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.

Friday, January 16, 2015

COMMON CORE (The Latest 'Thing')

OK,  let's look at the bottom line, for that's where much of the problem comes from.  There's really no agreement on what the student we want should be like. This is where the implications of movements like the Common Core get scary. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) defines the Common Core as "quantifiable benchmarks in English-language arts and mathematics at each grade level from kindergarten through high school."

Some years ago when in the capacity of Consultant for the Texas Higher Education Board I spent time training faculty at a number of the state's community colleges. I was teaching them about writing course objectives. (Oh yes...I rode that pony for all it was worth until it fizzled out and was replaced by the 'next big thing.' So I know something about how this consulting business works.)

Teachers would express lofty goals about what they hoped to achieve with regard to what their students would learn from them and I would then ask to see copies of whatever system they used to calculate grades. Invariably, they produced tests that required the recall of details from their subject area or essays that were supposed to demonstrate an understanding of some related concept. And I would point to the tests and tell the teachers Here's what you think is important.

So I say the same for the Common Core. If you look at the "principles" underlying these "benchmarks"[See] you can get a sense of what this illustrious group of educators considers important.

The standards say things like this: "Students will learn to use cogent reasoning and evidence collection skills that are essential for success in college, career, and life." Really? Do you suppose that the one-percenters want students who can collect evidence and use "cogent reasoning" to draw valid conclusions based on that evidence? Listen. Here's what George Carlin says about that:

The standards also say that they lay out "a vision of what it means to be a literate person who is prepared for success in the 21st century." Oh? Does that include learning how to deal with the 21st century climate when the earth is a nifty 140 degrees?

But that ain't all. What about math? The standards are supposed to develop "mathematical understanding." Teachers, they say, can do that by asking the student "to justify, in a way that is appropriate to the student’s mathematical maturity, why a particular mathematical statement is true or where a mathematical rule comes from." Well, here's a little history that deals with that notion of mathematical maturity.

When I was a kid we had cash registers with buttons you pushed down to ring up the amount of a sale. The result showed up in a little window at the top of the register and the cash drawer slid open.

You took the customer's money and gave them whatever change was due. But the advent of things like fast food drive-thru shone a light on how kids weren't too good at that simple math process and rather than bother to fix the education system, National Cash Register (NCR) came to the rescue with a new kind of cash register that once an amount was rung up automatically made change.

But the businesses still lost money, so NCR replaced the dollars and cents buttons with words--FRIES, BURGER, CH-BURGER, LG- COKE, SM-COKE.

But you know what? The kids can't read all that well either. So the next iteration of cash registers had pictures:
So maybe we just need to forget about the Common Core for schools and institute a Common Core for businesses. I mean, the Ancient Egyptians did pretty well with with pictures instead of words and numbers; they built the pyramids didn't they?

But I digress. One more quick note before I go. As I read about the Common Core I learned that there are actually three levels: Standards, Clusters, and Domains. "Domains are larger groups of related Standards and Standards from different domains may sometimes be closely related." And that further suggests that the fine points of grammar don't count for much.

Can I get an 'Amen'?

Monday, January 12, 2015


Before I go any further here, I want to present a framework for my posts. It's very broad and I can't say that there's a specific goal, but my sense of order tells me that something useful might come out of it.

I want to look at each of the factors that affect teaching and learning. What I know of the history of education in America is that it has been a series of popular approaches. One method catches on for a while and then is supplanted by another which is then replaced by whatever strikes the fancy of the politicos and school administrators: Learning Objectives, Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences, Cultural Literacy, Writing Across the Curriculum, Experiential Learning, etc. etc. and now the Common Core.

It's as if you were to walk into a room with the goal of identifying what's in there and focus on a chair and declare. It's the chair! But after a few minutes you see a bookcase and say Wait! No! It's the bookcase! Only to turn and see a window and shout "The window! That's it! The room is a window!" But of course, it's none of those and it's all of those.

So I'm looking into the room we call education and I'm asking, as a scientist might when studying any phenomena, What are the variables? And then we can take it a step further and ask To what extent do they affect the outcome? And finally: Which ones can I control? In other words (to wring more from my analogy), when a student enters that room, what can we do to get the student we want when he or she walks out?

