teacher evaluations

February 5, 2013

Evaluating teachers seems to be a pretty hot topic these days (just saw Michelle Rhee* on the Daily Show, and it also was apparently one of the main sticking points leading to the Chicago teacher’s strike earlier this year), but I feel frustrated that the main issues that concern me are hardly addressed.

The issue typically seems framed in terms of lazy unionized teachers who refuse to be subject to any kind of objective evaluation vs. arbitrary reductionist tests which do not adequately reflect students’ needs and teachers’ challenges. But let’s assume math and reading are relatively fundamental primitive but important skills for which basic standards can and should be fairly well objectively and quantitatively established.

Rather, the problems start with the fact that we can’t just give raises to teachers with high-scoring students and fire those with failing students. Good teachers should have positive effects, but we have to recognize where students are starting from. Discussions of teacher evalations seem to intermittently include the qualification that we need to measure ‘improvement’ but without much elaboration.

Only once in an article long ago did I find a discussion of the concerns of high level teachers whose students were already in the upper 90%’s. If a teacher’s raise is tied to raising students’ scores, but students are already getting 99%, how will the teacher get any raises?

A basic assumption might be that scores fixed in a 0-100% range would probably follow an S curve (for depending on some arbitrary varible on the X-axis).


That is to say that demonstrating some change in a contributing variable, such as teaching time/effort, finiancial investment per student, library resources, etc., we should probably expect the most student improvement in the mid-grade ranges, and less student performance change at either extreme.

Mainstream media presentations of this topic haven’t even told me how teacher evaluations would average over changes in time of multiple sub-groups of students in any kind of linear fashion, much less acknowledged these non-linear problems. And these problems are not just mathematical complexities. The curves at the extremities express the greater challenges to improvement that are faced by teachers of under-(and over-)performing students.

Teachers of under-performing students could probably even make strong arguments to deserve even greater compensation per unit of improvement gained, as they probably also struggle against behavioral problems, lack of resources, less familial support, etc.

Michelle Rhee suggested that she simply used common sense in closing ‘non-performing schools’ (i think that’s the adjective she used) and firing incompetent teachers (actually, i really wish i remembered exactly what adjective she used). But this sort of approach completely fails to address the issue, provides no kind of solution, and is exactly why a business metaphor is completely inappropriate to matters of crucial social interest.

If a corporation has a store that sells no products and makes no profit, it closes the store and moves somewhere where hopefully there is demand for its products. They are under no obligation to provide their product to everyone and people are under no obligation to acquire their product. This kind of flexibility is not the case with education and so the business metaphor breaks down.

If one accepts that government has an obligation/interest in educating all its citizens, then discussion of firing teachers and closing schools immediately raises the question of what alternatives will be provided to students in jeopardy. Will students be bussed to better schools? Will class sizes grow or shrink? How will better teachers be recruited?

Thus, proposals to eliminate waste in public school districts address crucial problems of useless government expenditure but they do nothing to advance student involvement and teacher commitment.

Certainly, public school systems need to eradicate the useless chafe that sucked up juicy pension plans while letting down future generations, but all this public teacher bashing and imminent declines in already questionable revenue ratios make it even less likely for quality individuals to choose careers in teaching.

* She made a few noteworthy points. She claimed evidence shows a quality teacher is the primary factor in student success. She acknowledged poverty is a significant factor, but also claimed ‘we know’ that education is the best means of escaping it.


redesignation, misapplication, dissociation,…?

February 1, 2013

i need, at least for myself, to clarify my thoughts on some terms which have connections to some ideas that i think are quite useful and important, but which i fear fail to grasp the crucial essence of those ideas, and for which essence, i fear, i still lack proper terms. these terms and ideas are in fact only vaguely connected, and possibly this post should actually be divided into two or more posts, but i also vaguely suspect there could be interesting connections which might also be excavated in the course of this sketchy preliminary exercise.

