Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Bonus Post

Monday, April 20th, 2015

This blogger skimmed the ebook, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?” by Yong Zhao, published in 2014. This repetitive, short ebook consists of an extended essay, mostly critiquing China’s education system. This blogger critiques the ebook below.

But first, a cute quatrain by the 11th-century Chinese poet Su Tung-P’o, translated by Arthur Waley:

Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

It appears to this blogger that this ebook was rushed to press. Sure, the writing is grammatically correct; there are neither typos nor misspellings. But this ebook has poor structure– the author’s thoughts are disorganized and there are glaring omissions of data that might significantly affect his arguments. The subjects of the chapters appear in an unexpected order. The author has a chapter on Mao Tse Tung, and another one later in the book, arbitrarily.

In a few topic areas, the author cherry-picks the evidence for, and provides only one example for, making his points in arguing his thesis: The United States is heading in the wrong direction in copying China’s education system. I happen to agree. However, there is hardly any mention of the United States at all in the book’s second half.

The portion discussing Coca-Cola and the fact that the author uses various books (secondary sources) as references, raises the issue of credibility of the book. The further from the original source of his references– the less credible it is likely to be, like a game of “telephone.” Supporting evidence for his arguments might be perfectly valid, but are harder to verify than original sources.

The information about Coca-Cola seems irrelevant–unrelated to education, and smacks somewhat of propaganda. According to this ebook, the company was a leader in pushing to lift the ban on the sale of American products (especially its own) in China in 1978, two years after the death of Mao Tse Tung. It started its campaign to do so in 1972, but the book fails to mention there were external forces (like a political one), that might have helped its efforts– President Nixon’s renewal of diplomatic relations with China that year.

The author discusses Mao’s policies extensively in this ebook’s latter half, but fails to mention a major cultural force that affects education– China’s one-child policy. This is a policy which puts extremely draconian restrictions on families to have only one child (preferably a boy) that the government has been imposing for the last few decades in its attempts to stem the country’s population growth. Neglecting to mention this, is a major omission, in that population growth affects school overcrowding and acceptance of students to schools.

Read the book to get the details on what the author does discuss:

  • China’s misleading standardized test scores;
  • the ways the Chinese government’s education policy is detrimental to society;
  • almost halfway through this ebook– Mao’s late 1950′s “Great Leap Forward” campaign to modernize China through scientific and technological innovations; the description reminds this blogger of the Benito-Mussolini-brand of Fascism in 1930′s Italy, a mentality based on nothing but propaganda and ego (minus the imperialism, in China’s case); needless to say, there’s nothing new under the sun;
  • what happens when people are pressured to raise standardized-test scores and rankings either by the imposition of punishment or rewards
  • how an advocate for the worldwide authority, “Program for International Student Assessment” (PISA) that administers a worldwide standardized test, has come to incorrect conclusions about China’s high performance in connection therewith
  • how China’s parents are going to extreme lengths to provide their children with what they perceive to be the best education the children can possibly get because otherwise, the children will be considered failures in life, and
  • how, through the centuries, China has had its vacillations between focusing on authoritarian rule, conformity, hierarchy, rankings, standardized testing and other oppressive social, cultural and educational policies; and relaxation of those policies.

The author apparently believes education is meant to help prepare one for a profession, as he says, “As traditional routine jobs are offshored and automated, we need more and more globally competent, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial citizens– job creators instead of employment minded job seekers.”

As Bad As They Say?

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “As Bad As They Say? Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx” by Janet Grossbach Mayer, published in 2011. This is the career memoir of a New York City teacher.

Grossbach started teaching in January 1960 to a class of fifty(!) middle schoolers, with no books. All by herself. The principal visited her the first week. Thereafter, neither he nor any other administrators visited again. In the almost sixty intervening years since then, not much has changed in terms of education quality (or lack thereof) for New York City public school students. As an aside, her older brother attended Queens College in New York City in the 1950′s, when there was free tuition.

“Whomever you blame, do not blame Bronx students, because, despite all the obstacles we have put in their way, these amazing young people are definitely not as bad as they say.”

