Posted in Professionalism, School organization, Systems, Teaching

Larry Cuban — Rockets Are Complicated but Schools Are Complex; Thoughts about Educational Exceptionalism

In this post, I want to explore a vivid image developed by Larry Cuban to characterize the peculiar nature of teaching and learning in schools.  Scholars have frequently argued for a form of educational exceptionalism that sees schooling as a social structure that is distinctive from the normal patterns of bureaucratic organization that one sees in private companies and public agencies.  Think of Karl Weick’s depiction of educational organization as “loosely coupled systems” and John Meyer’s depiction of them as “institutionalized organizations.”   Scholars have also argued that teaching is an odd form of professional practice that doesn’t follow the norms of other professions.  Think of David Cohen’s account of teaching as a “people-changing profession” and Dan Lortie’s account of the weak control that administrators exert over teaching.  

Cuban has distilled these scholarly insights into a single salient distinction between organizational practices that are complicated vs. those that are complex.  Rockets, he says, are complicated; schools are complex. 

Sending a rocket to the moon is a fiendishly complicated endeavor, involving a lot of sophisticated calculation and planning.  But it has the enormous advantage of being a determinate process.  With enough intellectual and technical firepower, there is a solution that reliably works. 

The same is not true of the process of schooling.  The problems that make classrooms and school systems so difficult are not technical.  They are social — depending on the complex interaction among a large number of individual and organizational actors.  They are motivational — depending on the voluntary buy-in of all these actors.  And they are normative — shaped by the conflicting purposes that these actors seek to impose of the practice of schooling.

Here’s how Cuban makes his case in the opening section of the final chapter in his 2013 book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice.  

Cuban Cover

The path of educational progress more closely resembles the flight of a butterfly than the flight of a bullet.

— Philip Jackson, 1968

Questions:

What’s the difference between sending a rocket to the moon and getting children to succeed in school?

What’s the difference between a surgeon extracting a brain tumor and judge and jury deciding guilt or innocence for a person accused of murder?

Answer:

Sending a rocket to the moon and extracting a brain tumor are complicated, while getting children to succeed in school and arriving at verdicts are complex, closer to the “flight of a butterfly than the flight of a bullet.”

According to multidisciplinary scholars and practitioners, complicated procedures like brain surgery and rocket launchings require engineer-designed blueprints, flowcharts breaking actions into step-by-step tasks, well-trained staff, and exquisite combinations of computer software running carefully calibrated equipment. Think, rocket landing on the moon in 1969, doctor-controlled robotic arms doing brain surgery, and the U.S. “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A complicated system assumes expert and rational leaders, top-down planning with a ”mission control” unit pursuing scrupulous implementation of policies in a clockwork-precise organization. Complicated systems use the most sophisticated math, technical, and engineering expertise in mapping out flowcharts to solve problems. Work is specified and delegated to particular units, and outcomes are monitored. Confidence in performance and predictable results is in the air the organization breathes.

Yet even those sophisticated systems fail from time to time; for example, the Challenger shuttle disaster, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Like complicated systems, complex systems such as legislatures, the courts, health-care, and schools are filled with hundreds of moving parts, but many of the parts are human, and these players have varied expertise and independence. Moreover, missing in such systems is a “mission control” that runs all these different parts within ever-changing political, economic, and societal surroundings. The result: constant adaptations and compromises in design and action.

Recall the U.S. president, Congress, lobbying groups, and scores of interest groups trying to pass a health-care reform bill into law during 2010 in the midst of a slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. Blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans, and savvy managers may be necessary but are insufficient to get complex systems with hundreds of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in constantly changing and unpredictable environments. These web-like, complex systems of interdependent units adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings. They are constantly changing just to maintain stability.

Hospitals, courts, and schools — even with their facades of command-and-control mechanisms, flowcharts, and policy manuals filled with detailed procedures-are constantly buffeted by unpredictable events and interrelated factors over which participants have no control. Picture a hospital emergency room; judges presiding over successive arraignments; and, yes, teachers teaching first-graders, algebra courses, and Advanced Placement U.S. history in the black boxes of classrooms.

These complex social systems have time and again foiled reform-driven policy makers’ efforts to get doctors, judges, lawyers, and teachers to change their routine practices in any substantial way. I now return to the central question of this book to connect the complexity of school systems to classroom practices: With so many major structural changes in US. public schools over the past century, why have classroom practices been largely stable with a modest blending of new and old teaching practices leaving contemporary classroom lessons familiar to earlier generations of school-goers?

To document the complexity of the K-12 school system, look at figure 6.1, a representation of the external political factors and organizational forces that frequently impinge, sometimes unexpectedly, on what occurs in classrooms. Such figures, of course, give the mistaken impression that these stakeholders are static when, in real life, they are constantly using policy talk drenched in reform rhetoric as they lobby school board members and interact with administrators, teachers, and each other producing tangled web of interdependent players in a complex system aimed at human improvement.

Cuban Fig 1

Now look at figure 6.2, which tries to capture the different factors again, not static but in dynamic tension with one another-within a classroom. In the helping profession of teaching, the interdependence of teachers and students and relationships with peers and other adults inside and outside the school community are but a few of the influences that come into play when teaching and learning occur.

Cuban Fig 2

Keep in mind the different levels of interaction and interdependence in these complex social systems. At one level is the mutual dependence of students and teachers in classroom interactions over content and skills during lessons in the black box. Next is the school level, where groups of students interact with adults who have reciprocal ties between themselves across many age-graded elementary and secondary classrooms. Parents and governmental agency adults also bring in concerns and resources that influence school wide relationships and routines. Then there is the district level, where decision makers use policy talk and take action in connecting those outside the organization and those inside who are expected to carry out decisions-the administrators and teachers who implement the policy. At the district level, community, state, and national economic, political, and social factors impinge on the community (e.g., immigration, economic recession, mayoral control of schools) and ripple through schools and classrooms.

This multitiered view of a complex system aimed at human improvement suggests the intricacies of overlapping and interacting levels comprising K-12 schooling. At each level, change and continuity are in dynamic, even tense, equilibrium-almost like running as fast as possible just to stay in the same place.

 

Posted in Professionalism, Sports, Teacher education, Teaching

Panicking vs. Choking: The Different Ways that Amateurs and Professionals Fail

Professionals, by definition, are more skilled than amateurs in any given field, but they both experience failure.  And to an average observer, they appear to fail in similar ways.   The practitioner is moving along nicely in carrying out his or her craft — and then suddenly it all falls apart.  The golf ball flies off into the rough, the scalpel starts to shake, and the entire enterprise irretrievably falls apart.  The result is utter disaster.  We tend to attribute the failure to something we call panicking or choking.  Recovery is nearly impossible.  It’s embarrassing to watch, but it’s also gratifying that it’s not happening to us.  

In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell published a remarkably insightful piece in the New Yorker that makes a critical distinction between the two kinds of failure.  His thesis is this:  Amateurs panic but professionals choke.   

I have found his analysis very helpful in trying to understand the nature of professionalism, in everything from golfing to teaching.   It shows that the process of learning a profession is radically different from the process of practicing a profession.  What works for the learner is a disaster for the accomplished practitioner.  

Think about learning any complex new skill.  When you start to learn golf, for example, your instructor focuses your attention on key components of the craft.  You need expert help because none of these components comes naturally.  There’s the grip, the way your form your fingers around the handle of the club.  There’s the stance, the spread of your legs, and your position in relation to the ball.  And then there are the complex mechanics of the swing: the arc of your hands, the position and motion of the shoulders, the angle of your elbows, the turn of the hips, and full-body follow-through to the end of the swing.  You can’t swing a golf club the way you swing a baseball bat or a tennis racket.  The craft is entirely different.  Falling back on the familiar is the opposite of what you need to succeed in the new sport.  You need to focus obsessively on the elements of the new craft.  Where are my hands, my elbows, my feet, my shoulders, my hips, my eyes?  Don’t do what feels natural; do what’s right.

That’s how you learn the skills.  But, at a certain point, to become an accomplished professional in the field requires you to abandon the elements of the craft and focus instead on the overall flow that results from these elements.  You don’t pay attention to the pieces of the swing; you pay attention to the overall rhythm of a righteous swing, which years of practice have given you a feel for.  The awkward elements of the craft have now come to feel natural, and you nurture that sense of naturalness in order to keep your practice flowing easily.  

If amateurs fail to keep focused on the particular pieces of the craft, they are likely to slip back into what feels more natural, like swinging a bat instead of a club.  At that point, everything falls apart.  The swing descends into chaos, the ball flies off at the wrong angle, if you hit it at all.  Your pulse races, your head buzzes, your ears ring.  You screwed up badly and you’re so overwhelmed by the feeling of failure that you can’t begin of figure out how to fix the problem.  In short, you panic.  

For professionals, the road to failure is the opposite of that traversed by the amateur.  The problem starts when a shot goes awry.  This breaks the easy flow of the good swing.  The key to recovery is to find the rhythm again in the next shot, to draw on muscle memory to feel the naturalness of your highly practiced swing.  But if the natural feel doesn’t return quickly, if a second bad shot follows, you may lose confidence in your body’s ability to get back in the swing of your swing.  And you fall back on the elements that you learned back at the beginning.  You start thinking about your grip, the angle of your shoulders, placement of your elbows, rotation of your hips.  These were helpful when your were starting out in the profession, but you put them aside once you acquired the feel of the good swing.  Turning to them now is exactly what you don’t need, since it takes the smooth flow of the entire body and breaks it up into its components parts.   You swing falls to pieces.  In short, you choke.

Rory-McIlroy-1090306

One of the things I like about the distinction between panicking and choking is that it helps us understand key characteristics of both the problems people have learning a profession and the problems they have in practicing a profession.  And in particular, it shows how difficult it is for accomplished professionals to teach newcomers. 

The beginner needs help in learning the basic elements of the trade.  But to the professional, focusing on the elements is threatening to their ability to maintain the flow of their own professional practice.  With good reason they worry that breaking the flow is an invitation to disaster.  It’s a pipeline to choking.  

Consider the relationship between a student teacher and master teacher.  The novice needs coaching in the elements of teacher craft.  How should I use my voice, eyes, body, and facial expression to maintain control of the classroom?  How do I balance the competing demands of teaching in the full flow of a lesson?   What should I focus on now?  Controlling student behavior or encouraging participation, working on particular cognitive skills or social skills, taking advantage of opportunities posed by student questions or keeping momentum in the flow of the lesson?  

Teacher Struggling

For an accomplished teacher, these are pieces of a holistic practice, which are difficult to address individually.  Also, the experience of learning the elements is now rather remote and reliving that experience threatens to take you back to your first year in the classroom, when you were frequently prone to panic.  So often the safest is for master to tell novice, “Watch how I do it.”  But this is not much help if you’re the novice, since what you’re watching is a display of teacherly expertise whose individual components disappear in the blur of action.  Both master and novice struggle to bridge the gap between learning the parts and practicing the whole.

Check out the way Gladwell spells out his analysis.  I think it will change the way you think about the process of learning a profession.

