Problems with Standards-Based Education

Alfie KohnThe following video is well worth spending some time watching. It is a lecture by Alfie Kohn about the pernicious effects of “tougher standards” in the education “reform” movement. Before I get to the substance, though, I want to say something about the style. A common thing in media is to have a passionate conservative paired up with a mild-mannered moderate. This is thought to be balance. What’s more, it is often claimed that “liberals” are all mild-mannered. It isn’t that. It is that they refuse to put actual liberals on. Kohn is extremely passionate. But he’s exactly the kind of person who isn’t much allowed on mainstream television because his ideas are supposedly outside the mainstream. Of course, the same media outlets are only too happy to bring Cliven Bundy and Ted Nugent on their shows.

There are a lot of interesting things in the talk, but I just want to mention three. He provided a thought experiment. Imagine that all the students in a state passed a standardized test. Would this cause the governor to applaud the teachers and students and claim that the system was working? No. It would freak out everyone. They would just say that the test was too easy and they would make a harder test. The point is that tests may be quantitative, but they are not accurate. They are created so that a certain number of students fail. Thus: the students are graded on a curve, which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

Another interesting thing is a fundamental problem with western thought: we measure what we can measure. So we’ve set up tests to measure what is easiest to test, not what is most important. For example, he noted that the tests will look at how many times a student used a comma correctly rather than looking at how many interesting ideas that student wrote about. In his essay I talked about earlier, he wrote, “Low-quality instruction can be assessed with low-quality tests, including homegrown quizzes and standardized exams designed to measure (with faux objectivity) the number of facts and skills crammed into short-term memory.” Again we come back to this issue of utility. To the modern business, workers are cogs; they want workers to be interchangeable. So it is important that all students know some list of facts rather than have the ability to think.

I’ve seen this for decades in the the high tech industry. At this point most programming languages are built on c++. But this doesn’t stop developers from creating yet another c++ language that has special features for doing this or that. Yet companies always want to hire people with skills in that particular new language rather than experienced programmers who can probably become experts in the language in the week it takes for an application to be processed. In short: American business is stupid, so it isn’t surprising that it wants our kids to be stupid too.

Finally, he ends the lecture by talking about what tests are really all about: inequality. Students from rich families do better on tests than students from poor families. He says that simply by knowing the percentage of students who get free lunches, he can predict their test scores with “chilling” accuracy. So in the end, tests are not about helping students—much less those struggling. They are about ossifying the status quo—allowing income inequality to freeze into place.

Check out the video. It’s about 45 minutes long and it provides a good introduction to what is wrong with our test-based education system.

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Religious Belief Doesn’t Trump Law

United Church of ChristThe United Church of Christ (UCC) has been performing same-sex marriages since 2005. So they decided to pursue a legal challenge to North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriages. They are arguing that the state is violating their freedom of religion. That is too delicious not to talk about.

But I think the case is very clear. People’s rights to free expression do not trump laws. The Rastafarians believe very much that they should be allowed to ingest cannabis, but that has never stopped one of them from being imprisoned for that “crime.” So I don’t think that the UCC has a religious right that trumps North Carolina law. Of course, there may be details in the law that would push me in the UCC’s direction. But as it stands, it seems pretty simple.

I am just being consistent here. I also think all of these religious based attacks on Obamacare should have been thrown scornfully out of court at the very beginning. And there are lots of similar cases, like where a Christian pharmacist claims he has the right not to fill prescriptions for birth control pills. The Rastafarians have a far better claim to their drug rights than do hobby stores who want to micromanage their employees’ healthcare coverage.

North Carolina Values Coalition

But given all the time and efforts that conservative Christians have put into destroying Obamacare using such arguments, you would think that they would be in support of the UCC. After all, it is a matter of religious liberty. It shouldn’t matter that it is in the name of a specific policy that they don’t accept. But, of course, it does matter. North Carolina Values Coalition (NCVC) executive director Tami Fitzgerald said in a press release that because a majority of the voters in the state voted for the law, the UCC should have no rights. She then went on to talk about how she was the ultimate arbiter of what Christianity is and that the UCC is just wrong.

