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Loving Education

June 2, 2011 2 comments

One of the problems with designing coherent education policy is the lack of clear goals. Should schools concentrate on basics? Should they focus on preparing students for college or for work? Does public education have a responsibility to shape responsible citizens? Does establishing a base of important facts take priority or is teaching pupils how to learn more crucial? Maybe schools should do everything. I tend to think that educators are already overextended to teach values such as empathy, but after watching these amazing videos I’m rethinking my general inclination to narrow education’s aims.

Empathy might be the quintessential attitude for moral behavior. I’m just as suspicious of opening the classroom door to values-education as anyone else. It’s already hard enough to keep out religion and gratuitous nationalism. Yet, for every instinct I have that families are better suited to teach moral values, schools provide a useful environment to foster empathy between people. Humans instinctively create in-and-out groups, but schools – especially American ones – allow kids a unique context to experience others different from themselves.

Studies have shown that reading fiction can expand empathy, but practicing empathy in person has no parallel. If school’s ultimate goal isn’t to improve people’s lives I don’t know what it’s for.

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Goldstein and McArdle on Education

January 31, 2011 1 comment

Watch this bloggingheads video which discusses many of the major issues in education policy right now. Is anyone aware of any wonky consensus about any particular ed. policy the left and right largely agrees on that could be implemented? For economists, ending agricultural subsidies finds support on both ideological ends but continue because of politics – is there any parallel issue for education experts?

Categories: Educational Policy

Charles Murray on School Choice

Charles Murray explains in The New York Times why the case for school choice shouldn’t be based on standardized test results but something more fundamental. 

I suppose that test scores might prove that such a charter school is “better” than ordinary public schools, if the test were filled with questions about things like gerunds and subjunctive clauses, the three most important events of 1776, and what Occam’s razor means. But those subjects aren’t covered by standardized reading and math tests. For this reason, I fully expect that students at such a charter school would do little better on Maryland’s standardized tests than comparably smart students in the ordinary public schools.

And yet, knowing that, I would still send my own children to that charter school in a heartbeat. They would be taught the content that I think they need to learn, in a manner that I consider appropriate.

One could easily charge Murray with having a case of sour grapes after the School Choice Demonstration Project published results that didn’t fit the hopeful predictions of many choice advocates. There might be some of that going on here but Murray is most likely being honest. His libertarianism is fairly philosophically principled and his writings on education (at least the ones I’m familiar with) fit with the character of this op-ed. 

McCarthy’s Shadow

March 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Insinuation and even direct slander is often leveled at President Obama.  He’s accused of being a secret muslim, of “paling around with terrorists,” of being a Marxist, and of other ridiculous charges. Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Liz Cheney, and most of talk-radio all jump to mind as perpetrators of this neo-McCarthyism.  I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that, as I read at Reason Magazine’s blog, the Texas school board wants a “more positive portrayal” of Joseph McCarthy.  Here’s a snippet of Michael Moynihan’s 2008 article criticizing one revisionist pro-Joe history:

The deep conscientiousness that McCarthy displayed regarding the rights of fascists—he once wrote to a friend that the Nazi leaders on trial at Nuremberg were “so-called war criminals” whose “only crime was attempting to win the war”—was hard to discern in his dealings with American leftists accused of espionage. None of this troubles Evans, who cites the Malmédy case to demonstrate McCarthy’s intellectual depth and compares him to those who blew the whistle on abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

But the most frustrating habit of Blacklisted by History is the subtle conflation of New Deal liberals, radical fellow travelers, and actual spies, a move that recalls McCarthy’s own signature tactic.

I can’t help but be reminded of our current political figures who dismiss the sins of their allies and continue in the McCarthy’s dishonorable tradition. 
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History Written By The Winners (of a Vote?)

March 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Seems the religious right won the Texas curriculum battle, which affects other textbook markets. The New York Times alerts readers to this particularly egregious whitewash of history:

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone. (Jefferson is not well liked among conservatives on the board because he coined the term “separation between church and state.”)

They cut Thomas Jefferson!!!
(See my first post on the subject)

Direct Answers

What makes a good teacher? Is it some innate unteachable ability? Turns out, if this New York Times magazine article is to be believed, specific techniques can be taught to teachers and successfully applied to “build a better teacher.”  

Zimmerli got the students to pay attention not because of some inborn charisma, Lemov explained, but simply by being direct and specific. Children often fail to follow directions because they really don’t know what they are supposed to do.

Different techniques can also be taylored to fit individual classrooms and grades. The 9-page story covers the journey and search for improvements.  It paints an optimistic picture.  While structural school reforms are recommended, it argues that radical change isn’t necessarily the major answer. 

