October 2007 Archives

Dear Deb, There are times when I feel that we are on the same wavelength, and times when I know we are not. Right now, my frustration is multiplied because in the course of your last mini-essay, I found myself alternately agreeing and disagreeing with your assertions. I said that many people who have spoken out about the recent round of NAEP scores seem not to have read the report in which the scores were embedded. I expressed the wish that the commentators would take the trouble to read the report before characterizing what they read in the newspapers, which ...


Dear Diane, Your frustration about folks avoiding original sources is reasonable. Especially when it's actually easily available. But, of course, the "original source" itself is an interpretation of data. In short, we fall back on easier, less time-consuming ways. ("We" being me. See the back-and-forth comments about—presumably—the same data between Erin Johnson and myself.) In fields that I don't feel deeply connected to, I mostly look for the experts I "trust". There's no way to be an expert in all the subjects I need to have an opinion about! So I go along with the consensus in some ...


Hi Deb, Welcome home from Russia! Hope you got your 36 hours of sleep. Given the sad history of Russia over the past century, it will be difficult for them to shake off the burden of so many decades of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. For sure, one can find dissidents under Czarism and under Soviet rule, yet not much of a democratic tradition. Even today, the idea of a free press or the checks and balances that we associate with a healthy democracy seem to be waning, and the forces of authoritarianism appear to be gaining ground. I have learned over ...


Dear Diane, I needed 36 hours of sleep when I got back from Russia! But it's time to begin to sort out my thoughts. Aside from all the fun, including the pleasure of traveling with my sons, it has reinforced some old theories, and raised some new questions. The most obvious is that "command"-style schooling is still alive and well in Russia. After a brief "pestroika" for schools, the heavy hand of the state has come down again. The rhetoric is very familiar. Some of which you'd like (a single state curriculum) perhaps? But most of which would chill ...


Dear Deb, I agree with you about the uncertainty involved in medicine. The closer any of us gets to a very serious medical problem, the likelier we are to encounter medical uncertainty. Many years ago, I lost a two-year-old child to leukemia. At that time, in the mid-1960s, the doctors tried a range of drugs, knowing that in the end, it was a lost cause. I kept hoping for a miracle that never happened. That was when I discovered that there is a limit to what doctors know. The good news is that medical research keeps pushing the limit farther ...


Dear Diane, Did you read The New York Times Magazine piece called "Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?" by Gary Taubes? Or the follow-up on Oct. 9 in the Times Science Section by John Tierney? Medicine (and nutrition) have all the odds in their favor vs. education when it comes to being "scientific". There's a lot less disagreement about what constitutes good health, for one thing. Politics—in the best and worst senses—is less intimately tied to medicine. It's easier to have placebos and random samples. And it's easier to track patients for long enough to assess...


Dear Deb, No, I don't think the dilemmas you describe are as omnipresent in all of life's vocations as they are in teaching. I don't have the classroom experience that you have. I have taught mainly graduate students in my life as a professor and have spent most of my time as a historian and writer about education. In many ways, maybe most ways, that puts me at a disadvantage in comparison to you. But the great advantage that I have had in my own career has been that I have been free from the kinds of dictates and mandates ...


Dear Diane, Years ago—when I was teaching both 5-year-olds at PS 144 in Harlem and teachers at City College—adults said that, unlike me, they weren't allowed to do x and y. After ascertaining why they thought it was so important to do x or y, I'd ask: "and what will happen if you do?" There was always a pause. So we'd have a class discussion about the consequences of not following orders (usually none). I think this is an important exercise—for adults and kids. We can't always get our way; there can be consequences that follow....


Dear Deb, It's no big surprise that "standards" involve judgments. Only standards related to physical objects are fixed, like systems of weights and measurements (e.g., the metric system). But any standard that involves decision-making, real decision-making, means that human judgment is required. People make decisions about what is considered a passing score on the medical boards, on the law school admissions tests, even on the pass mark for the written test to get a driver's license. Some group of fallible human beings decides what constitutes the appropriate body of knowledge, and how much of that knowledge the applicant should ...


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