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.