 

August 21 & 28, 2000

PERFORMANCE STUDIES

The Art of Failure:

Why some people choke and others panic 

Malcolm Gladwell

There was a moment, in the third and deciding set of the 1993 Wimbledon final, when Jana Novotna seemed invincible. She was leading 4-1 and serving at 40-30, meaning that she was one point from winning the game, and just five points from the most coveted championship in tennis. She had just hit a backhand to her opponent, Steffi Graf, that skimmed the net and landed so abruptly on the far side of the court that Graf could only watch, in flat- footed frustration. The stands at Center Court were packed. The Duke and Duchess of Kent were in their customary place in the royal box. Novotna was in white, poised and confident, her blond hair held back with a headband–and then something happened. She served the ball straight into the net. She stopped and steadied herself for the second serve–the toss, the arch of the back–but this time it was worse. Her swing seemed halfhearted, all arm and no legs and torso. Double fault. On the next point, she was slow to react to a high shot by Graf, and badly missed on a forehand volley. At game point, she hit an overhead straight into the net. Instead of 5-1, it was now 4-2. Graf to serve: an easy victory, 4-3. Novotna to serve. She wasn’t tossing the ball high enough. Her head was down. Her movements had slowed markedly. She double-faulted once, twice, three times. Pulled wide by a Graf forehand, Novotna inexplicably hit a low, flat shot directly at Graf, instead of a high crosscourt forehand that would have given her time to get back into position: 4-4. Did she suddenly realize how terrifyingly close she was to victory? Did she remember that she had never won a major tournament before? Did she look across the net and see Steffi Graf–Steffi Graf!–the greatest player of her generation?      

On the baseline, awaiting Graf’s serve, Novotna was now visibly agitated, rocking back and forth, jumping up and down. She talked to herself under her breath. Her eyes darted around the court. Graf took the game at love; Novotna, moving as if in slow motion, did not win a single point: 5-4, Graf. On the sidelines, Novotna wiped her racquet and her face with a towel, and then each finger individually. It was her turn to serve. She missed a routine volley wide, shook her head, talked to herself. She missed her first serve, made the second, then, in the resulting rally, mis-hit a backhand so badly that it sailed off her racquet as if launched into flight. Novotna was unrecognizable, not an élite tennis player but a beginner again. She was crumbling under pressure, but exactly why was as baffling to her as it was to all those looking on. Isn’t pressure supposed to bring out the best in us? We try harder. We concentrate harder. We get a boost of adrenaline. We care more about how well we perform. So what was happening to her?      

At championship point, Novotna hit a low, cautious, and shallow lob to Graf. Graf answered with an unreturnable overhead smash, and, mercifully, it was over. Stunned, Novotna moved to the net. Graf kissed her twice. At the awards ceremony, the Duchess of Kent handed Novotna the runner-up’s trophy, a small silver plate, and whispered something in her ear, and what Novotna had done finally caught up with her. There she was, sweaty and exhausted, looming over the delicate white-haired Duchess in her pearl necklace. The Duchess reached up and pulled her head down onto her shoulder, and Novotna started to sob. 

Human beings sometimes falter under pressure. Pilots crash and divers drown. Under the glare of competition, basketball players cannot find the basket and golfers cannot find the pin. When that happens, we say variously that people have “panicked” or, to use the sports colloquialism, “choked.” But what do those words mean? Both are pejoratives. To choke or panic is considered to be as bad as to quit. But are all forms of failure equal? And what do the forms in which we fail say about who we are and how we think? We live in an age obsessed with success, with documenting the myriad ways by which talented people overcome challenges and obstacles. There is as much to be learned, though, from documenting the myriad ways in which talented people sometimes fail.      

“Choking” sounds like a vague and all-encompassing term, yet it describes a very specific kind of failure. For example, psychologists often use a primitive video game to test motor skills. They’ll sit you in front of a computer with a screen that shows four boxes in a row, and a keyboard that has four corresponding buttons in a row. One at a time, x’s start to appear in the boxes on the screen, and you are told that every time this happens you are to push the key corresponding to the box. According to Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, if you’re told ahead of time about the pattern in which those x’s will appear,  your reaction time in hitting the right key will improve dramatically. You’ll play the game very carefully for a few rounds, until you’ve learned the sequence, and then you’ll get faster and faster. Willingham calls this “explicit learning.” But suppose you’re not told that the x’s appear in a regular sequence, and even after playing the game for a while you’re not aware that there is a pattern. You’ll still get faster: you’ll learn the sequence unconsciously. Willingham calls that “implicit learning”–learning that takes place outside of awareness. These two learning systems are quite separate, based in different parts of the brain. Willingham says that when you are first taught something–say, how to hit a backhand or an overhead forehand–you think it through in a very deliberate, mechanical manner. But as you get better the implicit system takes over: you start to hit a backhand fluidly, without thinking. The basal ganglia, where implicit learning partially resides, are concerned with force and timing, and when that system kicks in you begin to develop touch and accuracy, the ability to hit a drop shot or place a serve at a hundred miles per hour. “This is something that is going to happen gradually,” Willingham says. “You hit several thousand forehands, after a while you may still be attending to it. But not very much. In the end, you don’t really notice what your hand is doing at all.”      

Under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over. That’s what it means to choke. When Jana Novotna faltered at Wimbledon, it was because she began thinking about her shots again. She lost her fluidity, her touch. She double-faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads, the shots that demand the greatest sensitivity in force and timing. She seemed like a different person–playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner–because, in a sense, she was a beginner again: she was relying on a learning system that she hadn’t used to hit serves and overhead forehands and volleys since she was first taught tennis, as a child. The same thing has happened to Chuck Knoblauch, the New York Yankees’ second baseman, who inexplicably has had trouble throwing the ball to first base. Under the stress of playing in front of forty thousand fans at Yankee Stadium, Knoblauch finds himself reverting to explicit mode, throwing like a Little Leaguer again.      

Panic is something else altogether. Consider the following account of a scuba-diving accident, recounted to me by Ephimia Morphew, a human-factors specialist at NASA: “It was an open-water certification dive, Monterey Bay, California, about ten years ago. I was nineteen. I’d been diving for two weeks. This was my first time in the open ocean without the instructor. Just my buddy and I. We had to go about forty feet down, to the bottom of the ocean, and do an exercise where we took our regulators out of our mouth, picked up a spare one that we had on our vest, and practiced breathing out of the spare. My buddy did hers. Then it was my turn. I removed my regulator. I lifted up my secondary regulator. I put it in my mouth, exhaled, to clear the lines, and then I inhaled, and, to my surprise, it was water. I inhaled water. Then the hose that connected that mouthpiece to my tank, my air source, came unlatched and air from the hose came exploding into my face.      

“Right away, my hand reached out for my partner’s air supply, as if I was going to rip it out. It was without thought. It was a physiological response. My eyes are seeing my hand do something irresponsible. I’m fighting with myself. Don’t do it. Then I searched my mind for what I could do. And nothing came to mind. All I could remember was one thing: If you can’t take care of yourself, let your buddy take care of you. I let my hand fall back to my side, and I just stood there.”      

This is a textbook example of panic. In that moment, Morphew stopped thinking. She forgot that she had another source of air, one that worked perfectly well and that, moments before, she had taken out of her mouth. She forgot that her partner had a working air supply as well, which could easily be shared, and she forgot that grabbing her partner’s regulator would imperil both of them. All she had was her most basic instinct: get air. Stress wipes out short-term memory. People with lots of experience tend not to panic, because when the stress suppresses their short- term memory they still have some residue of experience to draw on. But what did a novice like Morphew have? I searched my mind for what I could do. And nothing came to mind.      

Panic also causes what psychologists call perceptual narrowing. In one study, from the early seventies, a group of subjects were asked to perform a visual acuity task while undergoing what they thought was a sixty-foot dive in a pressure chamber. At the same time, they were asked to push a button whenever they saw a small light flash on and off in their peripheral vision. The subjects in the pressure chamber had much higher heart rates than the control group, indicating that they were under stress. That stress didn’t affect their accuracy at the visual-acuity task, but they were only half as good as the control group at picking up the peripheral light. “You tend to focus or obsess on one thing,” Morphew says. “There’s a famous airplane example, where the landing light went off, and the pilots had no way of knowing if the landing gear was down. The pilots were so focussed on that light that no one noticed the autopilot had been disengaged, and they crashed the plane.” Morphew reached for her buddy’s air supply because it was the only air supply she could see.      

Panic, in this sense, is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart. 

Why does this distinction matter? In some instances, it doesn’t much. If you lose a close tennis match, it’s of little moment whether you choked or panicked; either way, you lost. But there are clearly cases when how failure happens is central to understanding why failure happens.      

Take the plane crash in which John F. Kennedy, Jr., was killed last summer. The details of the flight are well known. On a Friday evening last July, Kennedy took off with his wife and sister-in-law for Martha’s Vineyard. The night was hazy, and Kennedy flew along the Connecticut coastline, using the trail of lights below him as a guide. At Westerly, Rhode Island, he left the shoreline, heading straight out over Rhode Island Sound, and at that point, apparently disoriented by the darkness and haze, he began a series of curious maneuvers: He banked his plane to the right, farther out into the ocean, and then to the left. He climbed and descended. He sped up and slowed down. Just a few miles from his destination, Kennedy lost control of the plane, and it crashed into the ocean.      

Kennedy’s mistake, in technical terms, was that he failed to keep his wings level. That was critical, because when a plane banks to one side it begins to turn and its wings lose some of their vertical lift. Left unchecked, this process accelerates. The angle of the bank increases, the turn gets sharper and sharper, and the plane starts to dive toward the ground in an ever-narrowing corkscrew. Pilots call this the graveyard spiral. And why didn’t Kennedy stop the dive? Because, in times of low visibility and high stress, keeping your wings level–indeed, even knowing whether you are in a graveyard spiral–turns out to be surprisingly difficult. Kennedy failed under pressure.      

Had Kennedy been flying during the day or with a clear moon, he would have been fine. If you are the pilot, looking straight ahead from the cockpit, the angle of your wings will be obvious from the straight line of the horizon in front of you. But when it’s dark outside the horizon disappears. There is no external measure of the plane’s bank. On the ground, we know whether we are level even when it’s dark, because of the motion-sensing mechanisms in the inner ear. In a spiral dive, though, the effect of the plane’s G-force on the inner ear means that the pilot feels perfectly level even if his plane is not. Similarly, when you are in a jetliner that is banking at thirty degrees after takeoff, the book on your neighbor’s lap does not slide into your lap, nor will a pen on the floor roll toward the “down” side of the plane. The physics of flying is such that an airplane in the midst of a turn always feels perfectly level to someone inside the cabin.      

This is a difficult notion, and to understand it I went flying with William Langewiesche, the author of a superb book on flying, “Inside the Sky.” We met at San Jose Airport, in the jet center where the Silicon Valley billionaires keep their private planes. Langewiesche is a rugged man in his forties, deeply tanned, and handsome in the way that pilots (at least since the movie “The Right Stuff”) are supposed to be. We took off at dusk, heading out toward Monterey Bay, until we had left the lights of the coast behind and night had erased the horizon. Langewiesche let the plane bank gently to the left. He took his hands off the stick. The sky told me nothing now, so I concentrated on the instruments. The nose of the plane was dropping. The gyroscope told me that we were banking, first fifteen, then thirty, then forty-five degrees. “We’re in a spiral dive,” Langewiesche said calmly. Our airspeed was steadily accelerating, from a hundred and eighty to a hundred and ninety to two hundred knots. The needle on the altimeter was moving down. The plane was dropping like a stone, at three thousand feet per minute. I could hear, faintly, a slight increase in the hum of the engine, and the wind noise as we picked up speed. But if Langewiesche and I had been talking I would have caught none of that. Had the cabin been unpressurized, my ears might have popped, particularly as we went into the steep part of the dive. But beyond that? Nothing at all. In a spiral dive, the G-load–the force of inertia–is normal. As Langewiesche puts it, the plane likes to spiral-dive. The total time elapsed since we started diving was no more than six or seven seconds. Suddenly, Langewiesche straightened the wings and pulled back on the stick to get the nose of the plane up, breaking out of the dive. Only now did I feel the full force of the G-load, pushing me back in my seat. “You feel no G-load in a bank,” Langewiesche said. “There’s nothing more confusing for the uninitiated.”       

