Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Off To The Races

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I’d like to remind everybody that the lists are not some kind of challenge, and that the list for January is unusually  long. 

January is dead time for teaching, and on top of that is was dead time for writing, too.  I got sick, I got questions that needed resolving in the manuscript–in the end I worked on Real Work in the mornings and then sort of curled up  into a ball and read things.

Now teaching is definitely back into gear, and that  means a whole other set of preoccupations.

For me, the biggest continuing  issue is the wholesale bureaucratization of college teaching.

And I will admit that on some levels I sort of get it.

The state and federal governments are pouring enormous amounts of money into “college,”  and students are running up trillions of dollars in debt, a lot of it guaranted by the Federal government through guaranteed student loans.

For t hose reasons, it has become vitally important that the governing bodies be able to “prove” that they are getting their money’s worth.

That might even be a good thing, if the entire enterprise wasn’t predicated on supposed “facts” that are not facts.

The biggest non-fact is the idea that students with a high school diploma have the skills a high school diploma is assumed to import.

In reality, of course, such students often have nothing like those skills.  The closest you come is with students who have taken a GED, because in at least some areas–especially math–they are actually required to know something.

In subject areas like English, the testing is a joke–essays graded by the “holistic” method that does not bother to notice errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling, “reading comprehension” questions that–well, I don’t know who grades those things, but the “comprehension” tested for does not seem to translate into an actual ability to understand what they read.

At the very bottom skill levels, students don’t need remediation as much as they need an entirely new pass through primary school,  middle school and high school.

We are talking about kids who don’t know the things we expect of fourth graders–the parts of speech, yes, but also who wrote the Gettysburg address and why, and who fought in WWII.

In composition this is worse than a mere annoyance, and the simple fact is that you cannot take a kid who has done  no real academic work at all in the past 12 years and “fix” it all in a semester of two. 

The process of learning any language–even your own–is far more complex than that, and takes more time.  It cannot be short cutted by gimmicks like vastly expanded class hours  bunched into a single semester.

The Department of Education, in the meantime, has its own narrative:  college teachers are pampered, priveleged and lazy.  They only work a few hours a week and spend the rest of the time goofing off.  Colleges and universities are money grubbing and essentially fraudulent.  They’re cunning and indefatigable at finding new ways to charge students and governments more money.

That is the only possible reason why they might require students to take more than one remedial course.  If they were really doing their jobs, students wouldn’t need more than one. 

And then look at the way they’re disorganized–the same course taught by two different teachers can be completely different, even assign different books and textbooks. 

And there’s nothing to say what the course is for or what it’s supposed to do or what the students are supposed to get out of it.

So if they want our  money, we’ll fix all that.

Fixing all that is what we’re supposed to be in the process of doing at the moment, and in aid of that there are constant semester-by-semester changes in the bolierplate for the syllabus, detailing  new “course objectives” and “measurable outcomes.”

The course objectives are written in Educationese and are only sometimes decipherable by ordinary mortals.  The measurable outcomes are often not measurable in any objective way.

The whole process is about to tip over into the surreal.

Since it doesn’t matter if anything actually gets done, what we will do, more and more–we’re doing some of it now–is to produce more and more complete paper records that things have been done, whether they have been or not.

This is what happened in the primary schools and the middle schools and the high schools, so that these days a high school diploma means exactly nothing at all.  A student with a high school diploma could know a lot and be a great writer and a decent mathemetician.  A student with a high school diploma could think that “when” is a verb and that Pearl Harbor started the Vietnam War.

Except, of course, that this isn’t exactly what happens. There are schools–Wilton, New Trier, Walt Whitman–who produced reliably competent graduates at everything but their lowest skill levels, because the parents of the students there know what is actually needed and insist on it. 

Which  means that  if you live in a very rich town, and have parents who know what to advocate for and how to advocate for it, then you’ll get a high school education.

If not–well, maybe  you’ll get lucky.

I  hear people talk endlessly on forums everywhere about “income inequality,” but although lots of them are willing to tax everybody up the smithereens to even up the score (at least temporarily), nobody is willing to fix t his.

And this is determinative.

It is already the case that where you go matters more than what you study almost universally across the board.

At the end of this latest round of bureaucratic fixes, we’ll have gutted the lower tier four years and the community colleges to the point where students who can afford nothing else or who have the grades for nothing else will be unable to  learn what they need to know. 

