Friday, June 17, 2005

CALIFORNIA LEGISLATIVE FOLLIES: SHORTEN THAT TEXTBOOK

When is less, more? Answer: When it’s a California textbook. Just ask Assembly member Jackie Goldberg--sponsor of AB 756, the bill to ban the state from purchasing texts longer than 200 pages.

Honestly, folks, this is no joke. And not only does the former Compton teacher want new textbooks for California schools to be limited to 200 pages, her assembly colleagues actually agree with her.

By a vote of 42-26 the lower house in Sacramento recently went on record supporting the novel idea that fewer pages equals greater achievement. Never mind that no study establishing a "small is beautiful" correlation can be produced by supporters of the legislation or that an arbitrary numerical quota seems plain stupid. The important thing is that Goldberg and company have an idea about which they feel warm and fuzzy. And that, apparently, is all it takes for whacky educational policy to pass muster in the Assembly.

One can hardly imagine the amount of media scorn that would befall a Republican legislator who proposed a minimalist limit to textbook pagination. "Dumb and Dumber" jokes would flow from late night comics like vintage wine:

*"Did you hear that Assemblyman Yahoo wants all California texts to be shorter than 200 pages? --And to require no more than four crayons per page."

*"When asked what part of U.S. History should be deleted to keep within the 200-page limit, Rep. Yahoo replied, ‘How about the Constitution?’"

*"Yahoo’s other ideas for education include miniaturized desks, shorter teachers, 20 x 20 classrooms, and lower IQs."

Batta-boom-batta-bing!

Goldberg’s defense of her proposal is almost as funny. The world, she observes, has changed significantly in the last few decades, yet we’re still using big, bulky books to teach our kids. She also says that today’s workplace demands more than the ability to read page 435 on some manual and that a more "dynamic...learning process" is required.

Can anyone in class, I wonder, define the term "non sequitur"? Or was that Latinism on page 201? More specifically, one might reply to Goldberg’s "weighty" arguments as follows: 1) Some people continue to wear pants that cover their rumps despite the fact that the world has changed. 2) The ability to read page 435 of a manual is not a sufficient skill for success, but it is necessary.

Excessive jokes aside, the philosophical basis for Goldberg’s legislation is the ubiquitous educational emphasis on "process." According to this school of thought, information itself isn’t nearly as important as learning how to learn. Thus, for Goldberg, essential data can be crammed into 200 pages--no matter what the subject. Internet references in limit-exempt appendices will then provide the dynamism that compensates for this textual downsizing.

In practice, process-education has tended to produce students too uninformed to know what puzzles they should be unraveling on the information superhighway. And it has had this effect because "learning skills" or the "love of learning" are virtually impossible to nurture in students who don’t know much about anything in particular. Superficiality begets couch-potatoes, not dedicated researchers.

A more constructive approach to California’s educational woes would involve loosening the death-grip of interest groups like the CTA on education policy, providing more flexibility to charter schools, and even revisiting the hated concept of vouchers. In a competitive educational environment, pedagogical idiocies like the above would not be met with silence by state employees whose very jobs rest on their effectiveness.

7 comments:

G.Rap said...

Right. Time for EVERYONE to read Diane Ravitch's The Thought Police again. Education has become the plaything of politics because no one in politics really cares about the young or the future of the nation. They live in a dream world of the natural goodness of children and of the learning "process." Come to think of it, they'd better read Lord of the Flies too!

G.Rap said...

Make that "The Language Police" by Diane Ravitch.

RKirk said...

Education has become more than the plaything of politics, I think. It has been thoroughly infiltrated (and politicized) by individuals who enjoy shaping and manipulating human beings (a la C.S. Lewis's definition of propaganda, not propagation). Instructor narcissism, reinforced by a dogmatic party spirit (a la Communism or Nazism) makes teaching the profession of choice of intellectual pedophiles like Gus F.

lance said...

Mr. Kirk,
Thank you last time for your in- depth and timely response to my question on Liberation Theology. I enjoyed reading much of what you said about the recent textbook bill, AB 756, and to be honest I must admit that I was (ashamedly)unaware of it. No doubt, as many have written, including you, it is ridiculous. However, I did have some questions about a few other points you made in your article.

1. In the third paragraph from the last you mention the "ubiquitous educational emphasis on 'process.'" You then go on to briefly summarize the process model. I am really only familiar with a few educational theorists, and I am always immediately on the defense when folks start criticizing experiential learning theory (Dewey). However, I am well aware that what Dewey outlines in "Experience and Education" looks nothing like the education models that later took the name "experiential." My question then, in part, is are you referring to experiential learning when you mention the "process" model? A second part of my question, and this is really more of just a comment, if you are equating the two is it really fair to say that the theory is bad (although you never come right out and say "bad")simply because those who implemented what they thought to be a version of Dewey's experiential learning theory goofed it up?

2.You mentioned some constructive approaches to California's educational woes. I was wondering, however, if maybe there was more communication between experts on learning theory, cognition, child growth and development from the universities and CA board of ed. if that would not be a more prudent first step before turning public education into a "competitive educational environment." I will admit that I am not very well read on the various voucher plans out there, but I am somewhat perplexed by your stance on the issue. This is only because I remember a comment you sometimes made in class with reference to our over-commercialized society in which you felt as if you were only a large mouth, trying to consume as much as you could (in the eyes of corporate America). It seems to me to be a legitimate fear that if education became a "competitive environment," wouldn't that just add yet another product that somebody else wanted you to consume?

Respectfully,
Lance Gomez

lance said...

