Thursday, December 31, 2015

On Those Counterfeit Diplomas

An editorial in today's NYT suggests that some recent high school graduates are not competent in basic skills that should be required to earn their standing. The headline refers to these students' diplomas as counterfeit, implying that students had a hand in conspiring to be granted documents under false pretenses. A better word for them might be undeserved, as the diploma requirements are unwittingly incomplete or inaccurate.

The article concerns itself primarily with claims of weak curriculum in many states, citing a rise in high-school graduate rates matched with a decrease in successful college entrance exams:
"Nationally, graduation rates are rising - yet less than 40 percent of 12th graders are ready for math and reading at the college level....more than one in five recent high school graduates could not meet minimum entry test standards to enlist in the Army."
The editorial board writing the article leans heavily on teachers unions, who opposed standardized testing used as a means to evaluated teachers based on how much students learned. The article concludes that,
"Many states reacted by settling for cosmetic changes in school curriculums and using weak tests that virtually anyone could pass. This allows them to hide how dismal their schools actually are and misleads families and students into believing that high school diplomas have value."
Canada's school systems differs from the states considerably, but we often follow where they have led. There are certainly commonalities here, but some important issues have been conflated.

On Teaching Evaluation Tied to Student Ability

It's a bad idea. As I've written previously, if we decide which teachers can keep their jobs based on the results of a standardized test then,
Demographics will play a big part in the results, and teachers in schools near the universities or RIM will appear to be phenomenal, while those of us in the downtown core will look like imbeciles. If we want to accurately assess teachers based on their ability to get students to a certain level, then we'd have to randomly assign students to schools. Unwise and unlikely.
But more importantly, teaching just doesn't work like that. We don't become better teachers because suddenly our lives depend on it. People generally want to be effective in their chosen field. Dan Ariely, a professor of "behavioural economics," writes about the effectiveness of social norms and how quickly market norms can override them, i.e. bringing money into the picture makes people work less:
"Standardized testing and performance-based salaries are likely to push education from social norms to market norms. . . . Instead of focusing the attention of the teachers, parents, and kids on test scores, salaries, and competition, it might be better to instil in all of us a sense of purpose, mission, and pride in education. . . . Market norms also erode the pride and meaning people get from the workplace (for example, when we pay schoolteachers according to their students' performance on standardized tests)" (93-99).
I believe few teachers practice ineffective techniques because they'll be paid the same regardless; it's not the case that they avoid working hard if there's not a giant career-killing carrot or stick prompting them. We have many smaller punishments keeping us in line. Rather, it's far more likely that we have some poor practices because we erroneously believe they're effective. And we think they work because sometimes they do.

There have been studies on best practices that are useful. I think by far this little handbook - The Science of Learning - is the best I've seen. BUT, people are all different. Students are not easily catalogued. Some need a firm hand and others need leeway. Some need rubrics and others won't read them preferring a more open-ended approach. Some need myriad examples, and others want to figure it out themselves. Sometimes films and powerpoints help, but sometimes they hinder. Some students learn best by reading the textbook and filling in handouts even though we're not really supposed to do that anymore. I get my students to evaluate what worked and what didn't for them in each class each year, and then I just have to fly with the majority on any significant changes I make to my practice. There's a science to learning when we look at students in general, yet it's clearly an art when we focus on each individual. And we're supposed to be individuating each lesson and assignment, but, to the degree that we can hit every student every time, that's impossible.

