Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Partisan politics and the death of civil discussion

"There is a lake between sun and moon
Not too many know about
In the silence between whisper and shout
The space between wonder and doubt

This is a fine place
Shining face to face
Those bonfire lights in the mirror of sky
The space between wonder and why"
                                                                                   ("Between Sun and Moon," Rush)

I took an uncharacteristically long time off between posts (a whole week) to do some reading and reflecting.  I’ve been getting a lot of flak from Conservatives (for whom I’m not Conservative enough), Libertarians (for whom I’m not Libertarian enough), Objectivists (for whom I’m not Randian enough) and Liberals (for whom I’m not nearly Progressive enough).

After my week-long hiatus, I've come to a conclusion, for now:  If I'm making so many people upset, I must be doing something right.

As I blogged last week:
Have you ever noticed that when you disagree passionately with a person, you often abandon a moderate stance in order to more vehemently oppose that person?  It’s easier to defend an extreme position, because it eliminates the complexities and nuance of any argument, and liberates you of the need to make concessions.
I think that many of my posts – not just on this blog, but comments left on other blogs (Washington Post, HuffPo, Diane Ravitch, etc…) – reflect more than a willingness, but a concerted effort to not automatically regurgitate a party-line take on an issue, and I am quick to call on grotesque logical fallacies where I see them, even if in doing so, I may appear to be defending a person or a position I might not normally defend.  In this case, ideologues take my words at their most superficial level and then respond to a straw man hyperbole of what they think my words might have meant, in other words, the interpretation of my words that gives them the greatest leverage against me.

It would amuse me if it weren’t so depressing. I’d like to think that intelligent and thoughtful people read the blogs that I myself frequent – issues-based blogs of political and social import.  And yet sometimes I wonder, if the sport of sparring, the glee that comes from armchair contrariness, is just too much to overcome to have a serious discussion. 

Here is an example. In this case, the other person and I eventually made nice-nice after some rhetorical sparring, but it is a good example of what I am talking about:

A few days ago, Diane Ravitch posted up a story about a teacher who had been wrongly accused of publicly revealing a standardized test question (which these days is practically a hanging offense). When he was cleared, the administration refused to concede error or issue any kind of apology for the humiliation, his suspension, the spectacle, or their rush to judgment.  The teacher, R. L. Ratto, on his personal blog, writes:
I was placed on administrative leave, escorted out of my room by my superintendent of schools, ultimately escorted out of the building and ordered not to return until New York State ruled on my guilt or innocence . Twenty four hours later, NYS ruled I did no wrong and I was informed that I was no longer a threat and could return to my classroom.   I have been demanding a public apology from the Superintendent, as well as my school board. To date that apology has not happened.
But what happened then was amazing.  The PTA awarded him the Distinguished Service Award, their highest honor, and made sure that his wife and kids were at the ceremony to see him receive it:
The parents of my school set the record straight! Choosing me for this award and more importantly making sure my family was there as well to witness it was more than I could  ever imagine.  I am forever grateful for the support and confidence during these trying times.
This made my heart glad.  What a wonderful story, a wonderful turn of events.

Ratto went on, and this is the paragraph that Dr. Ravitch chose to highlight on her blog [emphasis in the original]:
Parents throughout the nation are also beginning to set the record straight.  Parents are organizing to opt their children out of high stakes testing. Parents are challenging the motive and research behind the Common Core Curriculum. Parents are challenging those who want to create a data base of their children’s information. Parent’s [sic] all across the nation are saying stop scapegoating our teachers, stop closing our schools, stop destroying our nations [sic] most important asset. Parents will be setting this all straight.”
All of which I agree with, for the most part, in principle.  But what I found, upon a close and careful read, was that this particular paragraph, taken in isolation, has a slightly different main idea, a slightly different (almost imperceptible!) thrust than the anecdote of the teacher’s personal experience.  The theme of the entire anecdote, taken as a whole, is something to the effect of: “Sometimes, wonderful things can happen as a result of the sense of community that a public school can engender.”  It’s a delightful Lifetime made-for-TV movie.  The theme of the paragraph that Diane Ravitch excerpted from Ratto’s blog post, taken out of context as it was, was something more like: “Parents of the world unite!  If you speak out enough, you can topple the authority structure in your kids’ school too!”

