Thursday, March 12, 2015


Some time back when I was still teaching mostly 'live' classes, I referred to the back corner of the classroom as the Student Bermuda Triangle . I warned students not to sit there because many who did had a habit of disappearing in the middle of the semester.

Of course, I was joking, but the truth of the matter is that there always were students who simply disappeared. They quit coming. And we never knew why. But one day at the local mall I ran into one of those students and he shook my hand and asked if I remembered him. I had to be honest; sometimes I remember a face, but rarely a name.

"I was in that back corner," he said. "The Bermuda Triangle."

I laughed and asked how he was doing.

"Great," he said. "I just wasn't ready back then; fresh out of high school, parents insisting I had to go to college. But all I could think of was getting a job, and a car, and getting wasted on the weekends."

"I have to admit," I said. "I was no different." And I explained how I didn't go to college right away because I didn't really like school and couldn't wait to get away from it.

"It's all good though," he said. "You were a good teacher. I remember that. So I started back two years ago and I'll graduate from the University next June." He grinned. "And guess what?"

I shrugged.

"I majored in English." He laughed. "Went back to the community college, took the basics and transferred and realized I always liked to write."

I came away from that incident feeling much different about my Bermuda Triangle. Where I used to feel responsible for the loss of a student, worrying that I had said something that turned him off or didn't do all I could to get him involved, I now realized that there were others like him whom we never know about and who go on, even if it's not back to college, to find a career path that is satisfying and fulfilling.

I had a roommate in college, named Bill Desmond, who didn't want to be there (he wanted to join the Navy), but went because his parents insisted on it. After he arrived, he decided that he had made a mistake by trying to please his parents, so he made sure he would flunk all of his classes. He spent most of his time in the Student Center pool room and most of the weekends at the town bar. And he succeeded and joined the Navy. But we kept in touch. He learned computer operations and became a technician aboard a Navy Destroyer and retired after 20 years. He loved every minute of it, married his high school sweetheart (I was his best man), and bought a Mom and Pop grocery store in Pennsylvania. He sold it a few years ago and now lives in California near his kids and grandkids.

Did Bill's teachers fail? No. Did the college fail? No. Bill was a perfect example of what the bureaucrats don't bother to measure.The kind of experience my former student and Bill had is of little or no concern to the so-called educators who discount anything that can't be measured by a standardized test. And evaluating teachers and schools on the basis of the results of those tests just adds insult to injury.

So how about we follow up on students one, two or five years later? And how about defining success on the student's terms? Some don't belong in college. And I don't say that pejoratively. I recognize that's heresy by the standards of the bureaucratic administration whose focus is on assuring that the funds keep coming in. But wouldn't it be nice if we took some of that money being spent on programs to keep students in college and, instead, spent it on better counseling, on programs that help students decide what direction is best? And letting them know that if they decide college isn't for them, but later on change their mind, the door is still open?

Thursday, March 5, 2015


My friend the stand-up comic tells me that even the best comedians can't accurately predict an audience's reaction to their routine. Of course, comedians who become well-known are more likely to have success (i.e. get laughs) because their audiences come to see them. The audience is a self-selected group, not a random collection of people, and therefore more likely to be receptive to the comic's material.

A classroom isn't a whole lot different, really; however, students generally don't select teachers. And the results of one's teaching isn't based on a simple outcome (level and number of laughs). But administrators and politicians would use a random collection of students and "measure" the results to determine if the teacher is competent. If the results are equal to or better than some arbitrary score, the teacher keeps his or her job and maybe even gets a raise. Then they use the results of all of the teachers tested to determine if the school is or is not doing a good job and use those results to determine how much operating capital the school gets next year or how much in federal grants they get.

Some time ago, when I got my first administration job as the head of Humanities at a little community college in Virginia, I proposed something similar as a method for determining pay raises. I was 27 years old and my goal was to put teacher evaluation on an objective plane so I wouldn't have to deal with the salary decision. I told my faculty that to be eligible for raises they would have to devise a test based on their course objectives to measure the knowledge and skill level of their incoming students. Then they would have to create an alternative version of the same test to administer at the end of the semester and compare the two scores. Teachers whose test scores increased by at least five percent would get a raise. Simple, right?

