too much typing—since 2003

5.05.2007

paper and iron

One of the articles I've had my students read this past semester concerns itself with the effect of grading on education and concludes that, ultimately, grading itself degrades the quality of education. Grading does so (to oversimplify) by substituting desire for the grade for desire for learning, in other words, by substituting an extrinsic motivation for an intrinsic one. Rather than learning because one values learning, knowledge, or skills, all of those things are seen as secondary to something else, something external: in the case of the classroom, grades. Of course, those grades are not really their own goal either: they are seen as keys to another extrinsic motivator, which is, of course, success (i.e., money, and the things you can do with it).

One argument typically raised by students against the premise of this article is that without the motivation of grades, students will realize they can slack off and not be penalized. Of course, that's true only if you define "penalized" in terms of receiving a short-term negative: if you actually do value the learning and knowledge and skills, slacking off quite clearly penalizes you, in that you will not learn. But this criticism does have an element of truth, since our whole conception of effort tends to be keyed to the notion of reward. So it's most likely true that, at first, eliminating grades (in favor of, say, comments intending to help the student improve the quality of work) might lead to some students putting in less effort, simply because they do not see any immediate penalty.

But the tension here between avoidance of short-term penalty and awareness of longer-term reward is not just a part of education; it's a huge part - and problem - of capitalism generally. So long as you get paid, so long as you get the job, so long as you maintain the prestige necessary to ensure your continued income, the quality of the work itself simply does not matter. The usual argument is that people will recognize lower-quality work, favor higher-quality work, and penalize slackers and just-enoughers accordingly. But in fact, most people don't care, don't know, or can't afford to exercise such discernment, and so the good-enough will always outshine the quality.

What's worse, though, is the way extrinsic motivation is concomitant with an excessive emphasis on competition compared to cooperation (some readers will recognize that I'm continuing to follow the ideas of Alfie Kohn, the writer linked above). Competition is valorized as the necessary fuel for the motor of economic achievement, the essential ingredient, the lack of which (in the form of absent "incentive") is supposed to doom attempts to interfere with the natural workings of the market (such as by a government), since people without the bracing slap in the face of competition will simply accept what they get and not work any harder. But as I suggest, competition also breeds its own species of disincentive, since the need to appeal to a mass audience (even if a demographically pinpointed mass) tends to work against a desire for improvement in quality, since that quality is irrelevant to larger numbers of that audience.

Furthermore, I think an excessive emphasis on competition is corrosive and generates cynicism, since it poisons the idea that anyone could really be out for anything but his or her own self-interest and casts a dubious eye upon claims to the contrary (see my post above on global warming and scientists). This cynicism is real, though, and has real effects, in that most people resent being misperceived, and after a while give up attempts to beat their heads against that wall of cynicism, and simply give in: yeah sure I'm only in it for the money - and those folks who say they aren't are just liars. Furthermore, if such people actually do have money, they probably didn't earn it: a corrosive resentment follows, both from personal frustration and as a consequence of the inability to theorize non-economic motivations within that economic system.

Status and prestige are concomitant with money and success; lacking those two elements, people are forced back upon other devices to assert their status and position. The wealthy do not generally involve themselves in drive-by shootings, because they don't need to. Deprive a person of all the means of achieving respect and status, except for brute force, and don't be surprised if brute force is what the person uses.

(One irony on the whole emphasis on competition: it downplays the fact that cooperation is equally essential, even within a capitalist system. The chief economic actor these days is, in fact, the corporation: that is, a cooperative endeavor that exists because people realize it's more effective and more efficient to cooperate to earn money than for every individual to do so. Corporations themselves go on and on about "teamwork" (even when that's just a code word for "do as I say"), and even the elite tend to educate their children in classrooms, not solely with individual tutors.)

8 comments:

Ben Krieger said...

College is basically an institution for giving one's knowledge market value. My problem is that most of the reading I've done lately has convinced me that trying to make a living off one's music runs contrary to making meaningful art. In a way, my independent study has decreased my market value by causing me to give the market the fucking bird.

On a different note, the public school system could use a little bit of competition to get its ass in gear. The years I've spent in the NYC public schools and then as a home school tutor have led me to believe that more parents should have the right to place their kids where they want. In cities where voucher systems have worked, private schools have cooperated with public schools, sharing ideas for improvement.

Bee K

2fs said...