On Rising Grades Coupled with Diminishing Excellence

I completely agree that grades are inflated. I said so here a couple years ago:
A sneaky thing's happened over my last 20 years of teaching. The median grade in most courses used to be in the high 60s, and now it's in the low 80s. Yet I don't think the grads are significantly more knowledgable nor skilled. In fact, when I look at what I've taught since I started, when I look at saved exams and assignments, my courses have gotten more and more watered down each year. The fact that many of the grade 12s entering my course don't know how to cite sources or really what plagiarism is (something I learned cold in grade four) or that many grade 10 Academic students need reminders to capitalize the first word in a sentence and the word "I", really, leads me to believe I'm not the only one cutting out content to ensure everyone passes with flying colours. Out of fear of not measuring up with other countries we've lowered the bar so more kids can jump it successfully. Now our students have the marks to compete with international students for university entrance, but I worry about the monster we're creating.
However, it's not clear to me that this is about the quality of teaching or of the curriculum. I think it's about student expectation. Due to a few interacting forces, students have been able to get away with learning less content and fewer skills. I've written about this previously as well:
From what I see, it's not so much disengagement from the subject matter as from the requirement to do the work of thinking and analyzing the material. That's hard and time consuming, largely because it so new. Slavin, [a Trent University prof], goes on to lament that a third of students don't hand in assignments or don't read feedback on assignments to learn where they've gone wrong. They're just jumping through the hoops instead of trying to learn something useful.

About that Downward Spiral 

I think it looks something like this:

There's global pressure to rank in the top for education which is, in some cases, measured by graduation rate, but, in other cases, measured by standardized tests. Neither of these, I argue, actually show student ability. The former is marred by the move to make courses easier so grades are higher than real ability would indicate: for an additional example, the same English tests that used to be given in one class is now allotted two classes. The latter is marred by a program of teaching to the test that drills students in only the areas being measured, and results in other, arguably more important skills, warranting less attention. Our literacy tests are also skewed by the amount of help given during the test to the point of some students having the questions read to them and their oral answers written down, enacting the very antithesis of literacy testing.

This pressure to rank well internationally is countered by parental pressure for their child to do well individually. Parents are terrified their children won't be able to compete for scholarships or even university entrance. With fewer good, stable jobs to go around, the competition becomes more fierce, and parents pleading for higher grades often get what they demand. That concern is well-founded, but unfortunately results in elevated grades. But beyond the economics of the situation, we have a culture focused on our children's grades instead of focused on what they're actually learning in school. I'm okay with my daughter, in grade-school, doing poorly on a project but spending hours of time showing me what she learned. It tells me she's able to learn, but not yet able to show her learning in the way that's expected for the assignment. But who cares? She'll figure out how to play that game soon enough. But it can be difficult to disallow lower grades from provoking significant anxiety in parents instead of mere disappointment. This is a relatively new phenomenon for the masses.

But the biggest factor in the spiral, is that teachers have become entirely accountable for student ability. It used to be the case that if a class did poorly on a test, then the teacher was taken to task and would have to prove the efficacy of the test and prior lessons. But now if a student does poorly, even if all the other students in the class do exemplary, the teacher is still taken to task for that one student's inability to do the work. It's no longer possible for a student to do poorly in a subject because they're just unable or unwilling to do the work. When I was a student, we used to look long and hard at the ranking that appeared beside our report card grades, dreading an LQ, which indicated we were in the lower quarter of the class. We cared about how well we ranked in the classroom, not in the world. It was a clear indicator of how hard we were working, or, if we were slogging books home each night, it showed us our general ability in the subject. Students can still compare their results to the course median, but with medians in the 80s, and all the marks squished into a smaller percentage range (75 to 95 instead of 35 to 95), distance from the median is a less useful indicator. This is particularly true when students, parents, counsellors, and administrators badger teachers to adjust their marks just a bit.

If a student refuses to do work, it comes back at the teacher for making an assignment that wasn't strongly enough tied to student interest. We're to call home any time a student misses an assignment, but half the class might miss a most fascinating project. We can't just impart information and rest on the reality that much of it is fascinating to us, and therefore will be fascinating to others. We can't be boring. And in a world of diminishing attention spans, that's getting harder and harder to do without a secondary degree in song and dance. This has created a climate in which many students are quite convinced that neglecting work is entirely due to teachers failing to make the work fascinating enough for students to be fully motivated to try their hand at it.

If students don't feel a smidgen of guilt or shame for neglecting their studies, in a world rife with alternative activities at their fingertips, then, really, it's amazing that any of them do any work at all.

