Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.65.2: On Teaching and Learning

Readin’ and Writin’ and ‘Rithmatic
Taught to the tune of a Measuring Stick

Beijing Lectures 2008, ©2008, UrbisMedia

Beijing Lectures 2008, ©2008, UrbisMedia

Again, yesterday, I heard the President refer to the “necessity” of approaching education on a results-oriented basis, code for we will retain and pay teachers on the basis of how well their students perform (read as: perform on tests). Obama was once of teacher himself, so repetition of this Bush-promulgated stupidity astounds me. He is, of course, once again miming his idiot predecessor on yet another crucial matter of public policy.

I have been in education, on one side of the podium or the other, for nearly my entire life. I don’t claim omniscience on that basis—after all I only know elementary and secondary education as a student—but I think I know more than Bush and Obama, and I know they have brought naive oversimplification to a complex process. When it comes to education they can both kiss this child’s “left behind.”

What “No Child Left Behind” did is install the idea that you can measure education—the relation ship between teaching and learning—with test results. Of course, we have to have means to determine whether students are “getting it” and tests are one means; but what kinds of tests and what emphasis to place on them is fraught with traps. Tests do test for ability to retain information and some analytical abilities, but they tests tests and testing as well. To assume they test how well a teacher teaches is pure bunk, and heavy reliance on testing as a measurement of teaching and learning is an illustration of what I call “managerial mentality.”

If you have a method to accounting for the variability of socio-economic status of the students, parents, primary languages, whether students have to work before or after school, physical health and health care and the training and assistance that teachers receive, and a bunch of other variables, such that you can discern differences by test scores, then you are a fraud or a genius. Sure, there are good teachers and bad, students too, and parents. But its not as east to determine the reasons why as you might think.

Let me give a little anecdote that illustrates some of the variables here. Most educational institutions have some means by which they try to assess what the clients (students and sometime parents) think of the teachers. Many universities have methods to asses this and these assessments can play (especially, for example, in Hong Kong universities) into whether the prof gets his contract extended. More on that later.

At my university (and many others) faculty promotion was (putatively) based in three criteria: Professional Growth; Service to the University and Community, and; Teaching Effectiveness. The first was most important—publish of perish—and for some the most difficult. The second was a consolation—get on committees, on and off campus. The third . . .well . . .

The idea was to be loved by your students (“best prof ever”) but (an important but) be seen as a tough grader. So, since everything must be reduced to numbers, you need a good ratio—high student satisfaction numbers, over a low cumulative GPA (grade point average). Put another way, if you can give a student a C+ and he still says you’re a great prof, you are one helluva an effective teacher. Right?

Wrong. You just might be a devious SOB. Here’s how he would do it. Most courses have a midterm and a final exam. So, you each some tough stuff, but give a review and maybe some stuffy questions before the midterm. Then you throw them a softball midterm that will send them out to get plastered on the weekend with happiness. You grade it easy, maybe apply a generous curve, and give them midterm grades that look like they are all going to ace the course. They love ya, man. Of course they are expecting the same for the final. It is at the end of the semester that Class Evaluations are administered. A student comes to your class with the evaluations and administers them while you step out of the room or push papers around on the desk. Now, importantly, you must schedule your final after the date of Class Evaluations—while they still love you (“best prof ever”). Then you give them a final that would send Stephen Hawking looking for a black hole to hide in. Ka-Boom! Class GPA plummets and you’ve got the magic ratio. If you get that you are eligible to run a sub-prime-credit-default-swap chop shop.

I should say at this point that, in 34 years of teaching, never, ever, did an administrator or anyone else not invited by me, come to my classroom. So these numbers, and some handwritten comments students can make on the back of the scantron, are all the administration knows about my teaching and my grading. The prof pretty much controls the outcome. Now I should say that in the US (for the present at least), once you are tenured and promoted, the teaching effectiveness, or the other criteria, no longer matter. You are a “made” prof. You are untouchable, unless you touch a coed inappropriately and she doesn’t like it.

Now fiddling the Teaching Evaluations is not the only way. It should be pointed out here that educational systems are sub-cultures that are somewhat derivative of their maco-culture. I learned this when I taught at the University of Paris in 1989. I was teaching my American City in the Cinema course and had about 85 enrollees in a course that was supposed to have 30. Oh, well, the French like cinema. But when I gave the mid-term (a cake walk multiple guess exam) I couldn’t believe my eyes—the were cheating, blatantly and shamelessly, exchanging answers, looking at one another’s exams. I told them to stop or I would have to fail the cheaters. They stopped for a minute and went right back to it. I rushed out of the classroom to my friend Bob’s, office. Bob had taught there for years and was slightly amused at my principled rant, then patiently told me that the students at Paris feel that its them (the students) versus the faculty, so they evolved a culture of cooperation. After all, most of the faculty are “made” guys. To measure teaching and learning by the outcomes of such exams would be a colossal joke. To some extent university students, especially those in the prime universities, Paris, ENA, Ecole Militaire, etc., are already what might be called “made” students. In much of Europe, high school exams are the winnowing process of who gets into this elite level.