I asked Langewiesche how much longer we could have fallen. “Within five seconds, we would have exceeded the limits of the airplane,” he replied, by which he meant that the force of trying to pull out of the dive would have broken the plane into pieces. I looked away from the instruments and asked Langewiesche to spiral-dive again, this time without telling me. I sat and waited. I was about to tell Langewiesche that he could start diving anytime, when, suddenly, I was thrown back in my chair. “We just lost a thousand feet,” he said.      

This inability to sense, experientially, what your plane is doing is what makes night flying so stressful. And this was the stress that Kennedy must have felt when he turned out across the water at Westerly, leaving the guiding lights of the Connecticut coastline behind him. A pilot who flew into Nantucket that night told the National Transportation Safety Board that when he descended over Martha’s Vineyard he looked down and there was “nothing to see. There was no horizon and no light…. I thought the island might [have] suffered a power failure.” Kennedy was now blind, in every sense, and he must have known the danger he was in. He had very little experience in flying strictly by instruments. Most of the time when he had flown up to the Vineyard the horizon or lights had still been visible. That strange, final sequence of maneuvers was Kennedy’s frantic search for a clearing in the haze. He was trying to pick up the lights of Martha’s Vineyard, to restore the lost horizon. Between the lines of the National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the crash, you can almost feel his desperation:

About 2138 the target began a right turn in a southerly direction. About 30 seconds later, the target stopped its descent at 2200 feet and began a climb that lasted another 30 seconds.  During this period of time, the target stopped the turn, and the airspeed decreased to about 153 KIAS. About 2139, the target leveled off at 2500 feet and flew in a southeasterly direction. About 50 seconds later, the target entered a left turn and climbed to 2600 feet. As the target continued in the left turn, it began a descent that      reached a rate of about 900 fpm.      

But was he choking or panicking? Here the distinction between those two states is critical. Had he choked, he would have reverted to the mode of explicit learning. His movements in the cockpit would have become markedly slower and less fluid. He would have gone back to the mechanical, self-conscious application of the lessons he had first received as a pilot–and that might have been a good thing. Kennedy needed to think, to concentrate on his instruments, to break away from the instinctive flying that served him when he had a visible horizon.      

But instead, from all appearances, he panicked. At the moment when he needed to remember the lessons he had been taught about instrument flying, his mind–like Morphew’s when she was underwater–must have gone blank. Instead of reviewing the instruments, he seems to have been focussed on one question: Where are the lights of Martha’s Vineyard? His gyroscope and his other instruments may well have become as invisible as the peripheral lights in the underwater-panic experiments. He had fallen back on his instincts–on the way the plane felt–and in the dark, of course, instinct can tell you nothing. The N.T.S.B. report says that the last time the Piper’s wings were level was seven seconds past 9:40, and the plane hit the water at about 9:41, so the critical period here was less than sixty seconds. At twenty-five seconds past the minute, the plane was tilted at an angle greater than forty-five degrees. Inside the cockpit it would have felt normal. At some point, Kennedy must have heard the rising wind outside, or the roar of the engine as it picked up speed. Again, relying on instinct, he might have pulled back on the stick, trying to raise the nose of the plane. But pulling back on the stick without first levelling the wings only makes the spiral tighter and the problem worse. It’s also possible that Kennedy did nothing at all, and that he was frozen at the controls, still frantically searching for the lights of the Vineyard, when his plane hit the water. Sometimes pilots don’t even try to make it out of a spiral dive. Langewiesche calls that “one G all the way down.” 

What happened to Kennedy that night illustrates a second major difference between panicking and choking. Panicking is conventional failure, of the sort we tacitly understand. Kennedy panicked because he didn’t know enough about instrument flying. If he’d had another year in the air, he might not have panicked, and that fits with what we believe–that performance ought to improve with experience, and that pressure is an obstacle that the diligent can overcome. But choking makes little intuitive sense. Novotna’s problem wasn’t lack of diligence; she was as superbly conditioned and schooled as anyone on the tennis tour. And what did experience do for her? In 1995, in the third round of the French Open, Novotna choked even more spectacularly than she had against Graf, losing to Chanda Rubin after surrendering a 5-0 lead in the third set. There seems little doubt that part of the reason for her collapse against Rubin was her collapse against Graf–that the second failure built on the first, making it possible for her to be up 5-0 in the third set and yet entertain the thought I can still lose. If panicking is conventional failure, choking is paradoxical failure.      

Claude Steele, a psychologist at Stanford University, and his colleagues have done a number of experiments in recent years looking at how certain groups perform under pressure, and their findings go to the heart of what is so strange about choking. Steele and Joshua Aronson found that when they gave a group of Stanford undergraduates a standardized test and told them that it was a measure of their intellectual ability, the white students did much better than their black counterparts. But when the same test was presented simply as an abstract laboratory tool, with no relevance to ability, the scores of blacks and whites were virtually identical. Steele and Aronson attribute this disparity to what they call “stereotype threat”: when black students are put into a situation where they are directly confronted with a stereotype about their group–in this case, one having to do with intelligence–the resulting pressure causes their performance to suffer.      

Steele and others have found stereotype threat at work in any situation where groups are depicted in negative ways. Give a group of qualified women a math test and tell them it will measure their quantitative ability and they’ll do much worse than equally skilled men will; present the same test simply as a research tool and they’ll do just as well as the men. Or consider a handful of experiments conducted by one of Steele’s former graduate students, Julio Garcia, a professor at Tufts University. Garcia gathered together a group of white, athletic students and had a white instructor lead them through a series of physical tests: to jump as high as they could, to do a standing broad jump, and to see how many pushups they could do in twenty seconds. The instructor then asked them to do the tests a second time, and, as you’d expect, Garcia found that the students did a little better on each of the tasks the second time around. Then Garcia ran a second group of students through the tests, this time replacing the instructor between the first and second trials with an African-American. Now the white students ceased to improve on their vertical leaps. He did the experiment again, only this time he replaced the white instructor with a black instructor who was much taller and heavier than the previous black instructor. In this trial, the white students actually jumped less high than they had the first time around. Their performance on the pushups, though, was unchanged in each of the conditions. There is no stereotype, after all, that suggests that whites can’t do as many pushups as blacks. The task that was affected was the vertical leap, because of what our culture says: white men can’t jump.      

It doesn’t come as news, of course, that black students aren’t as good at test-taking as white students, or that white students aren’t as good at jumping as black students. The problem is that we’ve always assumed that this kind of failure under pressure is panic. What is it we tell underperforming athletes and students? The same thing we tell novice pilots or scuba divers: to work harder, to buckle down, to take the tests of their ability more seriously. But Steele says that when you look at the way black or female students perform under stereotype threat you don’t see the wild guessing of a panicked test taker. “What you tend to see is carefulness and second-guessing,” he explains. “When you go and interview them, you have the sense that when they are in the stereotype-threat condition they say to themselves, ‘Look, I’m going to be careful here. I’m not going to mess things up.’ Then, after having decided to take that strategy, they calm down and go through the test. But that’s not the way to succeed on a standardized test. The more you do that, the more you will get away from the intuitions that help you, the quick processing. They think they did well, and they are trying to do well. But they are not.” This is choking, not panicking. Garcia’s athletes and Steele’s students are like Novotna, not Kennedy. They failed because they were good at what they did: only those who care about how well they perform ever feel the pressure of stereotype threat. The usual prescription for failure–to work harder and take the test more seriously–would only make their problems worse.      

That is a hard lesson to grasp, but harder still is the fact that choking requires us to concern ourselves less with the performer and more with the situation in which the performance occurs. Novotna herself could do nothing to prevent her collapse against Graf. The only thing that could have saved her is if–at that critical moment in the third set–the television cameras had been turned off, the Duke and Duchess had gone home, and the spectators had been told to wait outside. In sports, of course, you can’t do that. Choking is a central part of the drama of athletic competition, because the spectators have to be there–and the ability to overcome the pressure of the spectators is part of what it means to be a champion. But the same ruthless inflexibility need not govern the rest of our lives. We have to learn that sometimes a poor performance reflects not the innate ability of the performer but the complexion of the audience; and that sometimes a poor test score is the sign not of a poor student but of a good one. 

Through the first three rounds of the 1996 Masters golf tournament, Greg Norman held a seemingly insurmountable lead over his nearest rival, the Englishman Nick Faldo. He was the best player in the world. His nickname was the Shark. He didn’t saunter down the fairways; he stalked the course, blond and broad-shouldered, his caddy behind him, struggling to keep up. But then came the ninth hole on the tournament’s final day. Norman was paired with Faldo, and the two hit their first shots well. They were now facing the green. In front of the pin, there was a steep slope, so that any ball hit short would come rolling back down the hill into oblivion. Faldo shot first, and the ball landed safely long, well past the cup.       

Norman was next. He stood over the ball. “The one thing you guard against here is short,” the announcer said, stating the obvious. Norman swung and then froze, his club in midair, following the ball in flight. It was short. Norman watched, stone-faced, as the ball rolled thirty yards back down the hill, and with that error something inside of him broke.      

At the tenth hole, he hooked the ball to the left, hit his third shot well past the cup, and missed a makeable putt. At eleven, Norman had a three-and-a-half-foot putt for par–the kind he had been making all week. He shook out his hands and legs before grasping the club, trying to relax. He missed: his third straight bogey. At twelve, Norman hit the ball straight into the water. At thirteen, he hit it into a patch of pine needles. At sixteen, his movements were so mechanical and out of synch that, when he swung, his hips spun out ahead of his body and the ball sailed into another pond. At that, he took his club and made a frustrated scythelike motion through the grass, because what had been obvious for twenty minutes was now official: he had fumbled away the chance of a lifetime.      

Faldo had begun the day six strokes behind Norman. By the time the two started their slow walk to the eighteenth hole, through the throng of spectators, Faldo had a four- stroke lead. But he took those final steps quietly, giving only the smallest of nods, keeping his head low. He understood what had happened on the greens and fairways that day. And he was bound by the particular etiquette of choking, the understanding that what he had earned was something less than a victory and what Norman had suffered was something less than a defeat.      

When it was all over, Faldo wrapped his arms around Norman. “I don’t know what to say — I just want to give you a hug,” he whispered, and then he said the only thing you can say to a choker: “I feel horrible about what happened. I’m so sorry.” With that, the two men began to cry.

Posted in Power, Sociology, Students, Teaching

Willard Waller on the Power Struggle between Teachers and Students

In 1932, Willard Waller published his classic book, The Sociology of Teaching.  For years I used a chapter from it (“The Teacher-Pupil Relationship“) as a way to get students to think about the problem that most frightens rookie teachers and that continues to haunt even the most experienced practitioners:  how to gain and maintain control of the classroom.

The core problems facing you as a teacher in the classroom are these:  students radically outnumber you; they don’t want to be there; and your power to get them to do what you want is sharply limited.  Otherwise, teaching is a piece of cake.

They outnumber you:  Teaching is one of the few professions that are practiced in isolation from other professionals.  Most classrooms are self-contained structures with one teacher and 25 or 30 students, so teachers have to ply their craft behind closed doors without the support of their peers.  You can commiserate with colleagues about you class in the bar after work, but during the school day you are on your own, left to figure out a way to maintain control that works for you.

They’re conscripts:   Most professionals have voluntary clients, who come to them seeking help with a problem: write my will, fix my knee, do my taxes.  Students are not like that.  They’re in the classroom under compulsion.  The law mandates school attendance and so does the job market, since the only way to get a good job is to acquire the right educational credentials.  As a result, as a teacher you have to figure out how to motivate this group of conscripts to follow your lead and learn what you teach.  This poses a huge challenge, to face a room full of students who may be thinking, “Teach me, I dare you.”

