Sunday, April 18, 2010

I Declare a New Front In the Culture Wars! or, My battle against bottom-line focus

I did a Google search today on the quoted phrases "culture wars" and "bottom-line focus" with the expectation of finding a few dozen hits. I also thought that among those hits would be at least one kindred spirit, someone who sees BOTTOM-LINE FOCUS as the real enemy underlying so many of society's ills . . .

What I found, instead, was a measly 6 hits, of which exactly zero were relevant to my point: Focus on the bottom line, which was once confined mainly to social Darwinists and people in the business world, is now treated as a Universal Social Good, especially in the ongoing debate over education reform. For example, factions are arguing about how to implement more accountability and higher achievement in K-12 education, not the more interesting (at least to me) question of whether those goals are even particularly valid.

While more accountability seems hard to argue against, I maintain that accountability in the way that Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education wish to practice it (i.e., accountability to standards-based achievement metrics) needs to be approached with caution. Our country is too large and too diverse for any single accountability standard to be applied to all teachers or to all classrooms. I have heard Mr. Duncan speak, and he seems to be smart, certainly smart enough to understand this. Nevertheless, while I am a supporter of accountability in general, I have concerns about accountability taken too far by partisans who are not as smart as their leader.

With much less subtlety, I flatly reject the notion that higher achievement is worthy of focus, or at least the single-minded focus that our government has given us in the guise of No Child Left Behind and its latest scary incarnation, Race to the Top. Therefore, I hereby wish to open a new front in the culture wars. My stand shall be against bottom-line thinking, bottom-line focus, bottom-line mentality, and bottom-line worship, whatever you may call it.

There! Soon Google should report 7 hits for "culture wars" paired with "bottom-line focus" in a search.

Yes, I know there are articulate people out there who have already said what I'm saying. All I have to do is to rephrase the search a bit to find them and then quote and/or link them. But surely it is striking how many hits there are for "culture wars" when paired with various other hot-button phrases:

"culture wars" "abortion": 114,000 hits
"culture wars" "gay marriage": 48,100
"culture wars" "intelligent design": 26,700
"culture wars" "civil rights movement": 21,900
"culture wars" "stem cell research": 16,900
"culture wars" "evolution in the classroom": 5,850

Contrast those results with these:

"culture wars" "bottom line thinking" (with or without hyphen): 799
"culture wars" "bottom line mentality" (with or without hyphen): 140

My conclusion: Diatribes against bottom-line thinking as a Great Societal Ill (for that is how I would characterize it) are underrepresented in the blogosphere. Now please bear with me as I explain why bottom-line thinking is so flawed when applied outside the business world*, and specifically, how bottom-line thinking threatens to transform the U.S. educational system from its current state of crisis into a full-blown catastrophe.

* A quick aside: You could also make the case that bottom-line thinking is rotten in the business world. What caused the financial collapse of 2008, after all? Compensation practices tied to bottom-line results, that's what! Mortgage brokers were paid to put deals together: no deal, no fee. Appraisers were paid to make generous property appraisals. Rating agencies were paid by the investment banks to pronounce giant packages of mortgage junk as "investment grade." Politicians were re-elected, in part, for the pressure they put on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make home ownership more widely available. Fannie and Freddie made absurd amounts of money when they entered the whole subprime mess, at least at first. Wall Streeters made absurd bonuses based on illusory future profits that were booked in the current year. And guess what? All the people at every step of this entire corrupt chain could say, truthfully, that what they were doing was mostly legal and that they had to do it, since otherwise the next guy would contribute more to the bottom line for his family. And the biggest tragedy of all: Alan Greenspan and the Fed, our last line of defense as a nation, were loath to intervene, because they knew that the bottom-line pressure to keep the economy growing was unstoppable. Growth, growth, growth. If the bottom line isn't growing, we're in a state of clinical depression . . . even if the bottom line is a house of cards that creates an economic depression when it collapses.

