Friday, April 17, 2009

Harmful Shibboleths

Inspired by some back-and-forth I've just had with reader Matt, who rightly called me out on some cheap Hollywood-bashing, I am going to write this entry about how extremist Groupthink is dangerous when it permeates any one field of study or industry.

Specifically, I'm going to write about Education (yes, that's Education with a capital 'E' and I refer here to all the people other than actual, classroom teachers who make their money in the field).

'Education' and particularly 'Schools of Education' are, as you might guessed, overwhelmingly dominated by the Left. This, of course, ought to make any free-thinking Indy quite uncomfortable...but lest you think I'm a closet righty masking as an Independent (i.e. Glenn Beck), trust me, I'd be just as creeped out (maybe more so, even) at a Rush Limbaugh Fan Club Convention as I would at a Graduate School of Education.

The Far Right is scary, of course, because it's often fallen on the 'wrong' side of history (civil rights movement, labor movement, trade reforms, civil liberties, etc.) In fact, it often seems like there are elements on the Far Right who would like to revert back to some of the darker chapters of our history, even if they have to hide it using code words (witness Trent Lott's infamous comments about Strom Thurmond, or Saxby Chambliss' shameless manipulation of the Stars and Bars symbol to bring down Sonny Perdue and Max Cleland).

What I find very obnoxious about the Far Left, however, is the fact that -- despite best intentions -- many of their attitudes and pet policies serve to hurt the people they purport to 'speak for.' Here are just two examples of commonly-held views that get thrown around in Ed School just as conventional wisdom:

(1) All tests are bad, because a) outcomes are unequal; and b) they encourage 'teaching to the test'

Hmm...this 'teaching to the test' gets talked about with the disdain of, say, a fart in church, but I would posit that teaching to the test is only bad if the test itself is bad.

In fact, let's say your state has an MCAS equivalent that tests students' ability to perform basic math problems at various levels of their education. If your child's math teacher is using classroom time and homework assignments to ensure that his or her students can competently perform, that might not be such a bad thing at all. If the test is asking sixth-graders to solve for 'x' in basic equations, and the teacher helps the kids get there with lots of drills, blackboard problems, and sample homework problems, that sounds like, well, learning!

To use a non-classroom example, the Navy conducts a twice-a-year Physical Readiness Test (PRT). One major component of the PRT is a 1.5-mile run. So what happens in the weeks leading up to the PRT? Many Sailors who have been hibernating all winter get out and start running in 1.5-mile increments. Their command PRT coordinator might be encouraging them to do so or writing out their other words, he's teaching to the test! And unless you think that someone's ability to run 1.5 miles in a decent time is a somehow bad, I would call this 'teaching to the test' at its best, and I applaud it at every turn!

To use a famous example from Education, think about Jaime Escalanate, the teacher featured in the 1980s hit Stand and Deliver. He pulled off something truly amazing at Garfield High School in Los Angeles, churning out class after class of students from disadvantaged socioeconomic background who earned 4s and 5s on the AP Calculus test. It's the benchmark of the test itself that makes the feat stand out. In other words, if a teacher in East L.A. just "helped some people learn calc" that doesn't give a frame of reference to people across the country. However, when his students can outscore all the Madisons and Aidans in the leafy suburbs (err, Tims and Heathers, it was the 80s) Escalante and his students gain national attention.

Now, if the test itself is somehow bad (a possibility to which I'm certainly open), I'll agree that 'teaching to the test' is bad. But if the alternative is a teacher showing endless movies or just handing out dittos while doing crossword puzzles, I'll take 'teaching to the test' seven days a week -- and twice on Sunday.

So, anyway, back to my point about who is helped and who is hurt -- a mountain of statistical research, notably by field pioneer Claude Steele, has demonstrated something called 'stereotype threat.' In other words, when you tell someone that a test is biased against someone of a particular gender or race, that 'knowledge' dramatically hurts the score of the test-taker. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if the Educrats tell 'at-risk' students just to ignore the biased tests anyway, while ensuring their own kids properly prepare for all the right AP classes offered in Brookline and Newton, it doesn't seem like they're really doing anything to fight the inequality they bemoan.

(2) What relevance does Shakespeare have to a kid from Mattapan? (asked rhetorically, of course)

The above question is taken LITERALLY from someone speaking to an audience of Ed. students. It's a rhetorical question, of course, and it's meant to say something about a dominant culture being pushed on people unfairly. And it causes a visceral, unhappy reaction in this author. Besides the obvious racial and socioeconomic ugliness behind this comment, it begs the question from me -- by implication, what about the kids from Needham? What's this person really trying to get at?

And for that matter, what the heck relevance does Shakespeare have to any kid, anywhere? Maybe none directly, but Shakespeare has been a huge cultural influence for centuries. Exposure to that is an important part of someone's development as a culturally aware adult -- just like a person's exposure to Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, or Sandra Cisneros -- all important contributors to the overall American cultural fabric.

So yes, I would argue, it's just as important to bring 'Hamlet' to Mattapan as it is 'The House on Mango Street' to Gardner.

See my point? Rather than push any one form of culture on all people, let's weave in ALL the best elements of this country -- all colors, all religions, backgrounds, genders, etc. and make sure students get broad exposure. That ultimately serves to give a person the basic 'cultural literacy' they'll need to navigate their way through job interviews, cocktail parties, graduate schools, and other channels people can use to get ahead.

But if we say we can't teach Walt Whitman to students of color because it might smack of cultural imperialism, all we're going to do is hurt those people, and ensure that the sons of daughters of our elite gain the cultural knowledge they'll need to navigate through this country's channels of power.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I doubt the Far Left Educrats (overwhelmingly well-educated white people) are keeping their own kids away from Homer, Thoreau and Frost any more than they're limiting the XBOX and PS2 time.

After all, why would they?

Duuuuhh! That stuff's important to know.


C R Krieger said...

Metrics are important.  Even the 1.5 mile run.  Thank you Doctor Cooper.

One Metric I have used is to look at when Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. imposed bussing to end segregation in Boston Schools, segregation that was deemed to provide unequal educational opportunities.  That was back in 1974—35 years ago.  If a child entered school that year at age 6 (first grade) and made it all the way through and graduated and got married upon graduation and quickly got pregnant and had a child, that child would have entered school, graduated, gotten married and had a child of her own who is just now ready to enter a school system that is still under-performing.

Of course, there are METCO and Charter Schools.  But, the overall system seems not to be working. Are there socio-economic factors at work?  For sure.  But, we haven't figured out how to educate these children.  Could we at least admit that?

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...


Exactly. No one's found any silver bullets or magical solutions.

But just as any institution (like the military) shouldn't be dominated by the right, nothing should be dominated by the left, either. What scares me is that people in Ed just have this Groupthink Gospel that no one can challenge.

To the degree that I can have any influence on a young person it's to be organized, work hard, and don't think of yourself as a victim. It's old-fashioned but it can apply anywhere..

Matt said...

Off your Shakespeare point: so true. It always frustrated me to no end that Shakespeare is read in schools. I've never been able to make heads or tails of one of his plays reading them, but seeing a good performance of them is magical.

The New Englander said...


And as to the 'magic of Shakespeare' thing -- who could argue against exposing ALL types of students to that, and letting them decide for themselves if they enjoy it? The field of Ed could definitely stand to be more balanced..