(Swans - June 20, 2011) As a college instructor, I wanted to withhold publicly discussing the subject of education and unions until the situation in Wisconsin with labor unions fully unfolded. There, we saw teachers' unions under attack by a pro-business Republican governor: the third prong in an attempt to privatize public education. The Republic prescription for what ails public education is the elimination of teachers unions, the use of taxpayer funds for public education to pay for vouchers, and the promotion of performance-based incentives for teachers who enable more of their students to pass flimsy standardized state exams. In Florida where I teach, teachers' unions are also under attack from the Republican legislature and governor and this has extended to higher education with the legislature's attempt to decertify unions with less that 50% membership.
I speak from what I would like to call the "back alley" of higher public education. The back alley is where 1) adjunct instructors labor at low wages in either community colleges or state universities or 2) graduate teaching assistants labor in similar working conditions in four-year colleges and universities: no doubt, the title "graduate teaching assistant" or "TA" is already a belittling misnomer since many of us already have advanced degrees and are the teachers of record in many college courses. In most cases adjuncts are not unionized (or are prohibited from forming unions) and earn anywhere from 1/8 to 1/4 of what a tenured professor earns teaching the same course with the same number of students.
From what I can see of the debate about education, both at the secondary and collegiate levels, little attention is given by the media to the actual student and teacher experiences. I would like to discuss my experiences teaching at the college level and some of the challenges teachers face. I think the public is inclined to presume, with Republican advocates of privatization, that the problem of low test scores can be attributed to mediocre teachers. Yet the problem is more complex: we should probably look at factors such as teaching methodologies, the reluctance of state legislatures to reduce class sizes, the willingness of students to learn, and cultural factors and technologies that predispose students to look for knowledge in the wrong places.
The Problem of Learning Categories
Public school teachers have received perhaps undue criticism for low test scores when state legislatures are eager to slash spending for public schools. In most cases hiring is significantly reduced, thereby increasing class sizes. Teachers lose efficiency as class sizes grow simply because of the difficulty in giving students individual attention. When I was in high school many ages ago, sectioning seemed to solve this problem by sorting students by ability level into distinct classifications. In my high school we had X, Y, and Z categories. X was the high category and Z was the low. In today's public school systems, X would refer to advanced placement categories while Z categories are remedial.
If a student is assigned a Z or remedial category, he or she is already being condemned to either mediocrity or low achievement. This is perhaps one of the most baffling aspects of the public secondary school system. Put in a class of low achievers, the student will have no desire to improve himself or herself. The process perhaps needs to be democratized -- peer groups can influence intellectual development. If the peer group contains high-achieving students, this can only benefit the low achievers as well as the teacher. As learning becomes more and more collaborative, students are often learning from each other and students who understand the course material and instruction can assist lower-achieving peers. More often than not, the ages of the students are similar so there is not the generational gap that can sometimes plague classroom instruction.
Diagnosis of the Causes of Learning Problems
In diagnosing the causes of learning problems among students, I would like to look at non-biological causes. Instead, I want to mark out environmental causes. Obviously one impediment to learning is an unstable family environment in which there are financial or social pathologies (e.g., parents or family members who abuse drugs and alcohol in the home). One distraction, however, worth mentioning is technology itself. Television, cellular devices, the Internet, hand-held video games, iPods: these tools easily shift attention with their seductive images and sounds. These tools also restrict attention by the level of the control they afford to the user: absolute control provides a type of pleasure that can be a distraction. These tools, by shifting the gaze or attention of the user, disrupt the organizing mind. In the classroom, students often insist on having these tools at hand, mostly in the package of the Web-browsing cellular devices loaded with applications. In my experiences, students who have these devices in class retain information less than they would without them, but even when they are without them they struggle to pay attention. They also seem to have organizational issues when writing essays and these organizational issues can perhaps be reduced to the inability to maintain attention.
