Sunday, July 13, 2008

Education Confrontation Part 3

It's been roughly three-quarters of forever since I posted part 2 of this series, but I might as well circle around to wrap it up. For those who came in late or don't obsessively memorize every word I spew onto this page, here are links to the earlier parts to refresh all of our memories: Part 1, an Interlude between parts 1 and 2, and Part 2. The Interlude was a response to my first (and so far only, to my disappointment) silly flame comment. As far as I can tell, the person who wrote the comment did so mainly to make me chortle. I especially enjoy the bit where they claim to be a small-government libertarian while simultaneously calling for my arrest on charges of disagreeing with their opinion.

A lot of troubled water has passed underneath this particular bridge since part 2. In fact, things got really weird right after I finished that part, which is a big chunk of why the series got derailed. Perhaps I'll go into more detail later. A lot of it involves things that would be news to some friends who read this, and I'm not sure whether they should find out by reading it on here. For now, I'm going to try to carry on as though much of what has happened over the last couple of months didn't. (The new developments are inconvenient, not dire, but they have necessitated some rearranging of short and long-term plans.)

I had always expected to wind up gritting my teeth and going along with a lot of nonsense from school system bureaucrats, for most of whom "useless" would be a step up. Now I pretty much know that's exactly what's going to happen. For various reasons, our son is definitely entering the public school system this fall. Extensive preparations are being made at their end for his arrival.

My philosophies have not changed. However, as almost always, I will be making some concessions and compromises. It just means a little more ulcer medication than usual. (One of my favourite moments from NYPD Blue was an episode where Andy Sipowicz glared at a suspect for a while, then rasped something like, "I'm gonna have a headache tonight because I didn't beat you." I can relate, almost anytime I have to deal with almost anyone.)

Sidebar (first in a series): I have long understood the word "compromise" as being a euphemism for "a partial solution that won't make anybody happy." I generally don't see it as a good thing.

To recap my earlier parts (and make a few underlying principles more explicit), the school system (meaning primarily the teachers and bureaucrats) has no rights beyond those specifically delegated to it by parents. I'm not qualifying that in any way. No "should", no "in my opinion". Homework is no more acceptable than your employer ordering you to do some work at home, on your own time, for no pay. (I understand that's effectively the situation for, ironically, schoolteachers. Maybe the fact that they put up with it explains why they think it's acceptable to do to others. They shouldn't, and it isn't.)

Detention, without explicit prior parental consent, is unlawful confinement. As is any "requirement" that students stay on school property beyond classroom hours (i.e., not letting students who live near the school go home for lunch) if their parents have given them permission to leave. Either one should legally be treated the same as any other hostage-taking.

An awful lot of what's wrong with modern society comes from petty bureaucrats overstepping their authority, and being allowed to get away with it. I'm as guilty of that second part as anyone. I exemplify what Paul said in II Cor 10:10; I'm much easier to get along with, and much likelier to defer to authority (either legitimate or delusional) in real life than you'd expect from reading this. I'm pretty pragmatic in everyday interactions, and it's often easiest to let someone think that you actually care what they think.

This, of course, makes me part of the problem.

Each time one of these dime-store tyrants throws their imaginary weight around and doesn't get knocked on their metaphorical backside for doing so, it emboldens them. In psychological terms, it reinforces the behaviour. Writing this makes me realize that maybe I should stop being so agreeable with them, for the greater good. The sooner these petty bureaucrats (words that I need to use together all too often) understand that they are small cogs in the big machine of society, and that their personal opinions are worth the exact midpoint of "jack" and "squat" in the course of performing their duties, the better for all of us.

Sidebar of an example (and a True Story From One Of My Jobs): once upon a time, I worked in a government office where photos of citizens were handled. I can't get too specific for various reasons, not least of which is the protection of my secret identity. One day, the staff encountered a client photo that some of them felt was inappropriate. Let's say, the client was wearing a shirt with something bluntly critical of the government written on it (not precisely accurate, but close enough).

For the purposes for which we needed the photo, it didn't matter at all. It would be cropped in such a way that the fellow's protest would never even be seen by anyone except a few of our staff. However, some people on our staff wanted to reject the photo, and there were suggestions of further retribution. Some wanted to delay his paperwork unnecessarily, and one or two even speculated that perhaps the client could be charged with something.