It won’t be taught.

Written by janeh

February 4th, 2013 at 10:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized

13 Responses to 'Off To The Races'

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  1. It’s my theory that this is the way bureaucrats produce more of themselves. It’s a kind of educational lathe that both knocks off the edges and ensures that no new hire has any outstanding skills or motivation that might threaten the personnel-in-place.

    They’re okay shuffling papers and passing along responsibility, and avoiding decisions at all costs. They sit on committees and make up these stupid rules that make no sense in the real world (sound familiar?) because they HAVE no sense of the real world. Then the next year they gather into committee again and revise everything, because otherwise their employment cannot be justified, whether or not the cost and effort of change is worthwhile.

    Can you tell that many of my clients deal with state & federal governments? I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve billed for changing forms that just shuffle the same data into different slots…every year. I have one client that is mandated to participate in “longitudinal” studies where the *evaluation points change every year* until after a few years no original measurement parameter still exists in the study.

    But by damn, those bureaucrats have got a job, and boy howdy, the power to make everyone who deals with them comply. And that’s the end-product of all those lower-tier schools which will not buckle down, admit they’re vocational at best, and teach some real skills.


    4 Feb 13 at 1:21 pm

  2. It’s important to distinguish between the real world problem and the bureaucratic problem. The real world problem is uneducated children and trillions squandered in not educating them. The bureaucratic problem is that Congress is giving it flack.

    The bureaucracy can get Congress of its back by actually fixing the problem–but this would involve one of two options. One is giving teachers and schools a high degree of local autonomy and holding them responsible for results on an annual or end of term standardized test. This would mean laying off unnecessary bureaucrats. The alternative is a centralized system in which the Department of Education wrote the course curricula. This would require actual knowledge, which they don’t have, and runs the risk of them being held accountable for the results. Not much in it for the bureaucracy either way.

    So they’ve opted for a “solution” intended to get Congress of its back while requiring even more bureaucrats–ideally ones that know nothing about education–let alone subjects being taught–but everything abotu filling in forms. Somehow one is not surprised.

    We are at the end point. The only way to improve education is to change the governmental culture by either forcing it to produce real world results or by making it get out of the way.

    Good luck with either one.


    4 Feb 13 at 6:40 pm

  3. Robert, I like your first option but that requires going back to the idea that the US is a federation of states. It probably also requires that the Supreme Court remembers that there is a 10th amendment.

    I have no faith at all in either of those happening.


    5 Feb 13 at 2:01 am

  4. OK, so why blame the bureaucrats? Admittedly, they’re as flawed as any other group of people, but they don’t suddenly decide to run things. Someone, management of a company or politicians, decides to hire them and set their systems up to use them. Usually for quite good reasons, too, even if the implementation is poorly thought out – or even impossible. They want people and processes to ensure that everyone gets paid on time, or everyone applying for a degree in engineering has some practical experience or everyone applying for a degree in medicine has actually spent some time with a suitable variety of patients.

    The problem arises when the people paying the bills either want the measure of something that isn’t easily or cheaply measureable, or take the advice of someone who happens to be a bureaucrat but also the only source of advice the boss wants to hear/ knows about etc. Of course, you do get bureaucrats who engage in empire-building – it’s a natural impulse to some humans, and almost unavoidable if the bosses change frequently or are uninformed (see “Yes, Minister” abnd “Yes, Prime Minister”).

    But if you’re going to eliminate bureaucrats, you’re going to have things run directly by the bosses – which is impossible in extremely large organizations, and, ummm, not likely to work well in cases in which specialist knowledge is really needed and the bosses aren’t chosen for their specialist knowledge.

    Unless, of course, you can find a replacement for bureaucrats.


    5 Feb 13 at 6:53 am

  5. Gong back to an earlier thread, I have John Fonte. Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or Be Ruled by Others? on my kindle but doubt that I will finish it because its very dry. I have managed to get to chapter 5 and that is enough to make me worry about the EU and courts overriding the laws of their own country!

