Archive for February, 2013

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.