Friday, December 26, 2008

Open Wide and Relax. I'm a Professional Educator.

I have in the past posited on this blog that current programs of teacher education probably have negative effects—that someone with subject knowledge and common sense would do better at teaching than someone with specific training in “Education.” But are there any statistics available to bear this out?

There are. An ongoing teacher shortage in the US has prompted many states to set up “alternative certification programs,” to partly bypass teachers' colleges. The program called “Teach For America,” meets this teacher shortage by signing on university grads with strong academic records or records of extracurricular leadership but without teaching credentials and placing them in inner-city schools for two years, in return for a scholarship.

The result: according to several studies, “Teach For America” teachers acheive better results for their students than fully-credentialed teachers. If the evidence is not entirely clear, at worst, there seems to be no case left for the value of a degree in Education.

According to Wikipedia:

“In a study published by the Urban Institute and the Calder Center in March 2008, the authors found 'that TFA teachers tend to have a positive effect on high school student test scores relative to non-TFA teachers .... Such effects exceed the impact of additional years of experience and are particularly strong in math and science.'"

“Mathematica Policy Research also addressed this question in a study published in June 2004. The study compared the gains in reading and math achievement made by students randomly assigned to TFA teachers or other teachers in the same school. The results showed that, on average, students with TFA teachers raised their mathematics test scores 0.15 standard deviations more than the gains made by other students. This is equivalent to students having received one extra month of instruction. ...”

- Wikipedia, “Teach for America”

This latter study is cited by “Education Next” as having particularly sound methodology—at least as education studies go. This study also suggested that starting TFA instructors did better than Education grads with years of classroom experience.

Unfortunately, the data are not as clean-cut as they might be. States still require some form of “alternative certification” for TFA participants, and these certification processes remain largely controlled by the Ed. Schools. So the most we can really say is that less exposure to Education Schools seems better than more.

TFA has also, interestingly enough, lost its federal funding.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Breaking News

In case you missed it, an angel was spotted recently in a South Carolina hospital.

Benedict on Gender

"That which has come to be expressed and understood with the term 'gender' effectively results in man's self-emancipation from Creation (nature) and from the Creator. Man wants to do everything by himself and to decide always and exclusively about anything that concerns him personally. But this is to live against truth, to live against the Spirit Creator."

- Benedict XVI, address to the curia, this week.

Well put. The term "gender" is nonsense. The above comment has inspired rage and curses from homosexual lobby groups; nobody seems to have noticed that it also, and more directly, puts paid to feminism. "Gender" in the illiterate non-grammatical sense was originally a feminist notion.

Male and female created He them.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Operation Follow Through

You may have never heard of “Operation Follow Through.” It was the largest educational experiment ever performed. It cost a billion dollars. It involved 700,000 students. Yet it remains obscure, and none of its recommendations have been implemented.

Part of Lyndon Johnson's “War on Poverty,” the idea for Follow Through was to test all of the popular theories of education at that time—the mid-sixties—to discover which would best boost the scores of disadvantaged children in the early school years. Saving them, ultimately, from a life of poverty.

A wide range of test schools were assigned nine different teaching approaches. Each also had a “control” school with similar demographics and in which no trial was being held. Eleven different measures of outcome were used, grouped into three categories: improvements in basic skills (the three Rs), improvements in cognitive skills (i.e., ability to reason), and improvements in affective skills (e.g., good old “self-esteem” and ability to cooperate with others). This was by mutual agreement of the advocates of the various systems: of the approaches, three broadly stressed basic skills, three stressed cognitive skills, and three took an affective approach.

The results were, surprisingly, quite clear. All three approaches stressing affective skills scored poorly—worse than the controls. They scored worse even on affective skills. Stressing self-esteem simply doesn't work—least of all to build self-esteem. Two of the three approaches stressing cognitive skills also scored worse than the controls—including on developing cognitive skills. One just about broke even—still no better than letting the average classroom teacher do his or her own thing. Two of the three approaches stressing basic skills similarly about broke even—they did well on affective measures, badly on cognitive, and were a wash on basic skills.

This is already rather alarming—the best that all the educational theorists in America seem able to do is no worse than the average classroom teacher. And that's the exception.