The focus on who's to blame for the weak skills of the recent crops of grads is a final concern. We need a cultural shift that cajoles us into challenging ourselves to learn something new and difficult each day, something that makes us struggle just a bit. We're a society of passive viewers, and we've accepted that label without complaint. To save ourselves, we need to rally against that sloth-like view of ourselves. It's not enough to continually reinforce what we're interested in or what we're good at. It's really comfortable to focus on what we already know when we embark on learning, but it's only fruitful if that one area has enormous potential. For the masses, we need a breadth of understanding and knowledge and skills that we'll only attempt if we are ashamed when we don't live up to our own potential regardless the entertainment value of our teachers or the quality of our leaders.

Barring a complete shift in culture, one more concrete tactic we could take to change things is to require university entrance exams. The SAT exams (lots of fun practice questions here) are a useful means to determine if a student is skilled enough for a particular program. And the fact that the exams exist, mean students will be motivated to develop the right skills to an excellent degree regardless their interest in each facet of learning. If they want to enter a general English lit program, they will have to learn the nuances of grammar regardless how much more interesting it is to enjoy some poetry than to learn the particulars of principal clauses.

And then their diplomas might mean something.

ETA - Here are some letters to the editor about the original editorial with a few points of agreement:

"In many states the strategy has been to raise standards and then lower passing scores on exit exams in order to maintain or even raise the graduation rate."

"The graduation rates increased because parents and politicians demanded that they increase. Instead of improving education, states lowered standards."

"Does the fact that a high school diploma is now essentially meaningless cause problems for colleges, private employers and the military? Not really. Colleges have the ACT and SAT for potential entrants. . . . The only people really harmed are the marginal students who were passed on instead of helped."

"Taxpayers are entitled to know that students are receiving at least a basic education. Instead, they are told a comforting fairy tale that shortchanges all stakeholders."

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

On Desires and Commodities

I've just been reading books and watching films lately. I'll write again soon. But check out this passage from The Obsolescence of Man by Gunther Anders, first published in 1956:


The mere fact that I had no car and therefore could be caught in flagrante not buying anything and, ultimately, of having no needs, was the cause in 1941 of the following embarrassing incident in California:


Yesterday, in the Los Angeles area, while I was walking along a highway, a police car pulled over in front of me with its siren wailing and blocked my path.

The policeman shouted at me: “Say, what’s the matter with your car?”

“My car?”, I asked him, not understanding what he was talking about.

“Sold her?”

I shook my head.

“At the shop for repairs?”

Once again I shook my head.

The policeman paused in thought, since it seemed to him to be impossible that there should be a third reason for not having a car. “Then why aren’t you driving it?”

“My car? But I don’t have a car.”

This simple piece of information also went right over his head.

To help him understand, I explained that I had never owned a car.

Now I really stuck my foot in it. A clear case of self-incrimination. The policeman stared at me with his mouth hanging open. “You never had a car?”

“Look, no”, I said, pondering his powers of comprehension. “That’s the boy.” And then I waved to him in a friendly and innocent way and attempted to resume my walk.

But he would have none of that. To the contrary. “Don’t force me, sonny,” he thought and pulled out his citation booklet, “don’t tell me any stories, please”. The pleasure of interrupting the dull boredom of his job with the capture of a vagrant almost gave him a friendly, innocent air. “And why haven’t you ever owned a car?”

I thought for a second about what I should not say in response. So instead of saying: “Because it never occurred to me to get a car”, I responded—and for added emphasis, I shrugged my shoulders and assumed a distracted look—“Because I never needed a car.”

This answer seemed to put him in a good mood. “Is that so?”, he then exclaimed, almost with enthusiasm. I sensed that I had committed a second, even worse mistake. “And why don’t you need a car, sonnyboy?”

Sonnyboy shrugged his shoulders, afraid. “Because I had more need of other things.”

“Such as?”


“Aha!”, the policeman said thoughtfully, and he repeated the word, “books”. Evidently he was now certain of his diagnosis. And then: “Don’t act the moron!”, which is how he made it clear to me that he had discovered that sonnyboy was a “highbrow who was faking imbecility” and that, in attempt to simulate an inability to understand that offers were orders, pretended to be an idiot. “We know your kind”, he thought, giving me a friendly poke in the chest. And then, with a sweeping gesture that indicated the distant horizons: “And where do you want to go?”

