Thoughts on Tinkering Toward Utopia

Saturday July 31, 2010

Tinkering Toward Utopia
David Tyack and Larry Cuban (1995)

I want to do my big Korean research paper on education in Korea and more specifically the relation between / issue of public education and private. In Korea, even "private" schools have a level of government control not substantially different from "public" schools. It's a bit more complicated, but anyway in Korea private education usually means hagwons, private "academies" that students go to after normal school hours and on weekends. I work at one. It's a lot harder for me to read about education in Korean, so I thought I'd take a look at this English book on education in the US as a sort of background preparation.

I've had the book for a while. Before I came to Korea I worked teaching math in a public high school in New York (Manhattan, Harlem). I was with a program called Math for America and this book was recommended to me, if I recall correctly, by Jon, sort of the head admin, at that time, of New York City MfA operations. Anyway, I could be wrong, but either way I heard of the book a long time ago, got it through when I was still in the US, and had been meaning to read it for a long time.

The reason I'm writing this now is not to write a review of the book. It's mostly to process some of my thoughts, more so than even record them. This is a habit from some of my schooling, particularly the Bard Writing and Thinking program, but also more recently prompted by the last book I read in English, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. Despite the time-management theme, it recommends that one devote time in equal measure to reading and reflection on what has been read. This strikes me as a very good idea, and while I was not able to do so in the process of reading the whole book (HtLo24HaD recommended half reading half thinking in every three hour block, if I recall correctly), I will make up for it in some part by writing something now.

Especially since writing a paper on it during my Master of Arts in Teaching program at Bard, I've been interested in pinning down the ultimate goals of education. At some point the question may be inseparable from the ultimate goal of human life, which is famously difficult to agree on as well, but anyway I read the book with an eye toward seeing what goals people have talked about.

Thinking of my Korean paper, I was also looking for mention of private versus public education and any comparisons or interactions. There really wasn't much on this topic, and for the most part I felt like the authors chose to ignore the existence and importance of private education in the US. Or, maybe I just exaggerate this importance, having myself gone to private schools from kindergarten through high school. Anyway, private schooling was largely ignored in the book.

One notable exception was the "case study" about kindergartens. The first fun thing was finding out that originally "kindergartners" referred to the teachers - which makes sense, if you think of them as gardeners of children. But kindergartens started out as private institutions. Some few were for the rich, I think, but mostly they were outreach things that people would offer for poor kids, something like an early "Head Start" program (this was late 19th century or so, I think). They made it seem like it was sort of a popular community service thing for sophisticated ladies who wanted to help poor kids in the inner city.

But it started as a private thing, but was later absorbed into the public apparatus. It sounded like many most or all of the private kindergartens were "bought up" by public school systems, where they evolved and became a regular part of the school sequence. I thought public buy-out thing was interesting, and maybe the only bit of the book particularly relevant to the possible future of hagwons in Korea. Could they eventually be bought up by the government somehow? Would the society approve of a public school schedule that has students at school some 12 hours a day?

I guess one of the big questions for my paper is Why are there hagwons in Korea, as there aren't in the US or many other countries, it seems...

The authors seems acceptably fair in their factual portrayals, but there is not doubt in their tone that they identify as progressive, probably constructivist, anti-standardized test, etc. They miss no opportunities to identify groups they disagree with as "elites" and often also note they are white and associated with business. The kinds of multicultural, anti-discriminatory thinking that they seems keen on are things that I tend to agree with myself in large part, but it doesn't seem to help their arguments.

I guess the central example could be that teaching for "excellence" and using tests to measure achievement is somehow racist, because it ignores cultural differences. If this means it isn't fair to make everybody take tests where the right answer is that white people are good and black people are bad, then I agree, that's racist. But if the argument is basically that some cultures value literacy and some don't, therefore it isn't fair to have all students take a reading test, I can't go along with it. If a goal of school is literacy (and here goals are important again, naturally) then every student has to be literate to succeed.

I have been exposed to a lot of stuff about the evils of standardized testing, and I agree in places, but I have yet to see a better way of assessing achievement fairly and to high standards. And the more I teach and live, it seems that achievement hardly ever happens if there is not some fairly objective assessment coming. Projects and papers also motivate work and are important for high-order thinking and all of this, but the problem with papers and projects is that you can do them without knowing anything and without learning anything. You can BS and avoid difficulty if you so choose. The differences in people's projects, presentations, etc. are so huge. Some people take it as an opportunity to learn and learn a lot by doing projects, but some people just don't. And when they're done, it's really hard to judge projects etc. fairly, not to mention efficiently. How can you really decide the difference between a passing project and a failing project? Or does everyone just necessarily pass, even if they've done nothing or next-to-nothing?

