Career Choices: Please don't make me be a dentist!

I attended a family occasion the other day. I saw people from one side of my family most of whom I hadn’t seen in some years. I was introduced by my first cousin to her grandson. I was told that he was graduating college and would soon be attending dental school.

I broke out laughing.

Behind him were his two younger brothers. I asked if they would be going to dental school as well. At this point his mother chimed in that she certainly hoped so.

Now I was just sad.

Now, rest assured that I have nothing against dentists or dental school. A fine career choice I am sure. I have left out some information here. The mother of this boy is a dentist. I also left out that his father is a dentist. I also left out that his grandfather is a dentist. And, I left out that he (and I) have other cousins who are dentists as well. My uncle was dentist. His son is a dentist. His sister married a dentist. Her son is a dentist.

All these dentists are perfectly fine human beings and they all seem to be living well. It is funny to come from a family of dentists but really, so what?

At some point in the party we were all attending, as the music blasted and people danced, I saw that the young man whom I had first been introduced to had sat down next to me. He said that his grandfather had told him that I was some kind of professor and he asked me what I taught. After some chit chat I asked him if he really wanted to be a dentist.

He said that he had worked hard in college, struggling through required science courses and that it would soon all be worth it.

I asked him if had ever considered any other profession. He said ‘No.” I asked him why not and he said that there had been a lot of pressure from his family to be a dentist. I asked why and he said they had had good experiences and it had worked for them and they thought it was a great life.

I asked if there was anything else he could imagine being. He replied that he really wanted to work with people and that he liked talking to people and as he went on I got the idea that it wasn’t the teeth part of people that he was referring to.

I told him that when I taught at Yale I devoted one class every term to the subject of what the kids in the class wanted to be when they grew up. I challenged them to be something other than what their parents wanted them to be. But for the most part, the children of doctors were going to be doctors and the children of lawyers were going to be lawyers.

We don’t realize as parents how much we talk with children about what they are going to be when they grow up and how much we limit their choices by talking about the limited things we actually know about or by inadvertently putting pressure on them to look at the world in a certain way.

When I suggested that this young man not make any choice right now except simply deciding to decide all this in a few years while trying some other stuff out, he was mostly concerned about how he would explain this to his parents.

Now, usually I am writing about schooling in this column and this one is no exception. Except for my weird one day class, students at Yale got no real career counseling. They only get role models (who are all professional academics) or they get pressure from their parents, or advice from their peers about what is a hot choice right now. Why aren’t we teaching our children how to think about making career choices, or life choices for that matter? Because we are too busy teaching them calculus or macro-economics.

Governments complain about the lack of skilled workers but they don’t try to help in any way except to push more math and science courses which are irrelevant and in no way help one understand one’s career options. Calculus is not a career choice.

Schools need to start helping kids figure out what they can do in life or else the advisors will all be parents who are limited in their world view.

Jeffrey Sachs, The Stanford on line AI course point to why it is so difficult to reform education

My attention was drawn to this blog post:

which was written by a very well respected professor at Columbia University, named Jeffrey Sachs. In it, he asserts that productivity is improving in our society and he cites the following as evidence of this in education:

1. At eight on Tuesday mornings, we turn on a computer at Columbia University and join in a “global classroom” with 20 other campuses around the world. A professor or a development expert somewhere gives a talk, and many hundreds of students listen in through videoconferencing.

2. At Stanford University this fall, two computer-science professors put their courses online for students anywhere in the world; now they have an enrollment of 58,000.

I found these pieces of evidence of hopefulness astonishing in their naïveté. Of course the man is an economist and not someone who thinks much about education one would assume. But still.

I have often said the that the main problem in fixing education is professors. “We have met the enemy and it is us” applies very well to why education is so hard to reform.

Really Professor Sachs? You are excited by that fact that more people can listen to your lectures? Ask any college students what he can recall from a lecture an hour after he has listened to it and see how much he remembers and how much he simply remembers wrong. Lecturing is a completely archaic way of teaching. It exists today at top universities only people because hot shot professors at top universities (of which I was one) think that their time is better spent doing almost anything else except teaching. Talking 3 hours a week seems like a pretty good deal enabling them to go back to doing what they really like. No one learns in a lecture. If you cared about education you would stop lecturing. But you care more about research which is fine, so did I when I was a professor. But recognize that you are the problem in education and video conferencing is the solution to nothing.

Sachs makes the same point twice when he cites the Stanford course. The Stanford on line AI course has gotten a lot of media attention. AI is my field (and one of the instructors was a PhD student of a PhD student of mine.) I don’t know what is in the course and I don’t care. The media doesn’t care either, nor does Sachs. They just like the 50,000 number. What if I said that a former student of mine was a great parent and so he was now raising 50,000 children on line? Would anyone think that was a good idea? This may seems like a silly analogy unless you really think about it.

Teaching, as I point out in my new book:

is basically a one on one affair and is about opening new worlds to students and then helping them do things in that world. This will not happen in a 50,000 person course any more than it happens in a 100 person course. Lecture courses are just rites of passage that we force students to endure so they can eventually start working with a good professor in a closer relationship (at least this what happens at in a good university.) A book would do as well for this, better would be a well constructed learning by doing on line course.

But what is happening in today’s world is that the action in educational change is all about getting bigger numbers on line without trying to improve quality. Stanford is making a lot of noise with this course but nothing good can come form this.

Professors need to stop and really think about education. Of course, the problem is that they have no motivation to do so. They are well paid and having a good time. Only the students suffer.

