Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bill Maher's New Rule: Don't Blame the Teachers

Bill Maher: "New Rule: Let's Not Fire the Teachers When Students Don't Learn, Let's Fire the Parents."

I've been waiting for education to become a topic on my favorite sociopolitical talk show, HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher (I'm a big fan of Maher even though I strongly disagree with him on some topics, like marijuana and animal rights, to name two), and last night we got this "New Rule," which you can read in its entirety at the link above. He was responding largely to the recent wholesale firing of the entire faculty of a "failing" Rhode Island school. Now, the piece isn't entirely satisfactory; it is, after all, only a brief segment and played mostly for laughs, which explains the too-many jokes about recent teacher-student sex scandals. There are a few lines I want to highlight, though:

Yes, America has found its new boogeyman to blame for our crumbling educational system. It's just too easy to blame the teachers ... We all remember high school - canning the entire faculty is a nationwide revenge fantasy.

But isn't it convenient that once again it turns out that the problem isn't us, and the fix is something that doesn't require us to change our behavior or spend any money. It's so simple: Fire the bad teachers, hire good ones from some undisclosed location, and hey, while we're at it let's cut taxes more. It's the kind of comprehensive educational solution that could only come from a completely ignorant people.

Firing all the teachers may feel good - we're Americans, kicking people when they're down is what we do - but it's not really their fault.

Maher's commentary touches on a number of themes.

First, the idea of firing teachers as a "revenge fantasy" makes perfect sense to me, and is in line with what I've observed in the past about how students view their teachers as arbitrarily evil, cardboard Bond villains, which is how they always portray them in fiction writing. Especially today, where schools have gone from being institutions of learning to institutions of validation, when parents send their kids to school not to learn but to be praised and lauded for what they already know, teachers are an easy, convenient and frequent target.

Second, it is convenient to blame and/or fire the teacher because, as appears to be the main point of the commentary, it absolves the parent, the student and society of any responsibility for the actual occurrence of learning. People seem to think that teaching is the equivalent of casting a magic spell; if you do it right, the spell will work and learning will magically occur, and if not, it won't. Further, the idea that it's so easy to identify a "good teacher" or a "bad teacher" is absurd. When I ask people to describe either of these, the answer is always couched in vague outcome-based platitudes; "...makes it interesting...," "...gets the kids to learn...," etc. Getting rid of "bad teachers" is not only easy and cost-free, it's completely subjective and arbitrary.

Third, Maher makes a good point by implicitly asking the question, Where do we think we're going to find all these "good teachers" after we fire all the "bad" ones?

Finally, it's about time the schools turned to parents, and especially to students, and asked them "What are you doing to make sure you learn?" I can't count how many times I've sat with a student and a parent at Open School, where the student has done no work so far and is failing the course, but has never raised her hand, asked a question, come for extra help, etc. The parent or the child will say she is "completely lost," and "has no idea what's going on in class," and "doesn't understand the literature," and "doesn't know what she's supposed to do," and on and on and on. Complete and utter helplessness. And my question is always the same: "What have you done about it?"  

That's the question we need to be asking. The issue is not what the teacher is doing, as Maher points out in his commentary. If you're a student and you're "lost" or "not understanding" the material or "don't know" what you're supposed to do, What do you DO about it? If you don't know what you're supposed to do, what steps have you taken to find out? If you "don't understand" the material (a lie, but I've been over that repeatedly), what steps have you taken to generate and increase your understanding? In most situations, the answer is: Nothing. Why? Because they don't think they have to do anything, and because they know that someone, whether a parent or an administrator, will absolve them of responsibility and place the burden on the teacher, to either un-do the outcome or give the child "another chance," because after all, she "deserves" it.

The point is that neither students nor parents feel that they have any responsibility at all to their own learning, nor for making that learning happen. They still cling to the idea that if the teacher "makes it interesting" and showers the child with praise, that somehow learning will occur on its own. It's foolish, intellectually lazy and counter-educational. And "firing all the bad teachers" won't fix it.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Repost: The Great Failure (April 7, 2008)

"The persistent weakness of American liberalism is its fixation with rights and procedures at any cost to efficiency and common sense." - Jonathan Chait, The New Republic

This is not a political blog, and I don't like to think of education as a political issue because, as any of the two or three people who have read this blog can attest, I don't think politics or politicians can fix it. In fact, I don't think it has anything to do with which political party is in power, or whose candidates we vote for, and nothing written here should be construed to advocate the support or denouncement of one party or the other. But when I read this quotation in TNR I immediately thought of the schools. Replace the phrase "American liberalism" with "American public education" and the statement would still hold true.