Not quite the same thing. 

I taught grades 7-12 for two decades, and I’ve got to tell you:  From my experience, suggesting that all parents need to do is be louder and stronger and they’ll get their way is not always a good thing to do.  I'm not saying parents should not be empowered, and I'm certainly not saying that parents should not be very carefully listened to. I thought this was a subtle point, and one worth making, so I posted up this comment, reflecting the balance, complexity and nuance I try to infuse my words with, to avoid sounding like I’m just regurgitating soundbites (and to avoid confusing or overtly antagonizing the simpleton trolls that invariably surface):
Sometimes parents do know what’s best, what’s right. But I’ve found in my 20+ years of teaching that the extent to which the parents’ voices are put to good use is directly related to the nature of the community. In my experience, better-off communities with more educated parents, more stable homes, tend to be more in touch with and involved in (as well as invested in, philosophically and otherwise) the education process itself and what’s “really” going on than communities with very high dysfunction, illiteracy, poverty, crime, etc… (I’ve seen entire extended families show up to school unexpectedly mass-berate a guidance counselor or administrator over something that anyone with the slightest inkling of how schools really function would have taken in stride.) Also, parents from particularly strong partisan or religious backgrounds tend to focus their grassroots energy on areas that are not pedagogy-centered, but that support their personal sociological or religious agendas (religious displays in schools, banning GSA club activity, etc…) I think overall there is a benefit to restoring more control to local (district, site) levels. I think the Conservatives who call for total parental control are taking it one step too far, in part for [these reasons].

That said, this story is remarkable, and an excellent example of the power of the voice of the grassroots collective. In this case, the voice of the masses was used to a good end. But it is not always so.
I thought it sounded reasonable - even, balanced, not too heavy-handed or overzealous.  And carefully enough worded so that no one could possibly misinterpret and think I was calling all parents idiots or blasting all Conservatives.  Yeah, dream on.  Someone quickly responded: 
blame conservatives, blame parents. ah yes the “voice” of the “grassroots” “collective”.  these low income and poverty stricken areas have been the guinea pigs of leftist curriculum for decades precisely because of their low parental participation. It is much easier to manipulate children while their parents are not watching.
*sigh*  Such drama.  This is what I try to avoid.  My response:
I’m no progressive (seriously, read my blog – TRUST me, I’m no progressive). But it’s foolish to assume automatically that the parents with the loudest voices want and know what’s best for thousands of students in their districts. I agree that there is a hyper-liberal pendulum swing in process in schools, and I think it is turning back, finally. My fear is that it goes TOO FAR in the opposite direction. […]

A synopsis: Teacher was wrongly accused. Teacher was punished, publicly admonished. Teacher was innocent. District/site administration refused to man up and admit error, apologize, show respect. Community stepped up and showed appreciation by proxy. Teacher feels redeemed.   It’s not a partisan thing to recognize how f***ing awesome that is.
 A fellow poster’s bemused interpretation of the whole exchange:  

           There is no lonelier place than middle ground, especially on Internet forums.

And in political discussions.  Especially, it seems, about education.  Last week, I wrote about my disdain about the either-or fallacy and how it stops us from engaging in meaningful dialogue and prevents people from even conceding points to an adversary even when there is agreement, out of a sense of “keeping score.”  We place ourselves in camps, teams, groups.  And we adhere to them slavishly and cravenly, and defend them with bloodlust.  Partisan politics is like political soccer hooliganism.  And I’ve never seen a soccer brawl end well.

Most children will tell you that the opposite of day is night, and the opposite of sun is moon.  But often, the moon is visible in the sky, even when the sun is up. 

We need to learn to share rhetorical space.

Am I just naïve?  I’m just A.S.K.ing…

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

False dilemma: The either-or fallacy and the standardized testing debate

"They call me Mr. Knowitall
I will not compromise.
I will not be told what to do.
I shall not step aside.

They call me Mr. Knowitall
I have no time to waste.
My mouth it spews pure intellect.
And I've such elegant taste! [...]

They call me Mr. Knowitall
I am so eloquent!
Perfection is my middle name,
And whatever rhymes with... eloquent."