While I have an opinion on the standard culture war topics (abortion, intelligent design, etc.), I feel no need to add any hot air there. Instead, I will write about something I think needs a thorough horse-whipping: our country's infatuation with so-called pragmatism or bottom-line thinking. Here goes . . .

Once upon a time, we agreed as a society that compulsory universal K-12 education should serve several purposes: (1) socializing young people, both in the classroom and on the athletic fields, (2) indoctrinating them with knowledge of American history and democratic tenets so that they could function as citizens, and (3) preparing them for the workforce, primarily as clerks, housewives, or tradesmen. Keep in mind that until 1965, a majority of high school graduates did not go on to college, let alone a majority of the population. There was another function, unspoken but equally important, and that was (4) providing a safe place for young people to spend their time while adults did other things--in other words, school serving as day care.

Schools with enlightened parents and more resources (dollars) could add another objective, which was (5) exposing young people to art, architecture, literature, drama, and music in an attempt to make them "well rounded." These schools realized that many of their efforts yielded no discernible benefit--no "bottom-line output"--but they persisted nevertheless, confident that even if most students had no interest or talent in, say, sculpture, society as a whole was improved by having students who had experienced some aspects of culture firsthand.

Let's be honest, most student artwork is wretched. But so what? Students don't sculpt or paint in order to make something that has any bottom-line value. They sculpt or paint or play in the band or orchestra because it makes them human. If we take that away and focus only on "achievement" in math, science, and reading, we will have removed the education from education.

The five goals of K-12 education I listed above may be summarized as follows:
(1) Socialize
(2) Prepare for citizenship
(3) Prepare for workforce
(4) Keep out of trouble
(5) Acculturate.

A general agreement on these goals, or something similar, was in place not that long ago, really. However, for anyone my age or younger (I was born in 1962) it seems that we have spent most of our lives hearing about the need for higher achievement in the schools. The drumbeat is relentless, and it has crowded out most serious discussion of goals 1, 2, and 5. I find it odd, however, that even goal 3 has been changed from its original purpose. Remember, what business needs today is graduates who can communicate orally and in writing, think creatively, think critically, and solve problems. Since these skills are harder to measure than the fact-based recall and simple problem-solving stressed on standardized tests, all our bottom-line focus has the ironic effect that it is not well aligned to the bottom line that businesses and colleges care about!

Gone are the days when attending school for 12 grades was considered worthwhile in its own right. The standards-based movement, which has led many schools to require high-stakes graduation examinations and four years of mathematics, has certainly raised the bar. And, believe it or not, the high school dropout rate, as a percentage of the 18-to-24 population, has fallen to an all-time low of 9.3%. I can't claim that the standards-based movement has been all bad.

Don't get me wrong: 9.3% is still too high a dropout rate for K-12 education, when we agree that a high school education is the minimal level needed for someone to function in modern society. Also, I agree that education is in crisis, but not for all the conventional reasons.

The reformers say, "Kids are graduating from high school without the skills they need to function in today's world."

The reformers say, "We need higher standards, uniform nationwide standards, more math, more science, more English, more more more more more! (Just not more art and music, thank you.)"

The reformers say, "We need excellent teachers! And if we pay them better, we will be able to recruit the best and brightest to teach, and since we all know that excellent teaching is the single most important factor in improving student achievement, then and only then will we start to see some improvement in educational achievement."

My response to all of this is simple: yeah, baloney, and BALONEY!

Let me address each in turn. As for you reformers out there, if I have misquoted your crisis-related claims, then send me your rephrased statements so that I can reject them using different wording.

1. "Kids are graduating from high school without the skills they need to function in today's world." Yeah, yeah, I agree. So what else is new? If you can point to a single moment in time when kids (other than those enrolled in shop or home ec) managed to graduate from high school with much useful preparation for the real world, I'll send you a tattered 50-year-old textbook as a prize. And yet our society, founded upon free enterprise and personal freedom, has managed to flourish for well over 200 years.

