Monday, August 27, 2007

The Levant

"These countries were so small! One of the more marvelous atrocities of our time was the way in which the self-created problems of these countries, and their arrogant way of dealing with them, made them seem larger, like an angry child standing on its tiptoes. They were expensive to operate, too; they had vast armies; they indulged in loud and ridiculously long-winded denunciations of their neighbors. All this contributed to the illusion that they were massive. But no, they were tiny, irritating, shameless, and vindictive; and they occupied the world's attention way out of proportion to their size or importance. They had been magnified by lobbyists and busybody groups. Inflation was the theme here, and it was just another tactic for quarrelsome people to avoid making peace."
--Paul Theroux, The Pillars of Hercules

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A Firm Grasp of the Painfully Obvious

This is Michael Ignatieff.

His illustrious biography reads as follows:

Ignatieff is the son of Canadian diplomat George Ignatieff and Alison Grant, and the grandson of Count Paul Ignatieff, Minister of Education to Tsar Nicholas II and one of the few Tsarist ministers to have escaped execution by the Bolsheviks. His Canadian antecedents include his maternal great grandfather, George Monro Grant, the dynamic 19th century principal of Queen's University. His mother's younger brother was the political philosopher George Grant (1918-1988), author of Lament for a Nation. His great-grandfather was Count Nikolay Pavlovich Ignatyev, the Russian Minister of the Interior under Tsar Alexander III.

In 1976, Ignatieff completed his PhD in History at Harvard University. He was an assistant professor of history at the University of British Columbia from 1976 to 1978. In 1978 he moved to the United Kingdom, where he held a Senior Research Fellowship at King's College, Cambridge until 1984. He then left Cambridge for London, where he began to focus on his career as a writer and journalist.

In 2000, Ignatieff accepted a position as the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He taught at Harvard until 2005, when on August 26, it was announced that Ignatieff was leaving Harvard to become the Chancellor Jackman Visiting Professor in Human Rights Policy at the University of Toronto. Ignatieff has received nine honorary doctorates.*

*Author's note: I've copied all the above from Wikipedia because I'm not going to waste a lot of time on this.

Michael Ignatieff was a keen supporter, or maybe just a prominent supporter, of the invasion of Iraq. Ignatieff has now concluded that his support was ill-conceived, but explains his misplaced enthusiasm thusly: "An Iraqi exile friend told me the night the war started, that it was the only chance the members of his generation would have to live in freedom in their own country."

That's OK, Michael. Anyone can make an honest mistake. Lots of intelligent, well-intentioned, globally aware and morally attuned human beings were suckered into the Iraq "Extreme Makeover" project, and now regret their fundamentally idealistic, though admittedly misguided, enthusiasm.

Michael is one such person, and after four years of sometimes painful, though ultimately enriching reflection, he has hit upon some hard-earned life-lessons which he would like to share with the rest of us. Thank you Michael, for opening a window onto your mind, your thoughts, and your soul.

Fifteen lessons learned from the bitter disappointment of Iraq:

1. I’ve learned that acquiring good judgment in politics starts with knowing when to admit your mistakes.

2. Politicians live by ideas just as much as professional thinkers do, but they can’t afford the luxury of entertaining ideas that are merely interesting. They have to work with the small number of ideas that happen to be true and the even smaller number that happen to be applicable to real life.

3. In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with. In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources.

4. I’ve learned that good judgment in politics looks different from good judgment in intellectual life.

5. In politics, everything is what it is and not another thing.

6. Politicians cannot afford to cocoon themselves in the inner world of their own imaginings. They must not confuse the world as it is with the world as they wish it to be.

7. As a former denizen of Harvard, I’ve had to learn that a sense of reality doesn’t always flourish in elite institutions. . . . Bus drivers can display a shrewder grasp of what’s what than Nobel Prize winners.

8. The only way any of us can improve our grasp of reality is to confront the world every day and learn, mostly from our mistakes, what works and what doesn’t.

9. A sense of reality is not just a sense of the world as it is, but as it might be. Like great artists, great politicians see possibilities others cannot and then seek to turn them into realities.

10. Procrastination is even costlier in politics than it is in private life. The sign on Truman’s desk — “The buck stops here!” — reminds us that those who make good judgments in politics tend to be those who do not shrink from the responsibility of making them.

11. In politics, learning from failure matters as much as exploiting success.

12. Roosevelt and Churchill knew how to do wrong, yet they did not demand to be judged by different ethical standards than their fellow citizens did. They accepted that democratic leaders cannot make up their own moral rules . . . They must live and be judged by the same rules as everyone else.

13. In my political-science classes, I used to teach that exercising good judgment meant making good public policy. In the real world, bad public policy can often turn out to be very popular politics indeed.

14. Good judgment in politics is messy. It means balancing policy and politics in imperfect compromises that always leave someone unhappy — often yourself.