I think the non-in-gearness of the public school's ass has much more to do with several factors other than "competition," such as (1) being asked to do every damned thing, particularly for children whose every other environment is nearly in a complete state of dysfunction; (2) not having enough resources; (3) possibly, misallocation of resources that are available; (4) being forced to structure educational priorities according to a cruel, ass-backwards, and unfunded program with a name (No Child Left Behind) that utterly belies its intentions (as with most Republican programs, to prove that government doesn't work, by not working). The assumption that "competition" will improve schools insults teachers by assuming that if students do poorly, it's entirely the teachers' doing, and that they're not doing it because they're not really trying.

Regardless, how does that "competition" work? Any school that receives public funds should be accountable to the public (similar principle to "no taxation without representation"), even though a lot of charter and choice programs do not require this. In Milwaukee, an early "choice" adapter, this has led to atrocities such as "schools" that are essentially buildings whose true function is to suck money out of misguided parents' pockets (google "Alex's Academic of Excellence" [sic] for one example). Still, let's say that parents hear that one school is "better" than theirs (on what criteria? is one question...studies have also shown many parents favoring schools on utterly non-academic criteria, such as sports teams, etc.). So they decide to transfer their kid to that school. But (and again, many studies support this) switching schools itself disrupts educational progress.

Ultimately, if we are committed to the notion of public education, we must do so in public schools. To do otherwise acknowledges defeat, and that some students "deserve" better than others. Then again, competition is behind this, too...in the erroneous belief that if my kid does better than yours, everything's okay. But in fact, if my kid does wonderfully at his well-endowed school...at the cost of all the other kids doing terribly at their poorly-endowed schools...the net result is a society full of poorly educated students. So my well-educated kid ends up trying to run a company...and complaining about how all the employees don't know jack. That's because his parents defunded the public schools that would have educated them (which is really what "choice" does: deflects public monies to private or parochial schools, thereby decreasing what's left of the pie for truly public schools).

Obviously, I could go on...but that'll do for now.

jon manyjars said...

I attended the same school, and one of the things I liked about it was that, at the end of a semester, students received a narrative evaluation from their professor, rather than a letter grade. The evaluation measured individual students' progress from the beginning of the semester to its end, rather than ranking each student against the others. If I knew the least about a topic (say, underwater basket-weaving) when the class started, but learned a lot about it by the end of the class, why should I get a lower grade than a classmate who was already an expert basket-weaver and didn't have to work at it? This is my objection to the bell curve distribution of test scores.

Paula said...

Jon, you downplay your basket-weaving skills out of modesty, but I think your underwater baskets are some of the best I've ever seen.

2fs said...

The other objection to bell-curve distributions is that, when used in a single classroom among students, they're statistically an abomination. The sample size is too small for the likelihood of a true bell-curve distribution: this is why "grading on a curve" is the sort of thing that ought to get a teacher fired merely for not knowing basic math. If there are grades, they certainly shouldn't vary due to the presence or absence of a number of very bright or very dull students! The same results should yield the same grade, regardless of who else is taking the test. (The logic is that in the real world, results do vary depending on who else is "taking the test" - but you know, lots of other things happen in the real world that don't happen in school - I suppose if you're related to the teacher you should automatically get a better grade, right?)

Paula said...

I spent 2 years at New College of Florida, where instead of grades, students get detailed written evaluations from their instructors, and every semester students write out an equally detailed "contract" about what they want to study, and why. This also includes extra-curricular studies--"I want to explore Judaism," or "I want to stop drinking," or whatever.

It isn't about competing with others--everyone is on his or her own trajectory. Even the biggest cynics amongst my classmates had good things to say about the system, saving their ire for those who just didn't apply the rules (or non-rules) skillfully.

It is a respectful, challenging, motivating, and very genuine approach to learning and living. No one at NC has ever raised a hand in class and asked, "Is this gonna be on the test?"

Why this "Summerhillian" approach isn't more popular or applied more often, I will never understand. I'm sure I sound naive, but I think this world could be an amazing place if all schools were run like this.

Ben Krieger said...

> (3) possibly, misallocation of resources that are available

This is a bigger problem then #2, I think. The NYC Public Schools spend plenty on the students already. On a related note, the unions have orchestrated well-publicized strikes over teachers salaries. While teachers are, as a whole, underpaid, I would rather see an increase in the teacher's personal classroom budget. If a teacher could submit more than $200 worth of receipts at the end of the year, we'd have more money to spend on the supplies we need. My own personal resentment over my teaching salary has never been the dollar amount, but the amount I have to spend out of my own pocket is ridiculous. A $5000 raise for me personally? Well, it would be nice, but let's be honest...even if a teachers day extends 2-3 hours past 3pm, the vacation days are amazing. The kids need the money, not me.

