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There Is No Education Plan A

by rifek Tue Feb 4th, 2014 at 10:06:37 PM EST

I was originally going to post this as a comment over on ARGeezer's "Does the US even have a viable Plan A for HS education?", but it got really long, so I figured I'd better do a diary.

No, the US does not have a Plan A.  My parents are retired teachers, and I've taught at all levels, so I have some idea.


Once upon a time, the US education system had two, distinct parts: college prep and work prep.  College prep was for the upper class, to train the next generation of executives and professionals.  Work prep was to ensure that everyone else had a basic literacy, but was designed to keep the masses in their blue collar stations.  In spite of all the noise one now hears about 1905 8th grade completion exams, mass education was largely memorization with such computational skills as were thought needed for blue collar jobs, and class work was strictly focused to these ends.

Then came the post-WWII world.  The US decided to open up the white collar world and use the schools to do it.  Along with this came a breakdown of the consensus on what the curriculum should be.  The days of memorizing a few tame poems and the history class catechism were over.  The simple education had also been simplistic, and its death should have been a good thing.

But two things went seriously wrong.  First, what had originally been a plan to give blue collar families the means to become white collar turned into destroy the blue collar economy.  Suddenly, we wanted everyone to be white collar.  First, we destroyed the farms, then we destroyed skilled labor, and then we destroyed unskilled (Yes, we went after skilled before unskilled, because we simply stopped training anyone.  We were critically short of machinists a generation ago, and it's far worse now.  Even if we wanted to rebuild manufacturing, we don't have the skilled trades to do it.).

Second, we did not replace the old curriculum.  There was simply no agreement on what should be taught, so no new, coherent core developed.  Everything proceeded ad hoc, with predictable results.

Then about 50 years ago came the coup de grace.  The math people had a pretty good grasp of  what to teach; the issue was  how.  Then, from the bowels of the schools of education, came New Math.  These geniuses had decided that students should learn method before mechanics, "how" before "what."  I remember my mom bringing home the new text book and asking me what I thought of it.  I was able to sort it out, but I saw blood and disaster coming, and I was right.  My class was the first to get hit at the beginning, and there were only about five of us who could figure it out.  We were typical.  A 90% failure rate should have been a neon red flag, but these clowns just kept sending us into the Valley of Death.  Consequently, we have now raised two generations of math illiterates and are warming up a third.

As math goes, so goes the sciences.  In spite of a mountain of scientific achievement, including high profile areas such as space and medicine, too few people had the skills to understand what was going on.  Interest in science was superficial at best, and policies followed suit.  Indifferent policies are ultimately destructive, and that was first seen in the schools, where there was no funding for labs and supplies, and so students weren't taught how to do science.  Couple that with the inevitable product of the US's strong anti-intellectualism, religious fundamentalism, and we were off to Hell in a fast car.

We've been building this disaster for decades.  Not only are we not turning it around, but listening to the sanctimonious blather of the likes of Gates of Borg will only maintain the present course and put us on the rocks once and for all.

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New Math was a disaster based on the mistaken notion Set Theory is "more fundamental" than arithmetic.  Guess what?  It ain't.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Tue Feb 4th, 2014 at 10:55:48 PM EST
But I haven't really seen 'New Math' in schools for decades, but I have had a limited window into that world.


"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Feb 5th, 2014 at 12:19:02 AM EST
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They removed the name and morphed it into the array of dung piles we presently have.
by rifek on Wed Feb 5th, 2014 at 12:29:11 AM EST
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There was also factoring before teaching what factors were, and other premature applications of deconstructing and reconstructing terms of expressions.  This was the stuff that caused my classmates to abandon hope.
by rifek on Wed Feb 5th, 2014 at 12:35:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The thing I found most astounding about my son's elementary school education was that the process turned out to be 'content free'. This was in the '80s in Los Angeles Unified. I had discussions with teachers and with principles on this subject. It seemed that the schools of education, which I had always thought to be essentially useless, could only agree on teaching methods. Content was too contentious. So they took the position that content didn't matter. And this was in a 'magnet school'.