So far the variables include the student's peers (friends, classmates, acquaintances), the class materials (textbook, syllabus, computer, graphics, etc., white/blackboard), the classroom (age, size, physical appearance, comfort control, etc.), the teacher, the student's background (home life, interests, physical limitations, etc.). And there's lots more, of course.

It's a crap shoot, isn't it? And given the conflicting forces trying to control the whole thing, it's a wonder anyone emerges from it with any sort of education. When I try to assemble it into something coherent, I'm tempted to say just teach them to read and write and turn them loose. We'd likely still end up with an Adam Lanza at one end and Neil deGrasse Tyson at the other.

So pick one of those elements and roll the dice. In the meantime, as other related matters come up we can conduct some autopsies and try to fit them into the mix.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

An old college friend who went on from SUNY Geneseo to earn a Masters in Economics at Harvard and for a while was a high ranking economist in New York State government (though that may not be much of a recommendation) and a Professor of Economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) pointed out to me many years ago that the goal of educating everyone meant there were bound to be some teachers who just aren't very good. I believe that's part of our problem. 

An article in the October 24, 2013 Wall Street Journal (Why Teacher Colleges Get a Flunking Grade)  by Barbara Nemko and Harold Kwalwasser stated that “entrance requirements to most colleges of education are too lax, and the requirements for graduation are too low.” A subsequent piece in Forbes magazine ( went on to explain that "the trouble with colleges of education, where most American teachers receive their training (although that’s hardly an apt description) has been known for a long time. Back in 1991, Rita Kramer’s book Ed School Follies: The Miseducation of America’s Teachers showed that our ed schools were giving the country a steady stream of intellectually mediocre teachers who had been steeped in dubious educational theories, but often knew little about the subject matter they were to teach."

The focus for the past twenty years has been on testing student and inferring the quality of education on the basis of the results of that testing. And when teachers are tested, the focus is on the pedagogy of education (which changes every thirty days or so) and not on the teacher's competence.

A few years ago my wife and I went to my father-in-laws hunting camp in upstate New York and we were joined by her family's friends. One of them was an elementary school teacher and during that afternoon we played a game (can't recall what it was) where one person gave clues and another had to come up with the answer. One of the items concerned the three branches of government. (She didn't know the answer. It's an answer that any immigrant taking the test to be a U.S. citizen can tell you in a heartbeat: Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary).

Can anything be done to improve the quality of teachers? Do we need to introduce more stringent requirements for teacher certification? And if we did, would we simply lose more teachers and have to replace them with even less qualified people? It's just one piece of the education puzzle and there doesn't seem to be any solution for it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Education? Mark Twain defined it as "the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty." Hence the title for this blog.

Having never blogged before, it's likely to take me a while to get the hang of it, so bear with me. This blog will be about education at all levels and so I feel obliged to provide some details of my own.

I attended St. Agnes elementary school in Rockville Center (on Long Island in NY) and Bishop Laughlin High School in Brooklyn. (Yes...Catholic schools, so bear with me even further.) From the middle of my sophomore year I 'til graduation I went to Oceanside High School and worked a year before going to college. The only one that would have me was SUNY Geneseo, where I got a Bachelors degree in English, then went to Syracuse University for my Masters in English, and finally to the University of Texas in Austin where I got a Doctorate in higher education--specifically in their Community College Education program.

I taught one year of Seventh Grade in Letchworth NY and one year of Eleventh Grade in Cortland, NY.  I taught for a year and then was named Department Chair of Humanities at John Tyler Community College in Chester Virginia. After I got my Ph.D. I was named Dean of Instruction at Austin Community College in Texas. I produced the first academic online program in English while I was there and went on to teach college online for a number of schools--some for profit and some not. And I still do that for Southern New Hampshire University.

But enough about me. :-)

"You can always teach," my mother said when she encouraged me to go to college, and so I have always taught. That's probably close to forty years worth. And I've seen a lot of 'movements' come and go during that time with the only result that education in the U.S has been declining. Why? I feel like I have only gotten better at it. So why is it that:
  • The United States ranks fourteenth out of forty countries in the area of cognitive skills and educational attainment
  • We're 23rd in science, 30th in math, and 36th overall.
That's what I want to explore here.