San Diego – These are really interesting times. With the broohaha in Wisconsin and Ohio my email has been inundated by political offal from the union but that is normal for them. Thinking is not required beyond memorizing the talking points and screed demanded. But then, a couple of emails appeared from an instructor in our political science department. Of course he is liberal but we are not supposed to be using our district email for political diatribes (unless they are properly liberal, of course, in which case it is OK) and I am used to that too and try to ignore or summarily delete them. But he reprinted an article from the NY Times which touched on a point I think is incredibly important; the growing scorn for teachers in general. Plus he could not resist at dig at a new make-work effort now going through our state’s system called “SLO” where we define our expected student learning outcomes and how we will measure success. It is important for you readers that are not in the system to know that our faculty are nearly unanimously opposed to these. Below is a reaction to his note and the article…
I have really wanted to stay out of this debate knowing I am not part of the choir to which the NY Times article the professor copied is preaching. And I am certainly not part of the choir for which the unending litany of claptrap from the union bombing our email is directed either. I would prefer, generally, to simply watch and chuckle from afar and not, once again, open myself for the ad hominem flame wars that seem always to flow in response from people I would rather continue to believe are better than that. But sometimes the disconnection between rhetoric and behavior is too great to ignore.
We teachers talk a great line about being most interested in the students’ well being and success yet adamantly refuse to even admit a problem we all know exists: dead wood teachers protected from all attack or removal for no reason other than time in grade or personal friendships. Oh yes, I know the line about how they can still be removed for good cause; but let’s get real, when was the last time that happened?
How are we evaluated anyway? By student evaluations which are a popularity contest and by so-called peers that know nothing about the specifics of our unique disciplines and often give little more than a perfunctory visit because they already know they are not going to rock any boat by suggesting, god forbid, things might not be going well. And even if it is not the best of class presentations during that visit, a single visit does not a trend make so, for good or ill it is purely for the image of it and has nothing to do with a teacher’s real skills at leading students to success in their fields of study. Unless done for acceptable political reasons it is generally a toothless system putting instructors in thrall to the union.
And the de facto bottom line result is that tenure virtually assures that dead wood accumulates and the union seems more interested in dues and self- perpetuation than in truly helping to improve the educational system by some dead wood clearing. So unless a teacher beats or assaults a student in front of the class, and continues such behavior after repeated warnings, they are nearly bullet proof so long as they are sufficiently politically correct and echo the line of the choir’s thinking at least in public.
And yet we wonder why we are scorned? Really? Not unless we are willfully blind to reality we don’t. And if we truly are clueless then we have no claim on any authority based in intelligence and insight to call ourselves fit teachers for anyone.
Meantime, out of the blue and down the pike comes SLOs – Student Learning Outcomes/Objectives. A murky rehash of the MBO (Management By Objective) craze that made it through the corporate world a number of years ago and now dressed up in new edu-jargon and targeted at the educational field to give some new doctoral thesis a semblance of credibility. In the end it will prove as elusive a progenitor of quality in our workplace as MBOs were in that world. And like there, the failure will happen for all the wrong reasons, chief of which is that workers there and workers here often seem more interested in security than growth so the defined “outcomes and objectives” in both get successively downsized to fit not a real standard but based on the efforts the workers are willing to apply.
But on the other hand, we have, with the SLO concept, flawed as it is and open to abuse as it is, an instrument by which we, the teachers, could demonstrate our own commitment to the improvement of an obviously broken education system, starting where we need to start, with ourselves.
We cannot legitimately point the finger at other issues to explain the failures of education if we are not willing to look internally and make sure our own house is in order before casting stones at another house. After all, there was a time when it DID work and remarkably well at that. So what has changed?
It is not just the top heavy system that skims money off long before it get s to the classroom though that is a factor.
It is not just the acceptance of programs more concerned with feelings than success; programs that seem to ignore that to make a student feel good about themselves all you have to do is to help them become truly good at it and scorn the students by acting as if they are not smart enough to not know when we are flim-flamming them by pretending mediocre performance is just fine if they feel that it is.
It is not just the development of a system that protects its own deadwood and hides its own failures.
