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.