A major obstacle of the learning process is the high epistemic value that is socially invested in these types of technologies. In one of my courses, I had the most difficult time instructing students to avoid using the open Web for their paper sources. Often, encyclopedic information that appears on Web sites such as Wikipedia is reiterated on other Web sites. The information on such Web sites is easily editable by anyone so I try to tell my students to avoid them. Yet their overuse of technology has given them a certain skepticism about information they either receive from a printed source like a book (a book requires too much attention and analysis for them, whereas Google or Bing gives them instant answers) or a living source such as their teacher. In a recent lecture on the post-World War II Cold War environment, I assigned the Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove, a humorous, sarcastic commentary on the McCarthyism and anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and 1950s. After class discussion, I posed a bonus question that they had to answer in the last five minutes of class. The question was "What was Plan R?"
Some of the answers I received were along the lines of "Plan R was a British attack on Norway in World War II." Recall that the context of the question was the Dr. Strangelove movie that takes place in a post-World War II scenario. So if anyone had watched the movie, they would have understood that Plan R was a military policy designed to allow a lower level commander to order a nuclear attack if the traditional military command structure was decapitated or incapacitated (as one might be in a nuclear attack). So why did some students consistently give the Norway answer?
The students googled "Plan R" on their cell phones and the first search results contained entries for Plan R4, which of course was a World War II British plan to attack Norway. So many errors in analysis occurred in this situation. The students equated Plan R with Plan R4, they equated a plan of attack with a fictional military policy, and they most importantly placed a high degree of epistemic value in the truth of Google search results. The first search result was a Wikipedia entry but of course, had they used Plan R as a search term on Wikipedia, the entry for Dr. Strangelove would have appeared. So on a bonus question, the students cheated and still got the wrong answer. Our culture promotes the Internet but does not promote how it ought to be used. This story should be a lesson to so-called "hip" teachers and/or curriculum developers seeking to transform our education system by putting not only classes online but also encouraging students to look for trusted information online.
Defects of Contemporary Learning "Theory"
Not only does the imputation of high epistemic value to technology hurt learning but also hurts teaching. What I have in mind here is the compulsory use of PowerPoint in the classroom and Blackboard for classroom management. We already know the monopoly that Microsoft products have for word processing and boardroom presentations; Blackboard is virtually the classroom management tool for all colleges and universities.
With PowerPoint as well as the aftermath of the academic cultural wars of the 1980s and 1990s, teachers are not allowed to "lecture" anymore at the college level. The new class of teaching methodologists and learning theorists view the lecture as an outmoded, white male form of instruction that does not connect with or inspire today's (multicultural) student. Indeed, the teacher or professor must, as this new class of learning theorists and methodologists contend, "entertain" or present information in a "visually appealing" (PowerPoint) or "hip" manner. For example, one professor who observed one of my lectures remarked to me afterwards, "make sure you add Kanye West YouTube videos to your presentation to illustrate your talking points next time."
As an African American child of the 1980s, I reject this overly presumptuous program of the teaching methodologists and learning theorists: as if I would have performed better in school with teachers who could either rap his or her lesson or incorporate Run-DMC videos into the lesson. As a teenager of the 1980s and college student in the late '80s and early '90s, I learned to appreciate the lecture format because the teacher or professor could simply provide more information than otherwise. Imagine listening to a rap song summarizing Voltaire's Candide for 50 minutes! That might be as equally unbearable as a lecture of the same topic and length. It is simply not the case that technology and/or the incorporation of popular culture in the classroom is necessary for enhancing learning or that it always does enhance learning.
Grade-Based Learning or Grades as an End of Education
One of the most difficult aspects of teaching is the grading of student performance. Because of the pressure to make good grades, students often value grades over their own intellectual development, which often takes the form of "Why did I get a C on this paper when I spent so much time on it?" In this example, "hard work," the underlying basis for student protest, is also viewed by the student as a criterion of quality or merit. Unfortunately, this is a social myth that often also informs conservative-minded critics of affirmative action: the idea that minorities should not be given preference for jobs or educational opportunities over "hard-working" Americans (i.e., white Americans). We need to play with the concept of "hard work" here before moving forward on the issue of grades. First of all, "hard work" does not necessarily mean qualify quality on multiple levels. The baker who takes 3 hours to make a delicious cake will simply be seen by the boss as "inefficient" in comparison to the baker who can make 12 tasty cakes in an hour. Second, if "hard work" was universally a criterion of merit in our market society, there would be no need for networking in the job market to land a well-paying gig. The source of most market-based remedies of inequality is the assumption that we live in a merit-based society. Unfortunately, the only merit in our society is the worth of one's social connections and not necessarily the productivity and quality of one's body of employment or academic achievement. Academic achievement also does not translate into business achievement since employers will often turn away "overqualified" candidates.
