Sunday, December 12, 2010

Brutal Chinese Sputnik Moment

UPDATE: Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers, weighs in on this PISA business ( in maybe not a terribly helpful manner, by managing to point out, in a round about way, that Finnish teachers, for instance, are 100% unionized—they are PISA all-stars—but then also talking up the wonders of the Chinese system where, she assures us, on the basis of a NYT article, that, in Shanghai at at least, “which outranked all its competitors,” the emphasis is on “support for struggling teachers and schools.” Let’s stay on track here: my excruciatingly rigorous research tells me that your basic Finnish teacher starts at a salary of maybe $35,000, with oodles of Scandanavian-style benefits, of the sort that would make a Boehner buckle, while a pedagogue in old Shanghai starts at more like $3000 and good luck on the job security. The cheaper the labor the higher the “productivity” thereof, seems to be the mantra of the Duncans and their ilk, whose scoldings and proddings are in fact the only explanation for the willingness of our Weingartens to fall into these kinds of traps. Look out!

I wonder where the next model for excellence in education will come from? Bangladesh? Mars? Remember Japan? They were doing great for a while. At the moment China is having a good showing, with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in response to recent reports from PISA (Program for International Student Assessment, a kind of fashion contest and variety show produced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), saying that the scores are "an absolute wake-up call for America," and that the “brutal truth” is that “we have to get much more serious about investing in education.''
Shortly thereafter, President Obama, his resolve no doubt stiffened by the urgency of his advisor’s stout rhetoric, appeared in front of an audience at a North Carolina community college, to pronounce that  “Our generation’s Sputnik moment is back. In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind.”
Actually, doesn’t that mean that “our generation” already had a Sputnik moment? But, wait, Obama wasn’t even born in 1957 when Sputnik went up. I was. I was five years old, and I was outraged that the commies had pulled off this extraordinary technological feat and I demanded that my parents immediately engage math and physics tutors for me and my brothers. So, maybe MY generations’ Sputnik moment is “back” but not his. I mean, I accept that he was not born in Kenya and isn’t a secret layer-of-the-path for the coming Mahdi—but he can be a little sneaky.
Anyway,  have a look at “A True Wake-up Call for Arne Duncan: The Real Reason Behind Chinese Students Top PISA Performance,” by Yong Zhao, University Distinguished Professor at the College of Education, Michigan State University: Professor Yong has been “diligently reading, the official web portal for Xinhua News Agency, China’s state-controlled media organization”—I bet Duncan hasn’t been doing that, what do you think?  And Professor Yong has not found the story trumpeting China’s PISA results. Instead, Professor Yong discovers poignant testimony by parents that their children are being zombified by a stunning regimen of test preparation and he concludes:  “That’s the secret: when you spend all your time preparing for tests, and when students are selected based on their test-taking abilities, you get outstanding test scores.”
Look too at NYT today, the article “China’s Army of Graduates Struggles for Jobs.”
This details the difficulty that Chinese college grads are having with jobs—there aren’t any.
But their PISA scores are good! Their college completion rates are great! So saith the Duncan!  
At the end of the article is a quote from one young man who seems to have found some perspective. “Now that I see what the outside world is like, my only regret is that I didn’t have more fun in college.”
I hope he can hold on to that new found wisdom after the Duncans of his own country start telling him that education is a life-long journey and that we all need to keep our skills sharp in this ever-expanding global economy and that he should go back to school and get some new credentials that will boost his chances of getting a job as a prison guard or a phlebotomist or whatever it is that’s going to be the big booming thing over there, guaranteed, plain as the nose on my face, 100%.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Your (Real) Professors Love Teaching (Sort of)