One of the ideas is connected to the term “cognitive dissonance”. The other is related to terms such as “equivocation” or “tautology”. i will start with the latter as the recent occurrence to me of its parallels to ideas i’d previously had about the former actually inspired this post.

both the latter terms are sometimes found in lists of ‘fallacies’ along with ‘slippery slope’, ‘begging the question’ (whose more general literal misapplication as ‘not answering the question’ may be more useful than its original intension ‘answering the question with the question’), ‘red herring’, etc. i would argue that many of these are not so much fallacies in the sense of being false or invalid in themselves, but in being irrelevant, misdirections, or of questionable pertinence. for instance, a slippery slope criticism of an argument is valid and important in exact proportion to the likelihood of the predicted disasters. in fact, the term is sometimes used to criticize an argument of impending disaster as absurd, and sometimes exactly to suggest disaster will be impending (i.e. legalizing drugs is a slippery slope.-?)

the reader will hopefully forgive these unfocused digressions by recognizing that they are additional examples of the kinds of difficulties of determining correct terminology that this post wishes to discuss.
(which is particularly ironic in that they posture as terms of logic which is intended to achieve a level of clarity lacking in common language)

‘equivocation’ is in fact ‘falseness’ which derives from a kind of incorrect terminology when diverse meanings of a single word are crossed, such as if one argued that since republicans oppose democrats, they therefore oppose democracy. ‘tautology’ is summarized by the formula ‘a=a’ and thus no fallacy but in fact the essence of every valid argument (even argument by contradiction shows the failure of an argument for proving a=-a), but in excess simplicity is simply pointless argumentation for the over-obvious (or simply leaves its actual point unexpressed as in ‘men have to be men’ or ‘boys will be boys’).

the idea that i am interested in is very similar to both these terms, but not quite captured by either. it is more like the ‘redefinition’ of terms to suit one’s arguments, as when clinton supposedly excluded receiving oral sex from the scope of ‘sexual relations’.

rousseau does a similar thing throughout ‘the social contract’, as when he says, ‘when the whole people decree concerning the whole people … it is this act that i call law’ (book 2, chap. 6). at times he may be committing the fallacy of ‘confusing what IS with what SHOULD be’, but here he is clearly refusing to call the dictates of kings and dictators ‘law’ unless they have the support of the WHOLE people. i appreciate the point, but fear more often than not most of us are caught up in debates with a far more mundane kind of law, what he calls ‘decrees of magistracy’.

i would accuse noam chomsky of doing a similar thing in regards to ‘language’ and ‘grammar’ when they are defined in such ways that animals might have ‘communication’ but not ‘language’, or ‘grammar’ is universally biologically-implemented identical structural rules of all languages, and not arbitrary cultural conventions for marking and ordering words in highly language-specific ways.

certainly scientists should speak in more specific ways than lay people, but they do little for common understanding when they simply conflate terms that ordinary people have different interpretations of.

popper’s musings on ‘degenerative science’ should also be somewhat relevant here. as he would have it, science should proceed by identifying the flaws in proposed hypotheses and then determining qualifications which might make them more accurate (all people are selfish? all heretics are selfish? …), but a science stops being scientific when it protects itself from refutation in ways that reduce falsifiable predictions.

possibly each of us must subjectively judge whether we feel narrowing the scope of ‘language’ or ‘laws’ provides a more precise predictable target of inquiry, or removes its realm of prediction to an ideal fantasy that does not correspond to the domain of reality that concerned us.

‘cognitive dissonance’ on the other hand seems to have become quite popular in the collective consciousness, as a general term for almost any kind of confusion or discomfort, though more specifically this discomfort should arise from conflicts in one’s belief systems. apparently the term derives from scientists who studied a religious cult of the 60-70’s which predicted the end of the world, and how they coped with the failure of this prediction (citation?). presumably the dissonance there was between the beliefs ‘i am right’ and ‘i thought the world would end, but it didn’t’, though apparently the religion decided its faith had saved the world, continued on, though with a gradually shrinking congregation.

an almost opposing concept, which might also be relevant to the above situation, is the lack of discomfort which many demonstrate while explicitly advocating wildly contradictory notions, for instance, gun-toting christians, pro-life death penalty advocates, etc.

here again, this may be a simple failure of explicit appropriate qualifications. the bible says ‘do not kill’ but it probably means ‘do not kill anyone who doesn’t deserve it’. the declaration of independence says ‘certain inalienable rights’ but life is clearly alienable in most american states given certain crimes.

so these are some of the concepts that i’m still looking for the proper terms for and the clear connections between.