Look, I'm a math teacher, OK? Nearly 100% of my students recall learning the quadratic formula. Some of them can apply it with a reasonable degree of accuracy a year after learning the topic. But with few exceptions, their knowledge of what the quadratic formula really is, or why it could be useful, or why its discovery was worthwhile, is utterly lacking. Most do not take the time to check their answers for reasonableness. Until I started indoctrinating them with a definition of what mathematics is, for crying out loud, they could not even provide a reasonable definition of the subject they were enrolled in. (Nor, I suspect, could some K-12 teachers of mathematics.) And I teach at a high-achieving school that has National Merit semifinalists every year. I know the situation is grimmer elsewhere.

Will any of these pathetic results keep my students from studying college-level mathematics? Amazingly, no. For by the time they get to college, they will be seeing the material through an entirely different set of eyes. Do we expect 3-year-olds to know their ABCs perfectly? Not usually. But we expose them to their ABCs from an early age so that by the time they are learning to read, they have created a set of well-worn pegholes that can be employed in the learning of much more complicated skills.

My mom was a college English teacher in the 1960s, and kids were functionally illiterate then. Yes, today's kids seem even worse, since polysyllabic words and words that have no standard txtspk abbreviation are beyond them. But I really think that today's teenagers will find a way to earn a living.

One lost skill that I will spend a moment to wail about is handwriting. Handwriting was once taught in the schools, especially cursive handwriting. Mastering the ability to write quickly, automatically, and without cramping took years, but by the time we were in junior high most of us could take decent notes that summarized the key points of a teacher's presentation. Nowadays, cursive is generally not taught at all, and since kids are switched early from handwriting to computer-based typing by their well-intentioned history and English teachers, even their printing receives insufficient practice. The few kids who take notes are not taking notes, really, but transcriptions on a notebook computer. In other words, they are not summarizing and reprocessing the information in real time; they are simply taking it down using a technology that is inferior to sound recording.

No problem, you say? They should type everything, since nobody wants to read chicken-scratching anyway? Well, OK, except that you forgot the one field that depends CRUCIALLY on handwriting in order to make progress. That field, of course, is mathematics. Without a way to extend your working memory in real time, you are absolutely crippled in mathematics. Perhaps someday there will be a standardized way of doing math on a computer, something comparable to what word processors have done for English themes, but until then, students must be provided ample time to practice handwriting.

Practicing handwriting does not have an easily measurable bottom-line value, unfortunately. The benefits are seen only years later. No elementary teacher will receive a higher raise, or get a higher percentage of his/her students to pass the standardized tests at the end of the year, or convince his/her principal that the students are learning something worthwhile when they spend the significant time that it takes to become fluent at handwriting.

The term "drill and kill" is considered extremely pejorative in educational circles, although for the life of me I do not know how kids are supposed to learn fundamental skills through any means other than drill and practice. We don't send them out onto a football field to tackle opposing players without first subjecting them to hour upon boring hour of tackling drills, do we? Then why do we think it is so horrible to drill fundamental skills in the classroom: times tables, handwriting, note-taking, and the like?

OK, you bottom-line reformers, listen to me: Success in mathematics, at least for the foreseeable future, requires lots and lots of time in preparatory activities that do not satisfy your stupid bottom-line metrics. You want our kids to achieve more in math? Fine. I agree, in principle. But your focus on testing and early achievement (and don't get me started about watered-down early "algebra" classes) will only make them less able to succeed when they take a real algebra class. And algebra, as you (ought to) know, is the gateway to all higher mathematics.

2. "We need higher standards, uniform nationwide standards, more math, more science, more English, more more more more more! (Just not more art and music, thank you.)"