Your powers are limited:   You have some implied authority as an adult and some institutional authority as the agent of the school, but the consequences students face for resisting you are relatively weak:  a low grade, a timeout in the back of the room, a referral to the principal, or a call to the parent.  In the long run, resisting school can ruin your future by consigning you to a bad job, low pay, and a shorter life.  And teachers try to use this angle:  Listen up, you’re going to need this some day.  But the long run is not very meaningful to kids, for whom adulthood is a distant fantasy but the reality of life in the classroom is here and now.  As a result, teachers rely on a kind of confidence game, pretending they have more power than they do and trying to keep students from realizing the truth.  You can only issue a few threats before students begin to realize how hollow they are.

One example of the limits of teacher power is something I remember teachers saying when I was in elementary school:  “Don’t let me you see you do that again!”  At the time this just meant “Don’t do it,” but now I’ve come to interpret the admonition more literally:  “Don’t let me you see you do that again!”  If I see you, I’ll have to call you on it in order to put down your challenge to my authority; but if you do it behind my back, I don’t have to respond and can save my ammunition for a direct threat.

Here’s how Waller sees the problem:

The weightiest social relationship of the teacher is his relationship to his students; it is this relationship which is teaching.  It is around this relationship that the teacher’s personality tends to be organized, and it is in adaptation to the needs of this relationship that the qualities of character which mark the teacher are produced. The teacher-pupil relationship is a special form of dominance and subordination, a very unstable relationship and in quivering equilibrium, not much supported by sanction and the strong arm of authority, but depending largely upon purely personal ascendancy.  Every  teacher is  a  taskmaster and  every  taskmaster is a hard man….

Ouch.  He goes on to describe the root of the conflict between teachers and students in the classroom:

The teacher-pupil relationship is a form of institutionalized dominance and subordination. Teacher and pupil confront each other in the school with an original conflict of desires, and however much that conflict may be reduced in amount, or however much it may be hidden, it still remains. The teacher represents the adult group, ever the enemy of the spontaneous life of groups of children. The teacher represents the formal curriculum, and his interest is in imposing that curriculum upon the children in the form of tasks; pupils are much more interested in life in their own world than in the desiccated bits of adult life which teachers have to offer. The teacher represents the established social order in the school, and his interest is in maintaining that order, whereas pupils have only a negative interest in that feudal superstructure.

I’ve always resonated with this depiction of the school curriculum:  “desiccated bits of adult life.”  Why indeed would students develop an appetite for the processed meat that emerges from textbooks?  Why would they be eager to learn the dry as toast knowledge that constitutes the formal curriculum, disconnected from context and bereft of meaning?

Waller Book Cover

An additional insight I gain from Waller is this:  that teaching has a great impact on teachers than on students.

Conflict is in the role, for the wishes of the teacher and the student are necessarily divergent, and more conflict because the teacher must protect himself from the possible destruction of his authority that might arise from this divergence of motives. Subordination is possible only because the subordinated one is a subordinate with a mere fragment of his personality, while the dominant one participates completely. The subject is a subject only part of the time and with a part of himself, but the king is all king.

What a great insight.  Students can phone it in.  They can pretend to be listening while lost in their own fantasies.  But teachers don’t enjoy this luxury.  They need to be totally immersed in the teacher role, making it a component of self and not a cloak lightly worn.  “The subject is a subject only part of the time and with a part of himself, but the king is all king.”

Here he talks about the resources that teachers and students bring to the struggle for power in the classroom:

Whatever the rules that the teacher lays down, the tendency of the pupils is to empty them of meaning. By mechanization of conformity, by “laughing off” the teacher or hating him out of all existence as a person, by taking refuge in self-initiated activities that are always just beyond the teacher’s reach, students attempt to neutralize teacher control. The teacher, however, is striving to read meaning into the rules and regulations, to make standards really standards, to force students really to conform. This is a battle which is not unequal. The power of the teacher to pass rules is not limited, but his power to enforce rules is, and so is his power to control attitudes toward rules.

He goes on to wrap up this point, repeating it in different forms in order to bring it home.

Teaching makes the teacher. Teaching is a boomerang that never fails to come back to the hand that threw it. Of teaching, too, it is true, perhaps, that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and it also has more effect. Between good teaching and bad there is a great difference where students are concerned, but none in this, that its most pronounced effect is upon the teacher. Teaching does something to those who teach.

I love this stuff, and students who have been teachers often appreciate the way he gives visibility to the visceral struggle for control that they experienced in the classroom.  But for a lot of students, teachers or not, he’s a hard sell.  One complaint is that he’s sexist.  Of course he is.  The teacher is always “he” and the milieu he’s describing has a masculine feel, focused more on power over students than on engagement with them.  But so what?  The power issue in the classroom is as real for female as male teachers.

A related complaint is that the situation he describes is dated; things are different in classrooms now than they were in the 1930s.  The teacher-student relationship today is warmer, more informal, more focused on drawing students into the process of learning than on driving them toward it.  In this context, teachers who exercise power in the classroom can just be seen as bad teachers.  Good teachers take a progressive approach, creating an atmosphere of positive feeling in which students and teachers like each other and interact through exchange rather than dictation.

Much of this is true, I think.  Classrooms are indeed warmer and more informal places than they used to be, as Larry Cuban has pointed out in his work.  But that doesn’t mean that the power struggle has disappeared.  Progressive teachers are engaged in the eternal pedagogical practice of getting students to do what teachers want.  This is an exercise in power, but contemporary teachers are just sneakier about it.  They find ways of motivating student compliance with their wishes through inducement, personal engagement, humor, and fostering affectionate connections with their students.

The most effective use of power is the one that is least visible.  Better to have students feel that what they’re doing in the classroom is the result of their own choice rather than the dictate of the teacher.  But this is still a case of a teacher imposing her will on students, and it’s still true that without imposing her will she won’t be able to teach effectively.  Waller just scrapes off the rose-tinted film of progressive posturing from the window into teaching, so you can see for yourself what’s really at stake in the pedagogical exchange.

It helps to realized that The Sociology of Teaching was used as a textbook for students who were preparing to become teachers.  In it, his voice is that of a grizzled homicide detective lecturing bright-eyed students at the police academy, revealing the true nature of the job they’re embarking on.  David Cohen caught Waller’s vision perfectly in a lovely essay, “Willard Waller, On Hating School and Loving Education,” which I highly recommend.  From his perspective, Waller was a jaded progressive, who pined for schools that were true to the progressive spirit but wanted to warn future teachers about the grim reality what was actually awaiting them.

Waller’s book has been out of print for years, but you can find a scanned version here.  Enjoy.

Posted in Family, Meritocracy, Modernity, Schooling, Sociology, Teaching

What Schools Can Do that Families Can’t: Robert Dreeben’s Analysis

In this post, I explore a key issue in understanding the social role that schools play:  Why do we need schools anyway?  For thousands of years, children grew up learning the skills, knowledge, and values they would need in order to be fully functioning adults.  They didn’t need schools to accomplish this.  The family, the tribe, the apprenticeship, and the church were sufficient to provide them with this kind of acculturation.  Keep in mind that education is ancient but universal public schooling is a quite recent invention, which arose about 200 years ago as part of the creation of modernity.

Here I focus on a comparison between family and school as institutions for social learning.  In particular, I examine what social ends schools can accomplish that families can’t.  I’m drawing on a classic analysis by Robert Dreeben in his 1968 book, On What Is Learned in School.  Dreeben is a sociologist in the structural functionalist tradition who was a student of Talcott Parsons.  His book demonstrates the strengths of functionalism in helping us understand schooling as a critically important mechanism for societies to survive in competition with other societies in the modern era.  The section I’m focusing on here is chapter six, “The Contribution of Schooling to the Learning of Norms: Independence, Achievement, Universalism, and Specificity.”   I strongly recommend that you read the original, using the preceding link.  My discussion is merely a commentary on his text.

Dreeben Cover

I’m drawing on a set of slides I used when I taught this chapter in class.

This is structural functionalism at its best:

      • The structure of schooling teaches students values that modern societies require; the structure functions even if that outcome is unintended

He examines the social functions of the school compared with the family

      • Not the explicit learning that goes on in school – the subject matter, the curriculum (English, math, science, social studies)

      • Instead he looks as the social norms you learn in school

He’s not focusing on the explicit teaching that goes on in school – the formal curriculum

      • Instead he focuses on what the structure of the school setting teaches students – vs. what the structure of the family teaches children

      • The emphasis, therefore, is on the differences in social structure of the two settings

      • What can and can’t be learned in each setting?

Families and schools are parallel in several important ways

      • Socialization: they teach the young

        • Both provide the young with skills, knowledge, values, and norms

        • Both use explicit and implicit teaching

      • Selection: they set the young on a particular social trajectory in the social hierarchy

        • Both provide them with social means to attain a particular social position

        • School: via grades, credits and degrees

        • Families: via economic, social, and cultural capital

The difference between family and school boils down to preparing the young for two very different kinds of social relationships

      • Primary relationships, which families model as the relations between parent and child and between siblings

      • Secondary relationships, which schools model as the relations between teacher and student and between students

Each setting prepares children to take on a distinctive kind of relationship

Dreeben argues that schools teach students four norms that are central to the effective functioning of modern societies:  Independence, achievement, universalism, and specificity.  These are central to the kinds of roles we play in public life, which sociologists call secondary roles, roles that are institutionally structured in relation to other secondary roles, such as employee-employer, customer-clerk, bus rider-bus driver, teacher-student.  The norms that define proper behavior in secondary roles differ strikingly from the norms for another set of relationship defined as primary roles.  These are the intimate relationship we have with our closest friends and family members.  One difference is that we play a large number of secondary roles in order to function in complex modern societies but only a small number of primary roles.  Another is that secondary roles are strictly utilitarian, means to practical ends, whereas primary roles are ends in themselves.  A third is that secondary role relationships are narrowly defined; you don’t need or want to know much about the salesperson in the store in order to make your purchase.  Primary relationship are quite diffuse, requiring deeper involvement — friends vs. acquaintances.

As a result, each of the four norms that schools teach, which are essential for maintaining secondary role relationships, correspond to equal and opposite norms that are essential for maintaining primary role relationships.  Modern social life requires expertise at moving back and forth effortlessly between these different kinds of roles and the contrasting norms they require of us.  We have to be good at maintaining our work relations and our personal relations and knowing which norms apply to which setting.

Secondary Roles                      Primary Roles

(Work, public, school)           (Family, friends)

Independence                          Group orientation

Achievement                            Ascription

Universalism                            Particularism

Specificity                                  Diffuseness

Here is what’s involved in each of these contrasting norms:

Independence                            Group orientation

      Self reliance                                Dependence on group

      Individualism                             Group membership

      Individual effort                        Collective effort

      Act on your own                         Need/owe group support

Achievement                               Ascription

      Status based on what you do  Status based on who you are

      Active                                             Passive

      Earned                                           Inherited

                         Meritocracy                                  Aristocracy

Universalism                              Particularism

      Equality within category —       Personal uniqueness — my child

           a 5th grade student

      General rules apply to all        Different rules for us vs. them

      Central to fairness, justice      Central to being special

Specificity                                   Diffuseness

       Narrow relations                       Broad relations

       Extrinsic relations                    Intrinsic relations

       Means to an end                        An end in itself

Think about how the structure of the school differs from the structure of the family and what the consequences of these differences are.

Family vs. School:

Structure of the school (vs. structure of the family)

      • Teacher and student are both achieved roles (ascribed roles)

      • Large number of kids per adult (few)

      • No particularistic ties between teacher and students (blood ties)

      • Teachers deal with the class as a group (families as individuals based on sex and birth order)

      • Teacher and student are universalistic roles, with individuals being interchangeable in these roles (family roles are unique to that family and not interchangeable)

      • Relationship is short term, especially as you move up the grades (relations are lifelong)

      • Teachers and students are subject to objective evaluation (familie use subjective, emotional criteria)

      • Teachers and students both see their roles as means to an end (family relations are supposed to be selfless, ends in themselves)

      • Students are all the same age (in family birth order is central)

  Consider the modes of differentiation and stratification in families vs. schools.

