Commentary and Criticism about the National Education Association
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“A central goal of education is teaching critical-thinking skills. Inquiry-based teaching is an excellent path to this goal… the method focuses on student discovery over pushing information from the instructor.”
Erik Kyle, The Phases of Inquiry-Based Teaching
“Most people are overwhelmed by the sheer mass of educational fads… virtually all educational trends with any substance are transformed into fads by a flawed or superficial understanding of the basic idea behind the trend … which is unfortunately typically the case in schooling today.”
Linda Elder and Richard Paul, Educational Fads
INNOVATIVE OR JUST ANOTHER FAD
Design Thinking, Project Based Learning, 21st century skills …
These are the names of some current educational fads being implemented in schools across the nation.
A quote from Pinterest argues for their effectiveness by combining them all in the same sentence:
“Design thinking and PBL [Project Based Learning] can bridge what we know and how we innovate. Try combining these two practices as an instructional framework for teaching 21st-century skills.”
“Is that statement, with its impressive use of fancy terms that I have never heard before, really true,” wonders the non-educationally-initiated layperson?
But it also might just be an example of the roll-out of the latest popular approaches to student learning – what I have termed educational “fads.”
It seems that every 20 years or so, professionals in the field of education come up with new and “innovative” ways to teach that they swear will improve the learning of students – only to drop them after a few years of trial.
For a long list of the educational fads from the past 30 years, check out this list at the Pennington Publishing Blog.
Another great list can be found at: The Foundation for Critical Thinking
PICK A FAD, ANY FAD: From “Design Thinking” to “Inquiry Learning”
Well, last week, the NEA published an article by Mary Ellen Flannery about a new and innovative approach to learning called Design Thinking.
I have been looking for an excuse to write about this topic for a while, and now Flannery has provided the opportunity.
Let me make clear at the outset that I will not be writing specifically about Design Thinking. Instead, I will be focusing on another related instructional fad called Project Based Inquiry "Learning" (sometimes shortened to just Inquiry "Learning").
They are related.
One of the individuals quoted in Flannery’s article, Dan Ryder, acknowledges the relationship when he says of Design Thinking:
“It’s more than a new approach or five-step process to problem solving, and more than a 2.0-version of project-based learning.”
Others have also noted the connection between the two educational fads. For example, Tom Barrett makes the following comment in an article called Applying Design Thinking in 4 Different Ways in Schools:
“However in the school environment the process and principles of design thinking can be applied to a number of different relevant domains [like the] Inquiry Learning Process.”
PROJECT BASED INQUIRY SCIENCE (PBIS)
I chose to focus on Inquiry “Learning” because my school district is considering the adoption of a science program called Project Based Inquiry Science (PBIS) for its middle school students.
To prove my point that Inquiry “Learning” is not appropriate at this grade level, I picked out one particular unit to evaluate - Air Quality.
The opening activity for this unit asks the students to pretend they are real scientists working in the field. They are then given ten pictures, each of which shows “an example of a human activity or product that affects air quality.”
The goal of this activity is twofold:
So what is the big deal?
Well if this activity is just being used as a way to elicit the student’s prior knowledge about the topic of air quality, it is probably OK. There is nothing wrong with getting the students thinking about a topic before you actually teach it.
But to tell the kids that this is the way that scientists operate in the real world is completely wrong.
THE PROBLEM WITH INQUIRY “LEARNING” – Its backwards.
Professional scientists approach things that they encounter in the world with a base of knowledge learned over the course of their long education. Middle school students using PBIS, on the other hand, are being asked to evaluate the world based on their partial (mostly erroneous) “knowledge” and opinion only – they simply do not have any real base knowledge at such a young age.
For this reason, asking middle school students to look at pictures and evaluate them as a scientist would is ludicrous. With no real background in the subject, they are not going to be evaluating as a scientist would, they are just going to be guessing.
In essence, Inquiry “Learning” reverses the process of learning.
The better way to teach students is to introduce the science knowledge first and then have the students use this knowledge to evaluate what they are experiencing. With science knowledge the students can even design experiments based on this knowledge to further their understanding.
MY TEST OF INQUIRY “LEARNING”- Spoiler Alert: The kids failed.
I showed my 8th grade students the following picture and then asked them to tell me how it might relate to global climate change. I specified that they could only comment on what they actually saw in the picture (for example, no imagining that a gas-powered tractor plowed the fields).