The King of Spain, classrooms and subjects

Last week I was interviewed by phone from Spain. I was talking to authorities who were preparing a report for the King of Spain on how education might be improved in Spain. I am well known in Spain so it is not odd that they were calling me. They were certainly calling many others as well.

I started by saying that I am really radical and they said they already knew that. I then talked with them for about a half an hour about the kinds of improvements to education that I have been writing about for years in my columns and of course in my latest book:

They seemed to be enjoying talking to me and hearing what I had to say. Then, they asked one final question: “if you could just say one thing that need to be changed, what would it be?”

It is easy to imagine that they wanted a one liner for an executive summary here. I don’t think I gave them what they wanted, judging from their reaction.

I said “just eliminate classrooms.”

They audibly gasped.


First why did I say it?

Because if you eliminate classrooms everything else follows. No teacher talking to kids who aren’t listening. No tests to see if they were listening. No kids distracting other kids who are bored by what is going one. No subjects that in no way relate to the interests of the child. Instead, without a classroom you can re-invent. We can think about how individuals can learn and while doing that we would need to confront the fact that not all individuals want to learn the same things. We would have to eliminate the the “one size fits all” curriculum. We would need to create curricula that met kids interests. We would be able to let kids learn by doing instead of vainly attempting to have them learn by listening. We could eliminate academic subjects. We could make learning fun. Classrooms are never fun.

Why did they gasp?

Because they can’t do it. They knew it and I knew it. They don’t really want to fix education. They want to make schools function better. And schools have classrooms. And that my friends is the beginning and end of the problem.

Mr Obama wants big ideas? Here are 10 in education

At a fundraiser yesterday in San Francisco, President Obama said that "We have lost our ambition, our imagination, and our willingness to do the things that built the Golden Gate Bridge..."

No, Mr. President, it isn’t “we” it is you. There are plenty of good ambitious ideas out there, you just aren’t listening.

Here, off the top of my head, are ten outrageous big ideas about education. You will listen to none of them. You have considered none of them. You haven’t even tried to understand them. Yes, they sound crazy, as do all new ideas.

Ten Big Ideas In Education

1. Shut down high schools

2. Stop preparing students for college

3. Stop insisting everyone go to college

4. Re-focus colleges away from academics

5. Eliminate all testing

6. Get big business out of education

7. Make learning fun again

8. Let children choose what they want to learn about

9. Help children find mentors who will help them learn what they want to learn

10. Build on line experiences that engage students and that teach thinking skills

I have written about these ideas in more detail elsewhere and won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that a high school system designed for the elite in 1892 could not possibly be right-headed today, yet instead of changing it you are making sure that we test every students to tears to make sure they have memorized the Quadratic formula, disregarding the fact that hardly any adult actually uses it.

Re-think what you are doing in education, Mr. Obama. You have become the problem.

There are plenty of ideas out there.

5 Ways to Fund Your Child's College Education

Did you know that the cost of a 4 year degree program is around $20,000 dollars per year.

The cost of a college education is probably the most expensive item in bringing up children today. When you take into account tuition fees, exam fees, living expenses, accommodation, books and computers it's not surprising that the average cost of college education is over $20,000 per year and that's before the social side of college life.

Today we live in a world where only the best educated and most prepared can succeed. The Job market is probably the most crucial and competitive element of our society and having a college education and degree goes a long way towards succeeding in it.

When our children are ready to enter the world of work it will be even more difficult and a college education will be essential to succeed. Here are 5 ways to fund your child's college education.

Money For College - Funding Your College Education

The grumblings over the rising cost of college education are not without reason. According to College Board's annual survey on Trends in College Pricing, the average total tuition and fees paid by students at four-year public colleges and universities in 2006-07 was $5,836, while the average total tuition and fees at private colleges and universities was $22,218 for the same period. (

The bad news is that tuition fees are just the tip of the iceberg, as it constitutes only a fraction of the overall cost of college. The expense shoots up several notches if you add room and board to the total cost of attending college.

There are several other factors that can make college a financial burden for many. One of the biggest factors is juggling several responsibilities with education that prolongs graduation time for many students and adds to the overall cost.

Pat Tillman, truth, stories, and why our education system is the way it is

About the last thing I am likely to do in this space is to write about a movie. But, as it happened, I chanced upon a movie on TV in which I had no interest. Yet it had an impact on me anyway. The movie is “The Tillman Story” which would mean nothing to non-U.S. people and maybe very little to many in the U.S. as well. Pat Tillman was a U.S. football star who suddenly left the National Football League and his millions of dollars of salary to enlist to fight in Iraq after 2001.

The politicians in Washington loved this story since it justified the “all American hero fighting for his country” story that Bush and his cronies were trying to sell at the time. They played the story up in all the media. Tillman was killed in Afghanistan after some years and Bush and his buddies were busy touting the “our hero died for his country” line they love so much. The problem was that after some investigation on the part of Tillman’s family, it seems he wasn’t killed while fighting the enemy. Instead he was killed by U.S. troops who just seemed to be having fun shooting anything that moved one day.

The movie details how the family fought back and uncovered the cover up that the Army had created to obscure what really happened. The movie is unkind to the Army, but, as someone who has worked with the Army for a long time, I was skeptical that the Army would be that involved in telling such an elaborate lie. Eventually the movie points the finger at Donald Rumsfeld who appears to have been calling the shots and makes it clear that George W. Bush would have had to have been involved as well.

My first reaction was that it says something that they were allowed to make this movie at all. A repressive government doesn't let you make anti-government movies. The U.S. government may have many faults, but freedom of speech still exists here.