This was the question that I most feared, since I still had sixty-four kilometers of highway until San L; and once there, I had nowhere to go. If I had tried to define for him the absence of a goal for someone who is on the road, I would definitely have seemed like a vagrant. God knows where I would be sitting now if, at that very moment, L. had not arrived, truly like a deus in machina, if he had not pulled up alongside us with his imposing six-seat sedan, if he had not stopped suddenly and gestured to me, inviting me to get into his car, something that not only left the policeman flabbergasted, but also seriously challenged his philosophy.

“Don’t do it again!”, he snapped, as I got into our car.

What is it that I am not supposed to do again?

Evidently, I must not refrain from buying what is offered in the form of a command to everyone.

When in these offers you recognize the commandments of our time, one is no longer surprised that even those who cannot afford to do so also end up buying the commodities that are offered. And they do so because they are even less capable of affording not following orders; that is, not buying the commodities. And since when has the appeal to duty [Pflicht] respected those without resources? And since when has duty [Sollen] ever exempted the have-nots from its commands? Just as, according to Kant, one must comply with one’s duty even when, or especially when, it is contrary to one’s inclination, so today one has to comply even when it is contrary to one’s own “responsibility”. Especially today. In the same way, the mandates of the offers are categorical. And when they announce their must-have, to appeal to one’s own precarious situation of duty-and-responsibility would be pure sentimentalism.

Of course, this analogy is a philosophical exaggeration, but it nonetheless contains a kernel of truth, since it is no metaphor to truly claim that today there is hardly anything in the spiritual life of contemporary man that plays as fundamental a role as the difference between what one cannot afford and what cannot be afforded; and this difference furthermore becomes real in the form of a “battle”. If for the man of our time there is a characteristic conflict of duties, it is none other than the no-holds-barred, ferocious and exhausting battle that takes place in the hearts of customers and within the bosom of the family. True, “no-holds-barred, ferocious” and “exhausting”, because the fact that the object of the struggle can make us stupid and the battle itself could take place as a comical version of real conflicts, does not at all detract from its bitterness and must suffice as the fundamental conflict of a contemporary bourgeois tragedy.

As everyone knows, this tragedy usually ends with the victory of the “mandate of the offer”; that is, with the acquisition of the commodity. But this victory is dearly bought, since from that very moment the customer begins to experience the servile compulsion of paying in installments for the acquired object.


Anders goes on to explain how we become slaves to our things as we harbour a belief that if we don't use them regularly, then all that money and time spent working to get the object has gone to waste. So we use it even when we no longer get pleasure from it just to avoid wasting our hard-earned things. Which is nuts. And if we could just think a bit, we could rise above this mess of things.

It makes me think of one of my favourite lines of poetry, published the same year:
"What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?"
Anders comes to the same conclusion as Epicurus, Epictetus, Plato, Lao Tzu, Jesus, and many others: We can have greater pleasure in life if we reduce our desires for things instead of getting sucked into an endless battle to fulfill every desire. But it's not just about desire for commodities. We have strong desires for progress and perfection. We can't fall for that either. Life is messy, and we will always be flawed and ever unfinished. Epictetus in particular advised recognizing what's within our control and not bothering much about anything else. Reputation, honour, status are not within our control. It's just an illusion that if we work hard enough, we can get them. Once we can accept that fact, then we can let go of expectations and striving for something we might never achieve.

I don't see it as cut and dry as Epictetus does, however. To me, those things are just a greater gamble with a lower probability of success than what we can control with certainty. Instead of resigning myself to what's out of my control, I just get better at playing the odds. But imagine a life with fewer goals, with fewer expectations, like Anders' contentious walk to nowhere. That's not allowed in our age that glorifies progress at any cost.

I thought of this as I watched The End of the Tour followed by several interviews and speeches by Wallace.