                                         ("Mr. Knowitall," Primus)

A few days ago, I came across a blog post by a fellow who chose to write about standardized testing, something that has been written about eighteen or so trillion times.

But this article was different.  It didn’t recycle old rhetoric and clichés, nor was it unduly burdened with melodrama and gross hyperbole, two sins that many, including perhaps yours truly, indulge in from time to time – some deliberately (cheesy and manipulative writers), some accidentally (bad writers).

Instead, I found its tone revelatory in its simplicity.  It says only what it needs to.  It is clear – both precise and concise.   It is so short that my attempts to excerpt it would lead me to duplicate almost the entire article, which only clocks in at just over 800 words.  It is eminently readable, and it accomplishes this without dumbing down the jargon, technical language or rhetoric.  

A few choice snippets:
“As a teacher, if my livelihood is based on test results, then I will do everything possible to ensure high marks, including narrowing the curriculum and prepping fiercely for the test. The choice between an interesting project and a paycheck is no choice at all. These are amazing disincentives to student learning. Tying teachers' careers to standardized tests does not foster creative, passionate, skillful young adults. It does exactly the opposite.”
“As a large body of research suggests, standardized test data are imprecise for two main reasons. First, they do not account for individual and environmental factors affecting student performance, factors over which teachers have no control. (Think: commitment, social class, family.) Second, high-stakes, one-time tests increase the likelihood of random variation so that scores fluctuate in arbitrary ways not linked to teacher efficacy. (Think: sleep, allergies, the heartache of a recent breakup.)”

“Because standardized tests are an inexact estimate of a teacher's ability, they are also unfair. By focusing on a sliver of the curriculum -- often rote facts --standardized tests do not measure meaningful understanding. (Think: ‘Who was the last French monarch?’ versus ‘How much violence is justified in revolution?’) And unless you believe bubbling the letter of the best answer is crucial in the 21st century, standardized tests exclude evidence of important skill development.”
And I love the way the author, Jack McKay, describes testing as America’s “new national pastime.” Hell, baseball is all about the stats now, why shouldn’t teaching be so as well?  Then they could print test scores and passing rates on the back of teachers' I.D. badges -- like baseball cards!  *sigh*

What most caught my attention, however, was this phrase:  “[E]ducation reform has been cast as a false dilemma between students and teachers…”

I wrote my Masters thesis on the either-or fallacy in public policy (specifically, as pertains to education and pedagogy) decision-making.  The either –or fallacy (also called false dilemma or the black-and-white fallacy) is, simply put, the assertion that any set of options is necessarily reduced to either x or y.  I am a passionate opponent of this manner of oversimplified, prone-to-extremes type of issue analysis.  (Think: America’s 2-party system.)

People seem to naturally gravitate towards this simplified manner  of thinking, unfortunately. Have you ever noticed that when you disagree passionately with a person, you often abandon a moderate stance in order to more vehemently oppose that person?  It’s easier to defend an extreme position, because it eliminates the complexities and nuance of any argument, and liberates you of the need to make concessions.

Think about it in debate terms.  There are two ways to approach debating:  One is to use the friction of debate to unlock new lines of inquiry, probe diverse viewpoints, better understand the gestalt of an issue, and reach a better (or at least more acceptable) solution to a problem.  I’ll call this constructive debate.  The second way is to “win,” whatever the cost, in other words, to take down your opponent.  I’ll call this destructive debate. 

There’s nothing harder than engaging in constructive debate with an adversary who is hell-bent on destructive debate.  You want to look at multiple sides, make the necessary concessions to show that you’re not a one-note ideologue; you want your discussion to be rich, nuanced, erudite, but your efforts to recognize the aspects of your adversary’s arguments with which you might agree only fuel his rhetorical zeal, and he in return gives you no such consideration. “Score-wise,” you have capitulated, whereas he has not.  He sees your acquiescence as a sign of weakness, your lack of sureness as to your own core beliefs. Clearly, he tells you, you have no consistent principles.  You feel the center of the debate shifting unacceptably towards your adversary; your confidence slides as he is further emboldened.  This creates a new problem.  You certainly don’t want your supporters to see you agreeing with aspects of your opponent’s position, while not winning any points of your own.  They might think your opponent’s position has merit!  So what do you do? You ratchet up your end of the dialogue, take a slightly more extreme position to “titrate” the discussion more into balance.