Uh, excuse me, but art and music (and literature and architecture and drama) are among the only things we do in school that have merit on their own. (That is, they are activities that are not merely stepping stones to something else.) For all the hand-wringing about students and their lack of engagement, you'd think that reformers would be wanting to put more art and music into K-12 schools. Some are, I know. But they are running up against a triple buzz saw: standards movements that see art and music as distractions from the bottom-line test results, school districts that treat art and music instructors as expendable (jerking them around every year at contract time), and budgetary constraints that have no room for art and music in the bottom line, period.

Students are not necessarily able to formulate the words, but believe me, they know something is wrong when art and music are ripped out of the curriculum. So let me, at age 48, phrase it for them. When you take away art and music, there is little education left, only training . . . and "training" that goes on for years is boring.

Core instruction in math, science, and English need not be boring, but I feel sorry for students and teachers who have no ability to step outside the curriculum, even for a moment. I am extremely fortunate to work in an independent school where I have the luxury of avoiding the day-to-day crush of bottom-line thinking. My only real bow to the bottom line occurs with the AP exams and the SAT II achievement tests. The rest of the year, I feel quite free to sprinkle art, music, architecture, and astronomy liberally into my math classes.

3. "We need excellent teachers! And if we pay them better, we will be able to recruit the best and brightest to teach, and since we all know that excellent teaching is the single most important factor in improving student achievement, then and only then will we start to see some improvement in educational achievement."

Baloney, baloney, (grumbling acknowledgment), and baloney. I agree with the part about excellent teaching being the single most important factor in improving student achievement. In fact, there is good research to that effect, plus we all know from experience that it is true. But everything else in that reformer-ish quote is pure silt.

"We need excellent teachers!" Baloney. We can and should design an educational system to function with mediocre to good teachers. How many computer users are excellent? Five percent, maybe? Yet nearly everyone uses a computer nowadays, for everything from e-mail to electronic banking, and the country functions fairly well. Moreover, we have to have Web applications that accommodate people with poor-to-mediocre computer skills, because guess what? That's the population we have.

"And if we pay them better, we will be able to recruit the best and brightest to teach." Baloney squared. Teaching is and always has been a vocation, not a trade. People who are called to teach can do it despite incredibly long odds. My hat is off to my colleagues in the public school trenches. I have it easy compared to them. And yet even in my pleasant environment, I can tell you that my decision to stay is not primarily dependent upon the salary. Yes, teaching salaries should be better. But you know what? They are already pretty good in many jurisdictions, but good salaries do not compensate for tough working conditions. For salaries alone to be persuasive, they would have to be roughly three times as high as they are today, and even then, you wouldn't necessarily be attracting better teachers, just smart people who would otherwise be working in law, medicine, or investment banking.

". . . and since we all know that excellent teaching is the single most important factor in improving student achievement, then and only then will we start to see some improvement in educational achievement." Baloney cubed. Actually, the first part of that statement is true, as I mentioned above. The baloney comes in by treating good teaching as a sufficient condition when it is actually only a necessary condition.

I am not a particular fan of the teachers' unions, but I agree with the portion of their p.r. that claims that American teachers are dedicated and competent. Most of them are, darn it! And some of them are downright excellent. The trouble is, there is little agreement on who the excellent ones are, or what should constitute excellent teaching. Students know, of course, but often the realization hits them only 10 or 15 years later. It would be a grave injustice--and the teachers and their unions know this--to let students, or principals for that matter, have too much power in determining what constitutes excellent teaching. Students may think, for example, that a teacher who "spoon feeds" the information to them so that it is super-easy to understand and helps them earn a high grade on a standardized test is an excellent teacher. Only years later do they realize the inestimable debt they owe to the teacher who really pushed them to get out of their comfort zone, or who rudely confronted them with an argument to a preconceived notion, or who forced them to take a principled stand in a piece of original writing.