Children in families:

Race, class, ethnicity, and religion are all the same

Age and gender are different

Children in schools:

Age is the same

Race, class, ethnicity, religion, and gender are different

This allows for meritocratic evaluation, fostering the learning of achievement and independence

Questions

Do you agree that characteristics of school as a social structure makes it effective at transmitting secondary social norms, preparing for secondary roles?

Do you agree that characteristics of family as a social structure makes it ineffective at transmitting secondary norms, preparing for secondary roles?

But consider this complication to the story

Are schools, workplaces, public interactions fully in tune with the secondary model?

Are families, friends fully in tune with the primary model?

How do these two intermingle?  Why?

      • Having friends at work and school, makes life nicer – and also makes you work more efficiently

      • Getting students to like you makes you a more effective teacher

      • But the norm for a professional or occupational relationship is secondary – that’s how you define a good teacher, lawyer, worker

      • The norm for primary relations is that they are ends in themselves not means to an end

      • Family members may use each other for personal gain, but that is not considered the right way to behave

Posted in Academic writing, Higher Education, Teaching, Writing

I Would Rather Do Anything Else than Grade Your Final Papers — Robin Lee Mozer

If the greatest joy that comes from retirement is that I no longer have to attend faculty meetings, the second greatest joy is that I no longer have to grade student papers.  I know, I know: commenting on student writing is a key component of being a good teacher, and there’s a real satisfaction that comes from helping someone become a better thinker and better writer.

But most students are not producing papers to improve their minds or hone their writing skills.  They’re just trying to fulfill a course requirement and get a decent grade.  And this creates a strong incentive not for excellence but for adequacy.  It encourages people to devote most of their energy toward gaming the system.

The key skill is to produce something that looks and feels like a good answer to the exam question or a good analysis of an intellectual problem.  Students have a powerful incentive to accomplish the highest grade for the lowest investment of time and intellectual effort.  This means aiming for quantity over quality (puff up the prose to hit the word count) and form over substance (dutifully refer to the required readings without actually drawing meaningful content from them).  Glibness provides useful cover for the absence of content.  It’s depressing to observe how the system fosters discursive means that undermine the purported aims of education.

Back in the days when students turned in physical papers and then received them back with handwritten comments from the instructor, I used to get a twinge in my stomach when I saw that most students didn’t bother to pick up their final papers from the box outside my office.  I felt like a sucker for providing careful comments that no one would ever see.  At one point I even asked students to tell me in advance if they wanted their papers back, so I only commented on the ones that might get read.  But this was even more depressing, since it meant that a lot of students didn’t even mind letting me know that they really only cared about the grade.  The fiction of doing something useful was what helped keep me going.

So, like many other faculty, I responded with joy to a 2016 piece that Robin Lee Mozer wrote in McSweeney’s called “I Would Rather Do Anything Else than Grade Your Final Papers.”  As a public service to teachers everywhere, I’m republishing her essay here.  Enjoy.

 

I WOULD RATHER DO ANYTHING ELSE THAN GRADE YOUR FINAL PAPERS

Dear Students Who Have Just Completed My Class,

I would rather do anything else than grade your Final Papers.

I would rather base jump off of the parking garage next to the student activity center or eat that entire sketchy tray of taco meat leftover from last week’s student achievement luncheon that’s sitting in the department refrigerator or walk all the way from my house to the airport on my hands than grade your Final Papers.

I would rather have a sustained conversation with my grandfather about politics and government-supported healthcare and what’s wrong with the system today and why he doesn’t believe in homeowner’s insurance because it’s all a scam than grade your Final Papers. Rather than grade your Final Papers, I would stand in the aisle at Lowe’s and listen patiently to All the Men mansplain the process of buying lumber and how essential it is to sight down the board before you buy it to ensure that it’s not bowed or cupped or crook because if you buy lumber with defects like that you’re just wasting your money even as I am standing there, sighting down a 2×4 the way my father taught me 15 years ago.

I would rather go to Costco on the Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend. With my preschooler. After preschool.

I would rather go through natural childbirth with twins. With triplets. I would rather take your chemistry final for you. I would rather eat beef stroganoff. I would rather go back to the beginning of the semester like Sisyphus and recreate my syllabus from scratch while simultaneously building an elaborate class website via our university’s shitty web-based course content manager and then teach the entire semester over again than grade your goddamn Final Papers.

I do not want to read your 3AM-energy-drink-fueled excuse for a thesis statement. I do not want to sift through your mixed metaphors, your abundantly employed logical fallacies, your incessant editorializing of your writing process wherein you tell me As I was reading through articles for this paper I noticed that — or In the article that I have chosen to analyze, I believe the author is trying to or worse yet, I sat down to write this paper and ideas kept flowing into my mind as I considered what I should write about because honestly, we both know that the only thing flowing into your mind were thoughts of late night pizza or late night sex or late night pizza and sex, or maybe thoughts of that chemistry final you’re probably going to fail later this week and anyway, you should know by now that any sentence about anything flowing into or out of or around your blessed mind won’t stand in this college writing classroom or Honors seminar or lit survey because we are Professors and dear god, we have Standards.

I do not want to read the one good point you make using the one source that isn’t Wikipedia. I do not want to take the time to notice that it is cited properly. I do not want to read around your 1.25-inch margins or your gauche use of size 13 sans serif fonts when everyone knows that 12-point Times New Roman is just. Fucking. Standard. I do not want to note your missing page numbers. Again. For the sixth time this semester. I do not want to attempt to read your essay printed in lighter ink to save toner, as you say, with the river of faded text from a failing printer cartridge splitting your paper like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, only there, it was a sea and an entire people and here it is your vague stand-in for an argument.

I do not want to be disappointed.

I do not want to think less of you as a human being because I know that you have other classes and that you really should study for that chemistry final because it is organic chemistry and everyone who has ever had a pre-med major for a roommate knows that organic chemistry is the weed out course and even though you do not know this yet because you have never even had any sort of roommate until now, you are going to be weeded out. You are going to be weeded out and then you will be disappointed and I do not want that for you. I do not want that for you because you will have enough disappointments in your life, like when you don’t become a doctor and instead become a philosophy major and realize that you will never make as much money as your brother who went into some soul-sucking STEM field and landed some cushy government contract and made Mom and Dad so proud and who now gives you expensive home appliances like espresso machines and Dyson vacuums for birthday gifts and all you ever send him are socks and that subscription to that shave club for the $6 middle-grade blades.

I do not want you to be disappointed. I would rather do anything else than disappoint you and crush all your hopes and dreams —

Except grade your Final Papers.

The offer to take your chemistry final instead still stands.

Posted in History of education, Meritocracy, Sociology, Systems of Schooling, Teaching

Pluck vs. Luck

This post is a piece I recently published in AeonHere’s the link to the original.  I wrote this after years of futile efforts to get Stanford students to think critically about how they got to their current location at the top of the meritocracy.  It was nearly impossible to get students to consider that their path to Palo Alto might have been the result of anything but smarts and hard work.  Luck of birth never seemed to be a major factor in the stories they told about how they got here.  I can understand this, since I’ve spent a lifetime patting myself on the back for my own academic accomplishments, feeling sorry for the poor bastards who didn’t have what it took to climb the academic ladder.

But in recent years, I have come to spend a lot of time thinking critically about the nature of the American meritocracy.  I’ve published a few pieces here on the subject, in which I explore the way in which this process of allocating status through academic achievement constitutes a nearly perfect system for reproducing social inequality — protected by a solid cover of legitimacy.  The story it tells to everyone in society, winners and losers alike, is that you got what you deserved.

So I started telling students my own story about how I got to Stanford — in two contrasting versions.  One is a traditional account of climbing the ladder through skill and grit, a story of merit rewarded.  The other is a more realistic account of getting ahead by leveraging family advantage, a story of having the right parents.

See what you think.

Pluck vs. Luck

David F. Labaree

Occupants of the American meritocracy are accustomed to telling stirring stories about their lives. The standard one is a comforting tale about grit in the face of adversity – overcoming obstacles, honing skills, working hard – which then inevitably affords entry to the Promised Land. Once you have established yourself in the upper reaches of the occupational pyramid, this story of virtue rewarded rolls easily off the tongue. It makes you feel good (I got what I deserved) and it reassures others (the system really works).

But you can also tell a different story, which is more about luck than pluck, and whose driving forces are less your own skill and motivation, and more the happy circumstances you emerged from and the accommodating structure you traversed.

As an example, here I’ll tell my own story about my career negotiating the hierarchy in the highly stratified system of higher education in the United States. I ended up in a cushy job as a professor at Stanford University. How did I get there? I tell the story both ways: one about pluck, the other about luck. One has the advantage of making me more comfortable. The other has the advantage of being more true.

I was born to a middle-class family and grew up in Philadelphia in the 1950s. As a skinny, shy kid who wasn’t good at sports, my early life revolved about being a good student. In upper elementary school, I became president of the student council and captain of the safety patrol (an office that conferred a cool red badge that I wore with pride). In high school, I continued to be the model student, eventually getting elected president of the student council (see a pattern here?) and graduating in 1965 near the top of my class. I was accepted at Harvard University with enough advanced-placement credits to skip freshman year (which, fortunately, I didn’t). There I majored in antiwar politics. Those were the days when an activist organisation such as Students for a Democratic Society was a big factor on campuses. I went to two of their annual conventions and wrote inflammatory screeds about Harvard’s elitism (who knew).

In 1970, I graduated with a degree in sociology and no job prospects. What do you do with a sociology degree, anyway? It didn’t help that the job market was in the doldrums. I eventually ended up back in Philadelphia with a job at the Federal Reserve Bank – first in public relations (leading school groups on tours) and then in bank relations (visiting banks around the Third Federal Reserve District). From student radical with a penchant for Marxist sociology, I suddenly became a banker wearing a suit every day and reading The Wall Street Journal. It got me out of the house and into my own apartment but it was not for me. Labarees don’t do finance.

After four years, I quit in disgust, briefly became a reporter at a suburban newspaper, hated that too, and then stumbled by accident into academic work. Looking for any old kind of work in the want ads in my old paper, I spotted an opening at Bucks County Community College, where I applied for three different positions – admissions officer, writing instructor, and sociology instructor. I got hired in the latter role, and the rest is history. I liked the work but realised that I needed a master’s degree to get a full-time job, so I entered the University of Pennsylvania sociology department. Once in the programme, I decided to continue on to get a PhD, supporting myself by teaching at the community college, Trenton State, and at Penn.

In 1981, as I was nearing the end of my dissertation, I started applying for faculty positions. Little did I know that the job market was lousy and that I would be continually applying for positions for the next four years.

As someone who started at the bottom, I can tell you that everything is better at the top

The first year yielded one job offer, at a place so depressing that I decided to stay in Philadelphia and continue teaching as an adjunct. That spring I got a one-year position in sociology at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. In the fall, with the clock ticking, I applied to 60 jobs around the country. This time, my search yielded four interviews, all tenure-track positions – at Yale University, at Georgetown, at the University of Cincinnati and at Widener University.

The only offer I got was the one I didn’t want, Widener – a small, non-selective private school in the Philadelphia suburbs that until the 1960s had been a military college. Three years past degree, I felt I had hit bottom in the meritocracy. The moment I got there, I started applying for jobs while desperately trying to write my way into a better one. I published a couple of journal articles and submitted a book proposal to Yale University Press. They hadn’t hired me but maybe they’d publish me.

Finally, a lifeline came my way. A colleague at the College of Education at Michigan State University encouraged me to apply for a position in history of education and I got the job. In the fall of 1985, I started as an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at MSU. Fifteen years after college and four years after starting to look for faculty positions, my career in higher education finally took a big jump upward.