Oh, but this has the opposite effect, rather like trying to steer out of a skid.  Ere long, you and he are at radical opposite ends of the spectrum, two polarized extremes, an either-or.  Another debate that could have been a constructive discussion, turned into a destructive battle.

Even the best of us falls into this trap occasionally.  Even, it seems, the esteemed author of the blog article I’m currently lauding.

He writes:
“I believe student results from standardized tests should not be used to evaluate teachers because the data are imprecise and the effects are pernicious.”
“Let's decouple high-stakes testing from teacher evaluations for the sake of students and teachers alike.”
Hey, I agree with him! Well, mostly, that is…

And isn’t that the lure of the either-or trap?  It satisfies our driving human need to emote.  To want to say “Hell yeah!” or “Hell no!”  It’s much less cathartic to scream out, “That’s pretty much it, but there are a few details I’d like to take issue with!”  The either-or fallacy satisfies our need for easy categorization (are you a pro or a con?) and our need for fraternization (it’s easier to match black with black and white with white than it is to color-match an infinite number of shades of grey).  No public speaker is going to rouse a teeming crowd of would-be hangers-on to orgasmic outbursts of applause with “Pretty much!  That’s basically it!”

Look at these modified versions of his sentences:
“I believe student results from standardized tests should not be used as the main metric to evaluate teachers because the data tend to be imprecise and the effects can be pernicious.”
“Let's drastically reduce the impact of high-stakes testing results on teacher evaluations for the sake of students and teachers alike.”
I don’t think the utter elimination of high-stakes testing is the answer, necessarily.  That's the "or" to the "either" of testing. Any assessment can show us something useful.  If four physics teachers at a high school all give the same assessment to their three classes of 75 kids, and the results are radically different, there is a good chance that there’s some reason why.  The score disparity might just alert the teachers, or the department, or the administration to a conversation that needs to be had, a need that is not being met, or simply an artifact of the testing process itself that should be discussed, if for no other reason than to eliminate it from consideration as a failure of one aspect or other of the system.   Those conversations cannot happen if there are no diagnostics of any kind, and standardization (or "norming") is the best way I can think of to achieve, or at least approach, a state of ceteris paribus.

Now, and this is important, the reason is NOT AUTOMATICALLY teacher inefficacy, which would automatically be the assumption under the very real current educational regime that McKay describes.  Therein lies the problem – not so much the assessment itself (although we do way the hell too much of it, and at the expense of instructional time, no less), but the high-stakes, make-or-break impact of what we do with the result.

Simply put:  We trust the numbers more than we trust the people.  In fact, one might to moved to say (if one were wont to hyperbolize) that we trust the numbers to the exclusion of trusting people.   And as McKay correctly points out, the results are catastrophic.  I mean, “can be” catastrophic.  (Modal verbs make great qualifiers.  Consider the subtle, almost subliminal, impact of qualifiers on a debater's presentation by checking this out .)

Anyhow, I enjoyed the McKay piece, and I suggest you read it.  It’s short, much shorter than this (1,300+ words at this point already). And I think he is possibly more eloquent than I.  He doesn’t claim to be a Mr. Know-it-all; he pleads with us for debate (constructive, not destructive), dialogue, a discussion, a conversation.

Works for me.  I may disagree with you, but I’ll always try to talk to you, not at you.  Unless you piss me off, then I’ma have to take you down…

Can blood-feud policy adversaries ever sit at a table and have this kind of constructive discussion without resorting to the cheap and ultimately destructive rhetorical shortcuts of partisan false dilemmas?  Oh, snap, by resorting to the binary of "constructive" and "destructive," did I just create my own either-or?

I suspect I know the sad answers, but still, I’m A.S.K.ing…

Monday, June 3, 2013

Teacher resignations: Cries in the dark. Is there anybody listening?

"Is there anybody listening?
Is there anyone that sees what's going on?
Read between the lines,
criticize the words they're selling.
Think for yourself and feel the walls...
become sand beneath your feet. "
                             (Queensryche, "Anybody Listening")

I may have misspoken.