But that is not the end of the story. One basic skills approach was clearly superior—superior on all measures. It did better than any other approach, and the control, for teaching basic skills. It did better for developing cognitive skills. It did better for developing affective skills.

It was called “direct instruction.”

We must be careful here—all data from the social sciences is shaky. We know from the study only that this approach works best with most disadvantaged children in the early grades. It does not follow that it would work best with students in the later grades, or with advanced students, or even that it would work best with all disadvantaged students. In fact, one striking result of this study was that the success of all methods varied widely by school.

However, it is still remarkable that this study has resulted in no change in public policy, no change in educational theory, no change in teacher education, and no general move to adopt the winning technique.

There are, I believe, two reasons for this. First, Direct Instruction was the only model tested that did not come from a Faculty of Education. It did not even come from a trained teacher. It was developed by an ad executive who originally created it to teach his own children.

This was pretty embarassing for all the education experts. It also threatened their livelihoods.

But more importantly, with Direct Instruction, trained teachers were not necessary. As the approach's web site boasts even today, with DI, anyone can teach successfully. It hands the teacher a script, and all he or she has to do is follow it.

Good-bye to the teaching profession, at least at this level. They apparently have nothing of value to sell, to justify their pay or status. In fact, they are probably standing in the way of a good education.

This of course explains why the teaching establishment so hates school choice. A school using Direct Instruction could produce better results for less money, simply by avoiding “qualified” teachers.

The bottom line: the fastest way to improve education would probably be to close all the Faculties of Education, and to stop recognizing their degrees. Qualifications for teaching should be qualifications in the subject being taught.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hard Truths on Soft Skills

“Soft skills” are all the rage now in education. It’s now become conventional wisdom. Everybody knows they are important—and more important to education than whatever technical expertise we convey, even in a technical college. We know this, ultimately, as educators, because employers tell us so. They say “soft skills” are more important to the success of their business, and to an employee getting ahead, than any specific knowledge or skills we can give them.

Just one problem—with this new emphasis on “soft skills,” we are reinventing the wheel. And, this time, getting it wrong.

You’d think we, as educators, could learn.

What, exactly, are “soft skills,” you may ask? It’s admittedly a bit difficult to get a fix on it. A seminar I just attended cited “the human dimension,” “caring,” and “learning how to learn.” Wikipedia gives a different list: “participates as a member of the team; teaches others; serves client/customers; exercises leadership; negotiates; works with cultural diversity; motivates others.” The next Google hit is an article that lists the top five “soft skills” desired by business as “math, safety, courtesy, honesty, grammar.”

Nothing “soft” here, really. In sum, what we are apparently talking about is neither more nor less than what is commonly referred to as a “classical education” –and as that term is understood, not just in North America, but in all cultures. Grammar and math? That’s obvious: the good old “three Rs” of what used to be called “grammar school.” But teaching virtue was also always at the core of any education system, up to the modern era. The churches, or the temples or the mosques, ran the schools. If they weren’t considered schools themselves, as they are in Judaism.

As for “the human dimension” or “caring”—we cannot, of course, teach people to have specific emotions, and to do so if we could would be a violation of human dignity; though to the extent we can, religion is the way. But what really can be taught, in this regard, and all that really needs be taught, is good manners. That used to be a vital part of the educational experience, too. A good private education was meant to teach one to be a “gentleman.” To give you a proper “finish.” Confucian education spent about one fifth of the curriculum on the matter of right ritual.

Surprise—it matters. If you don’t think so, you have never dealt with a store clerk.
“Learning to learn”? Check. That was the point of courses in philosophy, algebra, geometry, and formal logic—originally the main focus of “middle school.”

Working together, and leadership? That’s what high school used to be about. That’s why we all used to study rhetoric—learning how to motivate people, learning how to dispute honourably and fairly, and learning the proper rules of parliamentary procedure, which are simply the time-tested rules for getting along in groups.

We used to study all this, until we dumped it at some point for more “relevance,” and more “science.”

Unfortunately, the new push for “soft skills” seems to be totally unaware still of the past ten thousand years of human thinking and experience. Its gurus seem to have no fix on what is actually required. They think, for example, it all has something to do with “EQ” or “Emotional Intelligence”—a self-contradictory concept, which, if pursued energetically, seems to have as its goal the production of a perfect psychopath, skilled in manipulating the emotions of others without compunction for their own gain. When they seek to tackle “values,” they seem to think this involves simply getting along in groups. Unfortunately, this premise would necessarily condemn both Jesus Christ and the Jews of Nazi Germany as immoral.