I had never really expected the school to teach him much. We had made sure he could read before he started school. In the Montessori pre-school he had learned phonics but had not just started reading as expected, so I got a box of flash cards with the common words on them, worked with him, incentivised him, and, in about three weeks he was reading up to the (rather high) limits of his vocabulary. Then his first grade teacher refused to acknowledge that he could read until Christmas!  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Feb 5th, 2014 at 12:37:38 AM EST
I could make a remark about there being no substance in LA, but I'll stick to topic and note that both of my parents considered education schools and professors transcendently worthless and generally counterproductive.
by rifek on Wed Feb 5th, 2014 at 02:08:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Taking that as a given, what exactly should be done regarding teacher certification and qualification?

I'm a classroom teacher who is abunduntly overqualified in terms of academic background, but who hasn't taken a single education class.  I've done a cert in ESL, but nothing in education properly. I learned the art in the field, first working a few years as an in-classroom assistant and co-teacher, and then taking on my own classes.  As far as I'm concerned, teaching is something you have to learn by doing, and no amount of course work and book study is going to help you do it.  

You need to study the content you're going to teach, sure.  The occasional seminar on "Try Doing This!" or "This worked here!" might be useful when things aren't working with a particular group of kids, or you feel stuck in a rut.  Learning the legal environment of your school district is good, and having some basic training in counseling and dealing with psychological issues may be useful too - though these would also probably be as much done through hand-on training as anything.

But aside from that sort of stuff, as far as I can tell any sort of teacher training that's anything more than "put someone in a classroom in a controlled environment and critique them in a productive way on their performance" is a waste of time.

A four-year degree program in Education?  Masters and Doctorates in Education?  Give me a break.

But what to do about certification and qualification?  I really don't know.

by Zwackus on Thu Feb 6th, 2014 at 03:40:50 AM EST
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And, worse, 'teacher training' has become a self-serving academic industry. We have a family friend who had obtained a full academic certification in teaching from UCLA while in college but had never used it. Change in circumstance led her to dig it out and it has provided her an invaluable lifeline through the most recent two decades of her life. But it was by no means the end. She has been taking additional courses ever since she got her first position. It was a practical necessity to get and hold a teaching position.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu Feb 6th, 2014 at 09:50:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No disagreement here on anything you've written.  Empty credentialism has become the hallmark of US education.  Engineering and health sciences have managed to resist, but social "sciences" are a joke, law is a sick joke, and education is an obscenity.  Even if you look outside traditional education, e.g. technical training for skilled trades, all it amounts to is jumping through hoops to get a piece of paper; it doesn't mean they can do the job or that their knowledge isn't sadly outdated.

I too am abundantly overqualified to teach certain subjects, but in the US you can't even substitute teach without a teaching certificate.  You can be a 22-year-old moron who isn't even registered to vote and still be allowed to teach American Government if you have that certificate.  On the other hand, you can have been in law and politics for 30 years, but they won't let you anywhere near a classroom without that certificate.

What to do?  First thing, let's kill all the education colleges.  Their societal negative ROI can be matched only by law schools.  Second, there should be no education degrees.  Teachers, including elementary school teachers, should get degrees in substantive fields.  "But we're generalists," whine the elementary teachers.  Tough.  If you haven't mastered enough math to teach sixth grade, you're dumber than a sack of hair and should go herd cats for a living.

Third, beat human resources "professionals" with ax handles until they agree to stop using credentials as a substitute for knowledge.  "But we need precise credentials to match the precise requirements of our precise job descriptions," whine the SHRM-bots.  Yeah, right.  All those things are about as precise as the bisecting line of a sneeze.  It's no wonder the economy is crap; you've turned our training and personnel systems into garbage in-garbage out.  Do your jobs, flush credentialism, and come up with something real.  Real data, even with broad margins of error, are better than falsely precise data.  Or meaningless data.

