Tuesday, March 10, 2009

President Obama's education plan

President Obama has used the economic stimulus bill and the budget to divert historic amounts of money to funding for education, and today he spoke about his plans for reform.  The story is here, commentary from Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times here.  Obama's full remarks can be read here.

Key elements of the plan [with some of my initial thoughts in brackets]:

--Pay successful teachers more, usher unsuccessful teachers out the door.  [no word on how this will be measured, though.  In general, test scores are used as the benchmark - a measure that almost certainly would do more harm than good.]

--More funding for early childhood education.

--Cutting funding for wasteful education programs, i.e. any federally-funded education programs that have not been able to demonstrate that they are working.

--Expanded access to daytime child care for working parents.

--More funding for successful charter schools.  Removal of state-level caps on the number of charter schools allowed as a trade-off for more accountability.

--"Better standards and assessments," i.e. national standards. [yet another set of high-stakes tests?  Or would the implementation of national tests entail doing away with the state-level tests?]

--A fund to invest in innovation at the district level.

--Improved data-sharing to track students' educational progress from childhood through college. [this raises serious privacy concerns]

--Using the stimulus to avoid teacher layoffs.  Improve teacher recruiting and retention.  

--Alternative certification programs.  ("Alternative routes to teaching").

--More time in school through a longer school day and a longer school year. [will teachers be paid more as a result?  How would this affect kids' ability to participate in extracurriculars, athletics, and summer programs?  How will the extra time be used effectively?]

--Extra pay for math and science teachers to make up for shortages.

--New efforts to discourage dropping out.

--Simplify federal financial aid assistance forms to encourage the pursuit of higher education or vocational training.  Increased Pell Grants and Perkins Loans.

--Increased adult education and job training options, especially delivered through community colleges.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Arendt's argument against progressive education

Political philosopher Hannah Arendt was one of the most brilliant and expansive thinkers of the 20th century, and she weighed in on the American educational debate in her Between Past and Future. Randall Curren's collection Philosophy of Education: An Anthology contains selections from that work.

Arendt advances a powerful argument against the ideology of progressive education, the results of which she calls "ruinous." However, she neglects to judge the reforms ushered in by the rise of progressive education against the practices they replaced, many of which were harsh, authoritarian, and uncaring as well as characterized by an emphasis on facts without context, an uncritical continuation of antiquated practices, etc.

Arendt's arguments run as follows:

-The American obsession with the new has led to an obsession with education, which in turn has led to the enshrinement of "pedagogy" or "education" as a subject unique unto itself, and to a conception of teaching as not necessarily connected with any particular subject matter.

-America's educational crisis is "especially acute" because of its zest for equality and the erasure of difference; in the context of education, this takes the form of reducing the teacher's authority (to erase the student/teacher difference) and doing less to cultivate gifted students.

-There are three core, mistaken assumptions at the heart of progressive education:

1. "There exist a child's world and a society formed among children that are autonomous and must insofar as possible be left to them to govern. Adults are only there to help with this government. ...(The adult) can only tell (the child) to do what he likes and then prevent the worst from happening." The result of this is a cutting-off of the child from the world of adults; children are liberated from the authoritative adult and "handed over to the tyranny of their own group," and the child's reaction "tends to be either conformism or juvenile delinquency."

2. As noted above, "pedagogy has developed into a science of teaching in general in such a way as to be wholly emancipated from the actual material to be taught." This has resulted "in a most serious neglect of the training of teachers in their own subjects...." Expert-teachers can derive their authority from their expertise in a subject; teachers without subject-matter expertise must be authoritarian, that is, their authority has nothing to point to besides the fact that it exists (i.e., "might makes right").

3. "You can know and understand only what you have done yourself," and so in education doing is substituted for learning. One result of this is the rise of vocational instruction, which reflects schools' inability to "make the children acquire the normal prerequisites of a standard curriculum." A related, equally mistaken idea is that the difference between play and work should be rejected, and that preference should be given to play rather than work. "This procedure consciously attempts to keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level. The very thing that should prepare the child for the world of adults, the gradually acquired habit of work and of not-playing, is done away with in favor of the autonomy of the world of childhood."

-Together, these ideas constitute an abdication of the responsibility of adults for the "continuance of the world." "The world, too, needs protection to keep it from being overrun and destroyed by the onslaught of the new that bursts upon it with each new generation. ...In education this responsibility for the world takes the form of authority. ...The teacher's qualification consists in knowing the world and being able to instruct others about it, but his authority rests on his assumption of responsibility for that world. Vis-a-vis the child it is as though he were a representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child: This is our world."