In the mid-1980′s, the author worked at a horrible school in the Bronx. She lists only several of the countless flaws in the building’s infrastructure and culture; among them, the elevator was often out of order; the school nurse wasn’t licensed, and had to care for 1,600-1,800 kids and staff; the author stomped when she entered her classrooms (several different ones in the course of each day) in order to scare away the roaches, rats and mice; her classrooms was on the coal-heated side of the building, so it was always freezing and the other side was boiling; there were no student lockers in the entire school– just cubbies with no locks, so they went unused…

Sadly, politicians promote misguided education policies, like voting against financially aiding a majority of students in poverty-stricken school districts because it would be potential political suicide to take from the rich and give to the poor. The last chapter is a justified complaint-fest on the education policies of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg  (doing damage from 2002 to 2013), with a little of former president George W. Bush’s scandalous “No Child Left Behind” bill thrown in. To sum up Bloomberg’s reign: “Having business leaders run the public schools can be compared to having surgeons working in operating rooms without having gone to medical school.” The author cited a study that said by their fourth year of teaching, 85% of Teach For America (neophyte teachers-in-training who completed a rushed summer course and were then allowed to teach) had left New York City.

After she retired, Mayer mentored students in Bloomberg’s “small schools.” In her first year, she found five nonfunctioning small high schools, whose personnel were all inexperienced. There were various situations of flagrant violations of the law, like special education classes whose teachers were unlicensed. The public address system was broken the whole school year. If there had been an emergency, people could have died. There were “…expensive new math books torn up and thrown all over the floor by students in classes with new teachers…” who could not control their classrooms. “The new principal, with no science background, had written a new science curriculum…” ordering the teaching of physics in ninth rather than twelfth grade to special education students. “The math teacher wasn’t licensed in special education, never mind physics.” There was no librarian to open the cartons of brand new books for the entire school year. Needless to say, there were numerous “…distraught teachers, administrators, parents and students.”

The above abominations were not isolated incidents. Third-world countries were getting smarter assistance with governance to improve education conditions than the New York City schools. Read the book to learn how the author coped.

The Strange Case of the Mad Professor

Sunday, February 22nd, 2015

The Book of the Week is “The Strange Case of the Mad Professor” by Peter Kobel, published in 2013. This ebook recounts the sordid story of a petty, vengeful university professor who was passionate about his field of study, lemurs.

Professor John Buettner-Janusch (aka “B-J”), of German and Austrian descent, was born in 1924. He grew up in the United States, but went to jail for evading the draft during WWII. “His desire for attention was enormous, and he never seemed to care much whether that notice was admiration, didsdain, or loathing.”

B-J eventually rose through the ranks of higher education while collecting a menagerie of lemurs that were subjected to primate research. People either loved him or hated him. He was like a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. It became apparent that he was also a sociopath.

Starting in the late 1970′s, he was charged with serious crimes. “…But much of B-J’s pretrial testimony formed a farrago of lies and half-truths, of the incredible or incomprehensible.”

Read the book to learn what became of this colorful character.

Outwitting History

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

The Book of the Week is “Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books” by Aaron Lansky, published in 2005. The author of this ebook, passionate about the Yiddish language and the culture and history behind it, made a career of preserving books in Yiddish by physically transporting them to an eventual library he and a few others started.

Lansky attended a Northeastern free-spirited college, Hampshire, where he was afforded the opportunity to become fluent in Yiddish. Teaching of the language between generations has been uneven because different factions of Jews have different opinions of it so that its popularity has risen and fallen through the centuries. Lansky felt a sense of immediacy about saving Yiddish literature because he was told that scholars “…estimated that there were seventy thousand Yiddish volumes extant and recoverable in North America” and he was finding out that books were being destroyed for diverse reasons in various ways.

Funding and fundraising have always been a challenge for the author through the decades. To pick up hundreds of Yiddish volumes at once, say, from the home of an intellectual Jew who had passed away, he needed to pay for: renting a truck, gas, insurance, travel expenses, storage, etc. Lecturing has also been a source of money for his endeavors.

Read the book to learn how the National Yiddish Book Center was formed, how he recruited other people to help him with collecting books, the social and cultural organizations to which he traveled to collect them, the food he was pressured to eat while meeting a lot of volunteers of the older generation who shared his love of, and desire to keep Yiddish alive, and how his organization is harnessing modern technology to attain its aims.

Bonus Post

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

The short ebook “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future” by Michael J. Fox, published in 2010 is an inspiring commencement speech.  The author answers the question, “What constitutes an education?”

As a teenager, Fox himself sacrificed his formal education for his career. It was an alternate route that was not necessarily inferior to his staying in school. He had found his passion early in life and circumstances allowed him to pursue it. He does not necessarily recommend the method he fell into, but tells the reader to be on the lookout for and respect mentors, opportunities and lessons in life. Read the book to learn the details of the education Fox did receive.