“First” came Gerald Conti, I wrote.  Not quite.  Oh, to be sure, Mr. Conti’s eloquent viral resignation letter may have touched off the current jag of public awareness and outcry, but he was not the first.  Not even recently.

I stand eloquently corrected, courtesy of a message from Mr. Stephen Round himself.  Who is he?  Well, if you don't know, then read on.  I did not know either, and I cannot believe, now, that I didn't.

On September 5, 2012, Boston-area teacher Adam Kirk Edgerton’s resignation essay was picked up by The Huffington Post, drawing nearly 5,000 Facebook “shares” and hundreds of comments.  Edgerton wrote that he was “tired of feeling powerless,” and that schools had an unacceptable “standardized test fixation,” comments that predated by the better part of a year those penned, posted and uttered by those public resignees about whom I have erstwhile written: Conti, Rubenstein, Knauth, Brissette.

Select excerpts:
“I quit because the system is demeaning. It's a structure that consumes everyone in it, from the top to the bottom. I didn't quit because of a single school -- I quit because of the pattern of inanity that is replicated throughout the whole country.”
 “No matter how much we regulate, we will always have to trust our teachers to be our surrogate parents, to take our children for an hour or six a day, to protect them, and to mold them into better people. Teachers matter more than superintendants [sic], more than senators, and more than businessmen. They make us who we are. Teachers are the ones who make the day-to-day decisions for the future of our entire nation, and we must start trusting them again.”
I should be clear that I do not agree with, nor do I necessarily endorse, all of the specific details, claims and suggestions in Mr. Edgerton’s essay, nor do I even necessarily embrace what I perceive to be his general ethos. Since, however, my purpose is to trace historical antecedents to the current Teacher Rebellion, those disagreements are not germane to the issue at hand. Edgerton, like others, including myself, is celebrating teachers finally finding their voice (and, more specifically, not letting unions fight our battles for us):
So what is the answer? Unions? Hardly. We can't allow union leaders to absorb teachers, to use them as a platform on which to stand. Our union leaders have failed us. Union politics have contributed to us getting to this point by forcing administrators to deal with them rather than teachers directly. They teach us that we cannot speak for ourselves; they teach us powerlessness. Union leaders are too often mere mouthpieces skimming off teachers' paychecks.
A few months later, in December 2012, a Rhode Island teacher named Stephen Round posted a six-minute Youtube resignation video: “I would rather leave my secure, $70,000 job, with benefits, and tutor in Connecticut for free than be part of a system that is diametrically opposed to everything I believe education should be,” Round intones. His video has been viewed close to half a million times, just short of the number of views that Ellie Rubenstein’s video has racked up, thus far, anyway.

The Huffington Post picked up Round’s resignation as well (HuffPo is considerably more on the ball than I am, it seems), and it drew over 17,000 Facebook “likes,” 1,100 Facebook “shares” and over six hundred comments.

I never knew. Lesson learned: Research your sh*t, mate.

The softspoken Mr. Round (who looks not unlike a cross between Ian Holm and Kevin Spacey) was a second-grade teacher, so his concerns were very K-5 specific. As a parent with two children in that grade range, I listened attentively. Again, I cannot say that I agree with or support with every minute detail of what he said, but this is not about the minutiae. This is about daring to speak out, be heard, and to place principle before pragmatics, despite the possible personal cost.

On January 1st, 2013, motivational/inspirational speaker (she calls herself an “educator/author/student advocate”)  Terry Preuss, NBCT, posted the first installment of a 12-part video response to Stephen Round’s video on Youtube. I will admit right now that I’ve only watched part(s), and read synopses of the rest. I will say that for the record, I’m not a huge fan of, nor am I inclined to trust, evangelistic, Anthony Robbins/Donald Trump-esque personality brands in education. I find them off-putting, and I tend to associate them with people “selling something” (in Preuss’s case, perhaps, her book(s) and her consultant/speaking fees).

I’m also not a huge fan of using NBCT as an honorary title. It’s not – it’s a title that is bought, at great expense and inconvenience, but bought nonetheless. Perhaps I will blog about my scorn for National Board Certification for teachers some other time.

