Poles Apart

by Robert Pondiscio
August 29th, 2012

“Are we hopelessly polarized, or are we suffering from fatigue?” legendary PBS education correspondent John Merrow asks in a thoughtful blog post. “I think many of us are just tired, worn out from listening to the rants and negativity.”

What he said.

To his credit, Merrow is saying out loud what a lots of folks in the education blogosphere have been saying privately for a while now.  “Debate” has become trench warfare, with the usual suspects saying the usual things, over and over, louder and louder.  They’re merely getting more shrill and strident.  It’s getting tedious out there.  Hearts and minds are not being won.

Merrow’s no fool or squishy appeaser pleading, can’t we just get along?  “Sometimes one position is correct, or largely correct. Sometimes people’s strongly held convictions are just plain wrong,” he writes.

Merrow lists several ways in which education debate is polarized: accountability, the achievement gap, school management and structures, assessment, technology, and our expectations for what we should expect of schools and teachers. Are we also polarized about the purposes of public education? Here Merrow hits his stride:  “The goal of school is to help grow American citizens. Four key words: help, grow, American, citizen.  Think about those words,” he writes

“Help: Schools are junior partners in education. They are to help families, the principal educators.

“Grow: It’s a process, sometimes two steps forward, one back. Education is akin to a family business, not a publicly traded stock company that lives and dies by quarterly reports.

“American: E Pluribus Unum. We are Americans, first and foremost.

“Citizen: Let’s put some flesh on that term. What do we want our children to be as adults? Good parents and neighbors, thoughtful voters, reliable workers? What else?”

“We need to get beyond polarization and figure out what we agree on,” Merrow writes.  Wise and heartfelt words from one of education’s elder statesmen.

What is the Value in a High Value-Added Teacher?

by Guest Blogger
January 12th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

Great news emerged this week for elementary- and middle-school teachers who make gains in their students test scores.  While the teachers themselves may not be pulling down big salaries, their efforts result in increased earnings for their students. In a study that tracked 2.5 million students for over 20 years, researchers found that good teachers have a long-lasting positive effect on their students’ lives, including those higher salaries, lower teen-pregnancy rates, and higher college matriculation rates.

I’m a practical person.  I understand that we spend billions of dollars educating our children and that the taxpayer deserves some assurance that the money is not being squandered.  Accountability matters.  I get it.  Still, as a teacher, it’s hard not to feel a little bit wistful, perhaps even wince a little, reading this study.

It’s important to remember that its authors, Raj Chetty, John N. Freidman, and Jonah E. Rockoff, are all economists. Their study measures tangible, economic outcomes from what they call high versus low “value-added” teachers. This “value-added” approach, which is defined as “the average test-score gain for his or her students, adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores,” may work for measuring such measurable outcomes as future earnings, but it misses so much of the point of education.

I asked my Uncle Michael, a professor of law and economics, what he thought of the study, and he compared the proponents of the study’s mathematical economic approach to education to acolytes of The Who’s Tommy, pinball wizards who “sought to isolate themselves from the world so as to improve their perception of a very narrow sliver of that world. The entire ‘assessment’ enterprise defiles education as that word once meant.”

He attempted to explain his feelings about the study in terms of mathematical equations – something to do with linear regression thinking and educational outcomes, but I got lost in the Y = a + bX + errors of it all.

Tim Ogburn, 5th grade teacher in California, phrases the debate a bit more simply: Why are we educating children?

His answer goes like this: Until fairly recently, teachers would have answered that they were educating children to become good Americans or good citizens, but now we seem to teach only to prepare elementary- and middle-school children for high paying jobs. When money figures into the goal, we lose so much along the way, such as curiosity, a love of learning for its own sake, and an awareness that many of the most worthwhile endeavors (both personally and socially) are not those with the highest monetary rewards.

To which I reply: Hear, hear. If economic gain is the measure of our success, we have lost sight our goals in education.

In order to round out the definition of “value” as defined by Chetty’s study, I conducted my own research project. Sure, my sample was smaller – about thirty versus Chetty’s 2.5 million, and the duration of my study was three days rather than 20 years…and of course there might just have been a wee bit of selection bias in my Facebook sampling. Oh, and I chose not to apply Uncle Michael’s formulas because they gave me a headache.

