Tag Archives: education

Please Power Down Your White Privilege Now.

Back to school special:

I’d like to note that not every teacher who “moves to a school in the suburbs” does so for bad reasons. Some of them do so after being handed a $10,000 per annum pay cut and a contract with zero chance of a raise for the indefinite future or something else along those lines. In other words, while I strongly agree with Olivia Fantini, she may have some unexamined privilege of her own in blaming teachers for their own victimization.

Taxpayers, anti-tax organizations, and the elected officials bought and paid for by them are at the root of most of our problems in education. We used to fund education nearly well enough. Since the old days, it got more expensive and the basis for paying for it became, essentially, illegal in most states. THAT is where most of the blame should be placed.

Still a great video, though.

Jihad Engineers

A disproportionate percentage of Islamist radical actors, including suicide bombers, come from an engineering background. Why?

Right wing and Islamist extremism seem to share this and other traits, while left wing extremism is more commonly associated with individuals from the humanities and social sciences.

This is what we learn from “Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education“, by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog.

An obvious reason that engineers may be more often associated with groups that carry out bombings is that such groups recruit engineers because they would be the idea bomb makers. This, however, is not the case. Indeed, many of the famous goofed up bombing attempts of recent years were carried out by those with engineering backgrounds, while many of the more competent bombers were did not come from an engineering background.

Also note: We keep seeing the term “engineering background” because many of these individuals are not engineers. Many are students who studied, or even got degrees in, engineering, though they may not have ever worked as such. And many are civil engineers, or other kinds of engineers, or studied these professions, rather than some sort of bomb-oriented engineering (though civil engineering might be helpful in designing a bomb-based attack on something).

The basic explanation works something like this. In the Arab/Islamic/Middle Eastern world, there are two professions that men often aspire to for status. Medicine and engineering. Getting a BA or BS is a status symbol, but if one gets a BA or a BS in engineering, that is a better status symbol. Men get this degree, disproportionately, even if they are from a background, and embedded in a family or subculture, where they are not likely to ever work in that profession.

Meanwhile, there seems to be an association with something we might broadly describe as failure to meet one’s own expectations, and getting all cranky and jihadi. You think you are cool. You are cool. And smart. And going up in status. You get you degree. You try for an engineering degree, and maybe you barely get past the hurdles and achieve it. But, you are entering a world where more than just an engineering degree, or your own massive coolness, is enough to succeed. The global Bush-Cheney Recession is upon us, and everyone is suffering.

But the thing is, you are not supposed to be suffering. You are cool. You are from a good background. You have a degree. In engineering!

So, you experience what psychologists of yore called “Relative Deprivation.” It is kind of a first world problem. You should be father along, higher up, better situated, than you are. But the system, the economy, the government, the godless infidels of the west, have kept you down.

So you get all cranky and jihady and blow them up.

I don’t mean to make light of this idea or its consequences. Rather, my snark leads to another point. The people who set bombs and kill innocent bystanders in airports and such are not “cowards” as is often said by Secretaries of States and Presidents and such. Why are spoiled brats. Not that this matters a lot, but one needs to get these things right.

Anyway, Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education is a very interesting academic treatment of the question of the link between engineering and jihad. Since it is rooted firmly in data, the book serves as well as an interesting historical account of much of the terrorism of the last several decades. More importantly, it is one of the rare full treatments of the nature and psychology of this sort of behavior.

I noted that “relative deprivation” is a concept of yore, and it is. The authors have, dangerously perhaps (because this sort of thing is dangerous in Academia) pulled out and dusted off an old concept that was found wanting in its earlier incarnations. But they have modified it and applied it well, so it is more of an homage to earlier workers to call it this. But the name is appropriate. Relative to your life long expectations, you are screwed. So you react, at out, victimize someone else. And you happen to be male and muslim (both traits of the patriarchal fundamentalist islamic world) and maybe you know somebody who knows somebody, and next thing you know you are in a training camp in war torn Syria.