But then, my thoughts turned to the real subjects that always interest me which are stories, and the general stupidity of the American public.

The lengths to which Bush and friends went to tell the Tillman story that they wanted to tell and to cover up the real story are well documented in this film. Why? Why lie, cover up, misinform, hush people up, manipulate the media, and otherwise be hysterical about the fact that a soldier was killed by his own troops? This happens all the time. It is called the fog of war.

The answer is that stories matter. Politicians love to tell stories and the stories they tell often have little relation to the truth. They get away with this because stories are simple and easy to understand. The truth is often much more complex.

This points to one reason why politicians all seem to agree on testing and generally making our education system about memorization of facts (otherwise known as “official stories.”) What we want students to learn is what the true stories are. We want them to know the facts about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Pat Tillman. We really don't care if those facts are true. In all nations, the job of education is the telling of official government-approved stories about everything from history to economics to how to be a success and why to fight for your country. No one cares about the truth all that much. They just care about having good stories to tell.

We are all susceptible to a good story. (That is why we like to watch movies in the first place.) It is not just poorly educated who like simple stories. We all do. It is part of being human. But how do we learn to determine if a story is true?

We wouldn’t have known the truth about Pat Tillman if it hadn’t been for his family being smarter than your average family and really wanting to know what happened. They were capable of separating truth from fiction. But this is a skill which we are more or less explicitly taught not to do in our schools.

What can be done? Ask students to think instead of memorize? I have been saying that for years, but, no surprise, no government official is ever on my side on that one. They like being able to tell simple stories that remain unexamined by their listeners.

Parenting 101: every now and then you do something right

I have been in the UK for the last couple of weeks, now back in New York. While I was on the train going to Brighton, my daughter called with a business question. She was submitting a proposal and wanted to get the numbers right. When she needs advice she usually calls.

I mentioned this to my dinner companions that night and they reacted as if a grown child asking for advice, much less listening to it, was very weird.

Parents may not actually want their kids to be calling, but I do. So this is how I made that happen:

One day at Yale there was one of those pink while you were out slips that said my daughter had called. She was seven at the time and had never called before. I asked my secretary why she hadn't put the call through and she said I was busy with a graduate student at the time. I told my secretary that if I was busy with the President of U.S. and my daughter called, she was to put it through. My children always came first.

I then told my daughter that she was never to let anyone tell her that I was busy. She said she didn't want to disturb me and said she could disturb me any time she liked.

It was just a knee jerk reaction. I hadn't thought out what I wanted to say. My advice to parents is that you will get what you ask for from your children, so be sure when you ask. As for me, I have never regretted that initial reaction I had to that phone message.

A message to Bachman, Duncan, and every other politician who thinks he knows how to fix education

Michelle Bachmann, who is beginning to look to be someone who those of us who have been scoffing at will have to take more seriously, has an education agenda. All politicians have an education agenda. They all are sure the schools are broken.

This leads to two obvious questions:

1. Why do they all agree the schools are broken?

2. Why are their solutions always to the left of insane?

As for the insanity question, bear in mind that this is simply not a matter of politics. Bush’s policies in education were insane. Obama’s policies are insane. And, all the people running against Obama have insane educational policies. Why is this? How can this be?

The obvious question is what is insane about them. To answer that we need to address question #1.

Here are some reasons we hear about why schools are broken:

1. There is a lack of discipline

2. The teachers are often not very good

3. Tests scores in basic skills are bad

4. The average American doesn’t know: (fit your favorite in here, who George Washington was, the capital of Delaware, where Iraq is on a map, the quadratic equation…)

5. Everyone needs to go to college and high school isn’t preparing them properly

6. We need citizens with 21st century skills and school isn’t doing this

7. We need more scientists and engineers

8. There needs to be more religion in schools

9. Schools don’t teach everyone to love America enough

10. Schools are dangerous places

Here are my quick responses to each of these:

1. You try making 30 kids sit still all day, especially in the modern era.

2. There certainly are mediocre teachers but there are also some very good ones, which is amazing because it becomes more difficult each day to put up with the rigid system we have created for them to teach in.

3. Tests are moronic. Yes, moronic. If the tests tested performance they might have some credibility, but multiple-choice tests test nothing. Every driver who has to take a multiple choice test to renew his license has to study the manual first no matter how good a driver he may be. Multiple-choice tests test only one’s ability to prepare for and tolerate multiple-choice tests.

4. Knowing facts really doesn't matter in any way. Because schools teach facts and test facts we have become convinced that facts matter. Facts that do matter in your life tend to be learned while doing (like the names of streets are learned by those who walk or drive on them.) Otherwise it is knowing how not knowing that that matters.

5. Everyone does not need to go to college. College as it exists today bases its curriculum on a research model that is driven by faculty recruitment. Universities teach students to be researchers not practitioners. Even masters programs which are supposedly designed to train practitioners, tend to be dominated by theories and arcane subjects that will never matter to a practitioner. We need to move to a more practical notion of education that leads to jobs. Liberal Arts colleges eschew this notion. We can’t afford many more Literature majors.

6. I am not sure what 21st century skills are but I am pretty sure they include reasoning, communication, and human relations, which were good in any century and are really not part of K-12 curricula. What we need is a populace who can think clearly, which, judging from the extant political candidates, we clearly do not have.

7. We have plenty of scientists and engineers. If anyone thought we really needed more they would create a high school engineering curriculum. But that would mean throwing something out and the 1892 curriculum has become sacred.

8. Really? There needs to be religion in schools? Whose religion exactly? And why? So we can ram more facts into kids heads. Facts are only the medium of education because religious institutions were the designers of the schools in the first place.

