Friday, May 1, 2015

English spoken here

So here's a joke I tell many of my classes:

Q: What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
A: Trilingual.
Q: And what do you call someone who speaks two languages?
A: Bilingual.
Q: What do you call someone who speaks only one language?
A: American.

This never fails to get a chuckle, especially since my students are usually working in a second language. But things are humorous  because they have a grain of truth. And the truth here is that language education is not one of the things we value in the American education system.

I recently taught a class of middle school students from China. These kids all attend a foreign language school in their country. Not only have they been studying the usual curriculum kids their age study, they have also been studying multiple foreign languages since elementary school.  Thus, I had students in the class who were studying English, German and Japanese, or English, French, and Spanish. There was even one who was studying Korean as one of their languages.

I've run across schools like this before. I had heard of a K-12 school in Russia that started students learning English (along with Russian) as early as kindergarten. They learned the harder content (science, math) in Russian, but other subjects were taught in English or Russian. When the students reached 3rd grade, French was added to the curriculum. Now the students were studying two foreign languages and their own tongue as well. In about the 8th grade, Spanish or Mandarin. For most students, this is the last foreign language they learn. The school takes advantage of the students' knowledge of English and French in science classes. The school can access materials from NOVA, the BBC or French television to use in their content courses.

But wait, there's more. Ireland teaches Irish Gaelic, a minority language, starting in primary school and running all the way to the end of high school. This is in every school nationwide. (There are a few Irish immersion schools in the country, but relatively few.) Recently, they have started teaching other European foreign languages in the last two years of primary school. So students throughout the Republic of Ireland start on a learning a second language early in their academic careers, and, in some schools, are starting a third well before they get to high school. And Ireland is not alone in teaching students in the public schools nationwide foreign or second language. In China, Norway and Korea, students in elementary school start learning English as part of the curriculum in public schools. In fact, the approach to teaching English in Korea has shifted from grammar-translation to one requiring communicative competence.

In the US, foreign language is still mostly taught beginning in 7th grade. And yes, we have gotten better with our offerings. Mandarin is beginning to be offered in more schools. There are a few immersion schools in the country, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Few are the places that offer foreign language instruction in primary school (unless it is ESL for immigrant students, but this is dependent on the state.) California, a majority minority state, has outlawed bilingual education in the public schools. Hawaii, the only state in the nation with two official languages, does not offer Hawaiian in all its public schools, only a few charter immersion schools.

We are throwing all of our efforts at STEM (or in some places STEAM) programs. Somehow, it seems a lot of the rest of the world does that and finds a way to instruct their children in two or three languages other than their native one. There is a lot of research to suggest that the longer one is exposed to a language, the better one learns it over time. And while that implies the younger a student is better (called the Critical Period Hypothesis or CPH), (Krashen, 1985, Cummins, ??) the research supporting it is mixed. However, most of this research is in a second language environment, that is learning the target language where it is the dominant language in the environment (e.g. English taught the US to non-native speakers is English as a Second Language). But as more places in the world offer foreign languages in primary school, we may learn more. (Foreign language instruction is a language taught in a school where that language is not in the environment. For example, English taught in China to non-native speakers is English as a Foreign Language.)

Will all students who begin studying a foreign language in elementary school become perfectly fluent in that second language? No. So why do it? Why teach languages with small distributions, like Gaelic or Hawaiian? Because there is enough research to show that people who have been exposed to a second language have an easier time learning a third or a fourth. Culture, history, identity are all tied up in those languages as well. Not spending the time and energy on teaching foreign languages to elementary school children is just another way we shoot ourselves in the collective foot. Isn't it about time we started getting caught up with the rest of the world?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Are we failing?

There are days I think that we educators are failing the nation. The right wing says it. The media says it. Every election cycle someone says it, and says they're the person to "fix" it. We've heard all types of call for reform. They say that education should all be given over to private industry, because everything works when it's driven by the market. They say we don't care, that we're lazy, or that we aren't helping our students learn. I don't think they're correct about all of that. But I'm beginning to feel pessimistic and wonder if we aren't failing at what we do.

Consider science. Evolution is a given. We wouldn't have antibiotics without it. Or flu shots. Or knowledge about how retroviruses work. Yet we have people...people have gone to college and recieved BAs, MAs, and PhDs or even MDs (Rep. Paul Broun, from the great state of Georgia for example who suggested as much) who say that evolution isn't real. They paint idea as "only a theory" either unaware of or cynically obfuscating the meaning of the word "theory," which to scientists has an entirely different meaning than it does to lay people. (A good explanation of how this word differs may be found here.)