Wrong. Even a scientist conducting experiments using lab rats will tell you that all rats are not equal, though efforts are made to breed lab rats to produce rats that are at least roughly equivalent. Even then, testing lab rats often is not reliable, since the very act of testing changes the circumstances of the study. That's not to say there isn't something worthwhile being identified if a test of a thousand rats gets the same results every time, especially if steps are taken to weed out the contradictory elements. But here's the bottom line. Kids aren't bred to produce equivalent students and classrooms aren't laboratories.

When I tried to set up my evaluation scheme, one of the faculty back at the community college came to me and said he was fine with the idea, provided he would be allowed to screen and select his students. He said that his teaching methods were not the same as others and that he was very effective with students who were 'on the same wave length.'

I told him he would have to work with whatever he got. And he said that turned it into a crap shoot.

Though I didn't then, I agree with him now. It is a crap shoot and those teachers who go along with it shouldn't be faulted if they do whatever they can to improve their odds (e.g. 'teaching to the test' and even modifying test results after the fact.)

But there are educators out there who would tell you that the so-called standardized tests being administered to kids across the country reflect the truth of the matter. If I was in their shoes, I would go with the better investment and buy stock in the testing companies. (According to Simba Information, a market-research firm, about $2.56 billion was spent on testing in U.S. schools for the 2014-15 school year. The previous year’s total was $2.46 billion.)

It seems to me that all that money would be much better spent on a serious evaluation, not of  student test scores, but rather on teaching methods matched to student populations. How about if we take schools with student populations that are equivalent on a socio-economic basis, but employ different teaching methods? And if we find that one method appears to produce better outcomes with a particular student population, let's promote that method, without penalizing the teachers who used a less successful method. In other words, match teachers to students. My friend the stand-up comedian would love that.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

From the President

So...I'm a registered Democrat and, therefore, I get these clever e-mails boasting about this or that or condemning that or this. Often they're signed by the President or his wife or the Vice-President, though we all know they may not have even read them. And they address me by my first name: "George," they'll start out "It's been a breakthrough year for America" And they invariably end with something like "We need your help now more than ever, George...If you're with me, then commit to making a recurring donation to Democrats before midnight..."

I'm guessing that Republicans get these sort of messages too. And they probably address the recipient by his or her first name. "Sarah," they'll start out "It's been a tragic year for America" And likely end with something like "We need your help now more than ever, Sarah...If you're with me, then commit to making a recurring donation to Republicans before midnight..."

I regard it all as something of a wash. Everything is reduced to  one or the other end of the political spectrum.

But this past week I got one that was about my favorite blogging subject: education. It was from Barack. (I figure we're on a first name basis now.) He started out by saying that "our high school students are currently graduating at an all-time high, and last year, our younger students posted the highest scores ever recorded in both math and reading." Sounds like we're doing something right, eh?

No. Somehow, he deemed this a failure and went on to say "I'm making the replacement of No Child Left Behind a priority." Does that mean it's not working, I wondered. 

He then said that we "need a better education plan -- one that cuts standardized testing to a bare minimum, invests in our preschools, and gives every kid in every corner of our country a fair shot." This was followed by announcing that he's "calling on Congress to pass a law that makes this vision of a brighter tomorrow for our sons and daughters a reality." 

"This plan" he said "is just common sense," one of the phrases that everyone loves, but has no idea what it means.

And that was followed by the usual request for a donation.

As you may know from reading my earlier comments regarding Jeb Bush and the Federal Government's role in education, I am not in favor of it. 

But I figured I should give the President an opportunity to fill me in. So I sent the following reply: 

    I am extremely offended by the message below. There is no
    way I am going to support a plan without knowing the details.
a better education plan -- one that cuts standardized testing to a
     bare minimum, invests in our preschools, and gives every kid in every
     corner of our country a fair shot”
is not enough

    I have a Ph.D. in education and I maintain a blog on the subject.
    And I am a registered Democrat. Kindly send me (and anyone else 
    whose support you want) a copy of the plan so we can decide for
    ourselves if we want to endorse it.

As of this writing, there has been no reply. And I don't expect one. And as for his
vision of a brighter tomorrow for our sons and daughters, I'd like to point out that there's a slim line between a vision and a hallucination and I'm worried that he may have slipped over it.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


Here's where it really gets embarassing. Forget about the test scores and the failure and success rates. Just listen to our elected representatives, most of whom feel obliged to 'dumb down' their messages in order to speak to their poorly educated constituents.
  • Democrats Tom Miles and Michael Evans, members of the Mississippi House of Representatives proposed a bill that would make the Bible the state book. Do they teach the Bill of Rights in the Mississippi schools? 
  •  I think it is high time that we recognize the contribution of our forbearers who worked tirelessly -- men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country."
    You have to wonder what Rep. Michele Bachmann was doing when American History was taught..or if this is what she actually learned.

