The Fatuousness of Many School Reformers

While I’m waiting for our next What’s New in Life Science Research topic, here’s something about ‘school reform‘ by Bob Somerby (who does great work on this topic):

When it comes to Obama’s education secretary, the Post favors “reform”–it wants someone who’s “willing to experiment.” Meanwhile, everyone knows what these words mean when mainstream journalists discuss public schools. “Reform” means cracking down on teachers and teacher groups through ideas like merit pay and the ending of tenure. There may be some merit to these ideas–but few others seem to get mentioned.
…it’s the type of chatter that’s routinely churned by “educational experts.” But Hiatt is being fatuous when he says that “every student can learn, write and do math” (whatever so vague an assurance might mean)–and he builds a straw man when he goes on to say that “their ability to do so should be measured.” (Few oppose sensible measurement.) Duh! The question isn’t whether “every student can learn;” the question is how much various students can learn, at what point in their public schooling. The larger question is what sorts of changes in instructional practice might help these students achieve these goals. Meanwhile, the desire to rush to the question of who’s “at fault” merely extends the problem.
…But everyone knows that “black kids can learn” (whatever that vague assurance might mean); reciting this bromide makes “experts” seem noble, but it doesn’t make anyone smarter. The actual questions here are quite different: How much can this particular child learn, during this particular week, and what would be the best particular way to help him or her do that? Unfortunately, educational experts often like to cheerlead–and the Hiatts start acting like cheerleaders too. Soon, we find ourselves snarling at teachers, who surely must be “at fault” in these students’ “failure to learn.”

The problem most discussions of improving education (‘school reform’) have is that they are miraculously devoid of any discussion of how to teach and how to prepare students to learn–which would seem to be the crux of the matter. As Somerby notes, instead, we just get morality plays that often add to the problem by focusing on wages in the wrong way.

This entry was posted in Education, Fucking Morons. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Fatuousness of Many School Reformers

  1. Tony P says:

    I’m very good friends with a school psychologist. The stories he tells me are interesting. He told me the story of one kid whose IQ in high school was a 70 and his parents wanted desperately for him to be a veterinarian.
    But he does maintain that even a kid with a 70 IQ could be brought up to a 90 IQ if he was only taught to think as opposed to being taught to test.

  2. Becca says:

    When I was going to grade school, they threw up posters (mission statements) that said “all children want to and can learn”. Students knew it was an absurd statement.
    In a trivial sense, it’s true. But not all children want to (or can) learn what the teacher wants to teach them at any given moment.
    That said, from what I know about schools, I’d wager there are a number of kids who can learn what the teacher is supposed to be teaching, yet who are not doing so. So talking about ‘reform’ (in the true sense, not as a buzzword) is perfectly reasonable. Blaming teachers indiscriminately for students failing standardized tests is not reasonable.

  3. Richard Simons says:

    I am far from convinced that all people can learn mathematics. In my adult ed. class we have been working with the same procedure for three weeks. Today I gave them a problem from a different textbook, using the same procedure, and 90% of the class had no idea where to start. After a year, many are still not fully aware that when working with equations, any operations done to one side must also be done to the other.
    Part of the problem seems to be that mathematics occupies a completely different part of their mind than does reality. For them, getting an algebraic problem from a word problem seems to be akin to the way I would regard making a sonata from a fairy story, a matter of almost complete bafflement. I sometimes get really strange answers (aircraft travelling at 53,000 km/h, for example) that suggest a lack of appreciation of the fact that the problems are attempting to represent the real world.
    At times I feel at my wits’ end knowing what to do about it. I suspect that the basic problem arose very early on, perhaps even before they started at school, and that by the time they are adult little real improvement can be made.
    The interesting thing is, I have sometimes taught pre-calculus and introductory statistics to the same group and there seems to be little relationship in their performance in the two subjects. I think part of it is that they see more point to doing the statistics and it is a subject they have not previously tried and failed at.

  4. Jim Thomerson says:

    I have had a little encounter with the idea that people belong to different temperment groups. That members of one group, for example, might be fascinated with the history of an idea. While members of another group would be bored and care less about the history, and would wish immediately to learn only the current idea.
    My results on a temperment test put me in a group which makes up about 10% of the population and includes most scientists. When I teach a general education biology class to members of all the other temperments, I teach it as I would like to be taught. I suspect that that is not the best way for all (any?) those members of other temperments to learn.
    So, my suggestion is temperment test students; and set up separate classes for each temperment. Then teach each class in the way which is most effective for that temperment.
    I discussed this with a colleague, an educational psycologist. He told me the temperment stuff was all a bunch of bull. So, it seems there is no hope.

  5. thm says:

    @Richard: The problem you describe reminds me of discussions that go back and forth on a physics teaching list I follow. My understanding is that Piaget’s theories of cognitive development are a useful approximation for understanding what is going on: you are perhaps asking your students to do tasks that require “formal operational” thinking, a stage that perhaps only 25% of high school graduates ever achieve. I don’t know whether or not one can fix this problem in an adult-ed math class, but these books have been recommended to understand the situation:
    Really Raising Standards: Cognitive Intervention and Academic Achievement, by Philip Adey
    Learning Intelligence: Cognitive Acceleration across the Curriculum from 5 to 15 Years, by Michael Shayer and Philip Adey

Comments are closed.