Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The American Madrasas
A New Form of Human Cloning

A post on Pharyngula (PZ Myers) caught my attention.  Other blogs have posted agreement (1 2 3 4), and dissenting opinions (1 2 3), but Myers' post is the most thoughtful:

Here's an idea: let's model our educational system after the madrasas!Rod Paige

Hmmm. Rod Paige  calls the largest teachers' union in the United States a "terrorist organization". His backhanded apology consists of this: "It was an inappropriate choice of words to describe the obstructionist scare tactics the NEA's Washington lobbyists have employed against No Child Left Behind's historic education reforms."

Earlier he says, "The reason that Christian schools and Christian universities are growing is a result of a strong value system...That's not the case in a public school, where there are so many different kids with different kinds of values...All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith."

Somehow, I get the feeling that this man is not on my side. Or on the side of any educators, unless they happen to be Christian, Republican, non-union, teaching in a private, Christian school, and obligingly uncritical of education policies. I wonder if we'll continue to get complaints about too many teachers voting Democratic.

How did such a sycophantic, divisive hack get to be Secretary of Education? Oh, yeah...that's the kind of person our president favors.

In response, I posted this comment:

At first, I was going to take offense at the use of the “madrasa” analogy.  After all, comparing the current education policy to the kind of institution that gives rise to terrorists is a bit like calling the NEA terrorists.  On further reflection, though, I agree that the analogy is appropriate.  A madrasa is a school wherein all teaching is grounded in a fundamentalist ideology.  No doubt some of them are intellectually honest institutions of learning; but some of them, at least as portrayed in Western media, are devoted to the strict delivery of only one intellectual viewpoint. 

One of my objections to the emphasis on standardized testing, and the linkage of school funding to testing outcomes, is that it forces teachers to focus most of their attention on lesson plans that boost test scores.  If the financial stakes are high enough, this emphasis on test scores inevitably will lead to compromises in education.  Critical thinking, creative lesson planning, and individualized education all must take a back seat to the business of rote memorization.  This very well could lead to a generation of students who can recite the capitols of all fifty states, but who cannot recognize an ad hominem argument, or who cannot tell when a politician is being dishonest, or who cannot watch a television advertisement and see how the sponsor is trying to influence their behavior. 

There really is something madrasa-like about that kind of education.  If it is effective enough, there may be no need for human cloning.  We all will think exactly alike.

I would like to elaborate: I have seen a lot of education, after spending twenty-five years as a student: in Catholic school, a private secular school, various public schools (in two different school systems), college, medical school, and residency.  In college, I tutored Chemistry.  I also have taught at the University of Michigan Medical School, and have worked in two different college counseling services.  I have a son who has attended three Montessori schools (one Christian, two secular), a private middle school, and a public high school.  I observed special education teachers in the classroom, when I was a psychiatry resident.  My mother is has a teaching certificate, and is a private tutor for special education students and a tutor at a Community College.  My wife was a tutor and a peer educator when she was in college.  On the basis of these experiences, I have become convinced that the most effective teaching style always includes a personal relationship between student and teacher.  This is directly analogous to the psychotherapeutic concept of the therapeutic alliance1.  I don't think it matters much if a teacher teaches new math, old math, or Babylonian math.  If the teacher and student join together toward a common goal, true learning will take place.  If the teacher is allowed to develop a lesson plan that fits her or his own style, and reflects her or his own interests, the students will pay attention.  They pay attention because kids instinctively recognize genuine caring and effort.  Furthermore, it is neither realistic nor helpful to establish a fixed curriculum.  What is relevant for students this year will be obsolete next year.  What is relevant in a rural school may be irrelevant in a suburban school.  For a teacher in a rural school, it might make sense to teach Chemistry using fertilizer to illustrate acid-base chemistry.  Try that in a suburban school, and students will spend the hour sending instant messages to each other on their wireless-enabled Palm Pilots.   (Did you hear what Hillary said to Heather...

One of the reasons that the Government has taken responsibility for public education is that a well-educated public can make better decisions about how they want to govern themselves, and how they want to be governed by others.  Although the concept of checks and balances originally was meant to describe the relationships between the three branches of government, it is equally valid to think of checks and balances between the citizens and their elected officials.  This will not work if the citizens cannot think independently.  Standardized testing has only a limited role in this process.  Therefore, the No Child Left Behind initiative does not really contribute much to one of the main goals of education.  Likewise, our current Secretary of Education does not contribute much to one of the main goals of education.

1(link) [...] Studies have considered the relationship between therapy approaches, therapeutic alliance and successful treatment outcome. Frank & Gunderson (1990) found no significant difference between two types of psychotherapy in relation to outcome, but did find a strong relationship between therapeutic alliance and outcome.
In a meta-analysis of 24 studies, Horvath and Symonds (1991) found a correlation between therapeutic alliance and outcome across all types of measure of outcome, which was not a function of the type of therapy practiced. [...]