Undergraduate Education and the Prestige Economy

This article from Policymic discusses the relationship between the recent ruling on internships in a federal court and the "prestige economy." The article highlights a set of tweets that summarize the issue written by Sarah Kendzior, a popular writer at al-Jazeera English.

One tweet in particular "Tell young people they have no skills" highlights an issue that I deal with frequently among undergraduate students. Kendzior suggests that students are taught that they have no skills and that they need fancy unpaid internships as evidence that they have skills. I remember feeling this way, and it is one of the reasons that I chose to do a PhD instead of joining the Peace Corps. It felt like I did not have tangible skills to offer and that doing a PhD would be developing a set of research skills that would be marketable.

The students I work with frequently have a similar mindset. They suggest to me they have no skills when really what they have is NO TANGIBLE EVIDENCE OF THEIR SKILLS. There is a significant difference between not having skills and not being able to prove  to someone that you have skills. Of course, grades and research papers are evidence of skills, but if students would just take one step beyond doing the bare minimum, they would have much more to market.

Faculty and mentors need to encourage students to have TANGIBLE EVIDENCE OF THEIR SKILLS . There are a host of undergraduate journals, newspapers, and lower level policy journals that would accept contributions from undergraduate students. Many students are waiting for someone to confirm legitimacy on them.  This is why I take every possible opportunity to say to my top students "you should publish this" and to help them find outlets to do so. At the end of the day, however, students need to take more initiative and get things out there. Over the next year I'll be compiling a list of places for students to publish their work. Let me know any that I'm missing. 

Today in the Times... teaching math vs. reading

In raising scores, 1 2 3 is easier than a b c

When I first started mentioning articles that interested in me in the NYT, I did not anticipate it becoming a daily phenomenon. But lately the newspaper has been doing a lot of interesting reporting on educational politics and pedagogy, and that is one way I'm hoping to use this blog: to collect interesting articles on education. Hence the frequent NYT posts.

Today's piece is not surprising, but the situation it highlights is surely an interesting topic for conversation, debate, and certainly research. The article discusses how it is easier to catch students up in math than in reading.

Part of that is certainly because reading teachers aren't teaching reading anymore, are they? They're teaching reading and critical thinking and rhetoric and grammar and five paragraph themes. At a fundamental level, math teachers teach students a certain kind of logic, while reading teachers are expected to teach students how to think.

And this is where education collides with politics. All subjects are not equally politicized and for good reason. How students think will influence future political contexts. Authoritarian regimes have an interest in having skilled mathematicians and engineers. But are critical, engaged, informed citizens a goal of authoritarian regimes? I don't think so. Sometimes I don't think they are goal of democratic regimes either!

The other issue, highlighted by the article, is that math proficiency is much less influenced by your home environment than reading. As Geoffrey Borman, a UW professor and one of the interviewees in the article said, “Your mother or father doesn’t come up and tuck you in at night and read you equations.” Your ability to use language is influenced by your exposure to it, and school is simply not enough. Your language will reflect those you hang out with and what you read. Your math skills are much more determined by your teacher at school.

My first instinct about this is that much more time should be spend in school on language-related skills than math skills but that is obviously not enough of a solution. My second thought is, boy was that Dorothy Sayers on to something with her article "The Lost Tools of Learning."

I'll just leave it at that for today and perhaps write on Sayers tomorrow!

Today in the Times... Reforming Education in Thailand

Thailand considers reforming its authoritarian educational system.

My dissertation examines how education has been used for authoritarian ends in Morocco, so I read with interest an article this morning in the NYT about Thailand's current conversation over educational reform. The article highlights several significant points:

1. Educational reforms have path dependent effects: changes made to educational curriculum can continue shaping individuals long after the conditions in which those reforms were made have passed.

In the Thai case, educational style is rooted in the military dictatorship established in the country in 1972. The country experienced a period widely viewed as democratic in the mid-2000s, but returned to military dictatorship after the coup d'état of 2006. Its curriculum is deeply rooted in authoritarian values, even as the country's political space opens.

2. Education in authoritarian contexts is distinctly undemocratic: I know this is obvious, but I think the political science literature has done very little to examine this. Sometimes I get the impression some political scientists think any education is better than no education. I'm not sure how I feel about this.

In the Thai case, students are beat with bamboo canes, can have their hair cut or dyed publicly at school if it does not meet rigid dress code standards and the curriculum is rooted in rote memorization. “School is like a factory that manufactures identical people,” one student said.

3. Schools are the training grounds for citizenship: again, obvious. But in a system where students are expected to "bow, bow, bow" to their teachers, and never articulate their own arguments nor learn to evaluate others' arguments, how can a democracy function? where else do people learn to be critical?

In Thailand, the new education minister, trained in the US, is interested in moving towards letting students think more independently, though his support seems distressingly conditional. He remarked, "We want them to be individuals, within reason.”

4. You can't always get what you want, and neither can the regime: The Ministry of Education can change the national curriculum, but whether its implemented on the ground depends on its relationship to teachers, principals and other bureaucrats.

In the Thai case, one vice principal interviewed in the article seems likely to ignore reforms if he thinks they are too drastic. He was clear with his views, “The military needs guns; teachers need sticks. Sometimes you need to hit them a little bit, but only on the bottom.”

Today in the Times... an editorial on the common core

Editorial on New Public School Curriculum

I applaud the NYT for taking an interest in nation-wide educational reforms and I am grateful that they ask for a year of grace for teachers making this transition.

But I'm still waiting for the perfect editorial on public education.

It would go something like this:

Gentle Readers,

We applaud recent reforms intended to bring more rigorous standards to the public school curriculum. At the same time, we lament the reform's inattention to the structural issues that give rise to many of our system's challenges.

Our schools are desperately in need of more resources. In particular, there is a need for an immediate shift of one percent of the nation's budget away from defense and toward education. This would dramatically increase the resources available to the next generation of leaders. A large amount of these funds should go to increasing teachers' salaries. Teaching is already an enormous challenge, why must it also be a serious financial sacrifice?

Secondly, we send students to universities to get a liberal arts education, but our public schools look like factories for creating employees, for sorting those who deserve a liberal arts education from those who deserve nothing but a vocation. Suzanne Pepper, in her masterful work on education in authoritarian China, describes it this way, "Schools did not develop talent as much as they performed a sorting, labeling and certification function that was, by reason of the educational inflation also under way, more than sufficient to meet the cognitive requirements of most jobs that most school leavers would fill. Through meritocratic values - with grades allocated for performance and promotion for grades - schools were therefore legitimating the present and future status of all who passed through them" (2000:29).

Schools teach people their place in society, and help employers identify potential employees. Is that what we want from them? Our students study math, science, social studies, history and literature. But what about all of the other aspects of being a human being, about which our schools are silent?

We should admit that we do not prepare students for most of the challenges they will certainly have: managing their finances, cooking for themselves, dancing at weddings, maintaining their cars or marketing themselves in the age of social media. We act as if students are more likely to have to estimate the length of a hypotenuse than to pay their electric bill. Think of how much more engaging schooling would be if American history were taught through the lens of pop music and the music industry, if home economics were required for all students and actually taught them life skills like how to maintain a budget or save up for a car, if disagreements between students were seen not as disciplinary problems but as opportunities for talking about healthy relationships.


[Significant Newspaper Editorial Staff}

I know what my critics think: all of these things should be learned in the family, and that is certainly a valid critique. At the same time, the most effective lessons are taught in multiple locations and I'll be honest, I don't care if my kids can calculate the length of the hypotenuse of a triangle.