Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Real School Reform

Newsweek magazine argues, in an article by two of its staff writers, that we must fire bad teachers. I don't think anyone outside of the NEA and its affiliates would argue with that, but then Newsweek goes a step too far and lays educational failure in America pretty much entirely at the feet of bad teachers:

[I]n recent years researchers have discovered something that may seem obvious, but for many reasons was overlooked or denied. What really makes a difference, what matters more than the class size or the textbook, the teaching method or the technology, or even the curriculum, is the quality of the teacher. Much of the ability to teach is innate-an ability to inspire young minds as well as control unruly classrooms that some people instinctively possess (and some people definitely do not). Teaching can be taught, to some degree, but not the way many graduate schools of education do it, with a lot of insipid or marginally relevant theorizing and pedagogy. In any case the research shows that within about five years, you can generally tell who is a good teacher and who is not.

So far, so obvious. We hardly needed research to tell us that good teachers can make a real difference for kids, or that the ability to teach is more of an innate talent, strongly correlated to personality, than a learned skill. But then the Newsweek writers say this:

Over time, inner-city schools, in particular, succumbed to a defeatist mindset. The problem is not the teachers, went the thinking-it's the parents (or absence of parents); it's society with all its distractions and pathologies; it's the kids themselves. Not much can be done, really, except to keep the assembly line moving through "social promotion," regardless of academic performance, and hope the students graduate (only about 60 percent of blacks and Hispanics finish high school). Or so went the conventional wisdom in school superintendents' offices from Newark to L.A. By 1992, "there was such a dramatic achievement gap in the United States, far larger than in other countries, between socioeconomic classes and races," says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. "It was a scandal of monumental proportions, that there were two distinct school systems in the U.S., one for the middle class and one for the poor."

Now surely, incompetent teachers are a problem in many of our schools, but they're not the chief problem, about which more below. I want to note first, though, that most bad teachers reveal themselves long before the five year point mentioned in the article. Many of them are known to be inadequate before they receive tenure, but for a variety of reasons administrators are often reluctant to simply let them go. In other words, to the extent that weak teachers are a problem in our schools it's due more to the failure of administrators who hire them and then afterward fail to cull them from the faculty before they attain tenure.

But the most formidable impediment to successful education, however, is not incompetent teachers. Nor is it lack of funding. It's disruptive, disrespectful students in the classroom. Anyone who wishes to get a glimpse of what it's like in many public schools today should rent the movie The Class. It's a foreign film set in France and subtitled, but teachers who watch it will nod their heads in recognition of the difficulties of teaching in modern urban settings. Others will be astonished that any teacher continues to show up for work in such an environment. Yet The Class captures pretty well the atmosphere that prevails in many classrooms all across this country.

Disruptive students bring learning for everyone in the class to a halt, and too many administrators simply refuse to do anything meaningful to get rid of them. Nor do our courts help this situation by demanding that a district which expels a student pay for alternative education elsewhere. Essentially, the student (I use the term in its loosest sense) squanders the taxpayers' money by making himself impervious to the efforts of his teachers and preventing his fellow students from learning anything, and then the courts and legislatures tell the taxpayers, when the school district has finally had enough, that they still have to foot the bill to place the kid in an alternative school.

The fact is that most teachers today are just as capable, if not moreso, as any who have ever taught in our schools, but they're working in a social milieu much different and much tougher than did their predecessors back in the 50s and 60s. The problems teachers faced two generations ago were not nearly as severe and as intractable as they are today. Moreover, those teachers had support from administrators, parents, communities, and courts that today's teacher can only envy. In many schools when teachers walk into a classroom they're pretty much on their own in dealing with chronically disruptive kids, and if they do try to enlist the aid of an administrator they're often asked, implicitly or explicitly, why they can't control their classrooms on their own.

The way our society dealt with troubled troublemakers in the 50s was to boot them out and let them find a job. The way we deal with them today is to hire a phalanx of teacher's aides, counsellors, police officers, etc., but none of this really solves the problem. The problem is that too many classes are wasted because too many students in too many schools simply don't belong in school, and they make it impossible for even good teachers to teach. When good teachers can't teach they get discouraged and frustrated and often leave the profession, leaving the less talented or less experienced teachers to staff the schools.

If we were really serious about making our schools better places for kids to learn we'd admit that we have a responsibility to teach the students who really want an education. We'd also admit that some students have clearly demonstrated that they don't care about an education and are a serious barrier to the success of those who do. These students should be given their unconditional release so that they can get on with their life's calling of being a burden on society and stop holding back those who want to be a benefit to it.


Textbook Persons

Philosopher Mike Almeida offers an interesting argument at Prosblogion against the way our society currently regards the unborn child . It goes like this:

Case 1: Consider a possible world which is similar to ours except for the rate at which our counterparts develop into persons. Otherwise, the rate of biological development is not much different, the human counterparts are born on average nine months after conception too. But they are conscious, thinking, and reasoning at a much higher level, much sooner. They are, in short, persons much sooner in something like the textbook sense of 'person'. Suppose they are textbook persons within a week of conception. Here's what's not credible: it is permissible to terminate a textbook person so long as you do so before a week has elapsed. It is just not credible that, on day 5.99999 the being has no particular value, but on day 6 it has great value.

By "textbook person" I take Almeida to mean something like, "A living human being with the capacity to engage in acts of intellect, emotion, and will."

Case 2: But suppose you don't find that incredible. Consider a world in which it takes 30 seconds to develop into a textbook person. It's not credible that I had no moral value .00002 seconds ago, and now I have great moral value. The moral difference in you is negligible over .002 seconds.

Case 3: If you find it incredible that it is permissible to terminate the would-be textbook person in case (1) or case (2), then you should find it incredible that it is permissible to terminate an actual would-be textbook person. Even if you suppose that the predicate 'being a person' is vague, it is true that, at some level of vagueness, a being moves from not definitely all the way up a textbook person to definitely all the way up textbook person in an instant. In an instant, the being moves from being the sort of thing that has hardly any value to the kind of thing that you cannot terminate with doing an extreme moral wrong. But it cannot be true that the natural properties you acquire in a single instant are sufficient to make that great of a moral difference.

Of course, current law (Roe v. Wade) assumes that this is exactly what happens. At some point in the child's development it suddenly acquires the status of a person with the right to life. The child may be aborted before that point but not after. As Almeida's thought experiment makes clear, however, the current law is based on very dubious logic.