2-4 easily avoidable pedagogical errors

November 6, 2011

given the many years that many students can spend
studying something without ever learning it,
one might fear that much education is entirely useless,
or mostly just babysitting,
and this problem is especially endemic
in language education.

certain recurrant problematic student habits can
however also suggest that failures to attain targets
may derive from the likelihood that students
are all too often getting away with ineffective approaches
which are in fact easily remedied.

thus, i want to strongly encourage all teachers to STOP
tolerating the following behavior:

1a. students answering questions with ONE word,
such as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘one’ and other solitary numbers,
‘hamburger’, etc.

1b. students answering ‘yes’ to corrections,
rather than fully repeating an entire grammatically correct sentence.

(the above would seem to be obvious in a language classroom setting,
but from the look of surprise that new students often give
when this expectation is actually enforced, i can’t help but wonder
how often it is.)

2a. reading off written pages all the time.
(i have already emphasized this point
in a previous post;
there is a shocking frequency of students who can read
incredibly complex English without being able to string barely
3 of their own self-generated words together)

2b. speaking in chorus all the time.
(though this is often a useful way of offering
more opportunities to more students to speak,
it’s also shocking how a whole class can seem to have
internalized a pattern, while on closer inspection
many individuals will still be struggling with it)

students’ strengths and weaknesses suggest
that they are in fact learning exactly what
teachers are teaching them:

1. to read aloud
2. to listen and repeat

without 24-7 immersion, language learning will
almost invariably present incredibly challenges,
but if students are given more opportunities
to practice the target skill
of actually expressing themselves,
they just might.

why should i care?

July 15, 2011

anyone who watches the colbert report with any frequency
will also hopefully have been a bit discomforted by how often
he leaves his guests baffled with the simple “why should I care”

speaking about soaring food prices in developing nations,
the guest could only comment that it was such a horrible argument
that she “couldn’t even go there”,

while colbert, though hopefully being sarcastic, is in fact
raising a question that has to be addressed if one is ever
to get beyond “preaching to the choir”.

the recurrent failure of guests to be prepared for this question,
regarding economic equity, resource access, human rights, health care, climate, etc.
demonstrates 1.) an embarrassing lack of preparation for
the kind of interview they are about to encounter, and
2.) a regrettable failure of liberal arts education to even
promulgate the kind of critical argumentative skills
that it presumably proposes to.

in an attempt to remedy such shortcomings,
i’d like to try to list a few of the obvious rebuttals
to such explicit self-centerness.

A.) You should care,
because even if you are comfortable, content, and well-fed now,
the consequences of these events will most likely affect you
or someone you care about negatively eventually.

B.) You should care,
because knowingly letting others suffer,
when one can take some action to reduce that suffering,
encourages others to let you suffer.

C.) You should care,
because demonstrating compassion and generosity,
will give you legitimate reasons to be proud of yourself,
maintain more secure relations with more trustworthy kinds of people,
and sleep better at night.

D.) You should care,
unless you are really willing to tell your children,
that you don’t care about how cute penguins and polar bears are,
or how innocent starving children are,
or how needy elderly and handicapped people are,
just because they don’t offer any practical benefits to you,
if you really aren’t afraid of them looking at you like a monster.

E.) You should care,
unless you really aren’t bothered by the sight of
sick suffering people starving, and wouldn’t mind living
in gated communities surrounded by sick contagious criminal beggars.

All these arguments essentially rely on appealing
to the selfishness of the opposed party, more or less practically,
and though especially the last could well be accused of being
an absurdly slippery slope fallacy,
it merely intends to use the extreme to make the more graded argument
that our environments impinge on our comfort and happiness
even when they are outside our immediate circle of family and friends.

language learning 3 2 1

March 18, 2011

I keep trying to get my students
to appreciate the profundity of the following principles,
but I’m not convinced that they are really taking them to heart.
Anyways, I think both their significance and simplicity make them worth
outlining here:


1. Semantic associations: For instance, food is delicious, but it’s a lil pervy if you refer to a person that way. Also, in Chinese, wind can be big, but in English it sounds better to say strong.