It is all of those things and some of them fall squarely into our own laps. So where can SLO’s help us instead of hurt us? It depends entirely on how we teachers chose to use them. Assuming we have enough of a grasp of real world needs (which in my world of vocational topics and advisory committees is our Bible) then determining and quantifying the objectives a student needs to be successful therein is not a difficult or arduous task. And if we do not have such a grasp then I’m sorry, but we are in the wrong job and have no business in this one.
Once we have defined those objectives/outcomes then by our own hand we have created the precisely proper criteria for our own evaluations. This criteria doesn’t depend on outside influences, conclusions by people who know nothing about our discipline’s needs, or subjective conclusions by people who personally like or dislike us or our beliefs. Success is not to be measured by how long one has been teaching but by whether or not the student’s are measurably learning and accomplishing what the teachers themselves said was proper.
If we cannot meet our own standards of success how dare we claim that we should continue to inflict ourselves on our students solely due to seniority while at the same time we offer flowing rhetoric about how the future of our country, state, culture, society, depends on high quality education? Do we assume parents and others not in the profession do not notice?
I know that we are in a culture here increasingly interested in avoiding consequences for choices, responsibility for behavior, and freedom from any sort of constraints on our desires. I know we wish to turn every desire into some sort of “right” until the term becomes meaningless. But at some point it has to stop. If the people claiming to be able to educate — teach — the rest of the populace what they need to know to grow as a human beings, succeed in their lives and careers, understand their real place in society and the universe, play nice in the social sandbox, but cannot themselves even accept being held accountable for the very standards they set for themselves, then scorn is the least form of derision they deserve.
If we want to get the public to see us as the keepers of the future we see ourselves as being, to view us as a class of workers worthy of our pay and status, to hold us out as professionals in the field of human endeavor, then we have to act like it and openly perform like it and openly work to clean our own house and harvest our own deadwood. Or the assaults will simply continue and escalate until there is no place to hide and the mob of angry voters and tax payers ends up throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.
If we continue to look down on them intellectually as if we actualy occupy the intellectual high grown and continue to view those who see us as less than god-like as all morons and troglodytes, then we cannot complain too much because they have resulted from our own care… they are what the educational system we hide behind have managed to produce. As a friend of mine once asserted; he had gotten his education in spite of his schooling. If we wish to see the success of our current efforts we need look no further than the people howling for our heads.
Arthur C. Clark, the futurist, science, and sci-fi writer, once wrote that the problem with academia and the intelligentsia was that their education had surpassed their intellects. I never understood that assertion until now. I i would propose that instead looking down from our ivory towers at the evil other side; instead of trying to join in the hunt for simple easy solutions (like throwing more money at a problem) to incredibly complex issues; that instead we start to act as if we really WERE intellectuals and begin by searching for real solutions, starting with healing our own obviously failed system by being honest about the fact that some of that failure is on our heads.
If we did that, and did it openly, I think we would see that scorn start to fall away and turn to admiration once again. I believe this: we are being scorned because we have been scornful of those who actually pay us. We act as if the money comes from the great anonymous “state” instead of realizing the state just filters money it has taken from the people and doles out some of it back to us. But that is not state money, it is taxpayer money.
We are scornful of those who actually depend on us because we sit in our isolated halls of academia and seem to think that hearing seminars from other isolated individuals and reading papers by other isolated individuals gives us an insight into the functioning of a real world that we have known, at best, second hand.
We are being looked down upon because we too often look down ourselves upon others from different perspectives as if we somehow have a pipeline to eternal truth. We read a long list of like-minded people and reach conclusions reinforced by others in our safe and hallowed halls and cannot fathom that someone with different experiences could possibly reach different conclusions without being, well, stupid.
We are the authors of the very attitudes now arrayed against us. And the only ones who can ever make it better, who can ever make our system work again and become, once again, the beacon of the world rather than the laughingstock of it, is us. But we can’t do it by continuing business as usual. When one finds themselves in a hole the first thing to do is stop digging. Our approach, rather, as displayed by that article, is to ask for a bigger shovel.