Field of Science

The Prisoner's Dilemma on Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Found on Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, via The Astronomist, the cleanest illustration I've seen anywhere of the Prisoner's Dilemma:

The comic ends with a (brief) survey of attempts to convince people to act altruistically rather than selfishly. For me, the more interesting question is how to transform the structure of social interactions, so that altruism is the right choice for individuals as well as for the whole group.

Don't wait for superman

This weekend I saw "Waiting for Superman" a documentary directed by Davis Guggenheim of Inconvenient Truth fame.  It's ostensibly about how great teachers are the key to saving our education system.  But what struck me, over and over, was its complete lack of understanding of or regard for what teaching actually entails.

There are many, many problems with this movie, and I will not discuss them all.  A website has been set up to debunk it, and on the Daily Kos a classroom teacher provides something of a point-counterpoint.  (I should add that I do not necessarily endorse everything said on these sites.)  I focus my critique on the movie's conception of teaching, because that's the aspect which clashes most directly with my three years' experience as an urban public school teacher.

My first two years were at the now-defunct Austin Community Academy in Chicago.  As an incoming math teacher, I had the good fortune of being mentored by math department chair Steve McIlrath, one of the most amazing and inspiring educators I know.  On the day I was hired, he told me was "This may be the most difficult job in America.  Every teacher who works here is a hero."

I didn't quite believe him then, but after the first month I knew exactly what he meant.  The teachers at Austin were not all amazing educators (especially not me).  They were not always flawless in their classroom management or sophisticated in their pedagogy.  Personally, I was horrible at classroom management and cringed at my own pedagogy.  But just the action of coming in every day to face the students---who were facing their own enormous life challenges---and putting in the effort to manage, engage, and educate them was herioc.

I don't have space to describe how incredibly difficult it is just to be a struggling teacher at these schools, let alone a successful one.  If you haven't been there, you don't understand.  You can, however, educate yourself through memoirs such as In the Deep Heart's Core, Reluctant Disciplinarian, Chasing Hellhounds, or (ironically enough) Guggenheim's first film The First Year.

Waiting for Superman (WfS) at times acknowledges that teaching is difficult, and that teachers are a "national treasure".  But it includes zero interviews with current classroom teachers, and promotes an absurd notion of what teaching is actually about.  In one telling moment, a cartoon depicts teachers opening up students' brains and pouring "knowledge" in from a carton.  This, we are told, is the way education is supposed to work.  Except that now all kinds of standards and regulations have been instituted by various bureaucracies.  This multitude of regulations confuses the teacher, who then spills her precious "knowledge" onto the floor. 

If this is your picture of teaching, then we can't even begin to talk about education reform.  It's not an oversimplification, it's just plain wrong.  Educating students---getting them to absorb and engage with new ideas---is what makes teaching hard.  This is especially difficult in urban districts where it can be difficult to get students to show up to class, let alone sit politely and receive your teachings.  There is no magic carton.  Even if there were, students are not mere knowledge repositories but active, thinking beings, and they should be taught as such.  Sure, I was operating under many layers of regulation, but these were largely irrelevant to me.  What mattered in that room were me, my students, and how I was going to teach them.

WfS's main suggestion for improving our schools is to remove tenure protections so that deadbeat teachers can be fired.  These deadbeats are definitely out there.  One of them occupied the room right next to Steve's.  His idea of music education was to let his students listen to the radio, all day, for the entire year.  People like him are criminals.  It's deplorable that union contracts prevent the firing of such teachers.  I absolutely agree that blanket tenure should be abolished, though there should still be mechanisms to protect teachers from the whims of vindictive principals.

But WfS seems to suggest that removing tenure is the magic bullet needed to fix our education system.  This assumes that for every deadbeat fired, there is an excellent teacher waiting in the wings to be hired.  That's not the case.  As Geoffrey Canada acknowledges during the movie, every excellent teacher starts out as a struggling teacher like I was.  These struggling teachers must be thoroughly trained and mentored before and during their first year.  All teachers must be given manageable class sizes and courseloads, as well as time to collaborate with their colleagues.  They must be given excellent textbooks and other classroom resources.  They must be well-compensated so that quality talent is attracted.  Schools must be better integrated with social services so that students are healthy and in class every day.  Teachers' unions have an important role to play in advocating for teachers' rights and quality of life.

All these reforms are necessary so that struggling teachers can become successful rather than leave the profession (as half do within their first five years).  But WfS suggests none of these.  Instead, it asserts that all we need is to make teachers more accountable.  Trust me, I was already trying as hard as I could.  More threats hanging over my head would not have improved my teaching. 

Worse, the movie promotes the dangerous idea that we can fix public schools without investing in them.  It claims we "tried" spending money and it didn't work, so now we should try something else.  This is horrible logic.  All of the above reforms require money, along with a good plan for using it.  I'm terribly afraid that for years to come, conservatives will cite this movie in their crusade against government spending.  Meanwhile, our public schools will continue to languish underfunded.

In short, WfS promotes an absurdly simplistic view of teaching, in which teachers are either good or bad.  As soon as we fire the bad ones, we will have only good teachers and top-quality education.  This ignores the reality for the vast majority of teachers who are trying but struggling.  These teachers are performing one of the the most important and difficult jobs in the country.  They need to be supported, and their jobs made more manageable, in order for them to succeed. 

I could go on about WfS's other flaws: its bizarre use of pop-culture references (School of Rock??), its incomprehensible reverence for No Child Left Behind, its use of schoolchildren as emotionally manipulative props, etc.  But I'll end with this thought: in the closing credits, we see the text "The problem is complex.  But the solution is simple."

Take it from a complex systems theorist: this is rarely the case in any context, and it's certainly false when it comes to education reform.