15. People with good judgment listen to warning bells within.

Re: The Above Observations:
No shit, Sherlock.

Note the patronizing faux humility of observation number seven, on the shrewdness of bus drivers (actually, the whole piece is patronizing). Perhaps Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government should consider recruiting at the Greyhound bus depot.

Furthermore, it would seem that lesson thirteen contradicts lesson two. Tragically, politicians do sometimes venture beyond the confines of "the small number of ideas that happen to be true and the even smaller number that happen to be applicable to real life" in order to engage in "bad public policy [which] can often turn out to be very popular politics indeed."

Isn't politics just a right old mess?

Why do I feel that I have been carried - on wings of cliche and Thorazine-induced prose - back to a sixth grade Civics class? The whole fucking article reads like something written with little thought and less effort by a clever(ish) 19 year old enrolled at Georgia Southwestern State University.

Who was Ignatieff teaching at Harvard anyway, the custodial staff?

Michale Ignatieff, no longer at Harvard, is now usefully applying these nuggets of insight in his new role as Canadian MP and deputy leader of the Liberal Party. I eagerly await Ignatieff's pearls of wisdom plucked from the inner sanctum of the Canadian Parliment.

A foretaste:

1. I've learned that Ottawa, not Toronto, is the capital of Canada.

2. I've learned that politicians sometimes promise more than they can deliver.

3. I've learned that stupidity, real or feigned, is an effective way to deflect difficult questions. It is possible to bore one's interlocutors into silence.

4. I've learned that promising more than one can deliver sometimes works (only in a crassly political sense, mind you), but it is still bad, except for when it inspires (deceives) the public into taking risks which I think are good, in which it case, maybe it is good.

5. I've learned that the road to hell really is paved with good intentions!

Friday, August 3, 2007

If they're not learning, you're not teaching*

A report compiled by the Education Trust in Washington argues that the Federal bureaucracy has allowed individual states way too much latitude in setting targets for graduation rates. So long as some sort of "progress" in graduation rates is stipulated, states are apparently in compliance with this aspect of No Child Left Behind legislation, which I have written about previously. Evidently, not only must all states increase their graduation rates (now, how would they accomplish that?), but they must aspire to the same high graduation targets. Iowa, for example, is shooting for 95%.

From the NY Times article:

While the No Child Left Behind law has created a national focus on reading and math proficiencies, it has done little to raise expectations for the number of students graduating from high school, the report said.

Because the law allowed states wide latitude, the goals for graduation rates vary widely. Nevada, for example, says its goal is to graduate 50 percent of its students; Iowa sets a target of 95 percent.

Under the federal law, states must also set targets for annual improvements, but several states say that any progress at all — even just one more diploma — is good enough, according to data collected from the Department of Education.

The report found that state-set goals for raising graduation rates are “far too low to spur needed improvement.”

I suppose there are at least three ways to raise graduation rates. One would be to lower the standards required for graduation. Another would be to maintain or even raise the standards, and then fudge the results. The third would to raise levels of student performance. If you were an educational administrator, which would you choose?

New York seems to have hit upon a reasonable answer:

Several weeks into his first year of teaching math at the High School of Arts and Technology in Manhattan, Austin Lampros received a copy of the school’s grading policy. He took particular note of the stipulation that a student who attended class even once during a semester, who did absolutely nothing else, was to be given 45 points on the 100-point scale, just 20 short of a passing mark.

Mr. Lampros’s introduction to the high school’s academic standards proved a fitting preamble to a disastrous year. It reached its low point in late June, when Arts and Technology’s principal, Anne Geiger, overruled Mr. Lampros and passed a senior whom he had failed in a required math course.

That student, Indira Fernandez, had missed dozens of class sessions and failed to turn in numerous homework assignments, according to Mr. Lampros’s meticulous records, which he provided to The New York Times. She had not even shown up to take the final exam. She did, however, attend the senior prom.

Through the intercession of Ms. Geiger, Miss Fernandez was permitted to retake the final after receiving two days of personal tutoring from another math teacher. Even though her score of 66 still left her with a failing grade for the course as a whole by Mr. Lampros’s calculations, Ms. Geiger gave the student a passing mark, which allowed her to graduate.

Ms. Geiger declined to be interviewed for this column and said that federal law forbade her to speak about a specific student’s performance. But in a written reply to questions, she characterized her actions as part of a “standard procedure” of “encouraging teachers to support students’ efforts to achieve academic success.”

The article concludes with the following:

Samantha Fernandez, Indira’s mother, spoke on her behalf. “My daughter earned everything she got,” she said. Of Mr. Lampros, she said, “He needs to grow up and be a man.”

