Saturday, October 17, 2015

You can't overleap that

Dr. Professor Neal Portenza performing his own autopsy, Melbourne, April 2014. Via Sydney Morning Herald.

Guess David Brooks ("Schools for Wisdom") got another one of those phone calls—
Friends of mine have been raving about the documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” and it’s easy to see what the excitement is about. 
Your mission, should you accept it, is to make it sound exciting to watch a documentary about charter schools for the 21st century, when everybody that has a job at all will be changing jobs 25 times over the course of a working life and most people won't have jobs at all but just be Uber drivers, whether they're cooking burgers or writing code or singing opera or building roads, and there's no longer a need to know anything, since it's all Googlable, and newspaper stories and legal briefs are themselves written by computers, and our educational system designed in the Prussian empire in the 1870s isn't appropriate any more.

Actually tell me why we still have to have school at all:
to take content off center stage and to emphasize the relational skills future workers will actually need: being able to motivate, collaborate, persevere and navigate through a complex buffet of freelance gigs.
Oh, that. The whole world is Korean barbecue all-you-can-work. The reason they're not simply putting kids to work at 11 is that school is cheaper, especially with the support of the Gates Foundation.

Actually what we are considering are the 13 publicly funded High Tech High schools of San Diego, four elementary schools, four middle schools, and five high schools in San Diego County, operated by the nonprofit company HTH Learning, with the financial backing of about $90 million of debt issued by the California Municipal Finance Authority (including two separate packages of municipally issued bonds, $4.44 million for HTH Media Arts and $18.52 million for HTH Chula Vista, that have recently been downgraded to speculative grade, hmm), $7-odd million in annual revenue from the county, and gifts such as one (in stock shares, not cash) for $22 million in 2014, but you don't think Brooksy wants to know about anything vulgar like that, do you? No, you don't.
The High Tech High idea was conceived in 1996 by a group of about 40 civic and technology industry leaders in San Diego as a response to the problem of finding workers in high-tech industries and as a means of addressing the low numbers of women and ethnic minorities in science, math, and engineering. Gary Jacobs, then director of education programs at Qualcomm, and Kay Davis, director of the Business Roundtable, were key participants in those discussions. In late 1998, the group decided to form a charter school and engaged [Larry] Rosenstock, who was then president of Price Charities in San Diego, as the founding principal. Jacobs and his wife Jerri-Ann offered $3-million to start the school, which since has been named after them. HTH would be described as a school “where a pedagogical vision met community resources. Larry’s ideas; Gary’s money.” (freelancer Charles T. Kerchner, "The Emperor's Clothes")
Plus another $17 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the first six years.

The high school certainly seems to be one of the 17% of charter secondary schools that show better math and reading test scores than ordinary public schools. And although of dozens of people visible in the trailer maybe four, tops, are nonwhite, the school statistics say the schools are very diversely diverse, with a large majority Hispanic majority in Chula Vista and a pretty large majority white in North San Diego. They claim to have around 10% special students everywhere, which is pretty good for a charter, I believe. More typical of charters is the appalling treatment of teachers, who not only have no tenure and no union, nobody even gets a contract for longer than a year, so your job is constantly on the line as long as you're there.

They practice project-based learning, which is based theoretically on ideas of great progressive educationists like John Dewey but appears to have undergone some damaging corporatist sea-change:

Personally I'm bummed by that headline, which contains one word in French ("vive"), one word that would be in Spanish if it weren't missing its accent ("revolución") and one word in a language I'm not acquainted with where "le" is a feminine singular article (unless "revolucion" is masculine, which would not be any European language ever), so the humanities aspect of the project may come up a little short. I understand that you'll be using an acid to make a zinc etching, but I have a little trouble seeing how that constitutes learning about acids and bases (in my project I drink a glass of lemonade and wash my hands, then dip my hands in lemonade and drink a glass of dish soap, and call it performance art). And I can't see where the logarithms come in at all. Perhaps the lesson here is in how to humor a clueless supervisor. But you could learn all that from watching reruns of The Office, right?

Brooks, too, is not entirely satisfied:
In the school.... teachers cover about half as much content as in a regular school. Long stretches of history and other subject curriculums are effectively skipped. Students do not develop conventional study habits.
The big question is whether such a shift from content to life skills is the proper response to a high-tech economy. I’d say it’s at best a partial response.
He likes all of the innovation except for the innovative part, which he fears may fail to produce wise people, which is done, like everything else in a piece of Brooksian advice, in three phases:
First, there is basic factual acquisition. You have to know what a neutron or a gene is, that the Civil War came before the Progressive Era. Research shows that students with a concrete level of core knowledge are better at remembering advanced facts and concepts as they go along.
Second, there is pattern formation, linking facts together in meaningful ways. This can be done by a good lecturer, through class discussion, through unconscious processing or by going over and over a challenging text until it clicks in your head.
Third, there is mental reformation. At some point while studying a field, the student realizes she has learned a new language and way of seeing — how to think like a mathematician or a poet or a physicist.
Dewey kept insisting that the student do it herself instead of politely waiting for the lecturer to do it for her.

And don't forget that the mental reformation comes before the mental civil war.

There will also be cathedrals, during the mental middle ages I suppose:
The cathedrals of knowledge and wisdom are based on the foundations of factual acquisition and cultural literacy. You can’t overleap that, which is what High Tech High is in danger of doing.
I would think it's not in any danger of doing that if it can't be done.
Wisdom is a hard-earned intuitive awareness of how things will flow. Wisdom is playful. The wise person loves to share, and cajole and guide and wonder at what she doesn’t know.
Wisdom is thinking before you type. Today's column will not be of any interest to anybody in the Brooksological world—even for me the funny bits hardly justify the time I've spent on it—or to anybody at all, perhaps, unless to HTH CEO Larry Rosenstock (annual salary $400,000 and change, not as much as New York's Eva Moskowitz). And Brooks actually has no interest whatever in the schools (commenters at the Times are unwilling to believe he watched the film) except as a little jumping-off point for his cajoling and guiding and wondering if there's anything he doesn't know.

What's important to me is that, to the extent these are good schools, they are good by means that can never be extended to the population as a whole, namely all those charitable donations, and all those bond traders absorbing the risk; or means that aren't acceptable, like keeping teachers treading water in the gig economy. What's important to Brooks is unclear.

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