Just a few more comments...sorry to "hammer" away at this :)

I often wonder if part of the challenge in public education today is no clear sense of what is really to be expected out of education. And even if the goals are somewhat clear, there is little if any agreement on the means to achieving those goals.

From your article it sounds like your impression of public education is one where schools dominantly adopt a model of process. At times, I almost wish it were so. Last school year, and these are second graders mind you, I gave approximately 19 tests in math (not including quizzes), 40-50 tests in Language Arts, 5 tests in science, 4 tests in social studies, not to mention the statewide tests (STAR). Now all of these tests were highly recommended if not mandated by the district. These could obviously not be tests on how the students understood their own "process" of learning. All of it, and I mean all of it, was content oriented. The amount of time that was consumed by assessing students was preposterous.

But teaching young children, much like raising young children, is not simply about cramming as much information as one can down their throats in a limited amount of time. It is also "character" education, which must occur in a lesson plan format. I simply cannot tell students "be nice to others because that is how you want to be treated" and be done with it. I must actually do lessons that teach character, which I have no problem doing. Beyond character development, however, schools (and I agree with this) want students to experience art, P.E., and technology. Now doing all of this in basically a 5 and half hour school day in roughly 180 days is no small task. And it puts an great amount of stress on teachers, especially ones that want to do well, which I honestly believe is most.

I hope this somewhat makes clear the dilemma. All of the content that schools are now expected to teach I think is worthwhile, and students should have the privelage of learning it. But it can't be taught WELL under the current structure. If teachers are expected to teach everything, including how to be a good citizen, then the school day or year, it would seem , have to be dramatically increased. However, if teachers are simply to teach content, and nothing else, then a teacher could do it in a shorter amount of time.

Two questions then:

1. What do you think are the actual goals education and what is your opinion of them? Are the means sufficient for achieving them?

2. What do you think ought to be the goals of education?

Apologies if it appears I fixated on the topic!

Lance

RKirk said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
RKirk said...

Lance,
Congratulations and thanks for working with students as you do. I'm sure they are very fortunate to have such a dedicated teacher.

As to the "process" question--the theories to which I refer became popular in the 70s and afterward in schools of education. They are not synonymous with or necessarily associated with Dewey's experiential learning. "Learning how to learn" is a phrase typical of the "process" school. In itself there is nothing wrong with that objective. However, in practice, especially in upper grades, this goal became an invitation to intellectual lassitude. One doesn't learn much geography, one simply learns how to read maps. One doesn't learn history, one "reenacts" history. (Ms. Haxo often related the story of a teacher who had students without any particular knowledge of French history and culture "reenact" the French revolution.) Connecting students with information resources is emphasized to the detriment of providing an organized and compelling presentation of significant information--or, more gravely, as a rationalization for not providing an adequate educational experience. Teachers without significant disciplinary expertise (What percentage of California teachers failed the abysmally facile C-BEST test?) are thus permitted a pedagogical "out". They teach "how to learn" since they possess little or no disciplinary expertise.

As with most ideas, it is their implementation and the political setting of that implementation that is critical. In the context of a failing school, process education became a way of avoiding responsibility for knowing one's discipline and teaching it well. In a good school, process education is simply a necessary part of the whole package. One learns European history, and one learns where to access resources about the same topic. In the context of Los Angeles public schools, I think that small books and large indexes (esp. for upper grades) represents little more than a way to put a happy face on failure.

As to the question about competition and consumption, I would argue that the two concepts are quite distinct. America's colleges and universities are a mixture of public and private institutions. They are considered the best in the world (especially in the sciences). They are hardly bastions of consumerism. The primary problem with K-12 education, and more specifically, 7-12 education, is that an industrial union model has been adopted by teachers unions--not a professional model a la the AMA. Correspondingly, uniformity, job protection, and the cultivation of political power regularly tempers and defeats the honest efforts of dedicated individuals.

Monopolistic structures are not interested in making difficult decisions (e.g. getting rid of bad teachers, cutting down the immense number of educrats, permitting flexibility in spending funds or in teacher curriculum.) On the contrary, the institutional dynamic is toward increasing the number of paying members and increasing the organization's power.

As to the thought that "more money" is the answer, I would direct you to Daniel Moynihan's 1993 article in THE PUBLIC INTEREST("Defining Deviancy Down") where he points out that a stronger correlation exists between school performance and the distance of state capitals from the Canadian border (.52 or so) than exists between school performance and per-student funding (.25 or so). (Other studies replicating the one he cites are plentiful.)

The main reason most folks don't draw the logical conclusion about a public school monopoly, in my view, is that they are emotionally tied to an ideology and to friends who constantly connect "goodness" with public schools and "privilege" with private schools. I think, in truth, the power and the privilege overwhelmingly rests with a monopolistic political structure that looks to its own interests above those of the children in urban schools that they have, with few exceptions, so dreadfully served.

Political monopolies of power are tyrannies. Commercial monopolies of power are inefficient and complacent. Institutional monopolies of power are the same. Advocating educational competition is the equivalent of advocating political pluralism. It isn't the transformation of education into a voice for "consumption" but the freeing of children from the clutches of a bureaucratic monopoly that eagerly confuses self-interest with the interest of children.

On the topic of black education, Thomas Sowell has some interesting thoughts in his book, BLACK REDNECKS AND WHITE LIBERALS. (It contains a specific essay on the topic.)

In any case, you (Lance) are doing important work helping youngsters develop intellectually and morally. For that you should be congratulated and thanked again and again and again.