    Speaking of kindle, a book I want is not available except in hard cover. The amazon used book store wants $4 for the book plus $16 for shipping to Australia. :(


    5 Feb 13 at 9:53 pm

  6. Cheryl, I blame the bureaucrats, because the results ARE “easily and cheaply measureable.” A few hours of multiple-choice testing will cover anything but reading comprehension and ressoning, and a relatively short human-graded essay can measure those. That’s why we have LSATs, GREs and the like. But telling the university “teach any way you want, but your graduates must average X or above on this test” would take away the bureaucratic power to bully and play favorites–and require fewer bureaucrats.
    JD, it didn’t take a Supreme Court opinion to dissolve the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the Roman. Nor will this mess be resolved by the courts. If we’re lucky, it may be resolved at the polls–but when we get a result on the order of the election of Jackson, Lincoln or FDR.


    6 Feb 13 at 6:32 am

  7. It is surprisingly difficult to develop good multiple choice tests that actually measure what they’re supposed to measure – and I’m not terribly familiar with the GREs etc because we mostly manage without them. Medical school applicants do the MCAT, but as far as I’ve ever heard, the local school at least considers other factors as well.

    Of course, it’s even MORE expensive and difficult to create and administer on a large scale tests that target the areas multiple choice tests are particularly bad at, such as the ability to write a convincing argument, or to present and analyse the causes and results of some important event or the impact of some literary work.

    But all these tests – including the multiple choice ones like the LSAT – are organized and run by bureaucrats because someone in the system with power thinks that they solve a serious problem. They require bureacrats, they don’t replace them. And one of the common reasons for hiring bureaucrats is to AVOID playing favourites – the organization will hire or promote or certify the people who fill some criteria, not just the boss’s nephew and the daughter of the guy who gave a few million to the cause.

    Sure, bureaucrats, being human, can and do start empire-building sometimes. And some of them may well have and promote agendas that you or I wouldn’t agree with, and convince their senior managers that they are good ideas. But they’ve been put into place to deal with very valid problems of favouritism, fairness and the difficulty of providing the same or similar services across a large area or throughout a large organization, and until another way can be found to do that, we will have bureaucrats.

    Making the people with the legal authority set appropriate criteria for action instead of swaying with every breeze of public opinion might be a start, but that assumes that they know history, human nature, and how their own political system is supposed to work.


    6 Feb 13 at 6:59 am

  8. There’s a Kipling poem, written for the Boer War (“The Old Issue?”) which describes unchecked government, personified by “the King.” “Watchers ‘neath our windows, lest we mock the King.” But Kipling knew it wasn’t personal government that was the problem, but arbitrary unlimited government, and he made that clear.

    That’s the point of those Department of Education regs–the length, complexity and internal contradictions are there to make necessary the waivers and exemptions–so there will be no law except the will of the bureaucrat.

    Name wouldn’t mean anything to most of you. Cockburn or maybe Cochrane. British Admiral during the Napoleonic Wars. Seamen had to bundle up all their personal gear inside their hammocks, rolled up tight so they could be kept out of the way when the ship went into battle. If the petty officer didn’t like you–well, somehow your roll was never tight enough, and you had to keep doing it. The Admiral had a hoop made from a Marine’s ramrod, and sent one of the same diameter to every ship under his command. If your gear passed through the hoop, it passed. If it couldn’t, you re-rolled it until it did. Then the Navy could get back to fighting the French and Americans.

    Watch how hard the Department of Education, the EPA and the IRS try to avoid anything resembling the iron hoop. But also watch how many teachers do to. When they say “we know when the student has mastered the material, but there’s no way for an outsider to tell” they’re just making pre-Hoop petty officers of themselves. I wouldn’t advise that. Of the two, the bureaucrats will win. If the teachers fight for a good standardized test, they’ll have a defensible case and a strong moral one.

    Remarkable how seldom they will, though.


    6 Feb 13 at 9:09 am

  9. The local teachers’ union never opposed the public exams, that I heard, although I gathered recently that the system had changed yet again. Our “public exams” changed somewhat since I was a girl, but are/were curriculum-based provincial exams developed and (well, now) marked locally. Back in the Dark Ages they were shipped off to Nova Scotia for marking. They were generally end-of-high-school exams in the core courses, and high-stakes, although now that means 50% and not 100% of the students’ final marks.

    I understand that sort of support among teachers is a bit unusual in North America, although one or two other Canadian provinces also didn’t discard their exams during the anti-formal-evaluation period – BC and maybe Alberta? It’s been years since I kept up with such matters, and I can’t remember.


