Monday, November 29, 2010

Disjointed crankish libertarian rambling on the triumph of too-brilliant-to-bathes

So I have been following this conversation on "homework helpers," whether boys are more disorganized than girls, whether this is a real handicap in later life, and whether/how this drives gender gaps in academic achievement. To wit, some disjointed thoughts:

1. To my way of thinking, there is all the difference in the world between "learning how to follow senseless rules for the sake of following senseless rules" and "learning how to follow rules that seem senseless, but in fact actually have some purpose." The latter is quite useful in life and work. The former, not. I recognize that which one is which is somewhat in the eye of the beholder....

2. Yes, learning how to submit things on time and complete is an essential skill. On the other hand, I can remember being scolded in eleventh grade for stapling an essay at a funny angle. My teacher preferred staples at a forty-five-degree angle from the page, and I tended to misfire and let my staples run almost parallel to the horizontal edge of the paper. My good friend Clarissa Dalloway teaches high school in CT, and her students have to hand in one-page journal entries. They are shocked, shocked that she lets them submit papers torn right out of spiral notebooks without lowering their grades. Their previous teacher simply could not abide the ugly, rough scraggly edges. Etc.

3... which brings me to the libertarian crankery. In my experience, workplaces have generally been more tolerant of eccentricity, messiness, and what have you than schools. People who are trying to make stuff and sell it usually have incentive not to create overly complex rules and bureaucracies. In schools, the incentives are different. It's all too easy to get drunk on the power of being a petty despot and terrorize students for poor stapler use or scraggly paper edges. There's nobody looking over your shoulder and asking you,"Yes, but does this really contribute to learning?" Of course there are many wonderful teachers who don't fall prey to bad incentives. But neither most teachers nor most people are angels, and bad incentives do tempt otherwise good people to indulge bad tendencies.

Go to enough libertarian happy hours, and you're bound to hear a rant or two on how government schools socialize kids for passive obedience to the state. A lot of this rhetoric sounds a bit too "the black helicopters are coming for you" for my taste. But I don't think these concerns are misplaced altogether either.

4. So I'm pretty comfortable with schools grading students primarily based on their mastery of material, rather than on "life skills." Note that if organization and so forth actually helps students get A's rather than C's, presumably most will figure this out.

5. As far as I can tell, most other advanced industrial nations have school systems that focus much more heavily on content mastery as measured by high-stakes testing. This is perhaps a single point, but my in-laws have remarked on several occasions that they and other Russian immigrant friends are often shocked by how much the American system values "effort" and other soft factors over getting results come test time. Grading on notebook organization and so forth would be unheard of over there. I don't want to go into the weeds on international comparisons of student test scores here; while America often lags on such comparisons, some commentators claim that it's because a wider range of American students take the relevant tests. Still, to my knowledge nobody claims that America is vastly outperforming peer nations on most such tests. So the international experience suggests that adopting a more results-oriented approach would probably not hurt our students and might well help.

1 comment:

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with nearly all of this. But i would note that petty teacher tyranny and stupid rules are far from unknown in Russian schools, or indeed many others in Europe.