2. Syntactic contexts: For instance, what verbs are followed by what kinds of prepositions or V-ing or to V?

3. Morphological forms: For instance, ‘hit’ is both a noun and a verb, but ‘transform’ needs to become ‘transformation’ to act as a noun.

If you know these 3 things about new words that you learn, as opposed to just how such a word translates into your mother tongue, you will be far more likely to use these new words correctly.


1. Reading is not remembering.
I learned this fact from trying to memorize musical pieces; No matter how many times I read a piece, if I didn’t practice little by little freeing myself from the visual clues, I never could actually recollect the whole piece without them. I believe language students also need to habituate themselves to mentally accessing target phrases without relying on visual cues.

2. Speaking in your mind is not speaking with your mouth.
If you’re only speaking in your mind, you are not actually exercising the muscle movements that will be required when you really need to speak. I suspect far too many students (including myself) spend too much time studying without ever opening their mouths.

Different languages may use entirely different methods for similar ends.
In other words,
Word for word translation just doesn’t work very well.

This is a well-known fact,
but is so important that it requires restating here.
Students may either not appreciate it sufficiently
or just not have much other choice when they are not yet aware of
the language specific methods to communicate particular ideas.

Lexical items often slice up the world differently,
as in the way Chinese has different words
for younger and older brothers,
where English only has one,
while Chinese conversely uses the same sound
for he, she, and it.

Grammar can also impose requirements
that other languages may leave implicit,
such as the way that English marks tense and aspect,
while Chinese only uses certain aspect markers
in its own way.

Or a word like “lightning”
may be a noun in some languages,
but a verb in others,
or adjectives may actually be verbs
in Chinese.

Or perhaps one would say “have you eaten?”
where another would say “how are you?”
[and a good many kung fu treat this
as the most salient translation].

And the list could go on and on.

chinese centennial new year in the philippines

February 16, 2011


hard to find a beach side bungalow in boracay

but i finally did it
(for about $25USD,
though the sink and toilet were both broke;
at first i thought that was the ludicrous pricing of boracay
but turned out that was pretty par for the trip
(air-con maybe, hot water probably not))

and if you go, be sure to visit the brilliant and lovely lori
at her fun and friendly congas bar
(as the picture proves, they DO have drums! and a guitar)
in station 3, right after the path ENDS!

the night there began with a free jam,
took a break for some hilarious philippino flaming homo humor
and ended with rampaging booty grinding at summer place.
best night of the trip.


it’s true moalboal has NO beach
and the adjacent white beach was
less than breath-taking without being more economical.
but the “little corner bar and restaurant”
also had a great friendly and fun atmosphere
(though they perhaps love the pussycat dolls a lil much)
and though the weather was pretty off while we were there,
apparently the snorkeling is impressive,
and of course it’s the diving that the place is famous for.


finally got the best beach side bungalow in malapascua
(at dano’s for roughly $25USD, clean and everything worked)
best views here too (those are nets, not garbage)
though the beach here is pretty coarse.

best day too, wandering through some
of the more remote villages of the island,
snorkeling a couple of really nice spots
with plenty of stripped fish, neon blue star fish
and neon green brain looking coral.

getting to/from the island can be odd
with the practical, though frowned upon,
flexibility of price/schedule for the boat
(pay more, go faster? or do they tell you that
and then put you on the same boat
that was waiting anyways???)
and try not to get stuck in Maya
because accommodation options are VERY limited.
[boats may stop as early as 4pm,
so best to make a morning bus from cebu]


finally, alona beach on panglao, south bohol
is even crowded before 6 in the morning,
but maybe that’s because it’s chinese new year
and asians often make the most of mornings.

Penghu New Year’s 2011

January 18, 2011

teaching tools

November 12, 2010

the following webpages may be of some use to other teachers:

upload a reading on this page, and then you can select words,
which will get highlighted and listed at the bottom of the page:
(in fact a bunch of samples using this page
can be found on my class websites, npu
though definitely some vocab selections are better than others)

this one takes a list of vocab and grabs famous quotes from a variety of websites:

this one takes vocab in one box and text in the other box
(such as the preceding vocab and its associated famous quotes)
and makes fill in the blank multiple choice tests:
(or toss out the multiple choices if you want a more difficult test)

the use of force

August 7, 2010

The other day,
I witnessed another struggling young mother
completely helpless in the face of her screaming toddler.