9. School should teach students to criticize America not love it. With thoughtful criticism comes change.

10. This last one is right. Schools are very stressful places and they are places where bullying happens and where kids learn to feel bad about themselves unless they have a really good teacher who can make sure none of that happens.

My message to Michelle Bachmann and Arne Duncan and all the other fools who pontificate about education is simply this. If we had a good education system, maybe you all could reason better and would stop saying and doing insane things about education.

The Education Policy Blog has been permanently closed.

Because the authors of this blog have found other outlets for their writing, and because it has become an impossible task to keep up with the spam that has filled the comments of the blog, as of August 11, 2011, Education Policy Blog is permanently closed.  We will keep the existing posts here indefinitely.  However, comments by anyone other than the authors have been disabled.

In the meantime, we hope you'll visit one of the blogs in our list of "Other Blogs" (most of which are written by one of us or a group that includes one of us).

May the determination of Education Policy some day be the result of careful democratic discourse that takes into account both the findings of research and a core set of shared beliefs about the importance of education for the cultivation of a democratic public.

--The Authors

There’s a role for our college as WSU plans take off in Everett

(cross posted from my dean's blog)

I didn’t expect to spend the Thursday before the Independence Day holiday traveling to Western Washington. Especially not in a four-seater charter plane out of Pullman-Moscow International in the company of President Elson S. Floyd and Murrow College Dean Larry Pintak. But when the university president invites you to a meeting and offers you a ride …

When we landed at Paine Field, our plane was dwarfed by Boeing jets stacked up, awaiting insignia painting for many countries around the world. From there, we drove to three meetings with stakeholders in WSU’s initiative to operate the present University Center in Everett, starting in 2014.

We met in the lovely new convention center in Everett’s harbor area, joined by several other WSU deans and partner institution officials. Also present was WSU Spokane Chancellor Brian Pitcher, whose Riverpoint campus is seen as a model for what WSU’s effort in Everett could become.

WSU’s first order of business in Everett will be to establish mechanical and electrical engineering programs, modeled on what we already offer in Bremerton. The programs will involve a clinical faculty member, distance education via video, and summer study in Pullman. But the stakeholders in Everett — including the mayor, Chamber of Commerce representatives, and state legislators — also want programs in nursing, media arts and, importantly, education. At the meeting, I shared my eagerness for the College of Education to provide educational opportunities to local school administrators, and to teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Western Washington University has traditionally provided education course work in Everett, and I look forward to working with them.

President Floyd said it is premature to think of Everett as being the fifth WSU campus. For now, we are exploring the opportunity and learning how we can collaborate. An advisory board and planning committee are already at work.

I am proud that the College of Education is so well represented in the leadership of this initiative. Paul Pitre of our Vancouver faculty will oversee WSU’s developments at Everett in the coming year. Joan Kingrey, our academic director in Spokane, led the discussions at the Everett meeting. And President Floyd has his faculty appointment in our college.

Our plane took off from Paine Field just before 5 p.m. I rode shotgun. Heading east, we flew above a blanket of clouds over the Cascades, with Mount Rainier peeking above that, off the right wing. A half hour later, I could see in the distance lush green fields, and Kamiak and Steptoe buttes. It was thrilling to see Pullman edge closer as we sped home. It was a fun and inspiring day.

A short conversation with a teacher in Florida

I was playing softball in the old guys league again. The last few days there has been a very good player in his 40s playing as well. He is a teacher, so I guess he has the summer off.

Sitting wait for my turn at bat, I heard the following conversation:

Teacher: my students never heard of the great ones, like Dick Groat or Roberto Clement. (These are old famous baseball players.)

Teacher: Things are different nowadays. When I was a kid I knew the names of the old guys like Phil Rizzuto and Mickey Mantle. (These are even older baseball players.)

Other Player: Are you kidding? These days kids don’t know who George Washington was.

Teacher: I gave a test last year to my social studies class. I asked them “Who discovered the Dominican Republic?” There were four choices, one was Christopher Columbus, and another was Sammy Sosa. Would you believe that many of them thought it was Sammy Sosa! (A famous baseball player who is from the Dominican Republic, at least I think he is.)

I walked over to the teacher and quietly mentioned that no one discovered the Dominican Republic since it is a country and countries are founded, not discovered, and I doubted that any of his choices has founded that country.

What I didn’t say was that Sammy Sosa was a better answer since at least he had been in the Dominican Republic.

This is not a column blaming teachers. I am simply concerned that our multiple choice test-driven society has reduced our conception of knowledge to random facts about nothing. It is so bad that even teachers have no clue what they are asking any more because they too were taught in this way.

NO to subjects and NO to requirements

I have been spending a great deal of time in Europe lately, where the talk is about what to do about the awful governments that countries like Italy, Greece and Spain seem to be saddled with. (I am not saying the U.S. Is any better, maybe it is even worse -- I am simply reporting what I am hearing.)

In the course of one of these conversations, the talk turned to education, as it tends to do when I am around. The suggestion was made that schools should require students to learn about how government works, or maybe how it should work, in order to help citizens make better choices about who governs them and to be better at it when they are actually part of the government.

I replied that this was a fine idea, especially if we let students run simulated governments rather than simply learning political theory. Feeling emboldened, a woman who had raised a family and who, I think, felt that she hadn’t done such a good job, asked if maybe some courses in child raising shouldn’t also be required.

I certainly agree with this as well. I tried to convince the developmental psychologists at Columbia, when I was building Columbia on line, to do exactly that but they, of course, wanted to teach about research.

