Saturday, May 29, 2010

FIXING PUBLIC EDUCATION: ITS FUTURE SHOULD RECOVER ITS PAST

I offer three generalizations about public education. One, the current generation of students is the second one to graduate from high school knowing less than the previous generation. Two, public education has failed so badly that its diplomas assure no one that graduates have mastered a minimum of functional information, skills, or habits of work or study. And three, efforts to address this failure by accountability schemes, especially tests, are counter-productive because they make everyone think of education as something useful only to increase school scores and provide credentials for graduates to get on with their lives.

If we knew and agreed how to fix this failing system and ensured that appropriate resources reformed it, we would have to wait almost a quarter century to see results and almost another quarter century to see their effects on our society, its culture, and its economy. In the meantime, America’s slide from promise, prosperity, and power would continue. It reminds me of a fellow veteran’s comment during the controversy about Agent Orange, a defoliant with harmful effects on humans: he said that it had killed him in Vietnam but that he had not yet died. Thanks to schools of education and their graduates for toxic doctrines, lax standards, and corrupt practices, the failure of public education has finished America as we have known it, but it has not yet fallen.

Education professors and public school teachers will scream in protest, blaming, among others, students and parents most of all. We have heard these screams before; what better defense than a good offense? But the educational priesthood alone decides that the public gets to pay-in, but it gets no buy-in. Teachers alone decide the actual curriculum (not to be confused with the “curriculum maps” on the LCPS website). They alone, unlike others workers, insist on being respected and rewarded for their intentions and efforts, not their results. In fact, they are fighting this administration’s efforts to make data on student performance a measure of teacher performance. Education professors and unionized public school teachers, in fostering and protecting mediocrity, rightly deserve most of the blame for the failure of public education.

Consider the teaching of English. Many of those who can read cannot read with comprehension. Many of those who can write cannot write something informed, coherent, and mostly literate. In my two second-term English classes at NMSU, not a few LCPS graduates could not write short papers on topics of their choice which were cogent and competent, without sentence fragments, splices, and run-ons. They and others, in their ignorance and their indifference to it, committed the gamut of other major as well as minor errors of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word choice. Criticism offended them; low grades outraged them. Of course: their incompetence had not prevented LCPS teachers of English from passing them.

Consider the teaching of mathematics. Students are trained to think about numbers and operations, not to use them. They write in journals how they would go about computing or solving instead of doing computations or solving problems. The result: basic incompetence. In an NMSU classroom, I asked a pre-nursing student what ten percent of 500 words are; her answer: 15. In a local store, when I said that printing addresses on 500 envelopes at $0.10 apiece would cost $50.00, the clerk gave me a funny look, walked to the register, and used a calculator to assure herself that I was not pulling a fast one. These LCPS graduates could not multiply by one-tenth, divide by ten, or move a decimal point one place to the left. Yet their incompetence had not prevented LCPS teachers of mathematics from passing them.

What can be done to reverse, however slowly, the wrong direction and continuing decline of public education? I answer by reflecting on my education in the 40s and 50s, which required my classmates and me to master the traditional materials of core subjects in traditional ways. Although most of us went to college, the few who did not were well prepared for careers. And all of us learned not only what was necessary to pursue either path, but also what we needed for better personal and civic lives. I do not believe that our education for colleges or careers yesterday cannot well educate students for college or careers today.

I have three reasons for my belief. One, traditional K-12 curriculums and associated instructional methods (e.g., classroom drills, quizzes, tests; homework memorization, exercises, papers) have a record of working. Two, my teaching experience with students ranging the socio-economic spectrum showed both to work. Three, new-fangled curriculums and methods have failed. Why in the world did education professors and public school teachers “fix” what was not broken? What were they thinking?

Their continuing gabble about individual learning styles and educational plans, fidelity to requirements, exposure to course content, diversity, and multiculturalism sounds like do-good rationalizations for evading and thereby eroding education. For they are not enabling subject-matter mastery, not establishing resulting confidence, and not encouraging student satisfaction so that students can take pride in what they learn in school. It is time to return to providing an education by which students can achieve educational success and a better chance to succeed after graduation.