From Michigan, Mr. Lampros recalled one comment that Mrs. Fernandez made during their meeting about why it was important for Indira to graduate. She couldn’t afford to pay for her to attend another senior prom in another senior year.

Samantha Fernandez is probably more accurate than she supposes when she asserts that her daughter has "earned everything she got." And you've got to love the idea that Mr. Lampros' unwillingness to pass Indira, despite the blood-and-guts intellectual commitment she brough to his class, constitutes either immaturity or effiminacy on his part. Kudos for keeping the discussion on an intellectual plane, Sam. And these are the sorts of people (Indira and her highly-motivated mom) whom teachers and administrators are expected to shepherd along through the educational system.

The Education Trust has its own perspective on New York schools' performance and graduation rates:

The report praised New York City schools for making sizable improvements in the past three years. But while New York has raised its graduation rate by six percentage points over the last three years, it still hovers around 50 percent. For the class of 2006, just 41 percent of Latino students graduated in four years.

Ross Wiener, vice president for policy and practice at the Education Trust, a research group in Washington, said that states should aim to have 90 percent of students graduate in four years and that schools that did not meet that goal should improve their graduation rate by five percentage points over two years.

The report criticized states as not doing enough to track low-income and minority students.

And on the issue of disadvantaged, or discriminated against, or under performing, or whatever minority students, we have yet another perspective, this time from a professor of Education at the University of Georgia:

It appears it will take a Civil Rights type of movement in education to change the present academic trajectory of black children. It will take parents and educators, concerned clergy and community activists, and members of commerce and civic organizations taking to the street — and the Internet — en masse, to demand the undelivered promises of Brown.

Such a movement should be unapologetic about making sure that black children, and for that matter all children, are prepared to participate in the global economy. It must demand that parents are supported in their efforts to parent and participate actively in their children's education, and insist that educators are provided the resources and support to effectively teach. And, it has to expose how politicians are more interested in their own political expediency than making a serious commitment to developing a world-class system of public education for all children.

Of the three methods I have identified above for raising graduation rates, which one do you believe is likely to result from such a "Civil Rights type movement?" And while I'm at it, how exactly does an educational bureaucracy, or any entity, ensure that parents are "supported in their efforts to parent and participate actively in their children's education"? What, if anything, does that even mean?

Our educational establishment in America is obsessed with fads, fantasies, wish-fulfillment, and social engineering. The one reality which they will never grapple with, as applicable in the realm of learning as in any other dimension of human experience, is that limitation is the fundamental human experience. There are limits as to what schools can do, what teachers can do, and what students can do. There were limits to what Einstein could do in the field of physics (we're still waiting on that Unified Field Theory), and limits on what Bobby Knight could do with a bunch of farm boys from Indiana (hence his epic, courtside breakdowns). In the absence of any discussion of inevitable limits and reasonable expectations, education policy will continue along these current, vacuous lines.

The consequence of all of this, from my own experience, anyway, is that teaching becomes exponentially more difficult when a void is introduced between what the students, at that moment in their lives, are capable of or willing to do (much the same thing, actually) and what the curriculum expects, or pretends to expect, them to do. An odor of dishonesty and dissembling soon taints the atmosphere of the classroom, the conference room, and most damagingly, of the mind itself. Even less-than-brilliant students quickly pick up on a fraud, particularly one allegedly being perpetrated for their benefit.

Having, in my previous post, overhauled the electoral system in America, I see no reason not to move from success to success (just like our kids) and overhaul the public education system. A few modest proposals:

1. Vouchers (because the public education system has no interest in being overhauled)

2. Six years of elementary school, four years of high school. Those who can't learn the basic skills of literacy and numeracy in ten years are not going to learn them in twelve. The example of Miss Indira Fernandez, cited above, is useful here.

3. There should be three different types of high school degrees, with varying levels of academic expectation, so that most kids, at the end of the 10th grade, can graduate. Political realities have to be considered.

4. After graduating from high school, students might:

a) do nothing
b) get a job
c) take up a life of crime
d) enter an apprenticeship program through a vocational-technical school, with something like 20 hours of work per week, and 20 hours of classroom instruction. (Unlike the educational trust, I am willing to allow schools some flexibility on the specifics.)
e) enter a two or four-year college (By the way, the bias against the two-year Associate degree is probably a mistake.)
f) do two years of prep work prior to entering a university. Fewer students would incur or pass on to taxpayers the considerable cost of a university education, and university graduates would be expected to know a good bit more than they do now.
g) engage in independent study leading to credentialization, which might be called the Parapundit route.

As my correspondent, John Derbyshire, would no doubt say of the above, "Fat Chance!" But we can all dream a little.

By the way, Logical Meme has a rather amusing take on Miss Fernandez's journey through the New York High School Labyrinth.

*I am told that this is one of the latest educational mantras, repeated ad nauseum by adminstrators. Inspiring, eh?