  • In 2010, on Bill O'Reilly's radio show, Sarah Palin said we needed to "Go back to what our founders and our founding documents meant -- they're quite clear -- that we would create law based on the God of the bible and the Ten Commandments."
    Do I need to add anything to this? She also asked for sympathy because she was "schooled with only public education and a lowly state university degree, because obviously I haven't learned enough to dismiss common sense." 
  •  In 2011 Jeb Bush said "I think global warming may be real. … It is not unanimous among scientists that it is disproportionately manmade. What I get a little tired of on the left is this idea that somehow science has decided all this so you can’t have a view.”The Bush clan has done its best to denigrate all forms of science.
The fundamental reason why Medicare is failing is why the Soviet Union failed -- socialism doesn't work. You have ... no price fluctuation. - See more at:
The fundamental reason why Medicare is failing is why the Soviet Union failed -- socialism doesn't work. You have ... no price fluctuation. - See more at:
The fundamental reason why Medicare is failing is why the Soviet Union failed -- socialism doesn't work. You have ... no price fluctuation. - See more at:
  • In 2010 Rand Paul said "The fundamental reason why Medicare is failing is why the Soviet Union failed -- socialism doesn't work. You have ... no price fluctuation."  Apparently, he never learned that Russiia's economy was a communist system, not socialist.
  • In 2004 President George H.W. Bush said “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
    Why do I have the sense that his Mom wrote all of his homework essays?
  • But hey, when it came to messing with the English language Bill Clinton went Bush one better with his infamous impeachment defense: “It all depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
  •  And here's  some seriously convoluted logic straight from the mouth of Nancy Pelosi, spoken in 2010 when she was still House Speaker:“...we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.” This assumes, of course, that there are congressmen and women who actually do read bills before they pass on them.
  • Former Mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, confirmed our education system's ability to teach logical thinking when, in 1985 he said: “Life is indeed precious, and I believe the death penalty helps affirm this fact.”
  • Joe Biden was being interviewed by Katy Curic when he flashed back to his childhood and recalled a president's famous fireside chat: “When the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed. He said, ‘Look, here’s what happened.'”
  • Texas Rep.Louie Gohmert, speaking on marriage equality said "When you say it's not a man and a woman anymore, then why not have three men and one woman, or four women and one man, or why not somebody has a love for an animal?"
    Did any of his teachers ever explain the logical fallacy known as the 'slippery slope?'
  • Iowa Rep. Steve King, speaking on immigration said of students today "For every one who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert."  
  • In another example of failing the study of sociology, Rick Santorum, talking about the so-called middle class, said "Since when in America are people stuck in areas or defined places called a class? That's Marxism talk."  
  • Barack Obama's knowledge of geography reared its ugly head in 2008 when speaking at a campaign rally he said: ''I've now been in 57 states -- I think one left to go.''
  • Here's a statement from an Arizona bill signed into law by Republican Governor Jan Brewer: "Life begins "from the first day of the last menstrual period of the pregnant woman."
  • Maybe the best of these examples is summed up by Governor Chris Christie yelling this at a school teacher: "I am tired of you people."
  • Or maybe it's this--George H.W.Bush's comment on the No Child Left Behind Act: ''As yesterday's positive report card shows, childrens do learn when standards are high and results are measured.''
    Yes Mister George, them childrens sure does learn. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015


I had a friend, a British fellow I met when I was at Syracuse  University getting my Masters, who was astonished upon learning how we run our education system. School Boards had him flummoxed. "It's a bloody wonder anybody gets educated," he said.

Mark Twain recognized that long before my friend: "In the first place, God made idiots, he said.  That was for practice. Then he made school boards."

Nowhere  in the U.S. Constitution is education mentioned . The only source of the forefathers views on it come from Thomas Jefferson who said "An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight. It is therefore imperative that the nation see to it that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens." But he was smart enough to keep the federal government out of it.