Also, if we believed in a merit-based system of social advancement we would outlaw legacy-based college admissions or nepotism in corporations where the children of company ownership inherit executive positions in the company, especially when they have no business experience. Unfortunately, we seem to believe that the wealthy or well connected do not and should not be held to a meritocratic standard.
But to return to the issue of grades after seeing the social hypocrisy of meritocratic ideals, we can be confidently suspicious of grade-based education. First, grade-based education is largely informed by the pernicious idea of the "objectivity of numbers," which holds numerical grading as inherently accurate or as an absolute scale of student assessment: that numbers can "faithfully represent" the quantity and quality of student performance. Unfortunately, "faithful representation" merely reflects the value one places in a numerical system as opposed to alternative scales or methods of assessment. The inherent "rationality" or "objectivity" of a system can in no way be derived from one's preference for that system.
Second, traditional grade-based systems largely ignore the fact that irrational factors can play a part in the grading process but "irrational" does not necessarily mean "illegitimate." A teacher may assign a borderline A/A- student an A for a final grade because the trajectory of that student's progress reflected a superior mark. In this case the teacher is looking at more than simply a numerical average or distribution and giving the student what they deserve. Likewise, a student who has produced D-/F work for a semester finding himself or herself with a score of 59.75. Suppose the student has been disrespectful to the teacher throughout the semester, and has been disruptive to the classroom environment. The assignment of F for a final grade would not be unheard of because the student's behavior did him or her no favors.
Many of the grade objectivists or grade purists already use grade quotas, which complicate the grading process. While above I mentioned how it may be prudent in certain situations to bump up a borderline student who has a good trajectory of academic progress or fail a borderline student who has not only produced poor work but has also been disruptive, purists who bemoan more holistic grading systems nevertheless have unannounced quota systems that skew the true distribution of grades. There is a saying in graduate school, largely true, that holds no one will obtain an A from a professor in a graduate course: most tenured professors see themselves as individuals who have worked hard to arrive at their station so they will not give high grades to their graduate students because they assume that they have not worked as hard as they did when they were graduate students. This is what I call the generational fallacy. The generational fallacy is the idea that younger generations do not or will not work as hard as previous generations (whatever the task or tasks may be) or do not value the things that matter most to previous generations.
So that's one quota system at work. Another quota system appears by and large at the undergraduate level. Generally, instructors must aim for the following grade distribution for their students:
In other words, according to the unwritten quota system, most students should fall in the B-D categories whereas fewer students should fall in the A and F categories. While no professor or college instructor would ever openly claim to have such a system, nevertheless, the demands of job security warrant it. If a teacher is perceived by his or her superiors as having too many Fs, the teacher would then be perceived by students and faculty evaluators as "too difficult"; if too many As, "too easy." This unspoken quota system is damning to higher education and secondary education because it already has determined in advance how many students should obtain a specific grade regardless of actual individual performance.
So these are some issues in education that all citizens should be aware of. Voting out teachers' unions or privatizing education is not the answer because the problems of education cut deeper and are much more complex than what the corporate media and the major political parties and demagogues suggest. Largely in this essay, I have discussed cultural and technological factors that reduce student performance: factors that have nothing to do with teacher "mediocrity" and everything to do with current pedagogical and organizational practices in the education system.
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a Ph.D. student in history at Florida State University. His main areas of concentration are the history of science, environmental history, intellectual history, the academic culture wars, and the relations between technology and culture. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/. (back)