The set of jihadists examined in this study is not everybody, but rather, a subset with common defining characteristics. So, for example, this study does not pertain to ISIL.

And, other extremists may have a similar pattern of association with certain areas of study and their radical decisions, but come from different backgrounds. There is a vague association between being a Nazi in the early days and being in law, history, or economics. Indeed, the pattern of extremist behavior, historical context, and educational or work background is very complicated, not very well understood, and there is no way I can give it justice here. Must read Chapter 5.

Education (of one type or another) does not cause extremism. This is not nearly so simple of a situation. But the link between academic orientation, educational effort, a few other things, and extremist views and action is not random, and does make sense, in the context of the revised and updated theory of relative deprivation. Have a look, I think you’ll be convinced.

Chaos in the classroom and how to replace it with learning

Can we replace Classroom Chaos with Learning-Centered Education?

K–12 education can be better. One of the most effective changes that could be made is to reduce the amount of chaos in the classroom and replace it with learning.

I spend several hours a year in various schools giving presentations on Anthropology, Evolution, Brainzz, and other topics. Plus, I know some teachers and have taught seminars specifically for teachers. For these reasons I have a sense of what happens in high school (and to a lesser extent middle school and elementary school) classrooms. What I am about to describe – “classroom chaos” – is found in every school that I know of, and it is appalling.

You might think that classroom chaos is the product of out of control students, or class sizes that are too large, or escaped animals (all of which are problems, of course). But that is not what I’m talking about. The following is a short list of the causes of classroom chaos:

  1. The Principal
  2. The Yearbook
  3. The Congress of the United States of America
  4. State Legislatures
  5. The College Board and other similar entities
  6. The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion

The following is a complete list of entities that DO NOT cause classroom chaos:

  1. Teachers
  2. Students
  3. Guest Speakers

What are some examples of events that when they occur cause classroom chaos?

Imagine that a teacher is five minutes away from the end of the third class for the day (i.e., the same “prep” i.e. “AP Chemistry” being taught three times). The intercom system comes on because the principal has decided to make a school wide announcement about something. Everyone sits and listens to the principal and then class ends. The students in that class don’t get the learning that happened in the other classes for that last five minutes, which depending on the class might be very important. Also, the teacher is left to figure out how to adjust for this, which can be difficult because the three classes for this prep are now out of sync.

Imagine that all of the sophomores in the school are scheduled at the same time to take a test offered by a major testing agency. They must take the test as part of their overall high school-to-college tracking. So, sophomores, as part of their effort to demonstrate their learning, don’t get to learn what the other students (who are not sophomores) were learning in their mixed grade class that morning, and the teachers have to figure out a way of adjusting for this, possibly by spinning wheels for a while. But it may be quite difficult to make that adjustment, and it may just be the case that those sophomores have lost a learning opportunity. Ironically, that lack of learning may show up later in other standardized tests that they will, in the future, be pulled out of class to take.

Standards-related state-wide or national tests are scheduled for an arbitrary time of year that has little to do with when students learn the material being tested. This disrupts the entire schedule at a large scale. It is very common, for example, that an AP exam is scheduled nation-wide by the College Board to occur near the middle of the third of three terms in a school year for a particular school district. This means that either the students take the test several weeks after the end of their AP class, or before the class has ended, rendering the final weeks of the term moot in relation to that AP test. This actually costs students and their families money because AP tests are a way to avoid paying for some expensive college classes the students will be required to take later, and the grade one earns on the AP test determines whether or not the student can opt out of the required class. Also, the test itself takes up valuable teaching time. Certainly, taking an AP test is a very worthwhile endeavour, but state-wide standards-related tests are not worth the student’s time. Those tests are not there to challenge or educate the student, and are generally not used to evaluate the student, but rather, to measure and control the quality of the schools the students are in. These tests are the byproduct of a system of education that knows something about the problems it has but tends to find the clumsiest way to solve those problems. More to the point, the cost paid to improve education is unfairly borne by the students and teachers, and the cost is paid as lost learning.