Nor is such an ethic likely to produce anything like an ability to think for oneself, let alone leadership.

An additional, serious problem is that our teachers themselves have no special training in any real “soft skills.” How can they teach what they do not themselves know? How are they any more likely to get it right than their average student?

It’s all a nightmare. And a nightmare of the “education profession’s” own making.

Of course, as a Canadian, I am familiar with a standard response to any lament about our schools. The Canadian education system ranks, on objective testing, as one of the best in the world. How can we complain? We’re doing better than everyone else…

Not quite everyone, of course. Overall, we come third, after Finland and Hong Kong. We are doing better than the US and the UK—that’s what we Canadians tend to notice.

The whole world has been moving away from the classical model for generations; there is no straight comparison available in these figures. However, it is worth noting that _most_ of the countries that cluster near the top of the scale are East Asian, where the classical tradition is still strongest. And we _can_ do a straight comparison, if we want: between North American public schools and North American private schools following a classical curriculum. On standard tests the latter’s students win almost every time.

What is to be done? The obvious first step is to change our teacher training. We need to educate teachers, first, in the classical skills and the classical readings; or employ as teachers those who already have this grounding. They will then be able to help the next generation. This is just what we should cover in teachers’ colleges.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Man's Fate: The View from India

In India, they are not (yet) inhibited by political correctness. I received this lament (edited for clarity) over the transom from an Indian email group:

When a girl cries -- the world consoles her. But when a boy cries -- they say, “Come on, be a man.”

If a girl slaps a boy -- the boy must have "done something." If a boy slaps a girl -- the rascal doesn't know how to properly respect a woman.

If a girl talks to boys -- she is "very friendly." If a boy talks to girls -- he is "flirting."

If a girl meets with an accident – it must be the mistake of another. If a boy meets with the same accident – he doesn’t know how to drive.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Burning Times

Cinders are falling everywhere. We are at a time of massive change, in North American society.

What if Obama is implicated in the current Illinois scandals?

True, there is no evidence of this yet; but the flames are lapping closer now than they were a day or two ago. It looks like Rahm Emanuel has some involvement. And, frankly, I personally became suspicious when Obama went on record saying he had had no contact at all with Blagojevich about the appointment of his successor to the Senate. Surely he had; and why wouldn't he? Why lie? It is as Shakespeare had it: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

It's going to be messy for the US if this is so. No honeymoon, and already the handicap of inexperience. Will he be able to govern effectively? With a Democratic majority in Congress, will there be any hope of removing him by impeachment? Not for two years, at least. While the US economy is already in a tailspin; and, as Joe Biden himself pointed out, America's enemies will be waiting to test the new, unknown leader.

Things are scarcely less lively back in Canada. Stephane Dion went in one week from prime-minister-in-waiting to private member. He is an honourable man, has served Canada well with his Clarity Act, and deserves a better legacy. I hope one day he is appointed to the Senate, where we could benefit from his constitutional insights.

I doubt Michael Ignatieff will do any better for the Liberals. Polls already show that the coalition plan hurt the Liberal brand terribly. It made them look like an elite out only for themselves, feeling entitled to power in disregard of the popular vote or even the interests of the country. This is a view of the Liberal Party many have already been nursing for years; so it strikes home. Dumping Dion and appointing Ignatieff without a full leadership vote now only underlines that perception. It will be even worse if Ignatieff, as a leader unelected even by his own party, goes on to assume prime ministership under the coalition agreement. And, with or without the coalition, as an academic, a Harvard prof, an expatriate, and a genuine blue-blooded noble, he is highly vulnerable personally to the charge of being elitist and out of touch.

In any case, the whole ad hoc nature of the past two weeks has made the Liberals look pretty amaterish. It hasn't helped the Conservatives or the NDP either, but the Liberals look worst, and stand to suffer worst, as the traditional party of the Canadian establishment.