Consider climate change. All the leading science says it's happening. But holding on to one or two studies that raise some questions, there are those who cling to the idea that global warming is a hoax. This despite much more evidence to the contrary. These people want 100% certainty before they would act. This is not unlike people who continue to believe the Earth is flat, despite all the evidence to the contrary, or people who believe the US never landed on the moon. Seriously, people like this are usually mocked or derided as "flakes," a fringe curiosity. Yet people who hold these beliefs are more prevalent, and are given time on serious news shows with serious reporters who don't really challenge them. These reporters try to make it seem as though they are being "objective" be airing the "other side" of the story, when, because they are not thinking critically, they only allow this bunkum to be promulgated. Would a teacher allow this in a classroom? As an answer on a test? How is it these answers go unchecked, uncorrected?

Now we have a US Senator who has been caught plagiarizing not once, not twice, but on at least four occasions. In one of those instances, three full pages were lifted verbatim from a Heritage Foundation case study, and passed off as his own words. I don't know how many hours I've spent teaching students not to plagiarize. Certainly Senator Paul's caviler attitude or, perhaps, his lack of knowledge about plagiarism suggests that his teachers failed him. (Or perhaps they should have failed him and didin't...they just promoted him.) The Senator does not think he's done anything wrong, when demonstrably, he has. What worries me is that 1) there is a pattern of repeated instances of plagairism; 2) he lacks remorse for what he's done (or if he does, rather than admit a mistake, he simply blames the messenger.) Whatever happened to that good old Republican value of personal responsibility? 

Plagiarism is the most serious of academic sins. It is tantamount to theft. The Senator is, supposedly, an MD, and should have the educational background to know copying a a summary of a movie from Wikipedia is plagiarism--even if you do credit the writers of the movie. (Copying the summary for Hamlet from SparksNotes, by the Senator's reasoning, is not plagiarism. Any high school English teacher will tell you otherwise.)  I don't know how many times I've caught kids doing exactly kind of thing. Kids who wanted to cut and paste whole pages from the internet and submit them to me or to IB as an original essay (lucky for them I caught them, and not IB). And this is why it worries me: Kids will see this and see that nothing really happens. Or, as Senator Paul did when first confronted about this, they can blame the messenger ("You don't like me, that's why you're giving me an 'F'.")  Senator Paul seems to have a sense that the rules don't apply. But they must. If the Senator were to submit an article for peer review to a medical journal that had been plagiarized all of his work would be questioned. But if nothing is done, if there are no consequences, then what kind of message does that send our kids? (To their credit, the Washington Times, who used run a regular column by the Senator, dropped him once they discovered parts of one his columns had been plagiarized.) 

The Senator has said that it was a lack of citations ("footnoting" the Senator's word). But it is much much more than that. Passing off three whole pages as one's own is more than "footnoting." Furthermore, the Senator should know the rules for quoting long passages of text. Or the rules for attribution when it is done in a speech (I'm assuming that at some point in his academic career, the Senator would have had to do an oral defense, or present at a conference, which would've required knowing how to do some basic attribution). Journalists know this. Academicians know this. Most 10th graders know this. The Senator would have us believe that what we know objectively to be a case of plagiarism is little more than a difference of opinion about what plagiarism is.

And that is what is at the root of it all. People are either ignorant of the difference between facts and opinions, or cynically confound the two. But I think, if we have done our jobs, when someone tries to cynically pass off opinion as fact, people who have graduated high school (or better) should recognize it. They should use the critical thinking skills we have taught them to see through the fog of the fiction. And for some reason, people are not. They are buying the snake oil they are being sold.

Evolution is a fact. Climate change is a fact. That Senator Paul plagiarized repeatedly is a fact. Facts are immutable. Facts should inform opinions, but opinions may not substitute for facts. Teaching the difference between facts and opinions is what we teachers are tasked with.  Coupled with critical thinking, it is how create an informed citizenry. When public figures are allowed to spout this kind of nonsense--to confuse fact and opinion willy-nilly--and there is no widespread outrage, I have to ask: Are we failing our students? Are we failing our duty?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Down times, privatization and the death of public education

The week of March 26, 2012,  the California State University system made two very revealing moves. On Monday, they announced an system-wide enrollment freeze for Spring 2013 (although eight campuses will take a few hundred transfer students from the community colleges). Additionally, the system plans to wait-list everyone who applies to any of the schools. Those chickens are now coming home to roost, although things have been somewhat mitigated by the passage of Prop 30 last year.