Whenever there is a roomful of people talking reasonably about education there are many reasonable suggestions. The problem is, that soon enough, well meaning people would wind up designing a system that looks a lot like the one we already have in place.

No one ever agrees to eliminate history and all agree that mathematics must be useful even if it never has been useful to them. This goes on and on until students, in the hypothetical system being thought about by intelligent people, is as awful as the one we have now.

At some point people, and by this I mean school boards, governments, universities, and average citizens have to get over the idea that there should be any requirements at all in school.

Now I realize that this is a radical idea. Do I mean students would not be required to learn to read or write or do basic arithmetic? No. I mean after these skills have been mastered, students should be let alone, or rather enticed, to find an interesting path for themselves. The schools ought to be constantly and diligently teaching students to think clearly and should not be trying to tell them what to think about.

We will never change education as long as we hold on to our favorite subjects and insist that they be taught. Everyone has a favorite subject, or has an axe to grind, or has a stake in something not being eliminated. Soon enough it is all sacred and school is deadly boring and irrelevant.

Anyone who has ever been part of a curriculum committee in a university knows what I am talking about. Everyone fights for their subjects.

NO to subjects and NO to requirements. Let students learn to do what they want to learn to do. Schnoling should be about helping students find a path and succeed at what they have chosen to do.

Fidel Castro, Greece, Spain; how education can fix an economy

A friend of mine went to visit Fidel Castro a few years back. (He is not your typical guy and I have no idea how this was arranged.) They got into a conversation about education. My friend mentioned me and Castro asked whether I might want to be the Minister of Education of Cuba. When my friend told me about this, he asked what I would do if I had that job. I replied that I would ask Castro what Cuba wanted to be.

My friend found that an odd response. Some days later, Castro shot some people and the U.S. prevented my friend from visiting Castro again so that was the end of that.

I was reminded of this incident because, as I write this, I am on a Greek island and, not surprisingly, talk centers on what to do about the economy. Having recently been in Italy and Spain as well, it is obvious to me that the problems these countries are having stem from issues in education.

When I say that, the response is usually less than enthusiastic, because it seems an odd idea, so let me explain.

When I mentioned what I would want to ask Castro, this is what I had in mind. Education is meant to achieve something, although this is usually forgotten in education reform conversations. The people who designed the U.S. education system around 1900 knew this well. The country needed factory workers, so keeping students “in dark, airless places” doing mindless repetitive work, seemed like a good strategy.

Today we have the factory worker strategy still in place, reinforced by a push for standards and multiple choice tests everywhere. The fact that there are no more factories seems to have skipped people’s attention. Also we have a big push for making sure everyone goes to college, despite the fact that college produces students who study what the professors happen to teach which means English, History, Mathematics, Philosophy, Sociology, and any number of subjects that will not make students in any way employable.

In the U.S. we have gotten away with this attitude for many years because we simultaneously had a big push by the Defense Department for new technology and thus were able to create Silicon Valley and enable an atmosphere of technological innovation. So while we have no factories, we do lead the world in software. It is almost as if someone in the Defense Department in the 60s and 70s were planning this. (I was there. They were.)

Now think about Spain. Its number one industry is tourism. You would think therefore, that in Spain the schools would be pushing hospitality or cooking or hotel design. But they are not. They have their enormous share of useless language and history majors as well and the University establishment works hard to keep things as they have always been.

Or think about Greece. Their number one industries are tourism and shipping. I have been an advisor to a Greek shipowner for over a decade now, and I can tell you it isn’t all that easy to learn about shipping in a Greek university. Nor is it easy to learn about tourism, because Greek universities, like those everywhere, are run by people who are worried about insisting that things stay the same so that their professorships are still relevant.

What Greece and Spain need to do, what Cuba needed to do, what any country that is not big enough to do everything needs to do, is pick its spots.

Universities offering a classical education are fine when only the wealthy elite are being educated. But mass education requires that schools be run people who are trying to educate for the future. This does not mean educating for “21st century skills” whatever that might mean. What is does mean is that schools need to do two things.

First, they need to teach general thinking skills, not math, but planning, not literature but judgement, not science but diagnosis.

Second, countries need to decide what they want to be when they grow up. Cuba, had I been running the educational show there, would have had to decide what the wanted to be the best at. Biotech or Agriculture or the Technology of cigar making. And they would have had to offer something less than everything under the sun to their students.

To fix an economy in the long run requires planning. The planning has to start at the beginning by creating citizens who can both think and find useful employment in the sectors of the economy that the country already has or wants to have.

Education is where everything starts. Countries can simply decide to be good at something and make themselves good at it. The U.S. decided exactly that about computer science 40 years ago. But it doesn't require the wealth of the U.S. to do that. Modern educational techniques, especially high quality experiential on line education, can make any country a specialist in any industry that it can realistically dream about.

War on Teachers?

Cross-posted from JDS Social Issues:

From my inbox almost two months ago:

So, where did this war on teachers, and other public employees come from? I certainly didn't see that coming.

A former colleague (a faculty member in a humanities department) was responding directly to word that Pennsylvania was cutting P-12 funding and slashing state support for public higher education. But her consciousness was framed by events in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

So I have been paying attention to the news in a new way. Is my colleague right? Is there a “war on teachers”? I think she may right that there is a “war” going on but I’m having a little more difficulty determining just what it is we are fighting about and fighting for. Are teachers the target? Or are teachers collateral damage in a larger struggle –because teachers (and their students) don’t fight back and because everybody feels entitled to an “expert” opinion about educational matters generally?