And way down here, way below the fold, I've been thinking a lot about the "sudden deaths" of three male teachers from my board, ranging in age from 36 to 55. One at FHCI, one at my school, and one at SSS. All within a year. The absences of any evidence to the contrary leads me to believe they took their own lives. At our school, we were instructed to shut down that discussion out of respect for the family. And I don't understand that. So I'm whispering this here because it's begging to be cracked wide open.

ETA: And now a fourth, a female breaks the pattern a bit.  And now there's a fifth.

Our schools are all about working to reduce the stigma around mental health. Caz, my departed colleague, and I worked on a mural in honour of Clara Hughes' struggle with mental health.  But we're not to discuss his condition or speculate about possible contributing factors with an eye towards improving the odds for others. We're supposed to wade in the ambiguities of yet another 'sudden death.'

If all three were hit by a car, students and teachers would rally and petition to make the streets safer. If all three were victims of assault or cancer or lyme disease or any other single cause, we would join together to raise money and awareness to prevent similar deaths in future. But as it is, we sit silently, in anguish, trying hard to ignore the pattern of cases.

As teachers, we're afraid to get in trouble like never before, acting to avoid punitive measures rather than for the love of teaching. We have new mandates that are unclear and the dictates continue to waver with each administrator, yet teaching reviews can be labelled unsatisfactory and jobs lost if these fuzzy rules aren't followed accurately. It's a time of profound chaos leading to a general state of anomie. We have a professional organization that focuses on teacher error, from the mundane to the profane, and publishes them regularly with names and details in a magazine that we are obligated to fund, rather than discretely and respectfully working with teachers to resolve concerns and to restore professional relationships. One disgruntled student with a parent willing to go the distance can end a career.

And criticizing any of it can lead to termination. Shhhhh..... This is but a minor act of embarrassingly cowardly rebellion.

The reality right now is that keeping a job by working hard is no longer within our control. I've had more student complaints about me this year than in all the previous 24 years combined. Every time I've been supported by my administration, but the complainants are undeterred insisting they should be able to re-submit projects endlessly to get a mark that shows their best ability. There's a belief that we should mark work repeatedly until the end of term, and I will quit if I'm made to mark each piece of work several times over until they each have 100% in the course. The absurdity of the situation requires us to accept that we shouldn't expect to be able to retire in good standing regardless our dedication to the craft.

This is not to say that careers were a driving force in these deaths, but I imagine they were at least a contributing factor. We spend a third of our lives at work, and, for people like me, under the new conditions, it consumes a majority of waking hours. But these tragedies are also a piece of a new statistic that the suicide rate of middle age white males has risen by 40% in the last seven years.

Some think this increase is due to the expectation of the stoic male and the "gym culture" that has foisted unattainable goals on men. Others focus on a similar split between dual expectations of being strong and being vulnerable. Others look to the singleness of most of the men in the study, others on how coping skills fall apart with age, on alcohol use, and on our glorification of youth.  Some think it's simply a factor of the economic downturn as suicides peaked during the depression as well. And others note that it's highest in those without a high-school education.  Economic insecurity is certainly a stress too much to bare for some, but Durkheim's research found that suicide rates rise during positive changes as much as negative changes. "Even fortunate crises, the effect of which is abruptly to enhance a country's prosperity, affect suicide like economic disasters" (203).  Too much change that creates upheaval in a society affects the desire to take a quick exit. We are in a point of increasingly frequent and hurried disruptions, and we can't settle in. We can't feel secure in what we're doing to improve it before we have to change it.

The school board seems to recognize that it's causing some problems as evidenced by one perk of our new contract being a promise of no new initiatives for a year. We used to get a rush of changes at every provincial election, then those ideas would be overruled by the next government before they were ever fully implemented. Now it seems like new changes bombard us for the sake of change, as if they believe that constantly moving is the same as progressing.

Granted Epictetus would advise that the expectation that our colleagues will live full lives to their natural end is unreasonable to hold as it's not at all within our control. And yet...  An urge to act, to do something to prevent others' misery and loneliness and fear and desperation bubbles up uncontained and rudderless. Impotent.