I really believe that public secondary education, as I have described it throughout this blog, is the great failure of modern American liberalism. I discussed this idea in some detail in an earlier post: Conservative Pedagogy, Liberal Assessment. Subjective standards, entitlement grading, the ceding of teacher authority and expertise to parents, the bending-over-backward to absolve students of the consequences of their poor choices, the emphasis on self-esteem over actual learning, the suffocating limitations on permissible school-based discipline; these are all the product of abstract liberal ideas and ideals.
"...fixation with rights and procedures..." Look at the scenario outlined in Hypothetical. The idea that a child's failing grade can and must be overturned because of a procedural dispute with a teacher is a perfect example of this. It presumes (wrongly, in my view) that a student has a right to a passing grade, and that right cannot be infringed without "due process." Parents today seem singularly obsessed with rights and procedures. Administrators are therefore required to share that obsession in their policies and directives to teachers. Again, as I pointed out previously, procedural formalities become more important than the student's performance; the grade can be based on the former as well as, or instead of, the latter. This of course creates inefficiency; the more different factors that can be used to determine a child's grade or passing/failing status, the more resources are expended upon those factors and, necessarily, diverted away from actual instruction and assessment. And it defies common sense, in that a child's grade should reflect her performance, and the teacher's assessment thereof, with respect to standards and expectations.

In our pre-Open School departmental conference last week, our principal emphasized the importance of procedure and "due process," and having evidence thereof, because as he put it, that's what parents always insist upon knowing and, inevitably, will try to challenge. I would wager that the majority of parent complaints and challenges with respect to student grades are procedural rather than substantive. In other words, a parent is far more likely to insist that a child's grade should be raised or overturned because the teacher supposedly neglected some arcane procedural step, rather than because the student's work was actually better than the teacher's evaluation and he had actually earned a higher grade.

Students have a right to competent instruction, they have a right to know what the rules, regulations, requirements, standards and expectations are, they have a right to have their legitimate questions answered, they have a right to receive extra academic help when they ask for it and it is available, they have a right to be treated fairly, equitably, reasonably and honestly by teachers and other school officials. They do NOT have a right to pass their classes and advance to the next grade, nor to receive high grades, nor to be praised for their performance regardless of whether it is praiseworthy. They have a right to the opportunity, not the outcome.

The presumption that a student must be given a passing grade based on alleged procedural inadequacies requires a presumption that the student would have passed had the procedures been followed; again, that the student is entitled to a passing grade. In other words, we are willing to presume, absent any evidence, that the student knows the material and can do the work. We are not, however, willing to presume that the teacher followed procedure and provided the student with all of what is listed in the above paragraph. The teacher must prove that she provided adequate information, instruction and notice, and must overcome the presumption that she did not, but the student does not need to prove that he has learned, or done, anything.

This defies common sense. The whole point of a student taking an exam or doing an assignment is for him to demonstrate what he has learned. The grotesque inversion of logic described above goes back to the idea of not trusting teachers and giving students the benefit of the doubt in disputes of this nature. All a student has to do is claim that he did not know about an assignment or did not know how to do it, and automatically it is presumed that he could have done it and would have done it had the teacher told him about it and explained it to him. The parent therefore demands that the child be given the grade that he would have gotten under those circumstances, and that imaginary outcome be substituted for what actually happened (or, in less extreme cases, that the student be given "another chance" to do the work). In the end, the child does not have to actually do the assignment, let alone do it well or demonstrate actual learning. The parent demands a passing grade, the system obliges, and the child learns nothing.

It has, in fact, become so easy for a student to evade responsibility for assignments by claiming ignorance that teachers are compelled to take extraordinary measures to make sure students know about assignments, test dates, and the like. A teacher is practically required to tell the students about it in class, write it on the board, give them a printed handout, put it on the internet, e-mail every student personally, call every parent personally, then directly ask each child individually if he knows about the assignment and intends to complete it, and keep doing all this every day until the assignment is due. Anything less, and a child can claim that she "didn't know" and the parent will demand restitution. Is this really an efficient or reasonable way for teachers to expend their time and resources?

Claiming ignorance and accusing the teacher of incompetence is certainly easier than actually studying, paying attention in class, asking meaningful questions, and completing assigned work. The trouble is that this is essentially what today's kids are being taught to do. Not only do they have no incentive to pay attention to instructions, keep track of assignments and seek help, they have an incentive to ignore instructions, disregard assignments and not know what is going on in class; they actively try to not know. In a way, they're trying to create plausible deniability for themselves, but it only becomes plausible when adults accept and enable it. We should not. Students must have a duty to know what their responsibilities are; to know what is expected of them, to know what assignments are and when they are due, to listen to and follow instructions, to know what is going on in each of their classes. Teachers should not have to bear the entire burden of maintaining students' awareness of assignments and requirements.

How can the school system function efficiently, let alone generate actual learning, when it gives kids all these perverse incentives? For how long will we be willing to cast reason and common sense out the window, making the educational process far more complicated and less efficient than it needs to be, just to make kids feel good about themselves, while producing a population filled with self-esteem and empowerment but bereft of knowledge and skills?

"The persistent weakness of American public education is its fixation with rights and procedures at any cost to efficiency and common sense."

Sounds about right.