In one of the book's case-studies they talked about schools that gave a lot more free time - in one school students had a third of their time at school free for "study hall" (a term not used by the authors) meeting with teachers, working independently, etc. And there was another school from the same project, I think, doing similar things and also using much more student-centered progressive curricula. And the result was that it didn't work very well. The students felt lost and behavior was bad. This meshes very well with my experience.

Ah, another one was The Dalton Plan (or some name like that) in which every student had an individualized study plan, revised and reviewed at month intervals. The pinnacle of what people were just calling individualized instruction at my school, just doing special things for some students; maybe more similar to the individual academic plans for special ed students now. Anyway, they talked in the book about these individual plans, and they sounded really great, and then they got around to the fact that even at the founder's school, the original proponents of this system, the original plan only lasted one year. Why? It did NOT motivate students, and results were bad. Students actually said it was BORING, compared to classroom instruction.

I've just had this thought, and maybe it's been said, maybe I've even heard it before, but it seems to me this could be my quote of the day:

"The problem with constructivist education is that students are not good architects."

If you want to be generous you could say "... not always good architects".

And this kind of idea seems to apply particularly to students that come from homes are not particularly academically-cultured: in the school programs designed by progressive educators who want to help multicultural and/or disadvantaged students, they end further disadvantaged by the lack of guidance.

A big idea from the book is "the grammar of schooling" which they take to mean "the normal way schools in the US are, with different grades, teachers in classrooms, and certain standard credits that students need to graduate high school and go on to college (specifically classes that meet five times a week in math, english, etc.)". They mostly argue that it exists and persists as a social construct, while neglecting what might be another possible explanation: it exists because it works.

Another thing from the book that I identified with is something the authors identified as as one of the downfalls of reforms from the grammar of schooling: that they make way too much work for teachers.

Teachers have an almost impossibly difficult task just going through the day, teaching perhaps 150 students every day. Asking them to add curriculum design work on top of just teaching is draining, and asking them to invent new pedagogy and curricula while collaborating with other teachers in meetings, individualizing instruction to all their students, and still teaching all those students every day... I don't think it's possible. I don't think it's fair. And I'll repeat my conviction after getting my Masters in Teaching, working in a public school in NYC, and working as an English teacher in Korea:

Classroom teaching and curriculum design are two different full-time jobs.

I think to maximize progress in education what is really needed is production of excellent lessons (and the associated materials) that teachers can use and optimize in their classrooms. It would be a standard curriculum, yes, and if there were set lessons for every hour of every day of a student's time in school from the first time they walk into a school building to their high school graduation ceremony, I think it would be a boon. There is quite enough difficulty in the work of teaching without having to come up with what to teach every day.

The other problem with reforms that the authors include is what they call "intramuralism", which I guess they're using to mean insider-ism or exclusion of community interests, parents, etc. They seem to imply that if everybody was on board the reforms could work great (aside from giving teachers way too much work, of course). To me, it seems like they're trying their best to avoid saying the obvious: the reforms did not lead to students learning everything they had to. They were just not effective. If the reforms had worked great, the community would have been on board.

The thing I do really agree with from the book is it's constant insistence that teachers are important and that teachers need to be on board if reforms are going to work. Put differently, reforms only exist in as much as teachers take them into their classroom practice. I think this is key, and I think it's related deeply to the this-reform-is-ten-times-more-work-than-the-old-way issue.

Finally getting to the issue of goals of education: like in most things I see, the issue is mostly ignored. It is mentioned here and their, most commonly alluded to as if "the goals of education" are obvious and understood. The authors criticize test scores as a bad goal of education, but of course test scores are just an intermediary measuring tool and not a goal in themselves. What goal's achievement are they trying to measure? I can see at least three just in tests themselves:

* knowledge ("Do you know who was president in 1892? DO YOU? It's important that you KNOW.")
* cognitive skills ("If I tell you this, can you figure out what the answer must be? CAN YOU? It's important that you CAN.") (Are these skills general ability, or just learned routines, etc., is an interesting question in itself...)
* work ethic ("Did you work hard for years to do well on this test? DID YOU? It's important that you DID/CAN work this hard for a sustained period.")

In the book, they list on page 136 three goals that might be the goals of schooling: intellectual, civic, and social development. Maybe this is a useful categorization? I'm not sure. I want to get out my old paper from grad school.

Other related quotes:
"educational goals are often diffuse"
"little agreement exists among administrators and teachers about just what effective teaching is and how to measure it"
is it this? "opportunities to discover their vocational aptitudes and interests"
"life adjustment"
"mental training"
"honing intelligence for its own sake"
"preparing students for careers in a complex and interdependent society"

This post was originally hosted elsewhere.