In a move a day later, the Board of Regents of the System gave a 10% pay increase to two CSU Presidents, one at CSU Fullerton and the other at CSU Channel Islands (?). This now raises the pay of the President of CSUF to over $300K per year, or approximately twice what the Governor makes. Nice work if you can get it, and you don't need to be elected to the position.

Essentially, tertiary education in California, which was once the envy of the nation, is going down in flames. There are a lot of people to whom one could assign blame, starting with the voters of California, who when they passed Prop 13 lo those many years ago, began to undercut competitiveness of schools at levels in the state. (Indeed, prior to Prop 13, K12 schools in the state were above the national average in amount spent per student. After Prop 13, funding fell below the national average and has never looked back.) This impact on K12 education carried up the line to the college and university level. In the system set up by Governor Pat Brown, the UC system was to take the top 12.5% of grads from California high schools. The top 33% were guaranteed a spot in the CSUs, and the community colleges would accept everyone. Tuition was waived for California residents (although they were still responsible for books, fees and other costs). Out-of-state and foreign students, who had to compete pretty hard to get in, paid a lot more. Under this plan there was still room for private non-profit schools to attract a number of students as well as CA students who attended schools in other states.

Rather than go into the history here of the Free Speech Movement, the Vietnam War protests, Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement starting with Prop 13, suffice it to say this vision was soon under attack more for political reasons than for educational ones. Indeed, this model still thrives--in Europe, where getting into a university is highly competitive, students don't pay tuition (or very little) and graduates are among the best educated in the world. What exists here is not just a cynicism about the value of education (the administrators are worth more than those providing education), but in fact, the value of public education.

What we have seen more of in the last several years is the growth of for-profit schools. These are not confined to colleges and universities, although to be sure they have gained the most notoriety (notoriousness may be a better word) with the way some have encouraged students to take out loans, and then have allegedly not delivered on their promises (the latest for-profit to find itself in this kind of hot water is Trump University).  Many of these private, for-profit schools are under investigation for what amounts to fraud. Not all, however. Some do come through and offer a good education to their students. But what is happening is a transfer of tax dollars to private hands where someone is profiting. And this is something to be concerned about. (For the most part, I'm less concerned about non-profit private institutions, but as you'll see in a moment, there are times when public funds are spent on them that bears questioning.)

This is not only happening at the college level. There are for-profit K12 schools too, some operate like non-profit private schools, but there are some charter schools that are not delivering on their promises. (Again it is not all charter schools. I want to be clear about that. A lot of charter schools are doing great work.) I am concerned about those that go into business to make a buck by taking over a failing school, and ultimately don't deliver on their promises. In the interim, tax dollars have enriched someone rather than helping the community as they were supposed to. Or worse where there is outright corruption.

But wait, it's not just California. In Illinois, Mayor Rahm Emanual moved to balance the city budget by closing 47 schools, most of which were in the poorer parts of the city. Why these schools? It isn't performance of the schools; schools rated both good and poor were slated to close. Those students headed back to school this week, over 12,000 of them impacted by the closures. Within weeks of publicizing these closings, the city announced a new multipurpose center for DePaul University. It isn't much of a stretch to call this a diversion of public money to private hands (or robbing Peter to pay DePaul). I mean I get why governments give taxes breaks to business to build, and I understand what the multiplier effect is and how it works. However, the money being spent on the multipurpose center will mostly benefit those students who attend a non-public university. The money would be better spent on the children in those elementary schools in South and West Chicago because there is a multiplier effect there too. Better education at the primary and secondary levels makes it more likely those kids will seek tertiary education later...if even at community college.

This trend needs to stop. We need to return to seeing free, high-quality public education as a right as they do in Europe. The transfer of public funds to private hands ultimately hurts us as a nation. We can do better. When we hit down times, the key is not to spend less on public education, but to spend more. Not at the top, not by overpaying administrators, but by putting the money into programs for students. Not by closing schools or turning them over to private concerns, but by investing and improving the existing public schools. It is in the  schools that we will find the people who will lead us to better times. We just need to make the investment in them.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Is this really the answer?

