Thursday, December 29, 2011

Of Moral Education

Today I read an interesting post that referred to an article in The New Yorker on a new Catholic school football powerhouse in New Jersey, and even as I've just typed those words, the phrase "Catholic school football powerhouse" looks oxymoronic. Jesus advised us, "Lay up your treasures in heaven; for where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also"; and where can the treasures be of these New Jersey Catholic school football players, but in a sports marketing office in Florida?

And this brings me to the topic of missing, or ineffective, moral education. It is missing in the United States; ethics classes do not appear on the transcripts nor in the course catalogues of our secondary schools, which is unusual for the OECD (and contrasts with my plans for One World Secondary School, where a course in Comparative Ethics is being planned). Its effectiveness is questionable in east Asia, where bullying is a problem, and in the Foundations classes that I have privately tutored students in for many years; and it appears to be failing altogether at Don Bosco Prep and similar prep school powerhouses in the United States (although I can't begin to confirm this without reading the New Yorker article that is carefully hidden behind a pay wall). And in general it is hard to be a parent of the technophiles Marc Bauerlein has appropriately termed The Dumbest Generation, growing up "in a generational cocoon" (10) of constant contact with peers similarly adrift in this strange new world that we all are, but no one is, creating. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bonuses for Sleeping Teachers

I've just read an interesting Huffington Post entry from a mathematics teacher in Los Angeles amenable to using student test scores as a factor in his professional appraisal. While his tone is commendably reasonable, both he and all others involved in this debate should beware the assumption of a one-to-one correspondence between teaching inputs and student learning outputs, since other factors might be involved. Two immediate alternative explanations for high student scores immediately come to mind: the (typically Asian) use of tutors or cram schools and the 21st century solution of online tutoring, perhaps through recorded videos like those of the Khan Academy.

Here's a scenario that should give the simple-minded teacher-bonus-for-high-test-score aficianados nightmares, and the rest of us a laugh: two teachers, a retired-on-the-job old-time math teacher who never could teach and a frazzled incompetent rookie science teacher who has received a few days of training before being thrown in front of the toughest students anywhere, are both in hot water because they are about to be eliminated through the new performance appraisal system emphasizing student test scores, for which both are completely unprepared. But luckily into this new situation arrives an immigrant student whose ambitious parent immediately sees that neither of these teachers can teach, hires a tutor, sends her child off to an effective cram school, buys her son extra self-study books, and connects the boy with online tutoring help (perhaps by hacking into the brilliant online tutoring provision of Ontario, Canada); this boy immediately becomes a star student and, being charismatic, is able to turn his friends on to the same resources, and through another parent well capable of manipulating our philanthropic grant system, is able to secure like outside-of-class supports for all of the students in these two incompetent teachers' classes; and so while one teacher sleeps and the other is out of class in psychotherapy, student scores soar, and end-of-year test results determine that these are the most improved classes in the city. An enthusiastic superintendent, dependent upon her dashboards, scans the data and names our two unsuspecting teachers as teachers of the year (they barely beat out a jealous colleague who had helped his students cheat to gain their greatly improved test scores). The superintendent plans a surprise announcement of the awards and invites media cameras in for the presentation of the teacher-of-the-year awards to our two unsuspecting misfits, hoping to see spontaneous displays of highly effective teaching. She enters to find the old-timer asleep and, next door, the science teacher absent, with students studying to compensate for the missing instruction, led by the original star student.

The superintendent is embarrassed and puzzled, and so hires a young university researcher to determine which classroom practices correlate with these higher test scores. The conclusion: lack of teacher interference with student learning, prevented most effectively by absence from school and next best by in-class slumber, correlates most strongly with these students' improvement; and so "Stamp out teaching!" (our faculty was once led to chant "Stamp out literacy" by our school's literacy coordinator in the library of the old Locke High School) becomes the new, evidence-based mantra promoted in all of the schools under our enthusiastic, data-driven superintendent.

