education philosopher

How Much Does Race Matter? (Documenting My Confusion)

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, social theory by KevinCK on March 24, 2010

Generally, I write when I have answers. This time, I am writing because I have questions.

I am a PhD student in education, but also a classical liberal. As an education student, I am often confronted with research on ethnic identity as it relates to pedagogy and scholastic achievement. It is not uncommon to hear folks talk about why teachers should take ‘multiculturalism’ classes to learn how to be responsive to students of different ethnic backgrounds. As a classical liberal, on the other hand, I firmly believe that ethnicity, while existent, is an irrelevant category for deciding how to treat others.

So, I hope by now one can understand my confusion. I have political and social beliefs that prohibit me from seeing ethnicity (and sometimes “culture”) as relevant grounds for differential treatment, but also hear so many colleagues devoting research to showing the large extent that ethnicity does differentiate. I am hesitant to say that my colleagues are wrong in their conclusions, as they are the ones who have studied the matter. But I am also hesitant to let go of a large conviction that I have that all people are people first, individuals second, and ethnicities at a distant third. (more…)


On NOT Throwing Away My Vote

Posted in political philosophy by KevinCK on March 22, 2010

I am going to take a little excursion from the world of education to discuss a political issue I feel strongly about: why I vote libertarian and do not see this as “throwing away my vote.”

If you didn’t donate all you could, if you didn’t volunteer for the Republican party or its candidates, if you didn’t get your friends out to vote – the blood for this is on your hands.

This was on an acquaintance’s blog and is typical of arguments that we third party voters hear quite often. The argument can be generalized thus:

If x and y are political candidates and you voted for z, you (in effect) are helping the front-running candidate win and are, indirectly, responsible for that candidate winning.

To make matters worse, the libertarian party (who often “takes” votes from the republican party more than the democratic party, for its Reagan-esque  belief in small government) is often accused of tacitly helping democrats win office. This is similar to those who vote with the green or socialist party being accused of tacitly helping republicans win seats (because green and socialist candidates often ‘take’ votes from disaffected democrats more than disaffected republicans).

So, am I throwing my vote away by voting for the libertarian party (who, as much as I would like otherwise, is almost always the losing horse)? Am I to blame for handing the democrats victories by ‘taking’ my vote away from the republican candidate?

I confess that, try as I might, I don’t see the logic in this charge. The above argument assumes that the republican candidate is somehow a better representative of my small-government beliefs than the democratic candidate is. In my early days, I must admit to having this idea: I always looked on republicans more favorably than democrats and even though they were the “lesser of two evils” they were always the lesser evil.
Then George W. Bush happened. (more…)

What’s Bad About Elitism?: An Articulated Response

Posted in Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on March 11, 2010

This question was put to our PhD level Curriculum Theory class last night. We were discussing E.D. Hirsch, an education theorist who is often depicted and criticized as an ‘elitist.’ So, the professor asked us: what is wrong with elitism?

And what a question it is! Too often, we use words like ‘elitist’ as synonyms for ‘bad’ without thinking about what is bad about them. What argument is there that elitism – the view which glorifies elites over those ‘below’ them – a bad thing?

Here is my attempt at an answer. In so many words, the thing I find most objectionable about elitism is not (as many would say) its seeming endorsement of meritocracy, but its myopia. Elitism, in glorifying the way of the ‘elite,’ often makes assumptions that everyone should behave the way elites behave and value the things that elites value. To put it a bit differently if bluntly, the problem with elitists is that they assume that their lives are the way lives should be, rather than one way that lives could be.

As well meaning as E.D. Hirsch is, he falls into this error with his program for Cultural Literacy, which suggests that there are certain facts all students should come out of school knowing in order to be culturally literate.  In other words, there are ideas or facts that are either necessary conditions to having ‘cultural literacy’ and not having these will be deemed sufficient to make one ‘culturally illiterate.’