I hope to think more about this over the summer and invite any readers to join in with news items, anecdotes and analyses that help us all figure out where we want to stand in what is clearly a struggle for the social, economic, political and educational terrain within our own communities and our nation.

Here are a couple for starters:

· Randy Turner, commenting on the Huffington Post about new education legislation in Missouri, asks whether public school teachers are an “endangered species”? His question is motivated by regulatory proposals that seem to suggest that all teachers are lazy perverts.

· Paul Mucci, a fifth grade NBPTS certified teacher, asks

“since when did teachers become the bad guys?” Mucci is in Florida where education is rapidly being “reformed” on the backs of teachers: “elimination of teacher tenure, teacher pay based on student performance, increasing teacher contributions to the Florida Retirement System, raising the retirement age/years of service, increasing student testing and reducing the number of "core" classes to name a few.”

He conveys his demoralization clearly:

“More important, gone is the respect teachers once had. The steady erosion of respect is palpable in parent conferences, in line at the grocery store and in politicians' statements in the media.

As one legislator said to me, ‘The public deserves accountability they deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent.’ In one respect, he is right, but what good are numbers and test results if we lose our integrity, our compassion, our humanity along the way?”

Mucci notes that it is ironic that the rhetoric is all about “good teachers” but in the process they are destroying any chance of respect [for teachers].

· Bill Haslam, Governor of my new home state of Tennessee apparently hasn’t met any Paul Mucci type teachers. Last week he rejected the Tennessee Education Association’s claim that “teacher morale is flagging,” despite passing measures that limit collective bargaining and proposing others that would end any licensure for educational professionals. (More on events in Tennessee in the days to come.)

As someone who spends a fair amount of time cultivating partnerships with public schools so that we can jointly (university/school) provide substantive and challenging but guided practical experience for teacher candidates, my sense is that teacher morale is fragile at best. Neither principals nor teachers – no matter how accomplished --generally feel free to take on novice teacher candidates. Even when they can identify the value of teaching collaboratively with a young person with energy and ideas, they are hesitant, even fearful, about jeopardizing their compensation and even their jobs (based largely on student test scores). Everybody is looking over both shoulders at once.

What do these snippets suggest?

Whether or not there is a war on teachers, teachers are feeling under siege. And the march of legislation that targets the teaching profession is undeniable. But the point of the legislation is harder to tease out. Limiting collective bargaining might be a cost-cutting measure. It might be an undercut-the-unions measure (my favorite theory with thanks to Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow). The undercut-the-unions theory is supported by proposals in Tennessee to get rid of teacher licensure all together. Put this together with the appointment of a new Commissioner of Education with a Teach for America and charter school background and it does appear that the war is not on “teachers” per se but on the public school “establishment” (whatever that is).

The point then is an utterly free market for education? (Odd that we would seek a free market for the development of human capital when we have no such truly free market for any other commodity – oil subsidies, farm subsidies, interstate highway systems anyone?)

But this is a kaleidoscopic phenomenon, I think, and this particular ideological interpretation is just today’s turn of the barrel. What does it look like to you? What will it look like tomorrow?

Scholarship winners, life's winners

(cross posted from my dean's blog)

Forty-seven percent. Within that statistic is news both wonderful and sobering.

Nearly half of all of the graduate students who received College of Education scholarships for 2011-12 are the first in their families to go to college. That’s the wonderful part. Those future educators are realizing the American dream of self-improvement. But the number also speaks to the need for financial support, which is especially acute for first-generation students and their families.

This spring, faculty and staff volunteers reviewed the scholarship applications. They weighed the students’ accomplishments and goals and stretched the contributions of our generous donors to award 96 scholarships totaling $171,150. The average per student was $1,782.

Amy Cox of our development team, who coordinates the scholarship selection effort, provided those statistics. Others that might interest you:

In all, 98 graduate students and 453 undergraduates applied for scholarship assistance.
Scholarships were awarded to 24 juniors, 31 seniors, and 41 master’s and doctoral degree candidates.
Twenty-eight percent of the scholarship winners are minority students. The largest groups represented were Hispanic/Latin America (seven) and Asian Pacific American (five).
Seventy percent of scholarship winners are women.
Seventy-six are enrolled in Pullman, six in Vancouver, eight in Tri-Cities.

More compelling than the numbers, of course, are the people they represent. Here are two examples:

Israel Martinez of Walla Walla starts our Master in Teaching program this summer.  Israel, the first in his family to get a college degree, wrote in his application: “It has taken a lot of hard work and dedication, such as working two part-time jobs while being a full-time student, working overtime in the orchards during the summers to save enough money to stay in school.”

Kelly Frio’s home town is Brush Prairie, Washington. That’s near Vancouver, where she is working on an undergraduate teaching degree. She has a perfect 4.0 grade point average. One of her goals, she wrote, is to instill an appreciation of the elderly in her own children and those she works with. “The wealth and skills and knowledge that our senior citizens possess is often not only unappreciated, but dismissed.”

My congratulations to all of our scholarship winners and my thanks to those who support our scholarships. We only wish we could do more, for more. If you would like to help, look here for information.

STEM in the U.S. and U.K. We need "Science Idol"

I am in U.K. at the moment, and today attended a breakfast organized by Donald Taylor, meant to have good conversation with some of the thought leaders in learning in the U.K. I enjoyed it a great deal.

But, there was one conversation with a man who was clearly very smart and a delightful person that shocked me. He was thinking about getting involved with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. He was amazed when I suggested that this was a terrible idea.

Money and a push for STEM has driven the U.S. Education scene in the last years. As always, anything ridiculous that the U.S. does it convinces others to as well, so the U.K. has followed suit.