I say this to assure my readers that I do not hold up the subjects of my essays as idols for worship. I recognize their flaws (I have some myself) and I do not necessarily agree with every word out of their mouths. To require one to do so before showing any kind of support would be the grossest form of perfectionist fallacy. And still I say that despite those personally discomfiting superficial indicators, I am appreciative of Ms. Preuss's efforts, all of their efforts, to publicize the plight of both students and teachers in the factories that our schools are becoming.

For two months, I’ve been painting this as a “movement.” Well, the movement’s roots go run a little deeper than I thought. Gerald Conti was not the first hot iron to strike, but when one reads articles, news stories and blog posts about him (even my own) the sense one distinctly comes away with is that he was the trailblazer.

How is it that as a people so collectively in a tizzy over the pathetic state of our education system that no one bothered to place his gesture into a larger context (myself included -- I'm rather embarrassed, actually)? Did people not even remember? Has the current culture of rapid fire news-reporting made us so myopic and attention-deficit-disordered as a thinking people that we can no longer connect the dots? I read a lot on Mr. Conti, before, during and after the first piece I wrote on him. In none of the pieces I read are the names Adam Kirk Edgerton, Stephen Round or Terry Preuss mentioned.  Not once.

This suggests that the media, the news programs, and the blogosphere all continue to see these incidents as anomalies, unrelated, unworthy of connection, not part of any pattern or trend.  I hope they're wrong.

But, maybe they’re right. Maybe there is no movement. Maybe our interest was piqued just long enough to comment on the situation before moving on to who’s leaving American Idol, or what soda pop Beyonce is peddling. (On a side note, it gives me a strange little spark of glee that my spell-checker rejects the name “Beyonce.”) Maybe, like a biological organism, our society is building up a tolerance, a resistance, and eventually, an immunity to news of teacher unrest. And soon, it won’t bother us at all.

I should point out that while the first installment of Terry Preuss’s Ken Burns-esque 12-video opus has been seen 1,000 times (a trifling figure compared to Stephen Round’s and Ellie Rubenstein’s combined 1,000,000 views) her subsequent videos have been viewed only 112, 73, 77, 41, 154, 41, 31, 33, 44, 25, and 35 times. Two recent (May 2013) videos on teacher empowerment have fewer than 10 views each. To be truthful, even I couldn’t quite motivate myself to watch the whole thing, and if you've read my recent posts, you know I'm fairly mercenary when it comes to this topic. Maybe it was her presentation; maybe it was the overall length. Maybe I’m just sick of it all.

Maybe we all are. Oh, that's not good...

So what is it that draws and holds the public’s interest? What spurs them on to action? I’m not entirely sure I understand completely. What is the key to viral success? (No, seriously, I want to know… 10,000 views is nice, and thank you for that, Dear Readers, but I want that next order of magnitude…)

And is viral success only virus-deep? Is it better for 100 people who really care to view something, or for 100,000 people to view it from the bandwagon out of a collective-frenzy of prurient interest that is quickly sated by the viewing and then cast off like a molt?

Does anybody have any thoughts on how to get the message across in a way that will actually do some good? I still believe that massive public resignations, protests, strikes, etc… will send the message, but with Teacher Education programs and TFA spitting out young, hungry, progressive-hearted teachers by the thousands (who cost much less than the people who would be resigning) who are ready and willing to drink the Kool-Aid,  I’m not sure anymore that that’s sufficient motivation.

By the way, for some excellent reasons why TFA (Teach For America) is NOT the savior of public education, take some time and read Julián Vásquez Heilig’s blog, “Cloaking Inequity.”

If not, then consider these sage words by Adam Kirk Edgerton:
Alternative certification programs, such as Teach for America, suggest that education schools are empty, facile and meaningless, at least for the classroom teacher. I don't begrudge TFA, since it helps many children escape poverty, but its existence magnifies a view of teachers as interchangeable parts, as cogs in our machine. I have no moral high ground on the issue of turnover, since I quit after three years, but policy-makers are increasingly devaluing graduate school programs that train teachers to teach -- to innovate. After all, why spend money on training teachers for a whole year, for a career, when we can pump in a stream of idealistic young people for much less money? Why teach teachers to question the machinery whirling around them?
Well, what does it matter if teachers “question the machinery whirling around them” if, when they resign in noble, principled protest, no one really notices?

I’m more than just A.S.K.ing… I really want to know.