Monday, May 17, 2010

IT’S ELEMENTARY: EDUCATION IS WHAT TEACHERS TEACH

“The generation now entering the workforce is less well educated, on average, than the generation about to retire” (The Economist, 12 July, p. 42). For decades, national media, relying on reports or studies (e.g., A Nation at Risk, 1983), have reported that U.S. students are less well educated than their parents, who, in turn, are less well educated than their parents. History knows few instances of prospering nations failing to educate their youth to the level of their adults.

For decades, the U.S. has spent about twice per student what two-dozen other countries with advanced economies have spent. But according to international measures of educational achievement in major academic subjects—language, history, mathematics, science—the U.S. ranks well toward the bottom. In short, the U.S. spends much on labor-intensive public school education and gets little for its tax dollar.

Taken together, two 1963 books suggest explanations: James D. Koerner’s The Miseducation of American Teachers and Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique. Koerner surveyed the literature on intelligence and academic abilities and achievements across majors and professions; education majors and teachers measured near or at the bottom on all measures. Freidan argued that women deserved equality, not least in careers. Until then, intelligent, well-educated women had few suitable career choices: legal secretary, librarian, nurse, or teacher.

Since then, many talented women have entered fields like business, computer science, engineering, journalism, law, mathematics, medicine—good for them—, eschewed the field of education, and thereby reduced its already modest intellectual capital. The effect is most noticeable in elementary school teachers. The decline in their academic qualifications reflects the steady dilution of the pre-college curriculum. Their college majors in educational psychology, child development, or elementary education do not supplement their academic deficiencies; instead, they support their primary commitment to nurturing student emotional and social growth. The increasing academic mediocrity of these teachers matches the declining academic achievement of their students.

Were it not for the growth of teacher unions to protect them, unions might otherwise seem a redundancy. All public school teachers are civil servants, with assured salaries, job rights and security (tenure in fact, if not in law), and health and retirement benefits. Teacher unions represent teachers in negotiating compensation and work conditions. But they abuse power by defending incompetents and dumbing down standards and qualifications for teaching certification. By making public schools union shops closed to those without education degrees or equivalent coursework, unions protect their members from competition from and comparison with those well suited by expertise, experience, and temperament for teaching.

Case in point: teachers of English give bogus reasons—it cannot be taught formally, only in context; it does not improve writing; it stifles creativity—for no longer teaching grammar; the real reason: they do not know it or appreciate that it helps careful reading and enhances precise writing. But a retired copy editor with a degree in English could teach grammar at the elementary school level and show how it works in business or professional writing at the high school level (and teach literature with sensitivity to the language which powers it at any level).

Elementary school teachers help define the curriculum content and structure, and instructional approaches and means to fit their limited academic background and reduce their job demands. They cannot set high standards for their students because they lack what it takes to teach to those standards. Their deficiencies and failures make problems for middle and high school teachers, who cannot set high standards because their students come to them undereducated, thus unable to meet them. Teachers’ decisions define the decline of academic performance.

By now, some readers will be in high dudgeon and will urge the standard defenses and excuses—bad parents, bad students, and low salaries. But we should first ponder three questions. One, given college training which they believe indispensable, why are elementary school teachers unable to adapt effective strategies to educate their students? Two, given nationwide academic decline, why are teachers incapable of admitting their part in it and accepting responsibility for it? Three, why do teachers not criticize themselves, identify and address their inadequacies, and offer plausible remedies?

Because the transmission of knowledge and skills from teacher to student is central to teaching, elementary school teachers are the first to start the cumulative process of transmission. They must teach the information and skills which students must master if they are to learn in middle and high schools. If they are not well enough educated to do the job, they must get re-educated, by “professional development” or self-study.

The most important skill is reading. If elementary school teachers, with or without help from reading specialists, fail to teach reading—not just word recognition, but text comprehension—by the end of fourth grade, then they have failed to teach the most important skill for continued learning. For those unable to read well thereafter will have almost irremediable difficulties with all academic subjects. Bad behavior and poor attendance in response to frustration or failure are not surprising consequences. Much of the fault rests with those teachers who, knowing too little, expect and teach too little.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

GO NUKES—NUCLEAR POWER IN AMERICA’S TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

About 20 years ago, a Department of Energy client sent me to an unusual conference on nuclear power because it included representatives from industry, environmental groups, academe, and federal and state governments, including regulators. I recall two things. One, the Nevada representative reviled the federal government for its heavy-handed dealings with the state in its efforts to make Yucca Mountain a national waste depository. Two, after the second day, my client wondered why I had had nothing to say. My moment arrived just before the conference was summarizing its discussion. My sardonic comment: if the country had tried to design a nuclear power regime to fail, it could not have done better than deploy the one which it had deployed in the previous 35 years.