MSU was a wonderful place to work and to advance an academic career. I taught there for 18 years, moving through the ranks to full professor, and publishing three books and 20 articles and book chapters. Early on, I won two national awards for my first book and a university teaching award, and was later elected president of the History of Education Society and vice-president of the American Educational Research Association.

Then in 2002 came an opportunity to apply for a position in education at one of the world’s great universities, Stanford. It worked out, and I started there as a professor in 2003 in the School of Education, and stayed until retirement in 2018. I served in several administrative roles including associate dean, and was given an endowed chair. How cool.

As someone who started at the bottom of the hierarchy of US higher education, I can tell you that everything is better at the top. Everything: pay, teaching loads, intellectual culture, quality of faculty and students, physical surroundings, staff support, travel funds, perks. Even the weather is better. Making it in the meritocracy is as good as it gets. No matter how hard things go at first, talent will win out. Virtue earns its reward. Life is fair.

Of course, there’s also another story, one that’s less heartening but more realistic. A story that’s more about luck than pluck, and that features structural circumstances more than heroic personal struggle. So let me now tell that version.

Professor Robert M Labaree of Lincoln University in southeast Pennsylvania, the author’s grandfather. Photo courtesy of the author

The short story is that I’m in the family business. In the 1920s, my parents grew up as next-door neighbours on a university campus where their fathers were both professors. It was Lincoln University, a historically black institution in southeast Pennsylvania near the Mason-Dixon line. The students were black, the faculty white – most of the latter, like my grandfathers, were clergymen. The students were well-off financially, coming from the black bourgeoisie, whereas the highly educated faculty lived in the genteel poverty of university housing. It was a kind of cultural missionary setting, but more comfortable than the foreign missions. One grandfather had served as a missionary in Iran, where my father was born; that was hardship duty. But here was a place where upper-middle-class whites could do good and do well at the same time.

Both grandfathers were Presbyterian ministers, each descended from long lines of Presbyterian ministers. The Presbyterian clergy developed a well-earned reputation over the years of having modest middle-class economic capital and large stores of social and cultural capital. Relatively poor in money, they were rich in social authority and higher learning. In this tradition, education is everything. In part because of that, some ended up in US higher education, where in the 19th century most of the faculty were clergy (because they were well-educated men and worked for peanuts). My grandfather’s grandfather, Benjamin Labaree, was president of Middlebury College in the 1840s and ’50s. Two of my father’s cousins were professors; my brother is a professor. It’s the family business.

Rev Benjamin Labaree, who was president of Middlebury College, 1840-1866, and the author’s great-great-grandfather. Photo courtesy of the author

Like many retirees, I recently started to dabble in genealogy. Using Ancestry.com, I’ve traced back 10 or 12 generations on both sides of the family, some back to the 1400s, finding ancestors in the US, Scotland, England and France. They are all relentlessly upper-middle-class – mostly ministers, but also some physicians and other professionals. Not a peasant in the bunch, and no one in business. I’m to the manor born (well, really the manse). The most distant Labaree I’ve found is Jacques Laborie, born in 1668 in the village of Cardaillac in France. He served as a surgeon in the army of Louis XIV and then became ordained as a Calvinist minister in Zurich before Louis in 1685 expelled the reformed Protestants (Huguenots) from France. He moved to England, where he married another Huguenot, and then immigrated to Connecticut. Among his descendants were at least four generations of Presbyterian ministers, including two college professors. This is a good start for someone like me, seeking to climb the hierarchy of higher education – like being born on third base. But how did it work out in practice for my career?

I was the model Harvard student – a white, upper-middle-class male from an elite school

My parents both attended elite colleges, Princeton University and Wilson College (on ministerial scholarships), and they invested heavily in their children’s education. They sent us to a private high school and private colleges. It was a sacrifice to do this, but they thought it was worth it. Compared with our next-door neighbours, we lived modestly – driving an old station wagon instead of a new Cadillac – but we took pride in our cultural superiority. Labarees didn’t work in trade. Having blown their money on schooling and lived too long, my parents died broke. They were neither the first nor the last victims of the meritocracy, who gave their all so that their children could succeed.

This background gave me a huge edge in cultural and social capital. In my high school’s small and high-quality classrooms, I got a great education and learned how to write. The school traditionally sent its top five students every year to Princeton but I decided on Harvard instead. At the time, I was the model Harvard student – a white, upper-middle-class male from an elite school. No females and almost no minorities.

At Harvard, I distinguished myself in political activity rather than scholarship. I avoided seminars and honours programmes, where it was harder to hide and standards were higher. After the first year, I almost never attended discussion sections, and skipped the majority of the lectures as well, muddling through by doing the reading, and writing a good-enough paper or exam. I phoned it in. When I graduated, I had an underwhelming manuscript, with a 2.5 grade-point average (B-/C+). Not exactly an ideal candidate for graduate study, one would think.

And then there was that job at the bank, which got me out of the house and kept me fed and clothed until I finally recognised my family calling by going to grad school. After beating the bushes looking for work up and down the west coast, how did I get this job? Turned out that my father used to play in a string quartet with a guy who later became the vice-president for personnel at the Federal Reserve Bank. My father called, the friend said come down for an interview. I did and I got the job.

When I finally decided to pursue grad school, I took the Graduate Record Examinations and scored high. Great. The trouble is that an applicant with high scores and low grades is problematic, since this combination suggests high ability and bad attitude. But somehow I got into an elite graduate programme (though Princeton turned me down). Why? Because I went to Harvard, so who cares about the grades? It’s a brand that opens doors. Take my application to teach at the community college. Why hire someone with no graduate degree and a mediocre undergraduate transcript to teach college students? It turns out that the department chair who hired me also went to Harvard. Members of the club take care of each other.

If you have the right academic credentials, you get the benefit of the doubt. The meritocracy is quite forgiving toward its own. You get plenty of second and third chances where others would not. Picture if I had applied to Penn with the same grades and scores but with a degree from West Chester (state) University instead of Harvard. Would I really have had a chance? You can blow off your studies without consequence if you do it at the right school. Would I have been hired to teach at the community college with an off-brand BA? I think not.

And let’s reconsider my experience at Widener. For me – an upper-middle-class professor with two Ivy League degrees and generations of cultural capital – these students were a world apart. Of course, so were the community-college students I taught earlier, but they were taking courses on weekends while holding a job. That felt more like teaching night school than teaching college. At Widener, however, they were full-time students at a place that called itself a university, but to me this wasn’t a real university where I could be a real professor. Looking around the campus with the eye of a born-and-bred snob, I decided quickly that these were not my people. Most were the first in their families to be going to college and did not have the benefit of a strong high-school education.

In order to make it in academe, you need friends in high places. I had them

A student complained to me one day after she got back her exam that she’d received a worse grade than her friend who didn’t study nearly as hard. That’s not fair, she said. I shrugged it off at the time. Her answer to the essay exam question was simply not as good. But looking back, I realised that I was grading my students on skills I wasn’t teaching them. I assigned multiple readings and then gave take-home exams, which required students to weave together a synthesis of these readings in an essay that responded to a broad analytical question. That’s the kind of exam I was used to, but it required a set of analytical and writing skills that I assumed rather than provided. You can do well on a multiple-choice exam if you study the appropriate textbook chapters; the more time you invest, the higher the grade. That might not be a great way to learn, but it’s a system that rewards effort. My exams, however, rewarded discursive fluency and verbal glibness over diligent study. Instead of trying to figure out how to give these students the cultural capital they needed, I chose to move on to a place where students already had these skills. Much more comfortable.

Oh yes, and what about that first book, the one that won awards, gained me tenure, and launched my career? Well, my advisor at Penn, Michael Katz, had published a book with an editor at Praeger, Gladys Topkis, who then ended up at Yale University Press. With his endorsement, I sent her a proposal for a book based on my dissertation. She gave me a contract. When I submitted the manuscript, a reviewer recommended against publication, but she convinced the editorial board to approve it anyway. Without my advisor, no editor. And without the editor, no book, no awards, no tenure, and no career. It’s as simple as that. In order to make it in academe, you need friends in high places. I had them.

All of this, plus two more books at Yale, helped me make the move up to Stanford. Never would have happened otherwise. By then, on paper I began to look like a golden boy, checking all the right boxes for an elite institution. And when I announced that I was making the move to Stanford in the spring of 2003, before I even assumed the role, things started changing in my life. Suddenly, it seemed, I got a lot smarter. People wanted me to come give a lecture, join an editorial board, contribute to a book, chair a committee. An old friend, a professor in Sweden, invited me to become a visiting professor in his university. Slightly embarrassed, he admitted that this was because of my new label as a Stanford professor. Swedes know only a few universities in the US, he said, and Stanford is one of them. Like others who find a spot near the top of the meritocracy, I was quite willing to accept this honour, without worrying too much about whether it was justified. Like the pay and perks, it just seemed exactly what I deserved. Special people get special benefits; it only makes sense.

And speaking of special benefits, it certainly didn’t hurt that I am a white male – a category that dominates the professoriate, especially at the upper levels. Among full-time faculty members in US degree-granting institutions, 72 per cent of assistant professors and 81 per cent of full professors are white; meanwhile, 47 per cent of assistants and 66 per cent of professors are male. At the elite level, the numbers are even more skewed. At Stanford, whites make up 54 per cent of tenure-line assistant professors but 82 per cent of professors; under-represented minorities account for only 8 per cent of assistants and 5 per cent of professors. Meanwhile, males constitute 60 per cent of assistants and 78 per cent of professors. In US higher education, white males still rule.

Oh, and what about my endowed chair? Well, it turns out that when the holder of the chair retires, the honour moves on to someone else. I inherited the title in 2017 and held it for a year and a half before I retired and it passed on to the next person. What came with the title? Nothing substantial, no additional salary or research funds. Except I did get one material benefit from this experience, which I was allowed to keep when I gave up the title. It’s an uncomfortable, black, wooden armchair bearing the school seal. Mine came with a brass plaque on the back proclaiming: ‘Professor David Labaree, The Lee L Jacks Professor in Education’.

Now, as I fade into retirement, still enjoying the glow from my emeritus status at a brand-name university, it all feels right. I’ve got money to live on, a great support community, and status galore. I get to display my badges of merit for all to see – the Stanford logo on my jacket, and the Jacks emeritus title in my email signature. What’s not to like? The question about whether I deserve it or not fades into the background, crowded out by all the benefits. Enjoy. The sun’s always shining at the summit of the meritocracy.

Is there a moral to be drawn from these two stories of life in the meritocracy? The most obvious one is that this life is not fair. The fix is in. Children of parents who have already succeeded in the meritocracy have a big advantage over other children whose parents have not. They know how the game is played, and they have the cultural capital, the connections and the money to increase their children’s chances for success in this game. They know that the key is doing well at school, since it’s the acquisition of degrees that determines what jobs you get and the life you live. They also know that it’s not just a matter of being a good student but of attending the right school – one that fosters academic achievement and, even more important, occupies an elevated position in the status hierarchy of educational institutions. Brand names open doors. This allows highly educated, upper-middle-class families to game the meritocratic system and to hoard a disproportionate share of the advantages it offers.

In fact, the only thing that’s less fair than the meritocracy is the system it displaced, in which people’s futures were determined strictly by the lottery of birth. Lords begat lords, and peasants begat peasants. In contrast, the meritocracy is sufficiently open that some children of the lower classes can prove themselves in school and win a place higher up the scale. The probability of doing so is markedly lower than the chances of success enjoyed by the offspring of the credentialed elite, but the possibility of upward mobility is nonetheless real. And this possibility is part of what motivates privileged parents to work so frantically to pull every string and milk every opportunity for their children. Through the jousting grounds of schooling, smart poor kids can, at times, displace dumb rich kids. The result is a system of status attainment that provides advantages for some while at the same time spreading fear for their children’s future across families of all social classes. In the end, the only thing that the meritocracy equalises is anxiety.