Nonetheless, presidents keep trying to homogenize, democratize, and untimately euthenize the so-called American education system.Dwight D. Eisenhower established the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Lyndon Johnson gave us the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 because (he said) he wanted to equalize educational opportunity. Jimmy Carter established a separate Department of Education. George H.W. Bush (that's the one who does parachute jumps on his birthdays) wanted to be "the education President," and Bill Clinton signed the Improving American’s Schools Act. Bush the Second brought us "No Child Left Behind."

And now comes Jeb, whose actual past experience as an educator is limited to a year when, at the age of 17, as part of Phillips Academy's student exchange program, Jeb taught English-as-a-Second-Language in Mexico (and met his future wife.) As if in preparation for his political plans, as governor of Florida he managed to stick his fingers in the education pie. And the plum he pulled out was the

Foundation for Excellence in Education, a non-profit that defines its mission as building "an American education system that equips every child to achieve his or her God-given potential." (I find those "every child" and "God-given" parts particularly scary.)
Among the things the Foundation supports are policies that "set high academic standards," the use of technology "to offer students customized education," empowerment of teachers, and rewards for those who are effective. To the latter goal, the Foundation supports ending tenure, "implementation of data-based evaluations and compensation, and alternative paths to certification/licensure."
There's more, but I think you get the idea. It all sounds good, but closer examination reveals a string of contradictions. The bottom line (more scary stuff)  is summed up in the Foundation's emphasis on standards and accountability.
Students and schools must be held to high academic standards, with their progress measured and results reported in simple, transparent formats. The Foundation supports standardized measurement of student learning, including annual comprehensive end-of-course assessments in elementary, middle and high school, as well as grading schools on an A-F scale – just like students.

But here's the real bottom line. In all of these presidential efforts the focus is not on what Jefferson spoke of--nothing about the importance of collaboration, crosscultural communication, and respect for multiple points of view, nor anything promoting inquiry, reflection, effective communication, and open-mindedness. Sure, we want kids to learn how to do basic math and compose a sentence, but do Jeb and the others really want them to be independent thinkers, critical readers and listeners, citizens who can spot a politician who espouses bullshit? I think not.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


A few years ago, the larger department stores (Sears, JC Penney's, Montgomery-Ward) in a major cost-cutting effort, decreased the number of full-time employees and replaced them with part-timers. In addition to being able to pay them less, they didn't have to pay for benefits, which can be as much as a third of their payroll cost. And for a time, it seemed to be working. But there's one measure of difference between people for whom the job is a career and those for whom the job is not part of their life's ambition: attitude. Shifting to part-time from full-time employees produced a shift away from loyalty, dedication to the work, and pride in what they do.

Around the same time, a similar shift occurred in higher education. In 2012, the National Center for Educational Statistics reported that the use of part-time (aka adjunct) faculty in U.S.higher education institutions increased from 23% in 1971to 50% in 2011. Most part-time instructors have no job security, no health benefits, and no office. In a classic example of the abuse of adjuncts, Margaret Mary Vojtko, who taught French at Duquesne University for 25 years, was dismissed in Spring 2013 at 83 years old. She never earned more than $25,000 a year, even when she taught eight courses. In her last year she was only teaching one class a semester. And when she was dismissed, she had cancer. She did not have a pension and did not receive any severance. She died that August.

Early last December I received a notification from the local community college where I teach that I had been assigned to teach three classes for the current semester--two 'live' and one on line. I also received assignments to teach two online classes for another school located out of the state. All of these classes were different, so I declined one of the latter and told the local school I would like to keep the live classes, but drop the online class. That would leave me with three assignments--plenty to do since I'm involved in other projects outside of teaching.

The schools complied with my request and so I spent the last half of December and the first two weeks of January preparing for the remaining two live classes. That means setting up a schedule, getting ahead in the reading for the courses, and coding my Dr. Write web site with all of the material the students would need: syllabus, schedules, assignments, calendar, resources, etc.

A few days before the beginning of the current semester I received an e-mail saying that one of my live classes had been taken away and given to a full-time instructor who had a class that didn't 'make.' My assignment was reduced to one class. This is a common practice at most schools. (The e-mail from the dean simply said: "I apologize for the inconvenience.")