With the start of a new school year, I find myself thinking about assessment. It is a critcal par of the teaching-learning dynamic. In the months ahead, students will submit papers, do projects and sit for tests. Along the way teachers will consider the students' work, and assess it.

But wait. Some want to take the teachers out of the loop. An article at the Chronicle for Higher Education sometime back outlined how at the Western Governor's University (WGU) assessment is not done by the professors, but by a set of assessors. Thus, grading is not done by the teacher, but by someone else entirely. While not a terribly new idea (International Baccalaureate does this to some degree by having samples of a teacher's grades on projects verified by another teacher somewhere else in the world), the WGU model takes this to a new level and completely separates the task of instruction from the task of grading.

The problem with this (and with the first sentence in the lede of the story) is that it assumes somehow that feedback and evaluation are separate from the teaching/learning process. The lede for the story begins "The best way to eliminate grade inflation is to take professors out of the grading process...." There are three erroneous assumptions here: 1) grading inflation exists because teachers are lenient; 2) there is only one way to deal with the problem; 3) grading/feedback is not part of the teaching-learning relationship.

First the article does not establish (nor does anyone else for that matter) that grade inflation is an issue. I have heard for years that it is, but have never seen any data on it. Let's assume, however for argument sake that it is, the next question we should be asking is "Why?" rather than "How can we eliminate it?" The "why" is easier examined when one considers the recent experience of an NYU professor who tried to crack down on plagiarism in his classes. Professor Ipeirotis went from being a popular professor (from an average of 6.0 to 6.5 on his evaluations down to 5.3, considered below-average on the 7.0 scale). What happened was that Professor Ipeirotis became harder in his grading...essentially refusing to take work that was plagiarized or down grading it. External pressure forced him to abandon his effort to demand better, original work from his students. The "why" is that the system is set up to punish teachers who give bad grades.

I heard from another professor at a university (who asked to remain unnamed for this piece) that at a meeting he attended the department chair basically said "None of the students should be getting a C in this program." This was in at a graduate program, and yes, students at the MA level or higher should not be getting a grade that low (if they are, they don't belong in the program). But the professor said the warning was clear: If a student was doing that poorly, it was the instructor's  responsibility. But in a real sense, this is always true. I have long believed that when we give a student an F, the teacher fails the student--both literally and figuratively. If our students are getting Fs, it is because we haven't been there enough, motivated them enough, cared for them enough. We failed them, and in turn, they have failed our expectations. Because in a real sense, grading is about how well we get students to meet our expectations.

And that brings me to point number two, having a separate grader is not the best or only way to address the problem. In fact, the best ways to deal with assessment is for students to do projects and presentations. And the teacher along with the students (in a best case scenario) should develop a rubric for superior, satisfactory and unstisfactory work. The rubric should measure those items that the instructor deems import. Thus, if a rubric does not include any items related to grammar in a paper, for instance, the teacher cannot and should not dock students who write papers with bad grammar. A good rubric should not leave the student guessing what is needed to achieve excellence. Projects mirror more closely what students will need to do once beyond the ivy covered walls of the academy. The person who creates the project (ideally the teacher) should be the same person who creates the rubric. The rubric of course needs to be created ahead of the project and explained in full to the students. Clearly having someone other than the instructor grade the work should not be necessary. True, anyone could pick up the rubric and assess the work and ideally there'd be some pretty good interrater reliability. But a rubric removes the need for a third party to do the assessment. Indeed, students should be able to do it themselves. Clearly, a third party is not the only way to deal with the problem.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, grading/feedback is part of the teaching-learning dynamic. Without some sort of feedback, a student cannot know how they are progressing. The teacher (or learning facilitator) is there to guide the student. Watch for the weaknesses and strengths. Caleb Gattengo once told me that "A student's job is to learn the material, and a teacher's job is to learn the student." Removing the teacher from giving feedback to the student doesn't allow for that. It makes it harder for the teacher to do the job well.

Assessment is an important part of what we do as teachers. Turning correction over to someone who neither knows the student and bases their entire knowledge of the student on the paper they have in front of them is to reduce the student to the test. And our students are so much more than that.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

teachers don't do it for the money

In a recent interview with Matt Damon, a reporter suggested that teachers would work harder if they didn't have tenure. To his credit, Damon upbraided the reporter (and her cameraman, who suggested that 10% of teachers are bad, a statistic he could not justify) for insinuating that teachers are lazy.

