Friday, August 02, 2013

The Whip, Not The Carrot. The American Conservative Approach to Education.

That whip-and-carrot business applies to the old adage about how to make a donkey or a horse do your bidding.  American conservatives like the negative enforcement (whip) applied to schools, to get better workers for their global corporations.  The liberals they see as the carrot brigade, not demanding anything from  children at all but offering them succulent carrots for no work.

The equivalent of the whip are standardized tests when it comes to students.  When it comes to teachers, everything is the whip.  I've found this fascinating.  Teachers should be willing to take lower and lower pay, longer and longer working days and a much reduced retirement package, while being judged (often quite mercilessly) by how well students do in standardized tests.*

Atrios linked to a fun piece about the importance of standardized tests by Norman R. Augustine,  a former chairman and chief executive of Lockheed Martin Corp.. 

This is fun, because education is actually a skill which requires years of training and such, except in the US where business bosses know better how to make children learn than those who dedicate their lives to acquiring that skill!  It's hilarious.  Or would be, if education wasn't one of the most crucial things we humans do in this world for the sake of the posterity.

I'm not against standardized testing which compare how students are doing.  I'm very much against using MULTIPLE-CHOICE standardized tests to determine which students will thrive and which students will be condemned to a lesser life, or using such tests to determine which teachers should earn more and which teachers should be fired.

This is because multiple-choice tests are a rotten measuring device.  Real national tests should make students write essay answers, tested by someone outside the school system.  Real national tests should make students show all their work in mathematics and science tests.  Even if such tests were routinely performed, we should remember that they don't measure all aspects of learning and that they don't encourage creativity or necessarily measure the skills that students need for life.

In short, standardized tests have only limited benefits.  But they are a very good whip for those who think that the schools in the US can be beaten into shape. 

They are even better for those who don't really want to pay anything much for education and then must think of some other reason than lack of funds spent on the poorest (and most needy) school districts for the less-than-wonderful performance of US students in international comparisons.

To see what Mr. Augustine truly thinks about education is visible in his first sentences if you remember that he begins by presenting the views he opposes:
The chief problem with U.S. schools apparently isn’t high dropout rates or underqualified teachers but standardized testing. This is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the push by parents and teachers in Buffalo, Philadelphia, Seattle and elsewhere to help students opt out of taking standardized tests.
Members of this burgeoning anti-test movement fail to grasp testing’s valuable role in motivating and guiding students and teachers. Preparing young Americans for success in the global economy will require our schools to improve, not abolish, academic standards.
So it's dropout rates and underqualified teachers that Mr. Augustine sees as the real problem.  Ironically enough, both of these problems are amenable to the use of funds!  But nope, adding more money to encourage more motivated and better prepared students in teaching is out  of question, because it would be a carrot.  We need to whip, whip and whip.  Likewise, dropout rates correlate directly with poverty, and positive discrimination (more funds for poorer schools, more attention to students in trouble) would work there, too.  If it wasn't a carrot, that is.

All this is a bit muddled, and I apologize for this.  I just got back from my Finnish vacation. 

But while there, I talked to several teachers.  They are highly respected in their communities.  They come from the top ten percent of university students.  They get paid a salary commensurable with that.  They are given lots of freedom to experiment with individual students, they spend a lot of time in teacher education and they work in teams when necessary.  Class sizes are small.  National exams are obligatory for students only at the point of leaving the school system.  Other standardized exams are optional, though most teachers opt to have them.

And the Finnish schools right now do extremely well in international comparisons. 

It is true, as the critics say, that Finland is a more homogeneous country than the US and that it has much more equal incomes.  It is also true that teaching in the US with its greater heterogeneity and income inequality is a far bigger challenge, and that the "Finnish Miracle" may not work out as well with increased immigration and the cultural and language differences it entails.

But does this mean that the US has nothing to learn from Finland?  American conservatives seem to think so.  Better just apply a bigger and bigger whip, rather than those wussy carrots.

It's as if the American exceptionalism applies even here!  Americans work better than whipped, the lesser nations may thrive on carrots.  Something of that sort?

My point is, naturally, that even if the US couldn't achieve the Finnish results everywhere it might improve by adopting the Finnish principles.  The most important of them is that education is a skill, something to value, something that requires work to learn and to apply.  Far too many Americans appear to think that we can learn all we need about educating little children from the successes and failures of WalMart or General Motors.

I'm the first to admit that education is difficult, that families matter greatly, that values and culture, including the popular culture, matter greatly.  Much of education is an art, not a science.  But I'm quite certain that the principles of basic market models are not the proper way of looking at education.  Indeed, education has always been one of the industries where nonprofits and charitable organizations and other not-for-profit arrangements have been dominant, and there is a reason for it.

That reason is the difficulty of the job, the problems in defining and measuring the quality of education and the fact that the "production process" in education is a very collaborative one:  Everything that happens to a child affects it and the child herself affects it, too.  Finally, different children thrive on different incentives and need different amounts of attention.  Some need more whip than carrot, others the reverse.  But ideally education should be a preparation for life, not a preparation for becoming a better cog in the organizations of multinational corporations.

Juxtapose that with the usual American conservative approach to education where the main attack is against teachers' unions, teachers' benefits and so on, and where vouchers and magnet schools etc. are intended to somehow alter education into a more functioning system. 

It's an odd combination of pro-market ideas (school choice, focus on private schools) and anti-market ideas (forcing teacher salaries down outside the marketplace).  What it does share with the most clawed and fanged business is the rat-race focus:  If only we can make the rats run faster, nobody needs to pay much at all to fix the problems. 

As a corollary of that, schools must get rid of breaks, athletics, art and music, to become little factories where students on the assembly lines get those pass-the-test chips installed by minimum pay workers.

This is not going to work, by the way, but at least someone gets to wield the whip, and there's a certain satisfaction in that.

*All this has a feminist connection:  In the past educated American women were steered into just a few possible careers and one of them was teaching.  The sex-segregation of occupations meant, among many things, that the Americans could get very good teachers for relatively low pay.  That changed when other career opportunities opened for women, but the conservative critics have never really understood this nor the fact that the shorter working days and longer vacations are the necessary trade-offs for the lower pay for many women.  They allow work and the care of minor children.  If the pay is kept the same or reduced while the annual working hours are increased, that benefit disappears, and fewer women will become teachers.  This market-aspect of education is oddly ignored in the conservative theories.