She tried to pull him along.
He pulled back, slipped, falling, hit his head,
thus intensifying his screams,
and presumably making her feel all the more embarrassed
and incompetent.

Except anyone who has kids or has worked with them
knows how difficult and common such situations are.

In these cases, I always repress my urge to intervene.
I avoid intervening for 2 reasons:

1. Help from a stranger could be even more embarrassing and unwanted.

2. My help might not work; these sorts of patterns of behavior are rarely changed in 1 day.

However, I usually feel that the problem is quite obvious: No one like to be forced to do things, and the adult in these situations usually resorts to increasing degrees of force.

It’s sad that so many parents don’t realize how easy children are to PERSUADE. They are typically entertained by the smallest trifles, and can usually be convinced that anything is fun with the right attitude. However, adults rarely make things look fun.

Their short attention spans also abet the adults advantage.

The proper approach to tantrums is to find DISTRACTIONS. Find something that looks fun, and get the child to focus on that; give them something to want and give it to them!

Of course, the danger with this method is that it easily leads to spoiling children. They may begin throwing more tantrums to get what they want. Notice however, I didn’t say give them what they originally wanted. Let’s assume that’s totally off limits. Find something that’s fully acceptable, that you can trick them into wanting, and give them that!

In any case, I don’t deny that when kids go too far, they need to be brought in line. There are times when force is necessary. But the less the better.

With one’s children, I advocate choosing your battles carefully. Avoid them as much as possible, and especially in public, where the child may even recognize that they have distinct advantages, and is more likely to be stressed in any case.

Why not give them as much as you can? Furthermore, I would like to believe that children who believe their parents want to give them everything will be more understanding when they can’t.

All too many parents see their jobs as keeping their children from all the bad things they will want to do and knee-jerk react in the negative. They quickly lose their children’s trust. Since kids will still fight for what they want, these parents will live an endless battle.

Often, when adults get into a power struggle with children, they feel they have to prove their superiority. Since beating children has become passé, these instincts often lead to failure.

However, if one remains focused on the practical goal of accomplishing whatever tasks were at hand, then adults should still have the ability to OUTSMART children. Accomplish your tasks by re-introducing them from alternative perspectives that give the child desirable options.

If you’re their ally, and they can really understand why certain rare refusals are really necessary, and if such refusals are typically accompanied with desirable alternatives, then I believe most children can be quite cooperative.

does everyone understand?

August 7, 2010

Scott Thornbury’s blog
justifies the “have any questions” question,
as part of fostering an authentic environment
of honest communication.
This environment of trust may be contrasted to
the dishonest and distrustful environments
that Thronbury’s critics, Alan Waters, in particular,
(Applied Linguistics, December 2009)
seem to accept. Such suspicious patronization of one’s students
is offensive to Paulo Freire’s egalitarian conceptions of education,
and reeks of his ‘banking’ model of education,
where the ignorant students must be coerced into compliance.

First, this discussion seems
to confuse addressing
“is” and “should”.

Second, even the defenders of “does everyone understand?”
seem to acknowledge that a great deal more of investigation
is actually necessary to determine if everyone understands.

To my mind, the most insightful observation
comes from Linda Aragoni,
who brings up the point that the discussion
should not just address purposeful duplicity
for the sake of avoiding embarrassment;
it also needs to consider
the fact that misunderstandings
are often unaware that they are such!

This comment hopefully reminds one that
the conversation should be less about
malicious deception and accusations,
and more about the daunting challenges
to being completely honest.

If one wishes to support Freire’s ideals,
one may prefer to identify loci of deception,
both intentional and unintentional,
and purposefully attempt to eradicate them,
or one may may simply hope to wish them away.

Which strategy is more effective is hard to say,
and may depend greatly on the personalities
of the implementer and of his subjects.

How effective is Freud’s ‘talking cure’.
That depends on who you ask.
What personality factors are relevant to its success?

Does pretending something make it so? Or,
is acknowledging problems the best way to solve them?
I’d argue effective action requires deploying
both these strategies in their proper contexts.

I’d also argue honesty is useful
but not sufficient for learning.

In any case, saying “be honest” is probably
even less useful than “do you understand?”.