Why is STEM ridiculous? The idea behind STEM is that we need scientists and engineers and that our schools aren’t producing enough of them. Both premises are wrong.

I was a member of the science faculties of three of the top ten universities in the U.S. Never was there a lack candidates for faculty jobs. Quite the opposite actually. Too many good candidates, many of whom have to work in industry after they can’t get a faculty job.

Does industry lack talented engineers and scientists? Hardly. Silicon Valley is overflowing with talented job seekers.

What is lacking, any scientist will tell you, is sufficient funding for science research. Why doesn’t the government spend their STEM money on research?

Because the driver for STEM education is about two things. First, our old friend the testing lobby wants testing to be more ubiquitous and more important than it is now and they have big bucks to spend and math and science are easy to test.

And then there is the real reason. Any science or engineering faculty member at top U.S. and U.K. universities can attest to the fact that an enormous percentage of applicants to graduate programs in those fields are Chinese and Indian. The Chinese and Indians aren’t desperate to study those subjects because they love them or because they are so well taught in those places. They know that these subjects are a ticket out. They want to move to the U.S. or U.K. with a high paying job: Voila! They study math and science.

And, clearly, our governments want less Chinese and Indians to emigrate. Why I don’t know. They usually make wonderful colleagues.

And why don’t U.S. and U.K. Students study these subjects? For one thing they are not trying to get to a place that they already live. More importantly, the place where they live does not idolize the engineering student who made it out and who sends money home. We have American Idol and Football, and Movie Stars. We have taught our kids that being successful means being famous and being on TV. Our culture doesn’t produce scientists, it produces aspiring actors and singers.

If the government really wanted to produce more scientists it should create TV shows. How about “Science Idol” or “Science Court?” Nah. Too complicated.

To understand those shows kids would have to be able to think. And the schools have never wanted to produce students who can think clearly. They only want to produce students who behave, and who can memorize whatever facts are deemed important to know by the test makers.

My U.K. colleague quickly understood this. But there is no stopping the math and testing lobby.

Measuring teachers as a means of education reform! You have got to be kidding!

Last week, in the New York Times, there was an Op-Ed column contributed by a Professor Emeritus (of Nursing) from the University of Maryland. Why the Times considers this man’s opinion worth publishing is anyone’s guess, but his article fits in well with the Times’ continuing insistence on always being on the wrong side in education.

The article starts with this gem:

Of all the goals of the education reform movement, none is more elusive than developing an objective method to assess teachers.

Really? That is the issue? Measuring teachers? Funny. I thought the issue was making schools that excited students and made them into people who loved learning and were learning things that they chose to learn and were excited to learn. Silly me.

I was a pretty good teacher if I do, say so myself (and many of my students say exactly that in my forthcoming book (Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools.)) But I couldn’t make algebra interesting to those who are bored to death by it. And, I couldn’t make literature interesting to those who think reading nineteenth century novels is tedious and irrelevant. In fact, I avoided teaching introductory programming my entire career because there was no way that I could make that interesting. Now, there are people who can make these subjects interesting (Saul Morson and Chris Riesbeck, both at Northwestern do exactly that in their respective subjects.) But they have an advantage. No one makes students at Northwestern taken Russian Literature and no one makes them takes Introductory Programming either. Motivation matters.

But this is not the case for the high school teachers that this Nursing professor wants to measure. (One would assume Nursing students take nursing because they want to be nurses by the way, which would have made his job as a teacher a lot easier to do.)

No, he wants to measure:

the amount of time a teacher spends delivering relevant instruction

Really? This sentence is so wrong on so many levels that I find it impossible to believe this man was ever a teacher.

Let’s start with the concept that the job of a teacher is information delivery. This model of teaching is not only out of date, it is simply wrong. If it were right, you could apply the speed principle. If one teacher were to talk twice as fast as another teacher, he or she would deliver twice as much information and thus be twice as good.

A teacher’s job, in today’s world, is unfortunately, to get students to do well on standardized tests that test how much information you can temporally memorize and how many test taking tricks you know.

Here is another gem from this article:

the teachers who taught more were also the teachers who produced students who performed well on standardized tests.

Wow! Teaching couldn't possibly be about motivating students or helping students be better people or helping students think well or live their lives well. No, it means teaching more (really teaching faster would do the trick!) and not even noticing if anyone is listening or anyone even gives a hoot about what you are teaching. Test scores! Test scores! Test scores!

What about re-thinking the subject matter that we teach and the idea that classrooms are really bad places to learn?

The New York Times has never had a clue about education, as I have said many times before in this column.

But this article is a new low. As one Emeritus Professor to another, I suggest that Mr. Nursing Professor go back to thinking about how to teach nurses and leave education reform to those who have some idea what the real issues are.

Teachers are not and have never been the problem. You can’t make algebra interesting to someone who isn’t interested in it. Teachers are forced to rely on that old canard “you will need it later” which is, of course, simply untrue.

When Engagement is Not Enough

One of my goals as a dean of a school of education has been to expand the notion of what teacher preparation includes. To that end, I have been strongly pushing for the development of community engagement courses and academic programs in my own school and across the college. This is grounded in my ongoing academic research and in my belief that one cannot be a good teacher, administrator or staff in a PreK-12 school without realizing (on academic, experiential, and conceptual levels) that schools are deeply embedded within and an important part of their local communities. To that end, I have been working on series of pieces that expands on the notion of community engagement as much more than just service, service-learning, or experiential education. This is the first part of this series.
The community engagement movement – after a generation of activism and research and immense energy and effort – has reached an “engagement ceiling.” It is now time to plot the second wave.