Posted in Education policy, Educational Research, History of education, Teaching, Writing

James March: Education and the Pursuit of Optimism

This post is aabout a 1975 paper by James G. March, which was published in, of all places, the Texas Tech Journal of Education.  Given that provenance, it’s something you likely have never encountered before unless someone actually handed it to you.  I used it in a number of my classes and wanted to share it with you.

March was a fascinating scholar who had a long a distinguished career as an organizational theorist, teaching at Carnegie-Mellon and later at the Stanford business and education schools. He died last year.  I had the privilege of getting to know him in retirement after I moved to Stanford.  He was the rare combination of cutting edge social scientist and ardent humanist, who among his other accomplishments published a half dozen volumes of poetry.

This paper shows both sides of his approach to issues.  In it he explores the role that education has played in the U.S., in particular its complex relationship with all-American optimism.  Characteristically, in developing his analysis, he relies not on social science data but on literature — among others, Tolstoy, Cervantes, Solzhenitsyn, and Borges.

I love how he frames the nature of teaching and learning in a way that is vastly distant from the usual language of social efficiency and human capital production — and also distant from the chipper American faith that education can fix everything.  A tragic worldview pervades his discussion, reflecting the perspective of the great works of literature upon which he draws.

I find his argument particularly salient for teachers, who have been the majority of my own students over the years.  It’s common for teachers to ask the impossible of themselves, by trying to fulfill the promise that education with save all their students.  Too often the result is the feeling of failure and/or the fate of burnout.

Below I distill some of the core insights from this paper, but there is no substitute for reading and reveling in the original, which you can find here.

He starts out by asserting that “The modern history of American education is a history of optimism.”  The problem with this is that it blinds us to the limited ability of social engineering in general and education in particular to realize our greatest hopes.

By insisting that great action be justified by great hopes, we encourage a belief in the possibility of magic. For examples, read the litany of magic in the literature on free schools, Montessori, Head Start, Sesame Street, team teaching, open schools, structured schools, computer-assisted instruction, community control. and hot lunches. Inasmuch as there appears to be rather little magic in the world, great hopes are normally difficult to realize. Having been seduced into great expectations, we are abandoned to a choice between failure and delusion.

The temptations of delusion are accentuated both by our investment in hope and by the potential for ambiguity in educational outcomes. To a substantial extent we are able to believe whatever we want to believe, and we want to believe in the possibility of progress. We are unsure about what we want to accomplish, or how we would know when we had accomplished it, or how to allocate credit or blame for accomplishment or lack of it. So we fool ourselves.

The conversion of great hopes into magic, and magic into delusion describes much of modern educational history. It continues to be a dominant theme of educational reform in the United States. But there comes a time when the conversion docs not work for everyone. As we come to rccognize the political, sociological, and psychological dynamics of repeated waves of optimism based on heroic hopes, our willingness to participate in the process is compromised.

As an antidote to the problem, he proposes three paradoxical principles for action:  pessimism without despair; irrelevance without loss of faith; and optimism without hope.

Pessimism without despair:  This means embracing the essential connection between education and life, without expecting the most desirable outcome.  It is what it is.  The example is Solzhenitsyn’s character Shukov, learning to live in a prison camp.  The message is this:  Don’t set unreasonable expectations for what’s possible, defining anything else as failure.  Small victories in the classroom are a big deal.

Irrelevance without loss of faith:  This means recognizing that you can’t control events, so instead you do what you can wherever you are.  His example is General Kutuzov in War and Peace.  He won the war against Napoleon by continually retreating and by restraining his officers from attacking the enemy.  Making things happen is overrated.  There’s a lot the teacher simply can’t accomplish, and you need to recognize that.

Optimism without hope:  The aim here is to do what is needed rather than what seems to be effective.  His example is Don Quixote, a man who cuts a ridiculous figure by tilting at windmills, but who has a beneficial impact on everyone he encounters.  The message for teachers is that you set out to do what you think is best for your students, because it’s the right thing to do rather than because it is necessarily effective.  This is moral-political logic for schooling instead of the usual utilitarian logic.

So where does this leave you as a teacher, administrator, policymaker?

  • Don’t let anyone convince you that schooling is all about producing human capital, improving test scores, or pursuing any other technical and instrumentalist goal.

  • Its origins are political and moral: to form a nation state, build character, and provide social opportunity.

  • Teaching is not a form of social engineering, making society run more efficiently

  • It’s not about fixing social problems, for which it is often ill suited

  • Instead, it’s a normative practice organized around shaping the kind of people we want to be — about doing what’s right instead of what’s useful.

Posted in Education policy, Educational Research, Teacher education, Teaching

Targeting Teachers

In this piece, I explore a major problem I have with recent educational policy discourse — the way we have turned teachers from the heroes of the public school story to its villains.  If students are failing, we now hear, it is the fault of teachers.  This targeting of teachers employs a new form of educational firepower, value-added measures.  I show how this measure misses the mark by profoundly misunderstanding the nature of teaching as a professional practice, which has the following core characteristics:

  • Teaching is hard

    • Teachers depend on their students for the professional success

    • Students are conscripts in the classroom

    • Teachers need to develop a complex teacher persona in order to manage their relationship with students

    • Teachers need to carry out their practice  under conditions of high uncertainty

  • Teaching looks easy

    • It looks like an extension of child raising

    • It is widely familiar to anyone who has been a student

    • The knowledge and skills that teachers teach are ones that most competent adults have

    • Unlike any other professionals, teachers give away their expertise instead of renting it to the client, so success means your students no longer need you

  • Teachers are an easy target

    • Teachers are too visible to be inscrutable and too numerous to be elite

    • They don’t have the distance, obscurity, and selectivity of the high professions — so no one is willing to bow to their authority or yield to their expertise

This piece originally appeared in Dissent in 2011.  Here’s a link to the original.

 

Targeting Teachers

David F. Labaree

The mantra of the current school reform movement in the U.S. is that high quality teachers produce high achieving students.  As a result, we should hold teachers accountable for student outcomes, offering the most effective teachers bonus pay and shoving the least effective ones out the door.  Of course, in order to implement such a policy you need a valid and reliable measure of teacher quality, and the reformers have zeroed in on one such measure, which is known as the value-added approach.  According to this method, you calculate the effectiveness of individual teachers by the increase in test scores that students demonstrate after a year in their classroom.

Propelling this trend forward is a flood of research purporting to show that differences in teacher quality can lead to huge differences in the outcomes of schooling, both for students and for society.  For example, in a 2010 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Eric Hanushek argues that a strong teacher by the value-added measure (one standard deviation above the mean) might raise the lifetime earnings of a student by $20,000.  From this perspective, improving the quality of teaching promises to increase individual opportunity for the disadvantaged, which will reduce social inequality, and at the same time to increase human capital, which will promote economic growth and national competitiveness.  Sounds great.  Of course, this calculation is based on the assumption that test scores measure the economically useful knowledge of the future worker, which is far from obvious.  But arguments like these provide a big incentive to generate actionable data on who’s a good teacher and who’s not.

All of this makes the current effort to develop a simple and statistically sound measure for good teaching quite understandable.  But that doesn’t make it justifiable.  The problem with this approach is that teaching is in fact an extraordinarily complex and demanding form of professional practice, whose quality is impossible to capture accurately in a simple metric.  The push to develop such a metric threatens to reduce good teaching – and good education – to whatever produces higher scores on a standardized test.  As a result, the value-added measure of teacher quality may end up promoting both the wrong kind of teaching and the wrong kind of schooling.

In this article, I explore three major questions that arise from this development.  Why did the value-added measure of teaching emerge at this point in the history of American education?  What are the core characteristics of teaching as a professional practice that makes it so hard to perform effectively and so hard to measure accurately?  And under these circumstances, what are the likely consequences of using the value-added measure of teaching?

Roots of the Value-Added Measure of Teacher Quality

Until the last 30 years, Americans have been comfortable measuring the effectiveness of their schools by their broad social outcomes.  As long as graduates have tended to find jobs at a higher level than the jobs their parents had, then schools must be effectively promoting social opportunity.  And as long as the economy has been growing in size and productivity, then schools must be effectively producing human capital and spurring economic prosperity.  Under these circumstances, which lasted from the emergence of the common school in the early 19th century until the 1980s, there was little reason to seek out hard data about how much students were actually learning in school.

In the 1980s, however, this began to change with the emergence of a new kind of educational reform movement, which focused on raising the standards for student achievement.  Starting with the report A Nation at Risk in 1983, the idea was to set strict curriculum standards and enforce them with high-stakes tests in order to shore up the American economy with higher achievement.  Then came the No Child Left Behind law in 2002, which required schools to demonstrate that they were distributing educational and social opportunity more equally.

This radical shift to measuring learning outcomes in schooling came about in the late 20th century because of two converging changes in the politics of education: growing fiscal constraints and growing educational inequality.  For one thing, the rising cost of financing the expansion of schooling was beginning to run into severe fiscal limits.  By the end of the 20th century, state and local governments in the United States were spending about 30 percent of their total budgets on education, at an aggregate cost of about $400 billion.  Exacerbating this cost rise was the rise in educational level of the population.  From 1900 to 1975 the average education level of a 24 year-old rose from 8 years of elementary school to two years of college.  The problem is that the per-student cost of education is markedly higher as you move up the system, from elementary to secondary to college to graduate school.  As a result, schools at all levels came under pressure to demonstrate that they were producing learning outcomes that would justify the cost.

At the same time, a parallel concern emerged about radical differences in educational quality and outcomes for different groups in the population, sharply undercutting the hoary fiction that all high school or college diplomas were the same.  Middle class parents have long shown an acute awareness of this distinction and have had the means to pursue the best schools for their children.  Parents with more limited resources, however, have been stuck with their local schools, which were too often dirty, dangerous, and dysfunctional.

Under these circumstances, value-added measures of education have obvious value in potentially helping us zero in on the contribution that a school makes to the educational and social outcomes of its students.  The value-added approach seeks to take into account the educational achievement of students coming into a school or a classroom, in order to measure what added contribution the school or teacher makes to student achievement.  By controlling for the selection effect, this technique seeks to focus on the school’s socialization effect.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has plunged $355 million into the effort to measure teacher effectiveness.  Grounded in the value-added approach, this effort is using analysis of videos of teaching in individual classrooms to establish which teacher behaviors are most strongly associated with the highest value-added scores for students.  And the Brookings Institution published a study in 2010 that provided support for the value-added approach.  But, as Kevin Welner points out in the previous issue of Dissent, the evidence for the validity of the Gates value-added measures is weak.  In a recently published review, economist Jesse Rothstein from University of California, Berkeley performed an analysis of Gates data, which shows that 40 percent of teachers whose performance placed them in the bottom quartile using the value-added measure scored in the top half by an alternative measure of student achievement.  In short, the value-added approach is hardly the gold standard for measuring teacher effectiveness that its supporters claim it is.

Why This Measure Misses the Mark

So far I’ve been explaining where this new measure of teaching effectiveness came from and why it emerged when it did.  But I haven’t addressed why it fails to capture the elements of good teaching and why school reformers are so willing to deploy it anyway in formulating school policy.

The nature of American teaching arose from the structure of the American school system that was established before the Civil War, a system whose primary mission was political.  Founders wanted these schools to solve the core problem of a liberal democracy: to reconcile the self-interested pursuit of personal advantage demanded by a market economy with the civic commitment to community required by a republic.  In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, this problem was particularly acute, since the market was expanding at an extraordinary clip and the republic was young and fragile.  The idea was to create community schools that would instill republican principles in the young while also giving them a shared experience that might ameliorate growing class divisions.  To accommodate the huge influx of students, and to provide a setting in which students could be taught as a group and ranked by ability, they established the self-contained classroom, graded by age.  And to make sure that the school community was inclusive, they gradually made school attendance compulsory.