But it's the bias of the question that I want to address. The notion is that teachers are lazy and that tenure breeds further laziness. It's a variation on the old saw, "Those who can do, and those who can't teach." This saying is so ingrained in our culture that no one thinks to question it. It is just plain false. Worse than that, it is extremely disrespectful it is to a group of hard working professionals who are among the worst paid for their level of education.

This disrespect manifests in a number of different ways. By virtue of the fact that most people have had some schooling, somehow everyone fancies themselves an expert on education. Many parents second guess how a teacher does her job, and not a few do this openly.  What they don't consider is that teachers have at least about two years of schooling beyond a BA, either for a teaching credential or a Masters with a teaching credential. As part of this training, teachers have learned educational theory, learning psychology,  and  assessment techniques. Further, they have done practice teaching, written countless lesson plans, and have sat for long credentialing tests. And the education does not stop there. States require that teachers pursue a certain number of professional development hours each year. Can you imagine someone going into a doctor's office or a lawyer's office and telling them how to do their job? This happens to teachers all the time.

Another way this shows up is in our public life. How many times have you heard a politician say, "I plan to make education my top priority," or "I want to make education in our city/state/nation second to none," or "I want to be the education mayor/governor/president/dog catcher?" Indeed, over the last 30 years, we have had such such questionable programs as the Regular Education Initiative,  Goals 2000, Reading First, No Child Left Behind, and most recently Race to the Top. Each of these programs are less about pedagogy than they are a political agenda. The two most recent programs NCLB and RTTT focus less on learning than getting children to pass a test. They second guess what teachers do by in effect saying "Our kids aren't learning therefore there is something wrong with the system. Ergo it is the teachers, and we have to make sure they are doing their job." These assumptions are based on faulty premises, but the result is still to second guess the professional.

A third way educators are shown this level of disrespect is how they are paid. Consider that you are paid $100 a day for an eight hour day. At the end of the week your gross would be $500 or about $2000 per month. (Clearly this is not what most teachers earn, but stay I'm using simple low numbers to keep the math easy and make a point.) But this is not what happens with a teacher's pay. If a teacher were paid $100 a day, what they would gross at the end of the month is less then $2000. Why? Because most teachers are not paid everything at once. What they get instead is $2000-y, where y equals an amount the teacher will be paid later--in the summer, as a bookkeeper once told me "when you're not working." And there's the rub, because most teachers do work in the summer either teaching summer school, doing research, attending conferences, working on their curriculum, or creating new lessons to make the material more engaging for the students.  The other thing that is faulty about this example is that most teachers put in more than eight hours a day. There are clubs and teams to advise. There is a lot of time before and after school, writing and correcting tests and homework. There is a lot of work done off the clock.

A single teacher may be responsible for anywhere from 30 to 120 students in a given semester. The time each teacher has to spend with a student on their distinct needs is reduced greatly when other things (like standardized tests) are introduced into the mix. I had a second grade teacher recently tell me that she has to give her students some standardized test once every two weeks or so. She has 35 students in her class, and in a given 50 minute period, she has barely two minutes to spend with each student. She has no volunteers, no teacher's aides. She has only strategies. Most of her students do not speak English as a first language, and several have emotional issues. Yet she has to work a second job to make ends meet like so many other teachers.

The notion that people enter this profession is also a flawed one. One of my most recent students has spent several years working for a public relations firm. The work is good, and he does well, but he wants to teach English in high schools. He wants to teach fully aware that he could stay where he is and make money. It's not about that. He loves teaching, and because he does, he will be a great teacher. A former colleague of mine left her job as an attorney also to become a high school English teacher. She worked at two of the more competitive private schools in Honolulu before moving to Washington. Another friend of mine and former colleague was trained as an engineer. He teaches math and physics. He is an excellent teacher. I could go on. The teaching profession is full of such examples.

People become teachers not because they are incompetent, but because they want to teach. They want to share their enthusiasm for their subject area with young minds. They should be accorded the respect due any professional and not considered somehow less than for choosing a difficult, thankless, yet noble profession. As this new school year begins, it would great for us to ditch the old "those who can't" attitude, and ask "How can we help?" "What do you, the teacher of my beloved children, need to do help my kids learn?" Respect the teacher for the highly trained individual he or she is. You will not be sorry.