There are a lot of tests that students are required or encouraged to take, including (depending on the state and district) a PLAN test, PSAT test, a state-wide test such as the MCA given in Minnesota, and AP tests), so the total amount of time taken away can be rather large. I’m not arguing against testing. That would be a different topic. But even if we assume that evaluation is important (and this could be the case) evaluation should not be done at the cost of damaging the learning environment.

In many schools, three or four students in every single classroom in every single class all day have to leave to get their ID photos taken, visit a guidance counselor for a mandated meeting, or get their yearbook picture taken. In one school I know of, over a period of several days each term, students are called via the public address system in small numbers based on the alphabetical position of their last name to attend a group guidance meeting, so for the entire day virtually every class is randomly interrupted and at any given moment there are students missing from the classroom. Imagine the equivalent disruption caused by the student. For example, imagine that two or three students put their ear buds in and ignore the teacher for half the class. They would not get away with that. Why does the yearbook or the administration get away with bringing students out of the classroom randomly like this?

In some schools, all the senior are excused from one class so that a senior picture can be taken out on the lawn. Some students leave their classes behind for extended periods for college visits at a career center. In many cases students are allowed to leave their last class early for extracurricular activities, such as debate team or sports. Then, there are the fire drills, tornado drills, and lockdown drills. (Corresponding to that sort of disruption, I could have added “Terrorists, spree killers, and arsonists” to the above list of causal agents!)

Pepfests shorten the schedule so that students can cram into a less than adequately sized auditorium to hear each grade level try to yell louder than the other (which really does nothing but create division between the grades), watch silly games like relays where kids hop in gunney sacks across a slippery floor, all while students increasingly show riotous behavior that quite frankly intimidates many teachers. (Note to parents: you should be able to send a note to the school excusing your offspring from this sort of event. Check it out.)

Less chaotic but still a time sink are shortened schedules or substitutes employed to bring teachers out of the classroom. Some schools have a “late start” day where all the class schedules are shortened so that some regular event like an advisory meeting can happen in the morning. Or, teachers are pulled from classes en masse and replaced with substitutes so they can attend to administrative functions. This category of disruption is actually a better solution to classroom chaos in some cases because all of the students and teachers are affected similarly and simultaneously, but it is still the case that when adding up days of instruction over the year, this should not be ignored.

In most schools, the pledge of allegiance must be recited every day at the beginning of one class, meaning that for this class, one of several in a prep, is always short. That’s like every fourth car in the car wash not getting it’s back end washed, or every fourth customer at the grocery store getting one item lifted from their packages on the way out the door. If it was really a “pledge” the students should be fine taking it once, perhaps on the first day of first grade. (Not to mention the fact that in many classroom many students are not American citizens, so pledging to the US flag may be a felony in their own country, but I digress….)

I’ll leave it to the reader to match the above list of causal agents to their various chaos-causing disruptions.

If we count the disruption for standards based tests, AP tests, and other non-test-taking disruptions, far more learning time is lost to classroom chaos than to snow days in a northern state during a very bad winter. School boards will have meetings at which they’ll belly-ache about snow days, and whether or not to extend a school year because there were too many of them, but the numerous systematic yet chaotic disruptions approved by the the school boards or required by the state are never or rarely discussed as a negative impact on learning. Also, consider this: Most, probably all, states mandate a certain amount of classroom time per year, but the policy makers who put these rules in place seem oblivious to the fact that there is no cap on the amount of classroom disruption. If, indeed, a particular state happens to mandate a minimum number of days of “learning” (instead of just a minimum number of “school days”) then there may be grounds for some sort of lawsuit. A state that mandates 180 days of learning time (explicitly stated as such) but then mandates several days of interruption of that time may be liable for breaking its own rules.