The goal of my study was to find out what some of the other, less measurable benefits of good teaching. I asked people to write in with examples of good teaching, teaching that has resulted in positive outcomes in their lives. Who were their “high value-added” teachers?

Sarah Pinneo, a writer from New Hampshire, recalled her third grade teacher, who took her aside one day and said, “You are going to be a writer. Here’s your portfolio. Every poem you finish, we’re going to save it in here.” Sarah’s first novel will be released on February first, and she still has that poetry portfolio.

Carol Blymire, a food writer and public relations executive in Washington, D.C, recalled her kindergarten teacher “who taught me that letters make words and words make sentences…and is the reason I love to write today.” She counts among her low value-added teachers, “Every other teacher reprimanded me for asking questions that came across as challenging them, even though it was really my way of wanting to know more and understand the bigger picture.”

My favorite example came from Dr. Jeffrey Fast, an English teacher in Massachusetts.

“One morning, when I was a senior, we were discussing Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset. While I can no longer remember exactly what I said, it was something about the interaction among the characters. Immediately after I spoke, [my teacher] responded by saying – for all to hear: ‘I like you!’ His response, of course, was coded language to identify and mark – for both me and my peers – something insightful. I felt enormously rewarded. That was the benchmark that I tried to replicate in dealing with literature ever afterwards. That was 50 years ago. He never knew that those three words catapulted me – to a Ph.D. and a career as an English teacher!”

While the studies of economists may add to the discussion about what makes teachers valuable in our lives, I believe that if we reduce teachers’ value to dollars and cents, we run the risk of becoming, in Oscar Wilde’s phrase, “the kind of people who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.”

 

 

Do “Great Books” Still Matter?

by Robert Pondiscio
December 11th, 2008

Britannica Blog, too often overlooked, continues to impress with its thoughtful writing and conversation on education.  With writers like Dan Willingham and Karin Chenoweth, it’s unabashedly intellectual, broad and wide-ranging, and refuses to cater to the allegedly short attention span of the online reader.  This week, to mark the publication of Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam’s new book, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, the B.B. sets many minds to work on the question, “Do ‘Great Books’ still matter?”

Robert McHenry, former editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica, observes that any discusssion of the very idea of “Great Books” comes down to a single (and singular) question:  What is education for?

Do we educate our young so that they will find gainful and rewarding employment? Do we educate them so that they will be good citizens? Do we educate them so that they will have disciplined and well-stocked minds? Do we educate them mainly to get them out of the house?

Echoing McHenry, the president of St. John’s College, Christopher B. Nelson, reclaims the liberal arts ideal, reminding us that too many of us in education, in our relentless focus on test scores and outcomes, risk losing our way.  Try not to cringe as Nelson describes the chairman of the business department of a small “liberal arts” college saying to one of his sons,

“My job is to make you into the best product that can be sold on the market.  You are raw material and I am the producer and together we must make a product that we can go out and sell.  I want to help you get the best price for your mind and body when you graduate from here, in competition with all the other products from all the other colleges.”

In a certain sense, there is nothing wrong with this approach, Nelson writes.  ”More people should have this.  Almost all of us need to work in order to live.  But life is more than earning a living.  One ought also to be concerned with making a life worth living.  So, the problem with this kind of education is that it is just not enough,” he concludes.

Lastly, for teachers who, inevitably, question the relevance of Great Books to low-income, immigrant, or minority learners, English professor Bruce Gans has a reply.  Observing the “tragic intellectual and cultural handicaps” that have hobbled his students, Gans administers a curriculum based on Mortimer Adler’s famous reading list.

The most serious form this terrible damage takes is that my students as a consequence are unexposed to the ideas, questions, and meditations on the human condition these major figures have contributed and from which millions of the educated have gleaned a deeper and more useful understanding of themselves, of others, and of the long and painful evolution that has brought us to our current stage of civilization and human freedom.

“Insofar as the Great Books are concerned, they will continue to deeply reward those like my students who study and understand them,” Gans writes.   And to those who dismiss them?  ”One calls to mind the Middle Eastern expression: the dogs bark, the caravan passes.”