Finally, we need to stop treating for-profit schools as if they were for anything other than profit.  This can be done in one step, namely allowing students to bankrupt out of the loans these places had them take out.  Cut off that cash cow, and these boiler room operations will dry up and blow away.  That would also go along way toward taking care of point 3 above, as HR departments would no longer have lines of well-credentialed zombies for every position.

by rifek on Thu Feb 6th, 2014 at 01:44:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Such an abolition of certification would need to go hand in hand with a greater empowerment of faculty and principals to make reasonable employment decisions - and a standard of professionalism by those in these positions to avoid the easy temptation of saving money by hiring obviously unqualified "warm body" faculty.

The only way you can really tell if someone can teach a class is to watch them teach that class, and monitor their content and results over time.  The people on the ground need to be able to make those decisions - able in both senses, empowered and competent.

by Zwackus on Thu Feb 6th, 2014 at 07:09:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But what to do about certification and qualification?  I really don't know.

There is nothing wrong with apprenticeship as a means to obtain certification.

The notion that certification must involve sitting in a class and listening to an instructor for a set number of hours is a corrosive nonsense which exists only for the benefit of instructors and lazy HR departments.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Thu Feb 6th, 2014 at 04:22:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
fine diary, succinct and informative, thanks rifek.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty
by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Feb 5th, 2014 at 11:05:14 AM EST
Takk for bra.
by rifek on Wed Feb 5th, 2014 at 02:09:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
May the Gates of Borg not prevail against us!

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Feb 5th, 2014 at 07:53:08 PM EST
Last decades gathered a lot of knowledge how to obstruct education covertly.
by das monde on Fri Feb 7th, 2014 at 04:49:57 AM EST
Rifek refers to "the US's strong anti-intellectualism". But then Zwackus says:

As far as I'm concerned, teaching is something you have to learn by doing, and no amount of course work and book study is going to help you do it.

This does sound a bit anti-intellectual. But then Z quite reasonably qualifies this, with some things which might well involve some "course work" and "book study":

You need to study the content you're going to teach, sure.  The occasional seminar on "Try Doing This!" or "This worked here!" might be useful when things aren't working with a particular group of kids, or you feel stuck in a rut.  Learning the legal environment of your school district is good, and having some basic training in counseling and dealing with psychological issues may be useful too ...

But then further qualifies the latter with

though these would also probably be as much done through hand-on training as anything.

Or maybe not, but wouldn't an intellectually valid approach involve the reference to some studies rather than personal experience and opinion? Also, of course, it doesn't have to be either/or; it would seem reasonable to complement practical experience with some study.

Let's take a look at what some studies have shown about the difficult business of comparing differing educational systems around the world. Finland has been coming top in the PISA rankings and many people have looked at their educational system to see what lessons might be learned, e.g.:

Since it emerged in 2000 as the top-scoring OECD nation on the international PISA assessments, researchers have been pouring into the country to study the "Finnish miracle." How did a country with an undistinguished education system in the 1980s surge to the head of the global class in just few decades? Research and experience suggest one element trumps all others: excellent teachers. This policy brief examines the crucial role that teachers and teacher education have played in the dramatic transformation of Finland's education system.
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instead of test-based accountability, the Finnish system relies on the expertise and accountability of teachers who are knowledgeable and committed to their students
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Teacher education is now research-based, meaning that it must be supported by scientific knowledge and focus on thinking processes and cognitive skills used in conducting research (Jakku-Sihvonen & Niemi, 2006). The entry requirement for permanent employment as a teacher in all Finnish basic and high schools today is a master's degree. Preschool and kindergarten teachers must have a bachelors degree.
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A prospective subject teacher majors in the field he or she will be teaching (e.g., mathematics or music).
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Another important element of Finnish research-based teacher education is practical training in schools, which is a key component of the curriculum, integrated with research and theory.
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Among the successful practices that we can take from Finland are:
    *    The development of rigorous, research- based teacher education programs that prepare teachers in content, pedagogy, and educational theory, as well as the capacity to do their own research, and that include field work mentored by expert veterans;
    *    Significant financial support for teacher education, professional development, reasonable and equitable salaries, and supportive working conditions;
    *    The creation of a respected profession in which teachers have considerable authority and autonomy, including responsibility for curriculum design and student assessment, which engages them in the ongoing analysis and refinement of practice. Teachers' capacity to teach in classrooms and work collaboratively in professional communities has been systematically built through academic teacher education. In addition, a critical condition for attracting the most able young people to teaching is that teacher's work is an independent and respected profession, rather than just a technical implementation of externally mandated standards and tests. Teachers' strong competence and preparedness creates the prerequisite for the professional autonomy that makes teaching a valued career.