I’m definitely a proponent of trying various market-based reforms for our schools (despite Debra Viadero’s recantation). But if only a limited number of teachers can be good, there would be an insurmountable problem. 

“If it’s just a big pie, then it’s just a question of who’s getting the good teachers,” Lemov told me.

Just like in sports, only so much good talent can be bought through free-agency.  Good times also have the best farm teams where they groom their own.  I hope the people in the article like Doug Lemov, Deborah Ball, and Judith Lanier are really good coaches. Alas, not all the evidence is in their favor:

A more typical education expert is Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia University, who favors policies like rewarding teachers whose students perform well and removing those who don’t but looks skeptically upon teacher training. He has an understandable reason: While study after study shows that teachers who once boosted student test scores are very likely to do so in the future, no research he can think of has shown a teacher-training program to boost student achievement. So why invest in training when, as he told me recently, “you could be throwing your money away”?

That’s why I’m never one to discount the radical; but sometimes the little things make all the difference.  

What Are Schools For?

February 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I often find it helpful to look at fundamental questions – it forces us to keep our bearings when thinking about public policy.  So, for one of my favorite topics – educational policy – I’d like to ask the question:

What are schools for?

Partly, this question was prompted from me watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about how schools kill creativity.  It is the most favorited video currently at TED and I certainly enjoyed it.

Although, I’m not sure I entirely agreed with its premises.  But he does make some great points along the way.  Robinson argues that since we don’t even know what the world will look like in 5 years, it is futile to try to educate children for specific industries that may not be there when they finish schooling. From that he argues that it is necessary to promote creativity in schools (fully agree).  Also, he’s certainly right that instilling the idea that making a mistake is the worst possible thing isn’t conducive to creativity.

Despite what Robinson claims, do our schools crush creativity?  At least compared to Japan’s schools, America seems to be in much better shape. I don’t think that creativity is necessary going to be best promoted by focusing more on art and dance in schools (for the record: I loved my theatre and music classes) – at least it might not be the proper role of a school.  We have to recognize that schools can’t teach everything.

But no matter how valuable a subject may be, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is also a decision not to teach another one. The question is not whether trigonometry is important, but whether it is more important than statistics; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important for an educated person to know the classics than to know elementary economics. In a world whose complexities are constantly challenging our intuitions, these tradeoffs cannot responsibly be avoided.

I’ve referenced this before but Steven Pinker also makes that enlightening argument that schools should promote subjects that are unintuitive to humans.

The goal of education should be to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with.

Those subjects might be more necessary for schools to step in and teach since students aren’t likely to learn them without special instruction, but need them to better navigate our modern world.  Subjects like economics, finance, and statistics aren’t likely to become obsolete either as Robinson worries about other areas of study. In order to determine what schools are for do we need to just list the subjects of highest priority?  Highest priority for what?  It seems that is straying a bit away from my original question.  Bertrand Russell can help get back to the core issue, he writes in his essay, “The Aims of Education:”

Before considering how to educate, it is well to be clear as to the sort of result which we wish to achieve.  Dr Arnold wanted ‘humbleness of mind’, a quality not possessed by Aristotle’s ‘magnanimous man’. Neitzche’s ideal is not that of Christianity. No more is Kant’s: for while Christ enjoins love, Kant teaches that no action of which love is the motive can be truly virtuous. And even people who agree as to the ingredients of a good character may differ as to their relative importance. One man will emphasize courage, another learning, another kindliness, and another rectitude. One man, like the elder Brutus, will put duty to the State above family affection; another, like Confucious, will put family affection first. All these divergences will produce differences as to education. We must have some concept of the kind of person we wish to produce, before we can have any definite opinion as to the education which we consider best.

So school’s purpose is derived from what we want our students to become as people. Further in the essay, Russell argues that students should be looked at as ends, not means.  It seems important to educate not for the sake of creating citizens that can serve the state, for example, but to give them the tools necessary to live their lives how they as individuals see fit.  After all, as I learn from wikipedia

Etymologically the word education contains educarae (latin) “bring up” which is related to educere “bring out”, “bring forth what is within”, “bring out potential” and ducere “to lead”.

Yet, clearly if we think of education as a public good, we want some sort of specific “means” goals from students, don’t we?  Providing them with a proper finance and economic background clearly helps them as individuals, but the additional externalities on society aren’t insignificant.  The question isn’t easily answered.  I’ll be sure to follow up on this topic in the future.  Feel free to offer your answer to the question: What are schools for?

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