What’s wrong with this? First, it assumes a very static view of culture. Culture, of course, is a very fluid and changing thing, and the knowledge one must have to be a part of a culture wholly depends on the people one is conversing with in that culture. (All of this assumes for the sake of argument that there is even a coherent definition of what is a culture.) In other words, the things I would need to know to get in with a group of twenty-somethings in rural Nebraska may be wholly different than what I would need to know to get in with PhDed professors at Princeton University. And the problem with the Hirsch approach is that it seems to assume that my knowledge about Jay Z which may help me get in with the twenty-something crowd simply isn’t as important culturally as my knowledge of Wolfgang Mozart that helps me get in with the professors. (more…)

No Choices Left Behind? Why National Standards Will Increase Standardization, Decrease Accountability, and Probably Not Work

Posted in Politics of Education by KevinCK on March 10, 2010

I suppose it was just a matter of time. After years of floating the idea around in the abstract, a national panel of educators and curriculum specialists are unveiling their draft of new national curricular standards for US public schools. And I confess; I don’t get it. The first attempt at widespread federal intervention into education – No Child Left Behind – was roundly and rightly criticized by, seemingly, everyone. But this time…this time will be different.

Maybe I exaggerated; I do get it. I get that we are living in a time where we simply assume that the larger the scale, the better the result. After all, one of the key arguments against allowing states to set their own standards for their own schools is that…well… states can’t be trusted. (Of course, the idea that decision makers on the federal level can be trusted where state decision makers can’t is never argued for; it is just assumed.) William Bennett and Rod Paige took this line several years ago:

But there’s a problem. Out of respect for federalism and mistrust of Washington, much of the GOP has expected individual states to set their own academic standards and devise their own tests and accountability systems. That was the approach of the No Child Left Behind Act — which moved as boldly as it could while still achieving bipartisan support. It sounds good, but it is working badly.

Tennessee, they cite as an example, reports that only 47 percent of its fourth graders are “proficient” in reading. They also cite Oklahoma,  where the reason their number of “needs improvement” schools have decreased is because of changes in their standards, not performance.

All of this may well be true. But is there anything in this argument that suggests that nationalization will tackle this problem and get better results? Just as many arguments for national standards do, Paige’s and Bennett’s argument points to state flaws and ASSUMES that those flaws would be ameliorated at the national level.

Now, here, it could be responded that there is nothing to lose by trying. We have let the localities and states think for themselves for far too long, and it is time to let the fed try their hand. There are several reasons I see  AGAINST doing this. Not only are there things to lose, there are reasons that localities are simply better governments than nations. (more…)

What Does Firing Teachers Do? (A Qualm About Diane Ravitch’s Recent Article)

Posted in Politics of Education by KevinCK on March 5, 2010

Diane Ravitch recently wrote an article called “First, Let’s Fire All the Teachers.” Its aim is at NCLB’s idea of accountability.

The fundamental principle of school reform, in the Age of Bush and Obama, is measure and punish. If students don’t get high enough scores, then someone must be punished! If the graduation rate hovers around 50%, then someone must be punished. This is known as “accountability.”

Far be it from me to say many nice things about NCLB. It is a federal program that is the equivalent to: “Okay, states. Figure out a way to set standards and meet them. Oh, and figure out how to pay for it.” There are many, many problems with this, none the least of which is the idea of having the folks charged with meeting standards of facing consequences be the VERY SAME FOLKS who set the standards they will be penalized for not meeting. This basically ensures that the standards will be low (at least, in a non-market system where performance record is irrelevant to profits).

But my disagreement with Ravitch has to do with a larger problem: Ravitch seems very opposed to ‘accountability’ measures that would result in under-performing schools having to close, teachers being fired, etc. And since she doesn’t offer any competing vision of accountability, it is difficult to see what type of accountability she’d be happy with. (I will be reading her newest book soon and maybe she offers answers there.)

This strategy of closing schools and firing the teachers is mean and punitive. And it is ultimately pointless. It solves no problem. It opens up a host of new problems. It satisfies the urge to purge. But it does nothing at all for the students.

I am well aware of the apparent reasons that schools are not like businesses. So, I will use an anaology cautiously, making it as close to the school model as I possibly can: if I own several tutoring centers, and one of them repeatedly fails to meet quality control standards, how is it of no benefit to shut down the center and fire the workers? By doing this, I prevent future customers from wasting time and money on a product that fails to meet promised results, and open up a ‘blank canvas’ on which I can start over. In fact, if I were to continue offering subpar services knowingly, one would be fair to accuse me of running a scam that actively DOES NOT BENEFIT anyone (except for myself and my staff, who continue to collect money for subpar work). (more…)