This movement – composed of a loosely inter-related set of programs, practices, and philosophies such as service-learning, civic and community engagement, public scholarship, and community-based research – has become an assumed and expected part of the higher education landscape. More than half of all faculty, according to UCLA’s ongoing American College Teacher surveys, believe that instilling a commitment to community service is a very important or essential aspect of undergraduate education; NSSE data suggest that service-learning is one of very few “high impact practices” that deepen undergraduates’ learning; and the Carnegie Foundation recently released its third round of colleges and universities relected as worthy of the “community engagement” classification, whose membership now numbers over three hundred such institutions.

Yet even as the public face of community engagement becomes ever more embraced, there are troubling signs of its internal malaise. Key groups and scholars have begun to openly talk of a movement that has “stalled.” Strong research suggests that co-curricular engagement continues to be a more meaningful variable than singular curricular service-learning courses in fostering a range of key student outcomes. And the plethora of programs, centers, and practices that intermix community service, service-learning, and civic engagement contributes to frustratingly opaque notions of even basic definitions, categories, and hoped-for outcomes in the field.

The trouble is not that service-learning and its ilk have not been successful enough. The problem, I suggest, is that they have been too successful. Too successful, that is, at positioning themselves as a social movement for the transformation of higher education to reclaim and rediscover its civic purpose and meaningful engagement with, for, and in their local communities. But in so doing, in becoming a movement that attempted to reach everyone across the academy, the community engagement movement has become unmoored from some basic precepts. There is neither a core vision nor an overarching network able to guide or link the disparate centers, groups, scholarly communities, national organizations and activists all attempting to, ironically enough, foster an engaged campus and community. The gap between the rhetoric and reality of the “engaged campus” is ever increasing.

The reasons for this are complex, intertwined, and not easily changeable given the long-term economic retrenchment sweeping across the academy: the expanding demographics of “non-traditional” part-time commuting students; the outsourcing of labor to contingent and adjunct faculty; and the “wickedly” complex and contested problem of engaging with (much less solving) community issues enmeshed within multiple racial, political, economic, social, and historical realities. If the goal of the first generation of scholars and activists was to transform higher education, the real issue is who is transforming whom.

I am not suggesting that we wipe our hands, shut the classroom door, and walk away from the pressing societal problems that colleges and universities must indeed be a part of solving. Rather, we must reframe how we think about the engaged campus: namely, community engagement must become an intellectual movement. If the next generation of scholars, students, and community members are to have a chance in fostering a deep, sustained, and ultimately powerful campus and community collaborations, then we must embrace a second wave of criticality towards civic and community engagement in the academy.

By this I mean what other movements, such as Women’s Studies and Black Studies, have accomplished in the last thirty years. They have created, through majors and minors and interdisciplinary concentrations and research centers, a means to influence and impact the knowledge production and dissemination of their respective areas of study. They have succeeded in the impressive accomplishment that it is no longer possible to speak simply or “obviously” about what feminism or blackness “is,” either within their respective fields, across the academy, or, for that matter, in the larger world.

Interestingly enough, academic programs (such as majors and minors) focused on community engagement have indeed begun to spring up helter skelter across the academy. I helped organize a research institute this past summer for academics interested in developing or expanding such academic programs. We expected twenty or thirty people to show up. Instead, we had to stop registration at ninety, as scholars, administrators, and doctoral students poured in from across the country, as well as a few from Canada, Mexico, and even Ireland. We have now documented over sixty academic programs at varying stages of development across the United States and will be hosting another institute this summer to continue to deepen this dialogue and support such program development.

There are longstanding and deeply impressive programs, such as Providence College’s major in Public and Community Service Studies and UC-Santa Cruz’s department of Community Studies. There is the newly developed Civic Engagement minor at Mary Baldwin College, and the Department of Justice and Policy Studies at Guilford College. In each case, there are dedicated faculty members attached to each program, doing the deliberate, careful, and critical work that is necessary for any successful academic program: advising students, creating introductory courses, questioning the quality of the capstone experience, reaching out to colleagues across the institution and community members outside of it for perspective and feedback and collaboration, advocating for additional tenure-track lines, and questioning whether what they do is ultimately of value and relevance to its critical stakeholders.

This, then, is the face of the next generation of the scholarship of engagement. It is the critical work that cannot take for granted the practice and philosophy of community engagement. For community engagement is a complex and contested practice that claims to engage in “border crossing” and as such engages issues of power, race, and class. It is a practice that has real-world ethical, legal, and political implications as to what our undergraduates actually do out in the world. And it is a philosophy of practice that is seemingly at the heart of a liberal arts education. As such, what we do with, for, and in the community must be open to the same type of scrutiny as any other legitimate academic practice. It needs to be done in academic spaces that foster and strengthen the very qualities we are looking for in the community partnerships we espouse: deep, sustained, and impactful reflection, engagement, and action. That is an intellectual movement.

In the end, of course, this is not an either/or proposition. The academy must embrace both the community engagement and the critical academic spaces. To have engagement without the criticality is to succumb ultimately to a cheerleading mentality of a social movement with thin skin unable to withstand the critique of the academy. To have disciplined academic inquiry without a deep and sustained experiential community-based component is to succumb to an ineffectual model of “hallway activists” where theory and practice are disjoined and disjointed and where the thick skin of academic debate cannot feel or see the needs of the community all around it. But without the next stage, without the second wave of critique within academic spaces, the next generation of the engaged campus will be ever more imperiled.