This farce might actually work as a movie, where as a comedy it might compensate for the tragedies currently being plotted in our schools.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Older the Students, the More School Choices are Needed

Today I've run across yet another disturbing report, this time on the PBS News Hour, on the costs our society incurs when students drop out of school. While the ultimate cause of declining prospects for dropouts is overpopulation in the Third World, our best response has to be to increase the number of schooling options available to secondary school students.

Opponents of school choice usually argue in favor of equity, and advocate making our existing local schools better, since opening up competing alternatives will likely leave some (most often those children unfortunately stuck with ignorant and careless parents, if the parents are still around at all) with the inferior, leftover options, since the better choices will likely already have been taken up by those families that are more educationally ambitious and better informed. I can imagine conceding that point, and recent evidence about the new school choice options in Indiana, which has the nation's most generous school voucher law, which I applaud, is showing that some of the private school beneficiaries there are taking advantage of their new opportunities to leave the neediest students behind in the traditional public schools, which become the repositories of all those kids who aren't getting chosen because they aren't the most attractive, from the private schools' points of view.

So how about this: leave our primary schools, through sixth grade, as local monopolies, as they do in Finland and Singapore, two often-praised school systems with very different approaches in other ways, thereby providing an equal opportunity to all children (and we have an enormous amount of work to do to raise the level of our many poorly performing schools so that all children will have an equal opportunity to get off to a good start in school); then allow chartered alternatives to become established from middle school onward, since it's obvious that not all students are succeeding in even our best model local primary schools and middle schools, and some can benefit from alternative provision, a point the defenders of traditional school districts will likely concede; and finally, in upper secondary, allow strictly college preparatory and strictly vocational schools to exist and receive taxpayer funding through vouchers, in addition to our traditional provision of comprehensive high schools? The establishment of a viable vocational sector is particularly important for us, since those countries that have a vocational sector that successfully competes for middle school graduates, meaning virtually all (mostly Germanic) European countries from Switzerland northward to Norway, have much lower youth unemployment rates than those in the English-speaking world whose educational systems traditionally treat work like four-letter word, to be avoided and delayed for as long as possible.

Let's stop begging students to stay in schools they hate, and instead provide them with some alternatives they may like a lot better.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Optimizing Testing

I have lately written a series of posts on a proposed American Baccalaureate Certificate that would grant public funding for three years of higher education, combined with automatic admission to our public universities. This would be earned by satisfactory performance on a series of assessments in the last two years of secondary school, with a natural focus on the end of the last year. There would be a lot of testing here, as there is in many countries with good secondary schools, especially in Europe; but how much testing is too much testing?

As always I stress comparative methods, and have lately been investigating systems' attitudes towards testing. At one extreme I find Shanghai High School,one of the oldest high schools in China's largest city, where pupils can count on 64 important assessments per year (eight per subject, or about one a month, in the eight subjects they study). At the other extreme I find, among public school systems, those of the Nordic countries, where pupils traditionally have not been tested, nor received any grades in any subjects, before the eighth grade; and, beyond them in terms of freedom from public examination accountability systems, private schools in southern Africa, Canada, the United States, and the champions, in my view, Swiss private schools for (rich) foreign boarders, whose family money may well obviate a need for either university or vocational education, and who therefore have the temptation to extensive play before possibly settling down to a sinecure within the family business (which may well be in ruling a non-democratic country).

Significant questions arise, about which I have become increasingly curious: what is the optimal (not maximal or minimal) amount of testing pupils should experience? And what are we losing as we, like many other countries under the spell of OECD economists (these are the devisers of the PISA assessments comparing national educational achievement in ways that have politicians in almost all democratic countries antsy as they contemplate accounting to their electorates), move towards ever more testing? These are issues I expect to be exploring in the coming days, and about which (especially the issue of testing time optimization) I would love to discover useful research.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Achievement Standards of an American Baccalaureate Certificate

Three southern states -- Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee -- have recently decided to end their high school exit exam passing requirements, instead folding the test results into the grade for a required course. Thank God my family doesn't live there! Wasting a few hours on such innocuous trivia is bad enough; a whole semester!