I was disgusted by the attitudes of my co-workers. You could argue that the client was being rude, at worst, and there's no law against that. We had absolutely no right and no basis to so much as question his photo. I argued on his behalf, but ultimately a supervisor walked by and got involved in the discussion. After glancing at the photo, the supervisor decreed that it was unacceptable. The client was to be told that he needed to have another one taken. I asked for a legal basis for this, but the supervisor refused to discuss the matter (justifiably, in a way - I answered to the supervisor, not the other way around).

This is a textbook example of what I'm talking about. The personal opinions of some insignificant cogs in a huge bureaucratic machine were allowed to override all legislation and regulations. That should never, ever happen. The client's photo was perfectly acceptable by the letter of our regulations, and that should have been all that mattered. I'd like to say that was the day I realized I wanted out of there, but I had already realized that and become a self-loathing civil servant well before then.

In my experience, the school system in even more infested with this mentality than most organizations. Perhaps it comes from working with children, who are even easier to bully than most adults. However, school system employees tend to forget the difference when the time comes to deal with parents. They quickly forget their role: they are there to support the parents, not the other way around. My wife and I are in charge of our child's education. The school system is there to assist us toward that end. Their suggestions are welcome, but we are not here to do as they say.

So, back to the main narrative of this series. We return now to April 8, 2008, in a classroom where the school principal is telling a group of parents what to expect when their children start school in the fall. Part 2 left off with my evisceration of their monthly "award assemblies".

The next thing in my notes (part of the problem with the long delay is that my memory has largely faded, so the notes become more important) is that the principal used the phrase "statistics show that" far, far more than I would have liked. I'd estimate that she said it 14,256 times - a number as valid as most reported statistics.

Along the way to my degree in psychology, I took a few courses in "research design and analysis", colloquially known to the students as Stats. There was more to the subject, especially in the advanced courses, than statistical analysis - although there was a lot of that as well.

I don't remember offhand anymore how to do a T-Square Analysis, or how to run a multifactor ANOVA. However, remembering exact procedures is not the point of education (for most fields, emergency room physicians being a notable exception). Instead, students should generally learn principles to apply, logic, and methods of researching specific questions. Memorization of specific methods, while useful in the short term, is not a good long-term strategy because methods change. Consider for a moment someone who got a degree in computer science in the early 1990s, but hasn't glanced at a computer beyond playing an occasional game since. How valuable would their dated knowledge be these days?

The main principle I took from my Stats classes was that statistics can be manipulated to say whatever the speaker wants them to say with trivial ease. It's actually extremely difficult to craft a survey, on any topic, to return reasonably objective results. That being the case, while statistics interest me, I don't put a great deal of stock in them. I've often said that I could design a survey on any issue that would return results showing that an overwhelming majority of the population feel however I want them to feel. The sponsor of research can essentially always get the results they're hoping for. The hard part is avoiding that problem, in the case where you want research to be broadly useful, as opposed to just supporting an agenda.

So, getting the impression that the principal seems to be a disciple of whatever USA Today says on their front cover pie chart doesn't excite me. Maybe she's very discerning, or very lucky, and winds up looking at useful research (which is rare) instead of agenda-bolstering nonsense (which is rampant). Maybe.

Second, when it comes to dealing with individuals, statistics are never more than starting points. Remember what I said about bullies back in part 2? Most of them do not have low self-esteem. However, some do, and trying to treat one who really does have low self-esteem with methods meant for the majority is only going to make matters worse. That principle applies to everyone that is dealt with on an individual basis for any reason. Children are not widgets, and running a school like an assembly line is doomed to failure, as are most students of such a school. Everyone deviates from the norm somewhere along the line.

Now, frustratingly (probably more so to me than the reader), I'm ending this part here, having dealt directly with a whopping one point that came up during the meeting. It's late, and I want to sleep. I'm already breaking my general rule of only posting on spiritual issues on Sunday, since it became Sunday in my time zone about an hour ago (although there is some Bible in this installment, if I wanted to be really pedantic). Now that I'm back onto this series, hopefully it won't be over two months before the next installment.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture taken out the car window.

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