I teach college. Nobody interrupts my class but me. The idea of an administrator showing up in my classroom and making an announcement would be outrageous. I determine when the tests are scheduled and the manner of their administration. Over many years of teaching, I’ve had the police show up to talk to (or in some cases, take away) a student about a half dozen times. Even then, the police officers know to wait patiently until after I’m done with class before they move in. This happened to me just a couple of weeks ago. The police, these days, seem empowered to demand your ID on the street, search your house or car with rather bogus “probable cause,” have by their policies have de facto made dissent and assembly illegal, and have taken to using numerous novel forms of violence such as pepper spary and tasers on ordinary citizens exercising their constitutional rights. But they don’t mess with a teacher in the classroom … in college. But in high school? Anything goes.

Many of the reasons for the disruptions I’ve mentioned above are valid. Perhaps we need tests. Extracurricular activities are good, I assume. Advising is important and, if anything, there should be more of it. College visits are probably a good thing (though the methods colleges use to market themselves to students are highly questionable, but that’s also a topic for another time). But there is a problem with the way all of these things are implemented. It is is indubitably and demonstrably true that learning in the classroom is prioritized last and everything else is prioritized above classroom time. Students are not very subtly being taught a very significant negative lesson, or perhaps several such lessons. Learning is not as important as administration and bureaucracy. Learning does not require or involve continuity or focus. Society claims, and tells the students, that education is very important, yet learning in the classroom, a central part of education, is clearly not a high priority. This teaches the students that a central pillar of society is built on a lie. Educators and administrators would very much like society to respect education more than it does, to hold it in high regard and view it as a funding priority. This may be a difficult argument to make if we demonstrate to our students on a nearly daily basis for over a decade that everything is more important than learning. It should not be a surprise that so many citizen-taxpayers are cynical about education. The system of education was cynical about their learning day after day and year after year.

What is the solution? It is probably not possible to fully address these problems, but I have two specific suggestions that I think would go a long way. These suggestions are general and would need to be implemented thoughtfully and creatively.

First, make the classroom a sacred space, and classroom time sacred time. Those PA systems should only be used for emergencies. Only the teacher should be allowed to decide what happens in that room. Students are required to make the case that they have to pee, and thus get a bathroom pass; everyone else in or near a school needs to make the case for disrupting the classroom, and the expectation should be that they’ll be routinely denied. This may require that schools change the way they arrange their schedules. For example, guidance counselors could routinely have a late day. If classes are run from 7:30 onwards, guidance counselors can start their day at 9:30 and concentrate almost all of their activities that directly involve students during the time after classes are over. This will require creative solution for busing but educators and administrators are creative people. Figure it out. Another pragmatic solution is to routinely include a study period in each student’s schedule. This is the time that the student can carry out many of the various activities for which they are typically called out of class. This will require administrations to change the way they serve those student’s needs. Instead of students being called out of class for their ID photo, they are required to go to the photo ID office during their study period. And so on.

With respect to testing and the disruption this causes, large scale changes will need to be made. If we decide as a society (at the national or state level) that there will be tests given across many school districts, then we need to end our worship of “home rule” whereby every school district determines its own schedule. School boards may be unaware of this, but major calendric events such as Thanksgiving and the various religious holidays such as Christmas actually happen on the same exact schedule in all states, counties, towns, and districts across this great land of ours. Summer is simultaneous, it turns out, no matter where you are in the Northern Hemisphere. Child labor laws have almost entirely eliminated the requirement to let youngsters out of school to help with the seasonal harvest or work in the mills while the hydro power is strongest with the spring floods. We can have a national (or at least, state-wide) schedule, and in so doing, we can have things like AP tests and other tests administered in a sensible way. In addition, some tests can be given multiple times. It is difficult and costly to create multiple versions of a given test each year, but it is not impossible to have two or three AP tests to accommodate two or three different schedule paradigms among which school districts choose nation-wide.