Outliers

Sunday, July 7th, 2013

The Book of the Week is “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, published in 2008. This short, repetitive yet fascinating ebook is a hodgepodge of commentaries on human nature.

The author argues that extremely successful people in specific areas of expertise, such as professional sports, computer programming, music, science and lawyering “…are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies…” that give them a helping hand with regard to pursuing their passions. He also touches on a few peripheral topics, such as cultures of honor, plane crashes, rice paddies, education and slavery, all of which involve complex systems of teamwork and communication.

Outliers take advantage of the chances they get over the course of about a decade, or 10,000 hours, in which they hone their abilities in one area that, at the time, happens to become valued by society.  An outlier is what some business commentators refer to as a “hedgehog” rather than a “fox.” The former becomes an expert in one or two areas–  the outlier mystique; the latter gains some experience in many areas– useful in times of crisis, but never conducive to outlier status.

Gladwell names real-life examples of various celebrities, mostly Americans, explaining why their incredible achievements were attained with assistance from fate. He writes that stories about outliers are often exaggerated, failing to mention the set of lucky circumstances that led to success.

For example, the nurturing of talent of young Canadian ice hockey players is based on a biased selection process. Players are grouped in leagues by their playing abilities within age ranges determined by their birthdates. The ones who are older, even by a few months, have a statistically significant advantage in terms of size and strength. Thus, it so happens that a large percentage of players are born in January, February or March. These lucky ones are provided with a superior experience, whose success feeds on itself, called “accumulative advantage.”

The maximally successful achiever is one who is both book-smart and street-smart, as was J. Robert Oppenheimer, project manager of the atomic bomb. According to Gladwell, street-smart consists of attitudes and skills instilled by one’s family. If one happens to be born into a wealthy, nurturing family, one is much more likely to become an outlier.

Read the book to learn: 1) which countries’ students are best at math and why; 2) the reason there is an achievement gap between high-income and low-income American elementary schoolers; and 3) other interesting findings.

Open

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

The Book of the Week is “Open” by Andre Agassi published in 2009. This engaging ebook tells the life story (up until his mid-thirties) of a famous American tennis player.

The author’s traumatic childhood invites the reader’s sympathy and the entertaining writing keeps the reader enthralled. Although this is a first-person account and the book is all about him, he does not come off as narcissistic. He has bragging rights as a world-class tennis player, and has done some serious introspection– he shares with the reader his emotional states while recounting his life lessons.

Agassi’s childhood was tennis-obsessed, as his father ordained that he was going to grow up to be a professional tennis player. As a powerless child, he could not argue. Besides, he told himself that he loved his father, wanted his approval, didn’t want to make him mad. His father became even more tyrannical than usual when angry. So his tennis career became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fortunately, during his journey to the top, Agassi met friends, mentors, lovers and even opponents, who helped him to become a better athlete and a better person. When he got his first taste of celebrity, Agassi writes, “Wimbledon has legitimized me, broadened and deepened my appeal, at least according to the agents and managers and marketing experts with whom I now regularly meet.”

Grateful for his fame and fortune, the author decided to give back. He wanted to create “… something to play for that’s larger than myself and yet still closely connected to me… but isn’t about me.” He co-founded a charter school called Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, located in Nevada.

Agassi proudly describes the school; a few aspects with which this blogger takes issue. He claims that pouring money into the school would make it a better school. He says Nevada is a state that spends less money per student on education than most other states. At least one study has shown that spending is not a factor in improving education quality.

Agassi also supplied the 26,000 square foot education complex with “everything the kids could want”– the very best entertainment and computer centers, athletic facilities, etc. On any given day, a famous politician, athlete or musician might drop by to teach the kids.

The author boasts, “Our educators are the best, plain and simple.” Yet, he goes on to write, because the school “… has a longer school day and a longer school year than other schools, our staff might earn less per hour than staffs elsewhere. But they have more resources at their fingertips and so they enjoy greater freedom to excel and make a difference in children’s lives.”

In other words, Agassi’s take on education is misguided in various ways. It seems he thinks kids will get a better education with quantity over quality when it comes to money and time. True, passionate teachers do not work solely for the money, but they value student enlightenment and recognition more than sparkling new classrooms. Admittedly, the author is a man of contradictions. Read the book to learn more about them.