With nothing at stake, I never had trouble either admitting that the problems of that regime are many or asserting that many are not unique, ungainly, or insoluble. Which brings me to Chip Ward’s 5 March editorial in the Los Angeles Times. Ward, founder of HEAL Utah and author of books opposing nuclear power, has a stake in the controversy about nuclear power. Unfortunately, like many opponents of nuclear power, he is a fear-monger who decries radioactive waste, mining hazards, expense, and carbon footprint; but whose standards are never clear.

His concerns are exaggerated. First, radioactive waste. America has failed to solve its radioactive waste problem for political reasons. Other countries with nuclear power regimes like France and Japan do not have such problems. So the issue of radioactive waste is not inherent in nuclear power and is solvable except for scare claims about it. By contrast, radioactivity may be a greater problem at both ends of the coal fuel cycle. Coal shafts are slightly radioactive; worse, fly ash, the spent fuel of coal use, is far more radioactive because this combustion by-product concentrates the radioactivity in coal.

Second, mining hazards. All mining is dangerous. Most uranium mines are surface or shallow-pit mines which present modest environmental problems readily solved by modest containment efforts. By contrast, coal mining has a higher ratio of deaths, disabilities, and diseases per worker from mine collapses and respiratory disorders.

Third, expense. Nuclear power regimes in other countries testify to their economic viability because they have been sensibly implemented without huge litigation costs.

Fourth, carbon footprint. The claim that the carbon footprint of constructing nuclear power plants exceeds the avoided carbon footprint of their operation is a lie which has been a staple of anti-nuclear zealots for decades. Pollution comes in many forms, and lies by environmentalists are one of them.

However, the current regime does have real problems. All of its over 120 plants are different, some more, some less, from each other. The regime never standardized its designs, so each plant required separate regulatory approval for siting, design, and operation. Probability risk assessments were simply guesses by experts, and mistakes were matters not of second-guessing but of discovering how unreliable PRAs for different, if not unique, designs were. Interventions by environmentalists and others, most amply justified, prolonged regulatory decision-making and increased costs of siting, construction, and operation. The consequences—long delays and large expense—the industry inflicted on itself, with help from often inept government agencies and often irate interveners.

The problem with screeds like Ward’s is that they pretend that the next-generation nuclear power regime has learned nothing and changed nothing in the past 30 years. But much has been learned and almost everything changed, and all for the better.

The new regime has a radically different approach to developing and deploying nuclear power plants. First, it standardizes a few designs; as a result, each plant design requires only one regulatory decision and can be “mass” produced. This standardization shortens regulatory schedules and reduces production and construction costs.

Second, the new plant designs come in scaled sizes and are modular. Scaled sizes mean economies because plants can match demand in markets, and modularity means that additional plants can be added to the grid to match market growth.

Third, the new plant designs reduce safety, health, and environmental risks by using relatively simple architectures and passive-safety devices to prevent accidents or releases. Gone are the complexity and redundancy of defense-in-depth engineering, with its great technical and managerial risks, and great costs. Instead, come passive-safety devices which eliminate the need for grid electricity, trigger safe shut-downs, and reduce the odds of operator error or radioactive releases.

Even the issues of waste and security are solvable. If nuclear power companies know that the federal government will not build a national storage facility for spent fuel, they will support other options: state permanent storage facilities or carefully designed and secure permanent on-site storage facilities capable well beyond the lifetime of the plant.

The only thing which has not changed about the new regime is the warriors waging wars against the old regime. The vanguard of nuclear power has moved on.