Sports are a problem. Notice how many disruptions occur to classroom time. Are there similar disruptions that occur to sporting schedules? I don’t think so. It is apparent that sports trumps learning. This, I suspect, is a funding and community relations effect. When was the last time an irate parent beat up a principal because his child did not get to make up a physics lab she missed during an illness? I can’t remember that ever happening. When was the last time a parent assaulted a coach or threatened another parent over a perceived bad call on the playing field? I believe this happens almost daily in this country, now and then in a manner sufficiently spectacular to become a form of newsertainment. This prioritization of sports reaches across high school and college and life in general, with some high schools viewed as sources for top amateur athletes for various colleges, and those colleges viewed as sources for top professional athletes. Students with high athletic potential are each unlikely to become a professional athlete, and if so, are unlikely to do well in that profession, given the severe culling that happens as we breed or gladiators. But those students may be given a pass on their learning anyway, increasing the chance that they do poorly in life so that a very few may take the very important role in making a lot of other people rich and/or happy.

The fact that this appalling system of trafficking and exploitation also takes a higher priority in high schools is unacceptable. But even more unacceptable is the fact that sports takes a higher priority over education in high school than it does in college. In high school, a teacher is at the mercy of the sports teams, with students being excused (not by the teacher but by the administration) from class, and in many cases, being away from all of their classes especially if their team is doing well and enters playoffs. (Which is not necessarily a bad thing because it represents student success in an area important to them.) I’ve taught at a handful of different colleges including two with major commitments to sports. In the college setting, the athletic schedules are managed in such a way that they don’t interfere with the classroom schedule (though some classes, i.e. those taught late in the afternoon, are not taken by many athletes) and it is possible to not even know that you have an athlete in your class, with two exceptions. First, it is the case in both high school and college that when a particular team does very well and enters playoffs, they may be gone for several days. This is probably not avoidable, but if most of these other problems were fixed, it would be tolerable. Second, as a college teacher, I am actually asked to give permission to the student to continue engagement in athletics! If you don’t do well in class, you can’t play on the field. I’m asked, politely, by the administration or individual students to certify on a form that each athlete in my class is doing well enough academically to participate in sports.

So, the first thing to do to handle this problem is to prioritize education, learning in the classroom, the classroom time itself, the teacher as the effective monarch of the classroom, and then re-examine all the other needs from guidance sessions to photo shoots to sports and, especially, tests to have those needs be met in a way that does not cause classroom chaos. Figure it out.

The second thing to do is simpler but very important: Apologize. Humble the disruptions in relation to the learning. Stop assuming that anything the administration of a school, or a school board, or a state legislature, or any other entity wants to happen can happen at the expense of learning in the classroom, and when such a thing must happen at the expense of learning in the classroom, the entity causing the chaos must do so in a contrite manner and in parallel with a sincere effort to not let it happen as much, or at all, in the future. In other words, change the culture.

All we need to do to fix our system of education is …

… well, actually, you can start by shutting up.

Then, while you are sitting there quietly read this: Why Teaching Is Harder Than It Looks.

Then, add your advice about how we can fix our system of education to the comments below. But each suggestion must be paid for (with money) and fit into the schedule (by paying someone to do what you suggest instead of what they are at present required to do).

Which means, ultimately, there is one fundamental answer to improving our system of education: Throw money at it. For starters, stop taking money away from it. The, put more in.


Photo Credit: chrissuderman via Compfight cc

NCSE’s Genie Scott will Retire

My friend and colleague, executive director of the National Center for Science Education’s Genie Scott, will retire by the end of the year. She’s been director of the NCSE for 26 years. Genie is a key player, perhaps the key player, in the battle to keep science in the classroom and other things that are not science out of the classroom, in public schools. She’s gotten piles of awards and has done a huge amount of great work. While a lot of people have been involved in this fight, I think it is fair to give Genie top billing in such major and momentous efforts as the fight in Dover (which sealed the fate for creationism in public schools forever). She is author of Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction and Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools.