Most college courses in this country are taught by a low-caste army of limited contract,  low-paid, no-benefit workers—well, in all of that we’re just the avant-garde—who, though dedicated and qualified, have been invisible in the mind of a gullible public that still swallows whole the notion that higher education is the passport to wealth and prestige.
I figure that the public might be angry when they find out that this passport-to-prosperity stuff is not everything it’s cracked up to be, but that’s not my question right now. My question right now is why do we—I am one of these unwashed pedagogues—do it? Love, is the answer, but I’ll get to that later.
First, some terms. The sort of people you usually think of when you think  “College Professor,” are the full-time tenured or tenure track faculty. If tenure track, they live in fear, for a while, that they won’t make the grade, but after (and if) they receive tenure, they’re generally able to lead the sort of life that was once associated with a accomplished and professional career and the trappings of middle class life. Not infrequently, they are disdainful of such trappings—which allows cruel people like David Brooks to have easy fun with them—but they enjoy them nonetheless and would be very unhappy without them.
Ok, they’re got their problems too, but now compare them with the “adcons”—adjunct or contingent faculty, They just get screwed. One third the pay, no benefits, no prospect of tenure, no professional development funds.  
They’re idiots, I agree. Who would do that? Work at something that doesn’t bring them bliss.
Do you know this problem? When your boss asks for sex and you say you’re too tired and also that he-or-she’s not your type and also that it’s a form of abuse—and he or she says “well, if you don’t like working here, maybe you’re in the wrong job.”
Probably not. You have too much dignity. Anyway, I’m one of these poor idiots, been doing it for twenty years—but even idiots will get mad, sooner or later. And, I really am tired.
Ok, there’s the Traditional faculty, and the Adcoms, and there’s a third group to deal with, administrators, who are really odd. I’ll mention them again at just the right moment. Again, right now the question is, why did we Adcons put up with this for so long?
It’s love. Let me explain. Have a look at the following, from a recent American Federation of Teachers press release, bearing in mind that unions and other structures in higher education (faculty senates, etc.) are thoroughly dominated by traditional full-time, tenured/tenure track faculty: 
One of the first national surveys of part-time and adjunct higher education faculty shows that there is widespread concern about working conditions, job security and opportunity for professional growth, although a majority are committed to their profession because they enjoy teaching.
In the same vein, further down in the same in the same release, we find:
Most of those surveyed—57%—said they are in their jobs primarily because they like teaching and not primarily for the money. Still, most are not satisfied with their working conditions, which they believe are inadequate.
Ok, so we like what we do. And I have to say, we have always played along with this sweet talk. With us, the phrase “but we love teaching” finishes off almost every utterance in our meager and infrequent references to the ugliness of out working conditions. 
To be sure, not everybody is so shy. Consider, for instance, a response to a survey recently done by Raye Robertson of Wayne State University:
Being an adjunct instructor is the highest form of exploitation since indentured servitude, especially in the state of California where education and funding are going down the tubes! Yeah, I’m TOTALLY bitter. When the only appreciation you get is from your students (and not from your colleagues or “superiors”), you realize how meaningless your work is in the grand scheme of things.
I like this guy. I think I’d like to have a beer with him—or her—and then march on, with loudspeakers, toward the nearest university president’s palace. I mean, this person has some balance in the evaluation. There is some appreciation, for sure, from the students, and that part of the job may indeed be pleasant—likeable even—but then there is that other stuff, like the lack of real public support for public education (replace California with name of your state), and the smug self-satisfaction of your twice-born full-time “colleagues” and, well, of course, your “superiors,”  
Even anonymously, though, you don’t often hear this sort of (laudable, sweet-sounding, just, timely) jeremiad. Instead, we’re usually pretty sweet about everything as, for example, in another of the responses from Robertson’s survey:
Being an adjunct has been a wonderful experience as I have really enjoyed working with college students. I like the college campus atmosphere.
And, again, “I love, love, love teaching.”
I know these types. I love them. But get with it, folks, I mean, I’ve got an idea: maybe we don’t like teaching enough. Perhaps there is a method that can be devised that will allow our college and university presidents— and their vast bloated cadres of VP’s and Deans and Sub-Deans for Student Affairs, and Community Happiness, and Total Economic Transformation, and Pool Water Quality, and Optimal Digestion—to identify persons who enjoy teaching very, very, very much, to a level of enjoyment that cannot be affected at all by working conditions.