EVOLUTION VERSUS WHATEVER

The controversy about evolution, with efforts by some to dismiss the theory as “only a theory,” as if divorced from fact, continues. It raged for 65 years after the Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” appeared in 1859. It subsided after the Scopes trial in 1924, when Clarence Darrow cross-examined William Jennings Bryan and embarrassed the champion of anti-evolutionists. Since then, a small majority of Americans has regarded even leading anti-evolutionists as dumb rubes. That unflattering opinion, perhaps true then, is false now. Today’s anti-evolutionists have evolved; they are more educated and eloquent, sophisticated though also sophistical, people, many with advanced degrees in the relevant sciences. In recent years, they have taken up what most had dismissed as a lost cause to challenge the science curriculum in Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Although almost all scientists favor evolution, a large minority of Americans still does not accept it.

Notwithstanding, evolution is so well established in science as to be tantamount to a fact; it explains not only “the origin of species,” but also and more importantly the means by which they change. A knowledge of evolution supports efforts to address human concerns about disease and health, famine and food, and the biosphere in which we live and which we share with other organisms. It enables a better understanding of how we got to be who were are, what we might and perhaps should become, and how we can be better stewards of what some call “creation.” So why do many people reject a theory, or a fact, well established by science which is the basis of enormous benefits to people and their planet?

One reason is that some people resent or repudiate the idea of an ape-cousin in the family tree.

Another reason is the fact that many Americans know little science. Those who “sound off” to the media repeat objections to evolution raised and razed decades ago. Allegations of “gaps” in the fossil record assume that evolution occurred gradually over hundreds of millions of years, time for many incrementally different, intermediate forms; instead, it occurred in short spurts of rapid change, with small, transitional populations leaving few traces, between long periods of equilibrium. The allegation of a missing mechanism to explain evolution was valid in Darwin’s day, but it no longer exists; mutations of genes and mergers of DNA materials explain evolutionary change.

The main reason is the fear which many Americans have, namely, that evolution—as they see it, random, purposeless, materialistic—counters or corrupts their religious and moral beliefs. To them, its worldly benefits matter less than spiritual ones. So they seek to banish the study of evolution from public education, have its status demoted to “mere” or “unproven” theory, or balance it with pseudo-scientific alternatives. Whatever the proposed alternatives—creationism, intelligent design, or, more recently, the bogus balancing of the “strengths and weaknesses of evolution”—the driving purpose is to inculcate a basis of belief in a “higher power”—“God” is the word always lurking behind euphemisms like this one. The issue is not one of “free speech” or “equal time.” Texas talk of being “fair” to both “sciences” is clap-trap; there is science and non-science—period.

By such schemes and sleights of hand, anti-evolutionists think to reinforce their faith by conning others to accept their beliefs. Their effort would be unnecessary if they were as strong in their faith as their rejection of evolution and their insistence on Biblical inerrancy suggest. Thus, for them, the Bible states the literal or nearly literal truth. A few believe that the world was created in six, 24-hour days; more believe that those six days were six periods totaling a few thousand years. Except for such small differences, all believe that a cogent, compelling being created things once and forever, even what appears to be the fossil record itself. But why create that “record” if it misleads?

Whatever the answer, even if it be to test faith, anti-evolutionists misunderstand faith in its relationship to truth. The Biblical account of creation, for example, cannot be both a matter of faith and a matter of truth. The two are different things. Faith allows doubt about things unknown or unknowable; truth reflects certainty about the known. So the insistence on Biblical inerrancy is a sign, not of strength in matters of faith which lacks all doubt, but of intolerance of doubt and of insecurity in need of certainty.

Many non-anti-evolutionist Christians are strong in their faith without a belief in the Bible as the literal truth to sustain their faith. Holy it is to them; guidance it is to them; science it is not to them. Christian faith is stronger for admitting doubt and relying only on doctrine understood in light of revelation, tradition, and reason. It is not stronger for denying doubt and depending on Biblical inerrancy. It is weaker for needing the prop of pseudo-science trying to validate Genesis 1.1-2.3—one of many Semitic creation myths, including Genesis 2.4b-25—as a history of the earth. Indeed, not one moral command or religious doctrine depends on a geological or paleontological fact; more generally, faith is based on moral myths, not facts. So, the Bible need not be true to be good, but it can be the Good Book and do good if read with humility and used for humanity.