From this structure, emerge three core characteristics of teaching in the U.S.:    Teaching is hard; teaching looks easy; and teachers are an easy target.  Let me say a little about each.

Teaching Is Hard

In many ways, teaching is the most difficult of professions.  In other professions, professional success lies in the skills and knowledge of the practitioner and outcomes are relatively predictable.  Not so with teaching.  Why?

Teachers Depend on Students for their Success:  Teachers can only be successful if students choose to learn.  This is the core problem facing every teacher every day in every classroom.  Surgeons operate on clients who are unconscious; lawyers represent clients who remain mute; but teachers need to find a way to motivate students to learn the curriculum.  The teacher’s knowledge of the subject and skill at explaining this knowledge amount to nothing if students choose not to learn what they’re taught.  Student resistance to learning can come from a wide variety of sources.  Maybe students don’t like the subject or the teacher.  Maybe they don’t want to be in school at all.  Maybe they’re distracted by fear of a bully, hunger in the belly, or lust for the student in the next seat.  Maybe they’re bored to death.  The reasons for not learning are endless, and the teacher’s job is to find a way to understand these reasons and work around them, one student at a time.

What makes this even more difficult is that the teacher’s task extends beyond just getting students to learn the subject.  Teaching is a people-changing profession.  Education involves more than acquiring knowledge, since we ask it to take students and turn them into something else:  law abiding citizens, productive workers, ambitious achievers.  Changing people’s behavior and attitude and character and cultural yearnings is a lot harder than fixing a technical problem within the human body.  A surgeon can remove a diseased appendix, a physician can prescribe a pill to cure an infection.  But teaching is less like these highly esteemed and technically advanced arenas of medicine and more like the less prestigious and less certain practice of psychotherapy.  For therapists, the problem is getting patients to abandon a set of practices that they are unwilling or unable to manage on their own – like countering negative thoughts or calming anxiety.  Changing people in these nether realms of medicine is very difficult, but these practitioners do enjoy one advantage:  the patient approaches the therapist asking for help in making the change.  But this is not the case with teachers, where students enter class under duress.

Students Are Conscripts in the Classroom:  Students are in the classroom for a variety of reasons that often have nothing to do with wanting to learn.  They are compelled by strong pressures from their parents, the job market, cultural norms, and truant officers.  Also all of their friends are there, so what would they do if they stayed home?  Except for the rare case, however, one thing that does not bring them to the classroom is a burning desire to learn the formal curriculum.  As a result, unlike the clients of nearly all other professionals, they are not volunteers asking for a professional service but conscripts who have little reason to cooperate with, much less actively pursue, the process of learning that teachers are trying to facilitate.

The problem is that teachers don’t have much ability to impose their will on students in order to make them learn.  They have weak disciplinary tools, they are vastly outnumbered, and they have to deal with their students behind the doors of the self contained classroom, without the help of colleagues.  In the end, all that strict discipline can achieve is to maintain classroom order; inducing learning is another thing entirely.  The result is that teachers have to develop a complex mechanism for motivating their students to learn.

Teachers Need to Develop a Teaching Persona to Manage the Relationship with Their Students:  Teaching means finding a way to get students to want to learn the curriculum.  And this requires the teacher to develop a highly personalized and professionally essential teaching persona.  That persona needs to incorporate a judicious and delicately balanced mix of qualities.  You want students to like you, so they look forward to seeing you in class and want to please you.  You want them to fear you, so they studiously avoid getting on your bad side and can be stopped dead in their tracks with the dreaded “teacher look.”  You want them to find your enthusiasm for learning the subject matter infectious, so they can’t help getting caught up in the process and lured into learning.

Constructing such a persona is a complex task, which takes years of development.  It’s part of why the first years of teaching are so difficult, until the persona has fallen in place and becomes second nature.  The problem is that there is no standard way of doing this.  The persona has to be a combination of what the situation demands – the grade level, subject matter, cultural and personal characteristics of the students – and what the teacher can pull together from the pieces of his or her own character, personality, and interests.  It can’t be an obvious disguise, since students have an eye toward the fake and place high value on authenticity, and since it has to be maintained day in and day out over the years of a teaching career.  So the persona has to be a mix of who you are as a person and what you need and want to be as a teacher.

When it all comes together, it’s a marvel to behold.  In his book Small Victories, Samuel Freedman provides a vivid portrait of the teaching persona of a New York high school English teacher named Jessica Siegel.  She wears eye-catching clothing (one student asks, “Miss Siegel, do you water that dress?”), moves effortlessly between captivating and controlling her students, making wisecracks out of the corner of her mouth (“Gimme a break.”).  He calls this persona The Tough Cookie.  That works for her, but all successful teachers need to find their own right persona.  Think about it:  How can you measure this?  Measurement is particularly difficult because the criteria for defining a successful professional performance are up in the air.

Teachers Need to Carry Out Their Practices Under Conditions of High Uncertainty:  The problem is that there is no definitive code for effective teaching practice to parallel the kinds of codes that exist in other professions.  In general, professionals can defend themselves against malpractice by demonstrating that they were following standard professional practice.  The patient died but the physician was doing her job appropriately.  Teaching has no guide for optimal professional standards.  Instead there are rules about minimum criteria of acceptable behavior:  Don’t hit kids, show up for class.

One reason for the absence of such a code of professional practice for teachers is that, as I have been showing, the task of teaching involves the effort to manage a complex process of motivating learning in your students through the construction of a unique teaching persona.  Another is the problem of trying to identify what constitutes a definitive measure of teaching success.  The things that are easiest to measure are the most trivial:  number of right answers on a Friday quiz, a homework assignment, or – I might add – what’s represented in value-added test scores.  These things may show something about what information students retained at that point, but they don’t say anything about the long-term benefits of the class on these students.  Did the teacher make students better citizens, more productive workers, life-long learners, innovative entrepreneurs?  These are the outcomes we care about, but how can you measure them?  Even if you could find a way to measure such outcomes later in life, how could you trace back the impact that the student’s fourth grade teacher had on those outcomes?

This suggests another problem that raises the uncertainty of defining good teaching.  As a society, we are not of one mind about what individual and social ends we want schools to produce.  If we can’t agree on ends, how can we determine if a teacher was effective or not?  Effective at what?  One goal running through the history of American schooling is to create good citizens.  Another is to create productive workers.  A third is to provide individuals with social opportunity.  These goals lead schools in conflicting directions, and teachers can’t accomplish them all with the same methods.

One final form of uncertainty facing teachers is that we can’t even agree on who is the teacher’s client.  In some ways the client is the student, who is the object of education.  But students don’t contract with teachers to carry out their role, school boards do, as representatives of the community as a whole, which would make them the client.  But then there are the parents, a third constituency for teachers to deal with and try to please.  Are teachers the agents of the child, the society that sets up the school system, or the parents who send their children to school?  The answer is yes.

Teaching Looks Easy

So teaching is very hard, which makes it extraordinarily difficult to construct a good measure of effective teaching.  But at the same time, in the eyes of the public, teaching doesn’t look that hard at all.  And this makes us easy targets for anyone selling a simple mechanism for distinguishing the good teacher from the bad.

One reason teaching looks easy is that it seems to be an extension of child-raising.  You don’t need professional training to be a parent, which means that being a teacher doesn’t seem like a big thing.  Students coming into teacher education programs are often already imbued with this spirit.  I care for the kids, so I’ll be a good teacher.

Another reason it looks easy is that teaching is extremely familiar.  Every prospective teacher – every adult – has done a 12-year apprenticeship of observation in the elementary and secondary classroom.  We have watched teachers, up close and personal, during our formative years, and nothing about the practice of teaching seems obscure or complicated.  You keep order, give out and collect assignments, talk, test, and take the summer off.  No big deal.  Missing from this observation, of course, is all the thinking and planning that goes into the process that students experience in the classroom, much less the laborious construction of the teaching persona.

A third thing that makes teaching look easy is that the knowledge and skills teachers convey are the knowledge and skills that all competent adults have.  This isn’t the kind of complex and obscure knowledge you find in medical texts or law books; it’s ordinary knowledge that doesn’t seem to require an advanced degree of skill for the practitioner.  Of course, missing from this kind of understanding of teaching is an acknowledgement of the kind of skill required to teach these subjects and motivate students to learn these subjects, which is not obvious at all.  But the impression of ordinariness is hard for teaching to shake.

A factor that enhances this problem is that, unlike other professionals, teachers give away their expertise.  One test of a successful teacher is that the student no longer needs her.  Good teachers make themselves dispensable.  In contrast, other professions don’t give away their expertise; they rent it by the hour.  You have to keep going back to the doctor, lawyer, accountant, and even pharmacist.  In these arenas, you’re never on your own.  But teachers are supposed to launch you into adult life and then disappear into the background.  As a result, it is easy for adults to forget how hard it was for them to acquire the skills and knowledge they now have and therefore easy to discount the critical role that teachers played in getting them to their current state.

Teachers Are an Easy Target

It’s tough being in a profession that is extraordinarily difficult to practice effectively and that other people consider a walk on the beach.  As a group, teachers are too visible to be inscrutable and too numerous to be elite.  They don’t have the distance, obscurity, and selectivity of the high professions.  As a result, no one is willing to bow to their authority or yield to their expertise.  Teachers, school administrators, and education professors have all had the experience of sitting next to someone on an airplane or at a dinner party who proceeds to tell them what the problem with schools is and also what the cure is.  Everyone is an expert on education except the educator.

One consequence of this is that teachers become an easy target for school reformers.  This follows from the nature of teaching as a practice, as I’ve been describing here, and also from the nature of school reform as a practice.  The history of school reform in the United States is a history of efforts to change the education of Other People’s Children.  The schools that reformers’ own children attend tend to be seen as pretty good; the problem is with the schooling of Others.  It’s those kids who need more structure, higher standards, more incentives, and more coercion in order to bring their learning up to a useful level.  They are the ones who are dragging down our cities and holding back our economic growth.  And public school teachers are the keepers of Other People’s Children.  Since we don’t think those children are getting the kind of schooling they need, then teachers must be a major part of the problem.  As a result, these teachers too are seen as needing more structure, higher standards, more incentives, and more coercion in order to bring their teaching up to a socially useful level.

We tell ourselves that we’re paying more than we can afford for schools that don’t work, so we have to intervene.  The value-added measure of teacher performance is ideally suited to this task.  It’s needed because, in the eyes of reformers, teachers are not sufficiently professional, competent, or reliable to be granted the autonomy of a real profession.  And what will be the consequences?

As in medicine, the first rule of school reform should be: At least, do no harm.  But the value-added intervention violates this rule, driven by the arrogance of reformers who are convinced that teaching is a simple process of delivering content and that learning is just a matter of exerting the effort to acquire this content.  That approach is likely to increase test scores, simply by pressuring teachers to teach to the test.  But my concern is that in the process it’s also likely to interfere with teachers’ ability to lure students into learning.  This requires them to develop and nurture an effective teacher persona, so they can in turn develop and nurture in students the motivation to learn and to continue learning over a lifetime.

As usual, the results of this reform are likely to be skewed by social class.  Schools for the disadvantaged are going to be under great pressure to teach to the test and raise scores on core skills, while schools for the advantaged will be free to pursue a much richer curriculum.  If your children, unlike Others’, are not At Risk, then the schools they attend will not need to be obsessed with drilling to meet minimum standards.  Teachers in these schools will be able to lead their classes in exploring a variety of subjects, experiences, and issues that will be excluded from the classrooms farther down the social scale.  In the effort to raise standards and close the achievement gap, we will creating just another form of educational distinction to divide the top from the bottom.