Science. Technology. Engineering. Mathematics.

Courtesy of Zenpundit, I read John S. Brown’s Learning 2.0: The Big Picture (PDF). Dr. Brown, a computer scientist, has a list of publications a mile long, and one of the pleasures of the blogosphere is having access to what such luminaries are thinking.

Dr. Brown’s note cover a lot of ground, from the distinction between explicit and tacit learning, the importance of learning communities, and the need for continuing education. However, two slides in particular strike me as especially dangerous, and public education would be better in this country if the ideas therein were banished:

First, EQ (Social / Emotional Intelligence) is a junk concept. It explains nothing beyond what you can explain with IQ (working memory capacity) and personality (the OCEAN Big 5 Model). Both personality and working memory capacity are highly heritable, and very hard to change. If we’re serious about achieving educational excellence through maximizing those traits, let’s increase the funding of the Centers for Disease Control and get serious with eugenics.

However, as the political, societal, and economic costs of that approach would be high — and the benefits far away — a more practical approach is called for. We need an educational infrastructure that can handle serious constraints on funding and the quality of teachers.

Spending v. Reading at American Public Schools

We have the outlines of a successful system in No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind sacrificed local control of schools for a system that enables scientific quality control. That is a good trade-off. Local control has given us a network of awful schools that do not do their job. Quantitatively measured standards may give us better outcomes.

What we need next is an expansion fo No Child Left Behind to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). That is, we need to go beyond what NCLB provides, and have the Department of Education begin to focus on what is tested. So when it comes to English, we need more composition and less literature. We need more Mathematics in general. In science, we need better ability to perform tasks that are required in labwork (basic analysis, measurement, falsification), and less on building a “true understanding” of the concepts involved. Geography, history, psychology, and sociology should be focused on a general ‘Social Science’ that applies scientific methods to human questions.

See also: my critique of liberal education.

63 thoughts on “Science. Technology. Engineering. Mathematics.”

  1. sonofsamphm1c ,

    Thanks for the comment!

    I would assume he means from the local school board, or local superintendent, or state board of education. Those are all varying degrees of local control.

    True. I wonder if he is thinking of a Soviet-style workers’ collective, or a plussing-up of the tenure system?

    Did ACT and SAT tests not provide a sort of national standard?

    Good question.

    ACT and SAT measure college aptitude. NCLB tests measure learning.

    For instance, a school of mostly white children of professionals that discourages marginal students from taking the ACT and SAT is going to score higher on those tests than a school of mostly black children from low-income families that encourages marginal students to take those tests, regardless of what is being learned.

    NCLB, by contrast, encourages a repeated measures approach to measurement, so you can look at different subgroups in the school, and see if they are actually learning (for instance, do black special-needs children improve their scores between the 3rd and 5th grade, say), as opposed to just seeing SAT and ACT, which depend heavily on parents.

  2. I mean the educational ‘reform’ bill that proceeded NCLB, whose name I forgot (starts with an S). And years of state bills. And “Whole Language”, which started gaining traction in the 70’s and which NCLB was designed to kill.

    Reforming education isn’t new, and didn’t start with NCLB. Most “reforms” have been counter productive.

    NCLB is good in that it does promote measurable standards, but 50 states had “standardized” testing before NCLB, and 50 states have it now. But we have 50 different “standards”.

    What I am crusading about is the approach:

    1. You notice children aren’t learning.
    2. You decide to so something about it, so you go looking for a magic fix.
    3. You pass a bill implementing that magic fix.
    4. In order to implement that fix, each school district hires some newly minted PhD in education to implement that fix. (Newly minted PhD’s in education being the school district equivalent of the MBA. Useless, but don’t know they’re useless.)
    5. Not knowing anything about actually teaching children, said newly minted PhD comes up with a stinking pile of shit.
    6. Teachers balk at being forced to eat said stinking pile of shit, so newly minted PhD hires group of thugs to hold teachers down and force stinking pile of shit down they’re throat.
    7. Populace notices children aren’t learning, starts over at step 2.

    So its not that I’m saying that TPS won’t work. What I’m saying is that at the end of the road if it does work, TPS is going to tell you that:

    1. You don’t have one product, in a classroom of 30 you have 30 products, with 30 different quality problems.
    2. Teachers, Children, Parents matter. No one else. Yet 60% of the money is spent at the district office, not anyware near the classroom.
    3. You would have been better off just giving the teachers the money directly to spend.

    So why not jump ahead? 🙂

    As far as tenure system goes, the reality is that if you took away tenure, the bureaucracy wouldn’t fire the “bad” teachers, they’d fire the “good” teachers. Because from the bureaucracy’s point of view, the “good” teachers are the ones that swallow the shit without protesting…the “bad” teachers are the ones who say “Hey, this is shit, I’m not swallowing this”.

    People who talk about “bad” teachers being the problem don’t really understand exactly how bad the school system is; if it was good, it wouldn’t need the tenure system.

    So by “top down reform” I mean any sort of “solution” imposed from the outside. The educational system has had year after year of this crap. All it has done is grow the bureaucracy.

    So if we really want to reform education, I agree that we need to implement quality controls, in other words, standardized tests.

    But the next step is not program after program which leads to more bureaucratic growth. That’s a top-down approach, which as TPS has shown, doesn’t actually improve quality.

    The next step is simply sending the results of those tests home to the parents. Sure there are bad parents out there. But there are a lot more parents, who, if they knew their child was 1-2 years behind grade level in a subject, would work to make sure their child got the help they needed to get back.