Our end-of-secondary-school achievement standards remain laughable. While the English standards in the new Common Core initiative look respectable, they will probably be undermined by our usual cheap assessment methods, which fail to capture the ability to write, and our mathematics standards will remain inferior to those of competing nations, regardless of the mandate given by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. And what about all the other subjects?

By contrast, my proposed American Baccalaureate Certificate would require satisfactory demonstration of learning in at least ten subjects, including English, mathematics (including at least some calculus), at least one science (biology, chemistry, or physics), a foreign language, history, geography, philosophy of knowledge, comparative ethics, physical education, and one or more electives, all taken in the last two years of secondary school. When the minimum standards in those subjects are published and established by externally written and verified assessments, we'll have a better understanding of what college-ready really means and what American students are capable of achieving!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Why the University of California Should Recognize an American Baccalaureate Certificate

This is the third in a series of posts about my proposal for an American Baccalaureate Certificate. Today I'd like to place it in the contexts of a competing, proposed California Diploma and of an article in the Huffington Post that discusses Asian Americans having to deny their ethnicity in order to better their chances of admissions to highly selective universities.

Unlike the proposed California Diploma, which would further weaken our already weak certification procedures for high school graduates, the American Baccalaureate Certificate (Ameribac) would establish a world-class qualification with world-class quality assurance standards. This would solve a major problem for UC, with large numbers of newly arriving first year students underprepared for the rigors of a world-class public university and therefore requiring expensive remediation and extra years to earn their diplomas, with all the extra expenses and system clogs this causes. And a highly developed assessment system like that of the Ameribac would be color-blind and therefore would obviate the unedifying gamesmanship teenaged applicants feel forced to play so as to avoid being illegally racially discriminated against in the college admissions competitions.

If UC were to grant three years of free public university tuition to Ameribac holders, as it should, yet another advantage would be to speed the acquisition of bachelor's degrees, thus relieving overcrowding and speeding up the production of a more highly educated citizenry for our state, something we sorely need. The three-year bachelor's degree is something all but our elite private colleges will eventually have to move to, or they will see their ability to compete for students diminish in competition with, for example, Australian universities, which have already adjusted to this consequence of Europe's Bologna Process. And the California State University system, which is depended on, according to our Master Plan for Higher Education, to produce the bulk of California's bachelor's level education, should of course follow suit.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why We Should Support an American Baccalaureate Certificate

Yesterday I introduced my idea for an American Baccalaureate Certificate, and I promised to provide some details today, so here they are.

A European Baccalaureate (EB) Certificate, the base model for what I am proposing, is a really impressive document to behold. The first page lists the 25 countries -- from the Kingdom of Belgium through the Czech Republic, with all of the other EU countries listed in between -- that will confer free college education to the holders of this certificate. Then one turns the page and sees a Baccalaureate report, with a list of the 11 subjects the student will have been assessed in during the final year of secondary school along with an overall mark expressed as a percentage of the available points.

For the American equivalent, I am proposing that the subjects assessed include three at an advanced level (like the very impressive new Pre-U qualification from Cambridge International Examinations); three more subjects studied at standard level providing subject balance, as in the International Baccalaureate; and five more subjects (perhaps history, geography, philosophy of knowledge, physical education, and comparative ethics) which would be studied to only a minor extent by students during the last two years of secondary school, to ensure at least a minimum standard of achievement in a broad range of subjects, like the EB does.

I also propose that those earning such a world-class qualification be automatically entitled to three years of free college tuition in our public universities, or be able to use equivalent sums towards tuition in the private universities that would be wise enough to recruit students so optimally prepared to succeed in higher education.