> (4) being forced to structure educational priorities according to a cruel, ass-backwards, and unfunded program with a name (No Child Left Behind) that utterly belies its intentions (as with most Republican programs, to prove that government doesn't work, by not working).

No Child Left Behind had good intentions, it just bombed horribly. I have been out of the classroom for a little while, but I've had about 100 Teaching Fellows under my wing since and cansee how ineffective it is. But the schools were ineffective before this program as well, and there was brutal testing under Clinton's watch when I taught third grade.



> The assumption that "competition" will improve schools insults teachers by assuming that if students do poorly, it's entirely the teachers' doing, and that they're not doing it because they're not really trying...Regardless, how does that "competition" work?

I don't think it insults us. What it says is that a good teacher can't do everything on his/her own. Good teaching is not enough and a responsible teacher realizes that no matter how how s/he is, one year of instruction has little individual impact in a student's K-12 career. Hollywood's "one teacher making a difference" myth is misleading because it ignores the cooperation necessary at school-wide level. Milkaukee's choice experiments may have yielded some bad schools, but from what I've read, they've yielded some good ones as well. The point is that public schools have no incentive to get their act gear. The system at large is too massive to tackle, so the heat needs to be put on the individual schools, administrators and--yes--the teachers. The students should come first and for every teacher I know who believes that, I know of a teacher who doesn't.

> Any school that receives public funds should be accountable to the public (similar principle to "no taxation without representation"), even though a lot of charter and choice programs do not require this.

I haven't looked for any studies, but my gutt tells be that there is a direct correlation between districts with poor schools and districts with families who have a distrust/fear/bitterness towards the institution. At this point, many of the parents are immigrants or were once students of the same school systems they now send their kids to. You don't get oppressed by a crappy schools system for 13 years and then turn around to become a responsible parent who demands representation. But even the parents who are afraid of the system probably have the initiative to take their children elsewhere if they are given the option to do so. And then maybe the public schools would think a little harder about their methods, mehtods which have been corrupt and dysfuncitonal over many, many administrations. I'd be glad to lend any principal my Paolo Friere.

> But (and again, many studies support this) switching schools itself disrupts educational progress.

I had a chance to attend a private elelemtary school for free sicne my dad taught there. I would argue that any form of change is disruptive, but if a student is switching from a school like the ones I've taught in to a school like the one I went to, they'd get over the distruption pretty quickly. Kids are resilient like that.

> Ultimately, if we are committed to the notion of public education, we must do so in public schools. To do otherwise acknowledges defeat

I think that's where competition comes in. Like I said before, I think the system is so huge, that intervention is impossible. The pressure needs to be turned up on a local level, and the consequences shouldn't be a denial of funds, but a flight of families.

> (which is really what "choice" does: deflects public monies to private or parochial schools, thereby decreasing what's left of the pie for truly public schools).

Exactly. I think this is a good thing. The public schools simply aren't better, more effective or morally grounded than the private schools. In many senses, they are worse. And some argue that the private schools focus on taking the parents money. So do the public schools. The teachers don't go on strike for the kids. They go on strike for themselves, for their wallets. The latest initiative for NYC schools is a $25,000 salary bonus for principals who raise their scores. There will be corruption all over the place. But give the parents choice, give them some power instead of keeping them under the thumb of their local school, they will act. ANd eventually, they won't have to, because the school down the street will get its act together.

All for now.

2fs said...

Briefly: supplies should be in the budget, not as a supplement to be purchased as needed by the teacher from his or her own money. I seriously doubt NCLB had "good intentions": after years and years dissing public schools and the teachers' unions, etc. etc. etc., the same people are going to turn around and do something good? The Republican party in particular has stated again and again that federal government should have no role in education (or in many other things) - so why believe their "good intentions"? As for your last point: my point is that public spending must be accounted for and disbursed in accordance with certain principles, such as non-discrimination, etc. So any school that receives public funds, however indirectly, should be required to meet those standards. You should not, for example, be able to receive public monies to teach one particular religion, since it is an established principle of government in this country not to favor any one religion (or religion generally). Sending "choice" money to religious schools flies in the face of that idea. Doubt me? Try getting "choice" money directed to your Satanist school...and duck in the face of the public outrage.