You know what? On a typical day, I am an excellent teacher to 5% of my students, a good teacher to 20%, a mediocre teacher to 50%, and a terrible teacher to the other 25%. And that's on a day when nobody sees me for extra help outside class--in other words, based solely on their classroom interaction with me. Moreover, it's not the same 5% of students every day who perceive me as excellent. In a good year, I hope that almost all of my students will have been able to experience me as excellent at least once.

I am well aware that in 20 years, the vast majority of my students will remember almost nothing about me--basically, they will recall whether I was kind to them or mean to them, and that's about it. But a few, perhaps 5%, will hopefully remember me as one of the handful of teachers who influenced their life in a meaningful, positive way. That tiny, tiny yield is what motivates me as a classroom teacher, and I know from talking to other teachers that this is a common sentiment. We went into the field precisely because it does not conform well to bottom-line thinking. If we had been more conventional in our thinking, we would have chosen a different profession.

But none of this can be captured by a bottom-line evaluation by a supervisor, or even by a committee visit. That, I think, is one reason that teachers are so fearful of merit pay and other proposals that would tie career outcomes too closely to classroom evaluations or, worse yet, to students' standardized test results.

So . . . where does this leave us? Bottom-line thinking bad, touchy-feely good? Well, not exactly. Since I teach math, and math lends itself well to objective measures of ability, I am not advocating eliminating all objective assessments. That would be every bit as foolish as the forces of Big Education running amok, pulling art and music and recess from the schools on the grounds that they detract from the bottom line.

What I am saying is that we face a crisis in education. The crisis is real, and it is present at this very moment. The crisis is that we have misidentified the crisis.

In a misguided attempt to make education more accountable and achievement-oriented, we (as a nation) run the risk of removing all the education from the system. What will be left behind is training, 13 miserable years of it, with no break for art or music, and our nation will be all the poorer. The students know this. Let's listen to them for a change.


  1. "Some of them can apply it with a reasonable degree of accuracy a year after learning the topic. But except for students in the honors track, their knowledge of what the quadratic formula really is, or why it could be useful, or why its discovery was worthwhile, are all utterly lacking."

    Hey, I resent that. There are people who spend hours googling, wikipediaing (sorry) and researching the topic; who then spend more time figuring out how to derive it from axx + bx + c = 0, and then play around with it in graphing applications. Give them some credit!

    I think you should assign this as required reading for your classes. It would help your students understand where you were "coming from". (Not sure if those are the right words.) And that in turn would help them draw more meaning and value from the class.

  2. Dear Anonymous:

    I agree with your comment and will try to adjust the wording slightly for accuracy. Glad that you read the post! I got carried away on the length, but I had a lot to say and couldn't see any obvious portions to cut.

    Mr. Hansen

  3. A good article, I feel the majority of it has excellent merit. I too feel that the laser focus on standardized scores has squeezed the life out of school, but I don't see that as a recent thing, I recall that happening when I was in high school more than 30 years ago. Perhaps it has taken a dramatic turn for the worse as in my day we did have art, music, shop, etc. (don't really know how things stack up at the moment in my local situation, my son is only in second grade) to help diversify the day. The curriculum at the high school my boy would go to if we were able to live in our house in the country reads like a community college and appears to offer a very wide range of educational paths, so clearly some places have managed to avoid the all consuming obsession with test scores. However, based on my research, that is the exception, not the rule.

  4. My mother is a college professor in a satellite campus of a big school. She sees students every day who have no idea how to take notes as they listen in her class. And, it's not just that they cannot write, they don't know what to type or jot down. Preparation for and the actual studying process required to learn and then take a test, seems to be lost on them. All they want to know is, "Will this be on the test? Do I have to know that?" When she attempts to connect information in her class to famous world events and history, they look at her blankly, not having remembered or understood why Europeans fled Europe to come to America before & during WWII for instance.

    The worst story she's shared with me is something I'm sure lots of teachers have heard before. In the actual test itself she occasionally has the answer to one question within the text of another question and yet, the students do not answer correctly. Yikes! Thanks for your blog on education; you're right on the mark here.