    That’s a bottom up approach. So if you have parents actually getting informed on how their children are doing in school, their next step is to go to the teacher. And if the teacher actually has control over what sort of resources and solutions they can bring to bear, then they can directly affect the problem.

    And none of this is a new idea. This is how private and charter schools run, and its how public schools should run.

  3. Pierce, I’m still not clear if you’re calling for worker-control of the means of education; in other words, a sovietization of education. It seems so, but the only concrete thing you mention is notifying parents of tests scores, so I can’t make sense of your proposal(s).

  4. Sovietization? God no, that’s how the current system runs. That is, the soviets claimed to empower the worker, but really things were run by non-working bureaucrats.

    I mean real “worker-control” of education, in that you bulldoze the district offices (or as much as you can anyways). The current funds instead of being wasted are then distributed 50% between the principals and the individual teachers on basis of the number of students.

    Amazon would be the best example of this. Imagine if each teacher instead of having the $250/classroom/year they typically have to spend on teaching materials had $5,000/student/year in an account on Amazon. From that account they could then buy whatever they needed for the classroom: Textbooks, books, desks, film projectors, whatever. Principals would basically have the same amount of money to divvy up as needed, perhaps new teachers would need a larger budget than more experienced teachers.

    In other words, more of a return to the one-room-schoolhouse myth of the local schoolmarm being given money by the town fathers and using that on the kids directly.

    Meanwhile, the kids are tested twice a year, (start and end) and the results reported to the parents, comparing their kids to the classroom, school, state, and national averages.

    I’m advocating something that radical.

  5. Or, to continue the factory analogy, I’m not saying that the teachers should run the schools (that would be a disaster). There has to be a clear hierarchy. What I’m saying is that the teachers should get to choose their own tools, in the same way that a factory worker might be given a Snap-On-Tools catalog and told to order “whatever you want under $xxx”.

  6. Pierece,

    Or, to continue the factory analogy, I’m not saying that the teachers should run the schools (that would be a disaster). There has to be a clear hierarchy. What I’m saying is that the teachers should get to choose their own tools, in the same way that a factory worker might be given a Snap-On-Tools catalog and told to order “whatever you want under $xxx”.

    Thank you for the clarification.

    I think this is the direction No Child Left Behind (NCLB), probably using the OFLA (Obscure Four Letter Abbreviation) we will be hearing more of under Obama — STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) [1]

    An industry shifts to an industrial engineering model when it is no longer able to pay for the labor needed to make professional, judgement-called baesd work possible. Education is surely in that state. Communities and states are consistently against the tax levels that would be needed to pay teachers on the same level as professionals. Likewise, there’s no indication that district-level officials are particularly great at their job.

    As tests become better and more central, the microresponsibility model you advocate (teachers held to teaching, and allowed to do what they want within a range) should progress.

    We can be thankful that Sarah Palin is not in a position of prominance, because the desires of the SpecialEd lobby typically work against this.


  7. Another way of looking at the subject of local control:
    The DofE decided back in the early ’80s (I think) that not enough was being done to educate handicapped students. A noble concern, except their solution was to require all schools to be made handicapped-accessible. The burden of this decision was then passed on to school districts who had to pay huge amounts of money to upgrade or replace schools when other solutions might have worked as well or better with less cost. Many of the complaints about NCLB and other such programs boil down to the same theme, with the additional problem that you’re asking the very people you’re trying to judge to grade their own tests!

    At more local levels, my Aunt Lisa is considering early retirement from elementary teaching in part because her school district keeps coming up with new rules and accountability requirements without finding out first whether she needs them or not. Dress codes too often have the effect of asking teachers to be fashion monitors in addition to teachers–and are seldom set by the teachers.

    In short, education rules are too often enforced and executed by people who don’t need them, don’t understand them and/or don’t have the resources to enforce/execute them properly without sacrificing something of equal or greater value to their core mission. At best, this reduces efficiency; at worst, it creates a culture of corruption in the very industry that’s supposed to teach kids how to be productive members of society.

  8. Michael,

    Thanks for the comment!

    The recent reauthorization of NCLB was designed to address that problem. Nebraska responded to NCLB’s increasd testing requirements by repurposes its STARS assessment-training system to serve that purpose. [1] This generated district-level data judged by the districts themselves, however. The NCLB reauthorization essentially put the kabosh on that sort of thing.

    I would not want to be a primary or secondary school teacher under NCLB. It is turning education into an industrial activity, and teachers into industrial workers. It does not sound fun.


  9. It is interesting that we accept that there is something wrong with the school system. There is no way to fix the system until parents and society are held responsible for themselves. Politicians constantly use the educational system as a tool to get elected, and everyone assumes that the educational system is the problem. They compare US students to students in other countries in math and science as a way to induce fear so they can get compliance. It is also used a a “balance of fear,” just like the cold war.

    Talk to any teacher in Japan and ask them how many hours a day they actually teach… much less than in the US. They have time to plan, meet with other teachers, prepare and grade projects and tests. They go into other teacher’s rooms and see what they are doing. In the US, teachers barely have time to use the restroom during the day… think about it.. they can’t just leave the kids in the classroom by themselves.

  10. hmmm,

    Thanks for the comment!

    I agree our educational system is broken. However, I don’t agree with your defeatism:

    There is no way to fix the system until parents and society are held responsible for themselves.

    We don’t say this in other areas of policy. It is an excuse for failure.

    I would like to know more about how the Japanese education system differs from ours.

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