Gnomicon 136

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  136
Saturday 22 September 2012

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In teaching you cannot see the fruit of a day’s work.
It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years.
Jacques Barzun(30 Nov 1907 – ?)

The recent to-do in the Chicago public school system, recently ended with a compromise, focused among other things on teacher evaluations.  I’ve been there myself, and it is truly a knotty problem.  Of course teachers – at all levels, K through 12, UG, graduate school – should be held accountable, but educational accountability is not — that’s not — a question of measuring the numerically quantifiable, like scores on tests.  But that is what the accountability-whores want, selling themselves to a public seduced by the false analogy that just as you can measure bottom lines on the spread sheets of retail businesses you can assess the amount of real learning that goes on in a class room.

I do beg to differ on that one.

Why do these ‘cheating scandals’ periodically pop up in various school systems (e.g., here) on the part of teachers who massage the results or ‘hint at’ answers – never mind the cheating by students (e.g., here and here), for the obvious reasons, even at Harvard?  I believe it is part of an effort to ‘prove’ that the ‘clients’ (an odious and entirely misleading commercial analogy that has crept into the educationalese vernacular over the past generation or so) are getting what they pay for, i.e., getting an ‘education’.  And here’s the problem:  has anybody actually defined what precisely this ‘education’ is that the clients (and their parents and the taxpayers) are in fact paying for?  Surely there is more to education than teaching someone to be able to make change for a dollar (though even that insurmountably difficult task seems woefully out of reach for too many graduates) or tell the difference between ‘lie’ and ‘lay’ (double ditto).

My view is that Barzun is exactly on target here: the true measure of an education is not available to the student – and certainly not to the evaluators of whatever sort — for years and years until after the fact.  Barzun’s ‘twenty years’ is by no means an unreasonable time frame, and in many cases I suspect it might be much longer than that.  Of course by then it is too late to punish the time-serving salary-collecting teacher or reward the teacher who actually taught.

In some sense, the high point of my education was two courses in ninth grade at La Jolla High, Algebra I and Latin I.  I still very vividly remember those classes and the two teachers who I truly believe (as they say) changed my life by sowing the seeds that later sprouted and turned it onto a specific path  — that I am still on!  Up to then I was an indifferent and lazy student, but these two individuals demonstrated to me – not so much, I think, by what they taught (though the no-b..l-sh.. rigor of both subjects in the hands of these two masters did in fact appeal enormously to me – they had notorious reps for being ‘really tough’) as by the way they went about doing their teaching – that learning and the things of the mind were actually a lot more exciting than loafing on the beach, surfing, skin-diving for abalones and (as one says today) “juz hangin’ out”!  And it was years before I actually came to realize this fact.  Since that was back in 1951-1952, it’s too late to pay them what they deserved (I do remember that each of them drove a car that was a real clunker even then!), but if I still could, I’d offer them a banker’s salary.

There are without doubt thousands of teachers like that today too, teachers who ‘get to’ a student and in some no small degree affect that student’s life trajectory.  I wish that kind of invaluable achievement could be measured and concretely rewarded, but I don’t think it can be because it simply cannot be measured in time for next year’s salary contract.


At any rate, I’d like to think that at least some of those Chicago teachers are like that.

Their students will never forget them.

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