I see that situation as analogous to the free-lance writing I used to do for various magazines. That  process involved submitting a proposal for a piece, having it accepted, submitting the article, and getting paid upon publication. Sometimes, though, the article was cut; however, recognizing that the writer has spent the time and effort to produce the piece, the magazine provided what's known as a 'kill fee,' a portion of the payment. It's a much-appreciated courtesy.

But there is no 'kill fee' or compensation for an adjunct who does the preparation work for a course only to have it 'cut.' The implication is that a full-time teacher is worth more than a part-timer. And that's true if you consider that they are paid more, easily five to ten times as much per class as an adjunct. Furthermore, adjunct salaries vary widely from one school to another. (My pay for teaching online for that school in another state is one-third higher than what I'm paid for teaching online at a Tennessee community college.) But are they worth more to the student?

Full-time faculty often have had little or no experience in "the real world" of their subject and they are often unfamiliar with what's happening in their discipline outside the academic environs. (I know of only a few English teachers who were ever employed as writers or editors, history teachers employed as historians, math teachers as mathematicians, etc.) Syllabi for courses often include goals relating to real-world situations, but quizzes, exams, and other evaluations are often lacking that connection.

Frankly, I don't see any of this changing soon. I do my best to bring my experiences in business and industry into my classes and connect it to the skills I teach. But it's hard to generate enthusiasm and loyalty to an institution that doesn't reflect that value-added feature. And how will Obama's free community college plan be funded? Did I hear someone say "More adjuncts?"

The other day I asked the full-time teacher who was assigned the class I had taken away if the administration gives her a choice of adjunct classes to choose from. She shook her head. "Sometimes they do," she said, "and sometimes they don't." And added with a shrug: "I'm just a peon."

I smiled and nodded. "Well," I replied "if you're a peon, what am I?"

Monday, January 19, 2015


In 1959 I took the State University of New York State college entrance exam and checked off three schools where my scores would be sent. I was accepted at the third one, although I had never heard of it (SUNY at Geneseo). But tuition was free at all of the SUNY colleges. Were it not for that, I'd never have gone. I was from a lower middle-class family and it was all they could do to scrape together the living expenses and textbook costs. 

What happened? I'm not sure. But there were others like me, with poor high school grades, who were the first in their families to go to college. We were being given a shot and it paid off. I got my Ph.D., Lew got his Bachelor's and went on to get a law degree, John went to Harvard and became an Economist and eventually a Professor of Economics at RPI, Dick got a Ph.D. in Reading Education, and there were many more with similar success stories. But let me be clear. SUNY Geneseo did not lower their standards. They challenged us and we responded. Sadly, that option is no longer available.

So now there's the headline--free community college. But a part of me is suspicious because I'm well aware that one of the White House tactics (regardless of who is "in") is to make an announcement that has a positive spin that will distract from something they'd rather the public not think amount. I'm not sure what it might be in this case (the Republicans takeover of the Senate?), but it seems to have worked. And as part of this announcement, White House director Cecilia Muñoz said Obama aims to make college “the norm in the same way high school is the norm now."  Well, just what is the 'norm' now?

The National Center for Education Statistics [] reported that in 2012-13, 81% of high school seniors graduated on-time with a High School diploma. I suppose that constitutes a 'norm' of some sort. But what does it suggest if we need to increase the number of years of free education to 14? Perhaps it means that the quality of those 12 years of education (when no child was left behind?) has declined to the point where we need to add two years in order to get back to the level we once had when 12 did the trick.I'm leaning toward that explanation.

Another view of the announcement is that it's driven by an economic need. In an article in the New York Times, Justin Wolfers (Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the University of Michigan) said that "educational attainment has almost completely stalled over the past three decades." And he added that "Economists believe that there are really only three ways to raise living standards over the long run: to invest more in education, to invest more in machines or to innovate so that the same people and machines can more effectively be combined to produce more output." So perhaps the President sees it the same way--stimulate economic growth by reviving education.

Not so, says the The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), which is typically in step with the Obama administration. It's not going to help the economy because it's (in their words) “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Among the problems, TICAS says, is that "the more substantial costs of college — living expenses, textbooks and transportation — are typically left out of the deal." (I can hear the school bus companies drooling now.) But I don't buy that argument.

What worries me is that there's this inordinate pressure on the community colleges to "produce results." And that's not measured by the kind of things my Geneseo classmates and I produced. It's measured by things like completion rates which are easily produced through the manipulation of data.

But that's another commentary. So stick around and we'll talk about it.