So let’s go to Hong Kong where I taught undergrads as a Fulbright Fellow in 2000. In 1997 Hong Kong supposedly threw off the 150-year yoke of the British Empire. I say “supposedly”; the residue of the English culture remains imbedded in the educations system, where students go to school in the English language. But let’s focus on the combination of the English fetish for examinations, combined with a Confucian penchant for tradition and orderliness. This pedagogically ruinous cocktail practically equates getting an education with passing exams. According to Elsie W, my friend who works in the system, the new buzzword is “learning outcomes.” This ludicrously managerial terminology is concerned with measuring (really justifying) curricula, syllabi, and teaching methods in a system that is transitioning from a three-year to a four-year university curriculum. Along the way they seem to have picked up on “no managerial gizmo left behind.” There is also a supposed new emphasis on the liberal arts in the curriculum, but it remains to be seen if a culture that has such as strong linkage of education to the local employment structure will regard it as more than another Western fashion to mime. If a culture will again trump innovation, learning outcomes will come out just the way the prevailing educational culture wishes it to come out.

Time for an illustrative anecdote about institutional rigidity. The following is excerpted from my journal in the Spring of 2000. I will not name the university in Hong Kong at which I was teaching. Note: you can skip this, but it’s actually rather informative.

. . . the students are actually the victims of a process that seems to emphasize—overemphasize—the importance of exams, which in fact just overemphasize the professoriate’s sensed of self-importance as knowledge guardians. For example, when I first arrived the department secretary asked me for a copy of the final exam I would give three months hence. When I asked why she said they were required to send exams to an “External Examiner” in London (so much for the “handover”) to be evaluated by him to see if it meets standards of “academic excellence.” I learned that the EE could be from any discipline (and later learned that, it being a nicely paid position, probably would be “somebody’s friend.”) Imagine an Accounting professor appointed as EE determining the quality of an Exam in Cosmology, or Engineering.

My course iss The American City in the Cinema: Images and Realities. There is, in fact, no way, anyone who has not taken my course, heard the lectures, read the readings, viewed the films, prepared the study questions, could possibly pass this exam. That a person who has not even seen the syllabus would be able to judge my exam against some “standards of academic excellence” is in fact an insult.

I told the secretary that I do not have the final exam. It seemed to surprise her when I said that I make it up a couple of days before the final is given because I cover different material and emphasize different things each and add material derived from class discussion when I compose the exam. Every semester it’s a different exam. But when she implied she would get in trouble if she didn’t submit my exam to the EE I said I would give her an old exam to send (heck, I could give him an exam in oral hygiene and he wouldn’t know the difference). She also said the EE would want three examples of “scrips” (written answers) to compare with the exam, and was again surprised when I said that I gave a multiple-choice exam and the answer sheets would make about as much sense to him as a sheet of Linear B.

When exam week rolled around I had forgotten about all of the silliness—until I went to the departmental office to make some copies of the exam I had composed the night before, and nearly sent the secretary into a convulsive fit. “But, sir, I have already sent your exam to the examination room*!” she exclaimed. I had told her that the one sent to the EE was not the exam I would give, only an example, but it had been returned “approved” by him and printed and sent to the exam room. It was the wrong exam! “You cannot change it now,” she emphasized, it has been approved by the External Examiner.” 
The words ‘well, f**k the EE’ formed in my mind, but I just told her it was my exam, not his, and I would do what I pleased with it. “But sir . . . ,” she protested. So I told her that the students couldn’t pass the old exam anymore that the EE could. “Fine,” I said, “give me the grade sheet and I will give every student and “A” right now and be done with this charade. They don’t even have to sit the exam.”

After several phone calls in Cantonese the secretary told me that the Examiners would allow an exception in my case (presumably because I was the most stupid, or recalcitrant, Fulbright Scholar in the world). But perhaps fearing that I might create a further breach in the university’s wall of protection against the leakage of knowledge, a student have to bring my exams to the examination room in a sealed envelope. The exam would them be opened by one of the examiners and placed on the desks assigned specifically and individually to my students (the gym was full of other students from other course also taking exams). I could not be trusted with my own exam; what was I going to do, make copies and sell them on the black market?

Are you still with me? Now that I am into this I feel compelled to take it all the way to the end. So now we are in the Examination Room (gym). Here I am assigned to be (you’re just gonna love this) an “invigilator”. When they first told me I said that I was not into kinky sex. Invigilator”? Well, it’s like what we call here a “proctor,” which is rather suggestive itself. But an invigilator sounds like it uses two “C” batteries. Invigilators make sure students don’t cheat (which is why they don’t even bother with them in Paris) and make sure they sign in and sigh=n out if they need to use the toilet.

My students were out in thirty minutes because I had given them study questions and review session. The other students looked at them like they were on a fire drill; they had to sit there while an Econ prof kept getting up to the mic and announcing to the whole assembly mistakes he was finding in his own exam (where was the EE when this clod wrote his exam?).

OK, one last thing. I found out that I wasn’t done with the EE quite yet. The Secretary informed me that I need to provide three exam answer papers for the EE to examine (one high, middle and low grade) for him to examine to see if I graded my own exam properly, and “he might even suggest that I change a grade if he thinks appropriate.” I told her that she can email England and inform the EE better stay the hell out of my neighborhood if he even thinks of messing with my grades. He didn’t.

Somewhere between U Paris and exams being taken by cheating committee, and the bizarre and byzantine joke the British slapped on top of the Chinese exams for Mandarin bureaucrats, there might be a rational and sensible way to determine reliably by examinations alone whether students are learning what their teachers are teaching. But reducing everything to some numerical quotient that we think in any way reasonably approximates and distills the complexity and variability of the educational process to any meaningful number that represents learning is the wet dream of an idiot.
© 2010, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.21.2010)