These are bad times to be part of either the Canadian or the American establishment.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Great Books

The idea of a solid classical education is staging a comeback recently, as it periodically does. Most such programs are based on the Encyclopedia Britannica “Great Books” series, originally published in the 1950s and revised in the 1990s.

The notion is an excellent one: a foundation in the greatest thoughts of past times. That is exactly what an education ought to be, isn't it? You don't throw over two thousand years of human thought casually. Or at least you surely shouldn't.

But the Encyclopedia Britannica's list is of course not the first. The Harvard Classics were widly popular at the beginning of thr 20th century, compiled by a Harvard president on the premise that reading them all would be the equivalent of a Harvard liberal education.

Some of the Harvard selections, though, now seem quirky. John Woolman's Journal? Lord Byron's play Manfred? Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi?

So do those of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It, unfortunately, confines itself to “Western Civilization.” It also seems to scrupulously avoid anything of religious significance. Which leaves a vast hole in human experience. Both sets also include a wide selection of scientific materials, which I do not see as very useful. Science is of its essence not based on appeal to past authority. It is against the scientific spirit to still read Boyle's laboratory journals—you should be doing your own experiments.

What we think of as the canon of great books, then, changes with time.

For my part, while I find the Harvard selection often odd, I have a bigger problem with giving a student a foundation only in Western civilization, and indeed largely only in the Graeco-Roman tradition. This severely, and cruelly, limits the education it produces, and the world view it fosters, to something old and out of touch with the modern world. Most of human thought has not occurred in Western Europe. In order to actually come into contact with the Asian classics, something I very much wanted to do to complete my own education, I had to take a major in Religious Studies. No other faculty seemed to recognize Asia's existence. They still don't beyond the most superficial and modern political considerations. This is a huge problem, to my mind.

Here is a list of further volumes any truly educated person should have read, which are missing from the Encyclopedia Britannica's set. They could probably be included without expanding the set, by removing some of the scientific writing.

The Bible—although I can see limiting it to the selections one can fit into 450 pages or so. Priority to the New Testament, Genesis, Exodus, Job, Canticles, Proverbs, Isaiah.

Selections from the Talmud—the great compendium of Jewish knowledge. Cull what you can put in 450 pages, in any case.

The Code of Hammurabi

The five great Confucian classics, the core of a Chinese classical education:

The Book of Changes (I Ching)
The Book of History
The Book of Songs
The Book of Rites
Annals of Spring and Autumn

Other essential bits of Chinese culture:

Analects of Confucius
The Great Learning
The Doctrine of the Mean
The Art of War
poetry of Li Bai
The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch

From India:
Selections from the Vedas
The Krishna Gopala cycle, as culled from the Brahmanas
The Ramayana
The Bhagavad Gita
A Life of the Buddha

From Muslim civilization:
1001 Arabian Nights—already included in the Harvard set
poetry of Rumi
The Hanged Poems
Ibn Khaldun's History
(Note that I do not include the Qur'an, on the grounds that Muslims feel it cannot be read properly in translation)

Readers probably have their own opinions. What have I missed?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Rally for Canada

I have been asked, as a conservative blogger, to publicize this initiative.

Unfortunately, I cannot endorse it. Their claim is that the proposed Liberal-Bloc-NDP coalition would “overturn the results of the last election,” and that it is somehow illegitimate. It would not. It is not. The opposition plans are perfectly legal and constitutional and perfectly democratic, and I have no quarrel with them. I do not want to see the Liberals-NDP-Bloc take power, but that is a different question. I am not prepared to mess around with the Canadian constitution for partisan advantage.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Pius and the Jews

The Jewish Ledger blows the lid off what has been a real-life--and very successful--Communist plot to discredit the Catholic Church.

Some choice quotations from the story:

"This is the greatest character assassination in the 20th century." --Gary Krupp

“what we learned was truly world-shaking. There is nobody who did more to rescue Jews than Pius." --Rabbi Eric Silver

Hitler's foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop ... allegedly claimed at the Nuremberg Trials that he had "a whole desk full of protests" from the pope, and from no other European leader

Most historians mark 1963 as the year that soured public opinion, with the production of a play, "The Deputy, A Christian Tragedy." ...It was later revealed that "The Deputy" was part of "Operation Seat 12," a KGB effort to discredit the anti-Communist Pius.

The full story is here.