Of course, when Hobby Lobby was before the Supreme Court, Fitzgerald was firmly behind it, urging people to Pray for Hobby Lobby. But I’m sure that is not the only bit of hypocrisy that Fitzgerald and the NCVC have in store. Right now it is all about the fact that 61% of the electorate of North Carolina voted to ban same-sex marriage. As soon as the people become in favor of same-sex marriage, she will be using a different argument. And it won’t be long. Last year, the people of North Carolina were against same-sex marriage by a tiny 45%-44% margin.

We’ll see what happens to this case. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if conservative judges find that a same-sex marriage ban did not violate the UCC’s religious rights even while they find hitherto unknown religious rights of hobby stores. Luckily, the same-sex marriage issue will be resolved by the people very soon.

Alfie Kohn and Real Education Reform

What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated? - Alfie KohnUnlike most people, I believe in a kind of neo-classicism in education. I think that a liberal education is what binds us together. Increasingly, of course, it is what tears us apart. In particular, the current form of radical conservatism is based almost entirely on a large section of the country placing one piece of ancient literature above all others and have decided that far from being literature, it is The Truth™. And if it were, that would work. We could all know our Bibles inside, outside, and backwards and it would provide us with social cohesion. But it would be a shriveled shell of a culture.

But a truly liberal set of cultural touchstones are important to binding us together: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Rabelais, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and so on. I would include the books of the great religions too, although there is already a great deal of Christian thought just in that list. I think it is important that I get a reference that you make of these people who have been so important in shaping our culture. Of course I’m not set on these people (except Homer and Cervantes). I’m well aware of the lack of diversity. We can argue (no doubt violently) about what should be our cultural touchstones. But there shouldn’t be a question that we need them.

Now conservative education reformers would say, “Exactly!” And they would put together lists of the hundred “great books” that every high school student must read. And they would design tests with questions like, “What is the name of the character who manipulates Othello into murdering his wife?” This is madness! When I talk about “arguing,” I’m not talking about doing it at teaching conferences and in Congress. The culture creates its own touchstones organically.

I’ve been reading a couple of books by Alfie Kohn, the great progressive education reform advocate and thinker. Right now, I’m reading What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated? And More Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies. At the end of the title essay, he mentions the great John Dewey with regards to what I would think we should all agree is what education is ultimately about, “Dewey reminded us that the goal of education is more education. To be well educated, then, is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends.”

This dovetails nicely into what I think is the biggest problem with education today. Few ever get to the point of wanting to read Homer because they are too busy trying to make ends meet. Now liberals and conservatives alike proudly announce that the purpose of education should be to make getting a good job easier—which just so happens to provide the business community with cheap, government trained, workers. Kohn starts his second essay, “Turning Learning into a Business,” with a quote from educational thinker Jonathan Kozol:

The best reason to give a child a good school… is so that child will have a happy childhood, and not so that it will help IBM in competing with Sony… There is something ethically embarrassing about resting a national agenda on the basis of sheer greed.

But make no mistake: most people in the education “reform” movement are not embarrassed by this. In fact, this idea that the best thing you can do for a child is give him a good education that will provide him with a good job goes along with another conservative canard: the idea that income inequality is all about education. It isn’t all about education. And education reform should not be about trying to fix the much bigger problem of income inequality. And anyway: one reason our educational system is so screwed up is income inequality. In general, rich kids get great (And liberal!) educations. Poor kids get multiplication tables grounded into their brains.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this topic soon. As it is I find it deeply disturbing.

Political Door Knockers Are Better Than Religious Ones

Jehovah's WitnessesNormally, if someone rings the doorbell on a Saturday afternoon, it is my friendly neighborhood Jehovah’s Witnesses. Like many Christians, they mistake the Bible for a book that ought to be read by the laity. And so they are out all the time fishin’ for souls. It is almost sweet. And annoying as hell! You see, these people are frauds. They pretend to be my friend but they aren’t interested in me anymore than the salesman at Best Buy is. I’m not an individual; I’m just another soul like all the rest. And it takes all my force of will to not talk to them about religion because I am far more serious about the subject than they are. So I just smile, take their Awake! magazines, and close the door. It makes them happy because they are under the delusion that this is what Jesus wanted them to do.

