1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Friday, August 26, 2011

The McNamara Effect

In his fascinating history of the United States Air Force, Walter Boyne discusses the priorities of Robert Strange McNamara that "created a climate of fear and [placed] a value on reporting rather than on doing."

Boyne continues:
Numbers -- whether it be of the bodies counted, sorties flown, bombs dropped, or Congressional delegation visits -- became the be-all and end-all of the military system McNamara shaped.

Report numbers were transformed from black dots on a page to truths that were quantified, defended, and extrapolated from.

Whole bureaucracies sprung up to create the numbers, challenge them, and mold them into new requirements for more numbers (Beyond the Wild Blue, 2nd ed., p. 160).

Any teachers out there who can relate to a climate of fear and an obsession with "measurable outcomes" and "growth"? I can sure relate to it. We know what the McNamara Effect was on that war in Indochina: hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians dead for no purpose.

What the end game is for public educators who embrace McNamara's approach is yet to be seen. I'm betting Ho Chi Minh wins.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"Honey, I shrunk the kids (and myself)!"

Teachers and parents (not to mention students) often deplore the increased use of standardized tests and assessments. That horse has been pulverized into subatomic particles, so I don't wish to dwell on stadardized tests, per se; rather, I'd like to briefly explore what existential or spiritual factors may lead to inordinate desire for "hard data" or "proof of learning."

In God at the Ritz, Lorenzo Albacete describes two elements of human work.

Human work has an "objective" and a "subjective" meaning. The objective meaning of work measures progress in terms of practical tasks accomplished. The subjective meaning of work measures preogress in terms of the fulfillment of the deepest needs of the human heart (140).
A moment's reflection will reveal that test-taking represents a desire to obtain an objective accounting of what a student knows and can be expected to accomplish in the future.

So far, so good: parents, employers, and indeed the student himself all have legitimate needs for this kind of knowledge. The danger is when the objective eclipses the subjective. In other words, when human desire and its fulfillment are marginalized or ignored, the result is alienation.

The student begins to reduce his conception of himself to what is needed to please others or to do "what's important" according to measure of those who hold power. Good grades are not nothing but they don't answer the question, "What, in the end, makes life worth living?"

The teacher too is put into an awkward position: When promotion and tenure are linked to student performance according to what is measurable (and only to what is measureable), a "reasonable" (if amoral) teacher will focus on teaching those knowledge, skills and abilities that are testable -- to the detriment of the immeasurable.

Each of us knows from real life that the immeasurable, is, well, immeasureable. The most important things in life are non-quantifiable: affection, self-giving, generosity, etc.

Question: Where are those places where human flourishing is encouraged?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"School vouchers on hold" reads the headline

in today's Denver Post.

Mark Silverstein of the ACLU exhibits an audacious amount of metaphysical naivete when he applauds the (for the present) ban on funding for "a child's religious education." Perhaps he has been out of school for so long that he's forgotten that all approaches to education necessarily posit a "point of view" or "hypothesis of meaning." These are fancy terms for religious and philosophical commitments that an individual educator (and education systems) lives by.

After ten years in public education I became convinced that the dominant creed (or religion if you prefer) was Successism. Successism is quite simple: it is the belief that public schools exist to ensure that children succeed. To what end or purpose? Well, that's the question we dare not ask nor answer because it would unveil our nihilism, or sheer utilitarianism at best.

All education, especially public education because of its denial of philosophical moorings, promotes a creed and is thus necessarily "religious."

Thursday, August 11, 2011

How TFA is gutting public education

Some of the best teachers I've met came through the Teach for America pipeline. Young, zealous, and super-smart. Very decent folks.

So why the provocative title to this post?

Perhaps I should have said, "How TFA might gut public education." That may be more accurate. Karl Marx was famous for running all problems through an economic filter, and there may be something worthwhile in asking, "What's the cost/benefit of a TFA teacher versus other teachers?"

This might be too vague. Let's take it from another angle: in this time of scarcer resources, are administrators "better off" hiring inexperienced but enthusiastic teachers or "seasoned" (i.e., old) teachers with years of experience and advanced degrees?

In the current education climate, "better off" is often defined as appearing to always do more with less; maximizing resources, in other words. Since public education tends to mimic corporate structures, the goal is to have interchangeable teachers who can do whatever needs to be done. Since individuality is really a matter of indifference, then Cheapest is Best.

So, yes, administrative careerists will naturally use "raw material" that is cheap in order to keep within budget. That's to be expected.

Teach for America is having some unintended consequences. Ultimately bringing down wages and exchanging experience and competence for enthusiasm may be just two.