    6 Feb 13 at 6:30 pm

  10. Cheryl, I don’t know about Canada. In the US, teachers seldom object to testing having consequences for students, though parents sometimes do. The teachers object to testing having consequences for the teachers and schools, which is the problem.

    On Planet Sane, you say to the faculty “the students are coming to you scoring (say) 350. We think in the the next year, you can raise the average score to 500. How you do it is your affair. If you make 600, there will be bonus money. But if their score is under 450, there will be transfers and layoffs (K-12) or we’ll stop lending students money to attend your institution (higher education.)”

    Mind you, this is pretty much how life works for a drill instructor. Recruits are tested, and the tests are scored. A drill instructor whose recruits underperform won’t much care for his efficiency report. And a battalion commander whose battalion doesn’t score well on its exam won’t ever command a brigade. But down here, when you suggest this to teachers, you usually get a LONG song and dance about how impossible it is to test what a child has learned in (say) history, English or mathematics, followed by a lecture on the intangible side of education–meaning not what the children have been taught, but how they have been indoctrinated.
    It’s invisible learning: evidently no one but the teacher can see it.

    If things are different there, count your blessings.


    6 Feb 13 at 8:16 pm

  11. See #’3 5 & 3:

    And from a reference in #3:

    “But a detailed study of students’ performance on TIMSS as well as on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), another widely reported international comparison test, by B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration and Hal Salzman of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., suggests otherwise. “Their point is that the average performance of U.S. students on these comparative international tests is not a meaningful number,” Teitelbaum says. Far from trailing the developed world in science education, as some claim, “on PISA, the U.S. has more high-scoring kids in science than any other country” and nearly as many in the top math category as top-scoring Japan and Korea, Salzman says.

    But crucially from a statistical standpoint, U.S. students are by far the most diverse of any industrialized country, ranging from some of the world’s best-prepared to some of the worst among the developed countries. On tests comparing the U.S., Japan and five Western European countries, for example, white Americans on average substantially outscored the Europeans in math and science and came second to the Japanese. American whites came first in reading by a wide margin.”

  12. That type of testing – you need to control for input, which is extremely difficult. However, some level of it used to be done (maybe still is) – teachers, prinicipals and board administrators all got back useful data on how the students performed. One weakness was that this was end of school examinations – really, problems need to be identified earlier than that – and another program in the earlier grades was instituted to try to deal with this. I have and had very little knowledge of that program, though.

    However – and I think this is important – the feedback wasn’t rigid. There’d be questions if your (the teachers’) results were out of whack with what was expected. You could argue that you had a group of unusually weak students – but the principal would know if this was true. One teacher pointed out that he’d taught the chemistry the students really needed to know, not what was on the curriculum – so, naturally, they scored badly on the exam. I don’t think that went down really well. It’s perfectly permissable to teach extra chemistry (or anything else) as long as you cover the curriculum or even develop a ‘local course’ covering anything you want but that wouldn’t count as a chemistry credit for admission to nursing school. But you can’t not teach the curriculum and not get caught on at least the major subjects. Sometimes I think teachers were reassigned. I expect some were encouraged to resign. In other cases, someone would explain to the teachers that yes, they had to teach .

    Maybe it’s a different culture. I certainly have read and heard my share of education bafflegab. And I’m really suspicious of claims for evaluation processes that go beyond the information they can produce. That happens a lot, and that’s probably what some of those teachers are objecting to.

    The rest are probably just expressing the fluffy sort of post-modern view of knowledge that a lot of people seem to have. I’m glad I got out of school before it became endemic.


    7 Feb 13 at 7:13 am

  13. The fact that some students are at a disadvantage or the student population is ‘diverse’ isn’t in itself a reason to give up on student achievement. There’s been at least anecdotal claims (and probably more; I haven’t read up on the literature) that children from poor or “disfunctional” (often really chaotic) backgrounds can achieve in schools that follow a very structured program – exactly what is most out of fashion today.

    And I’ve been convinced for years that teachers, administrators and politicians who claim that special consideration has to be given to certain groups (ie their achievement results left out of the summary reports) because they can’t learn due to “cultural differences” is nothing more than a cop out on the part of those who can’t or won’t teach the population in question, whether they’re poor white, native or even merely physically disabled.


    7 Feb 13 at 10:42 am

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