But here in little Sonoma County, the election has begun. So now, when the doorbell rings, it is likely to be someone selling a political candidate. I like this! And it isn’t because I like politics more than religion, because that isn’t even true. If actual religious seekers came to my door, I would be happy to engage with them. But instead, religious dogmatists come to my door to sell me their religion. But that’s not what they say. According to them, they’re doing me a favor!

The campaigners are selling stuff too, of course, but they don’t claim otherwise. They are partisans looking to help out their side. That kind of honesty is refreshing in modern America where even our television commercials are often of dubious relevance to the products that they are pushing. But you know what’s really great about them. They never try to read to me. “If I may, there is a passage from Barack Obama’s 2012 inaugural address that is of particular relevance to this, ‘For George Washington so loved the nation…'”

Fundamentally, there is nothing different about the Christians who come to my door and the political activists. They are all true believers for their causes. I suspect that the nice young man who came to my door a couple of days ago is just as certain Mike McGuire is the right man for the California State Senate as the Jehovah’s Witnesses are that God will create a heaven on earth for them in a now unspecified future time. But there is still a huge difference between them.

In our society, we are told that having irrational certainty about religion is a good thing. This allows Christians to go their whole lives without ever hearing Jesus referred to as a Cosmic Jewish Zombie. It is thought that doing this is rude, which is probably true. But it also means that religious thought doesn’t advanced and they are stuck with a common philosophy today that would have appalled early Christians, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Thanks to right wing hate radio and especially Fox News, we are getting a lot more of this in politics. Still, it is true that if you start spouting off about politics at a local pub, someone will counter you.

As a result of this, political activists come to my door with humility. They know they are intruding. They know that the person behind the door may have strongly held opinions that counter their own. The Christians know that they may get some push back too, of course. But it isn’t the same. The vast majority of people do not agree with them. Only 2.5% of the nation is Jehovah’s Witnesses. (The Mormons don’t come around here, but they are much the same with 5% of the population.) And even most other Christians don’t want what they are selling. While doing some work at a Baptist Church recently, I found a pamphlet on how to deal with Jehovah’s Witnesses. But whatever abuse they get only goes to prove to them the righteousness of their work and purity of their souls.

Political activists have no such solace. The essence of political organizing is not about convincing people who disagree with them. It is to find and organize those who do agree with them. So they aren’t trying to find people who scream at them so they can feel good that they’ve located followers of The Evil One.

But above all, political activists are to be admired because they are involved in facilitating the basis of our society: democracy. I’ve always felt dragging the Bible from door to door is very much like my bringing Don Quixote door to door. It too is an old book with much spiritual insight. Why don’t I do that? Because my interest in Don Quixote is not widely shared. I may think that people would be better off if they read the book, but it is presumptuous of me to force it on them. But all citizens of this country should care about who our elected representatives are. So political activists are a very good thing indeed.


Thus far, the only people to come to my door are Democrats. And the only political mailings I’ve received are from Republicans. I find that humorous: Democrats have people, Republicans have money.

Raja Ravi Varma

Raja Ravi VarmaOn this day in 1848, the great Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma was born. I’ve never been very clear on the Indian caste system, but Varma was kind of born to painting—or at least that bourgeois creative class. Actually, I suppose he was part of Vaisyas caste. His father was a scholar and his mother, a poet. And at least two of his brothers went on to be painters. Varma is the most famous of them.

What I appreciate about him is how he brings western and eastern painting traditions together. You might say he was the William Bouguereau of India. But as much as I love Bouguereau, Varma is much more than that. His color palette is far more intense. And his religious painting is far more interesting, but that is probably just because the Hindu religion has far more interesting iconography than Christianity does.

Here is painting I especially admire of Murugan, the god of war, victory, wisdom and love:

Murugan - Raja Ravi Varma

Happy birthday Raja Ravi Varma!