Genie was Julia’s grandfather’s undergraduate advisee, and back in the day, was a key influence on my personal interest in creationism (and the fighting thereof). Thank you Genie for everything.

She’ll be missed. Although maybe she’s not really going away, just doing other great things.

There are more details here, as well as info on the job announcement, in case you were looking for something new!

The Teachers are Revolting!

In a good way!

This is a very interesting story; I’m going to pass along the press release without modification:


***Standardized test takes away from student learning***

WASHINGTON—National Education Association (NEA) members at Garfield High School in Seattle, Wash., voted to not administer the district-mandated Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) standardized test that is not aligned with state standards or the district curriculum. NEA has long urged for the careful consideration of the fact that these tests are being used to make decisions about students’ and teachers’ futures, and have corrupted the pursuit of improving real learning and effective teaching.

A rally event organized by the Seattle Education Association in support of Garfield High School educators will be held in Seattle on Wednesday, January 23, 2013, at 4 p.m. PST at the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence.

The following is a statement by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel:

“Today is a defining moment within the education profession as educators at Seattle’s Garfield High School take a heroic stand against using the MAP test as a basis for measuring academic performance and teacher effectiveness. I, along with 3 million educators across the country, proudly support their efforts in saying ‘no’ to giving their students a flawed test that takes away from learning and is not aligned with the curriculum. Garfield High School educators are receiving support from the parents of Garfield students. They have joined an ever-growing chorus committed to one of our nation’s most critical responsibilities—educating students in a manner that best serves the realization of their fullest potential.

“Educators across the country know what’s best for their students, and it’s no different for our members in Seattle. We know that having well-designed assessment tools can help students evaluate their own strengths and needs, and help teachers improve. This type of assessment isn’t done in one day or three times a year. It’s done daily, and educators need the flexibility to collaborate with their colleagues and the time to evaluate on-going data to make informed decisions about what’s best for students.

“If we want a system that is designed to help all students, we must allow educators, parents, students and communities to be a part of the process and have a stronger voice in this conversation as they demand high-quality assessments that support student learning. Off-the-shelf assessments that are not aligned with the curriculum or goals of the school are not the answer.”

Can Missouri Students Skip Evolution Assignments If They Don't Believe In It? I

Two days ago, according to the NCSE, Missouri voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 2 which protects the right of citizens to pray and express religious beliefs, which was already the case because of the US Constitution. However, the Amendment will have other effects that were not mentioned at the voting booth. For example, “no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.” What do you think THAT is going to lead to?

Ooops… we left all the children behind

“No Child Left Behind” was doomed to be a failure, because it was ill concieved, politically cynical, and underfunded. But like the War in Iraq, the Patriot Act and Tax Breaks for the Rich, and all the other initiatives of the Bush Administration that never should have happened, we have been saddled with this melt down of a policy for over a decade. “NCLB” was one of the first policies implemented by Bush.

The evidence that the approaches developed under this policy have failed has been mounting for years, and the supporters of NCLB have been dropping like flies on no-pest strip. The latest and perhaps most important policy related statement to date has just come out, and it is a study published by the National Academies of Science: Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education by Michael Hout and Stuart W. Elliott, Editors; Committee on Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Public Education; National Research Council.

And the study says …
Continue reading Ooops… we left all the children behind

The Nation’s Science Report Card is out. Everything is going fine.

The Science component of “The Nation’s Report Card” was released today and clearly indicates that we have moved one step closer as a nation in two of our most important goals: Building a large and complacent poorly educated low-pay labor class, and increasing the size of our science-illiterate populace in order to allow the advance of medieval morality and Iron Age Christian values.

Continue reading The Nation’s Science Report Card is out. Everything is going fine.