http://edpolicy.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/secret-finland's-success-educating-tea chers.pdf

Of course some people with experience of a particular field MIGHT make very good teachers without further study, but then again they might know their subject well and be poor communicators and lack knowledge of the kinds of thing included in the Finnish teacher-training system. In a recent discussion with Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Kraus said that while some of scientists were good communicators, some others he would try to keep away from the general public.

Maybe Finland's success in education is due to a variety of country-specific factors; but the above arguments for the importance of Finland's kind of teacher education are worth considering.


Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.

by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Sun Feb 9th, 2014 at 04:47:22 PM EST
There is nothing inherently anti-intellectual about arguing that some things can only be mastered by doing them. It is readily accepted by most that ten hours on the tennis court beats twenty in an auditorium if you want to be a professional tennis player. Why is it so difficult to accept an equivalent dictum for teaching?

I think it has to do with a certain snobbishness. Craftsmanship and apprenticeship is associated with manual labor, and teaching is a leisure class profession.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Mon Feb 10th, 2014 at 03:13:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Why is it so difficult to accept an equivalent dictum for teaching?

Because teaching is rather more complicated than playing tennis; as I noted, Zwackus had acknowledged that some of the varied skills involved in teaching might well require some "book-learning". The varied syllabus of the Finnish teaching education system reflects this. It's quite reasonable to suppose that it might be worth studying what has been learned about the various kinds of skills and knowledge involved in teaching - alongside practical experience of attempting to apply it. The results achieved by the Finnish teacher education system would seem to provide support for that kind of system. I did include some information about it so that we might go beyond personal opinion.

But the "dictum" itself is simplistic; most professional tennis players have coaches who do not just ensure that the player spends a certain amount of time on court practising. In fact they engage in a form of teaching, often with an emphasis on psychology, it also involves studying the games of rival players, analysing strengths and weaknesses, etc.

Coaches, athletes and sports psychologists are convinced that the difference between winning and losing for top-level athletes is largely a mental difference.

While the full benefits of sports psychologists may one day be available to recreational athletes, at present they are limited almost entirely to professional and world-class competitors.

http://www.nytimes.com/1989/09/11/sports/on-your-own-sports-psychology-becoming-the-locker-room-s-la test-rage.html


I think it has to do with a certain snobbishness. Craftsmanship and apprenticeship is associated with manual labor, and teaching is a leisure class profession.

There certainly is such snobbishness, but then, as rifek said, there is anti-intellectualism too, and not only in the US; it's quite strong in the UK. So, rather than depend on such prejudices, it would seem sensible to look at some evidence, as I did in citing the success in education of a country like Finland. This seems to me a good example in that not only does it achieve top results in the PISA international survey, it does it without endless training to take tests; it is about what education should be about "we prepare children to learn how to learn":


There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students' senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland's schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators.
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"We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test," said Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now in Finland's Ministry of Education and Culture. "We are not much interested in PISA. It's not what we are about."

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the Finns seem to be onto something. Neighboring Norway, a country of similar size, embraces education policies similar to those in the United States. It employs standardized exams and teachers without master's degrees. And like America, Norway's PISA scores have been stalled in the middle ranges for the better part of a decade.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/why-are-finlands-schools-successful-49859555/



Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner - that I moved to Nice.
by Ted Welch (tedwelch-at-mac-dot-com) on Tue Feb 11th, 2014 at 04:30:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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