factor). In addition, 54 percent strongly agree that all their students, “given the right support, can go to college,” the highest percentage among any group. More than half are 32 or younger and teach in elementary schools, and 36 percent say that although they intend to stay in education, they do plan to leave classroom teaching for other jobs in the field.

If accurate, Public Agenda's characterization of idealists causes me angst. What we do not know is the extent to which the percentages overlap and describe the same people. I am willing to go out on a limb and guess that most of the 36 percent who intend to leave the classroom are among the nine out of ten idealists who believe that “good teachers can lead all students to learn, even those from poor families or who have uninvolved parents.” Furthermore, the vast majority of the same 36 percent who intend to leave the classroom said that “helping underprivileged children improve their prospects” was the most important or major factor in their decision to become teachers.

So who is left to actually become the high-value experienced veteran teacher who can make a difference to underprivileged children? The tragedy is that in our education system, teachers who start idealistic end disheartened.