Not one student gave a response even close to what would be obvious to any scientist who had basic knowledge about biology and plant processes.
From the Department of Environmental Conservation of New York:
“[Through photosynthesis], plants have helped keep CO2 levels from rising excessively because they keep using it to feed themselves. The carbon cycle has a number of self-regulating mechanisms that can compensate for small temporary increases in atmospheric CO2.”
My point, yet again, is that students need base knowledge in order to evaluate what they see and experience. To expect them to evaluate something before attaining that base knowledge it to reverse the proper learning process.
THE CULPRIT - CONSTRUCTIVISM
The inquiry approach to learning is based on an educational paradigm called constructivism.
“Constructivism is basically a theory … about how people learn. It says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. When we encounter something new, we have to reconcile it with our previous ideas and experience, maybe changing what we believe, or maybe discarding the new information as irrelevant. In any case, we are active creators of our own knowledge.”
I have no doubt that we accumulate knowledge in the real world through this constructivist process. But when a middle school student is learning a specific subject like environmental science that he has no background in (no base knowledge), there is no way to “reconcile it with our previous ideas and experience.”
Because he doesn’t have any “previous ideas and experience” regarding the subject matter. He needs to learn something before he can “reconcile it.”
CONCLUSION – Not for Middle School
When I delved a little deeper into this idea of Design Thinking, I uncovered a guide which explained how to implement it in the classroom.
An Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE
One of the lines in the guide caught my attention, because it encapsulated the reason why Inquiry “Learning” is not real learning.
“Framing the right problem is the only way to create the right solution.”
Well of course. In order to create a solution, you need to first frame the problem – that makes perfect sense.
But if you don’t have any base or background knowledge of a particular issue, how can you possible identify or frame anything at all?
This is why middle school students need to learn before they evaluate – the opposite approach of Inquiry “Learning.”
Design Thinking and Project Based Inquiry "Learning" do have a place in education – but not in elementary or middle school. Children at these lower grade levels simply do not have a sufficient knowledge base upon which to ask the right questions, let alone actually evaluate what they experience. Traditional instruction is more appropriate here.
“We [teachers] work second jobs because our salaries alone are not sufficient to pay our bills, let alone save for the future,”
Teacher Krista Degerness Ken Caryl Middle School in Littleton, Colo.
“The CPI no longer measures the true increase required to maintain a constant standard of living. This is the main reason that more people are falling behind financially …”
The Chapwood Index
CONSUMER PRICE INDEX (CPI) – A useless statistic?
Back in January we wrote a post about the inability of teachers to make ends meet. It was an analysis of Robert Rosales’ story at NEA Today called Moonlighting:
“Nationwide, many public school teachers … work nights and weekends to supplement the income they receive from teaching … They are simply trying to keep their financial boats afloat.”
An economist quoted by the NEA (Sylvia Allegretto) offered the following explanation for the pay gap:
“… weakening of teachers’ unions, pervasive anti-government sentiment, defunding of public education and the spread of charter and private schools …”
We offered another possibility – inflation.
Some readers disagreed with our conclusion, pointing out that this couldn’t be the issue. After all, if you look at government statistics, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has been pretty tame for years:
But is inflation really as low as the CPI suggests?
Here are two reasons why it is suspect:
THE CHAPWOOD INDEX – A more realistic measure of inflation
A better measure of inflation is available in the Chapwood Index.
“The Chapwood Index reflects the true cost-of-living increase in America. Updated and released twice a year, it reports the unadjusted actual cost and price fluctuation of the top 500 items on which Americans spend their after-tax dollars in the 50 largest cities in the nation.”
As you can see from the chart, inflation is much higher than the government is telling you. Click on the website link to see all 50 cities that are tracked.
CONCLUSION – The real culprit is the government
So maybe it is time that the NEA and other teacher’s unions recognize the real reason why their pay just doesn’t seem to keep up with the times.
Maybe it’s time to stop blaming:
“… weakening of teachers’ unions, pervasive anti-government sentiment, defunding of public education and the spread of charter and private schools …”
The real reason for the sad state of teacher salaries can be found by looking at the Chapwood Index which …
“… exposes why middle-class Americans — salaried workers who are given routine pay hikes and retirees who depend on annual increases in their corporate pension and Social Security payments — can’t maintain their standard of living.”
And one last point about prices.
They don’t just increase because of supply and demand or because “greedy corporations” decide they want to fleece their customers to maximize profits.
That may be what you are taught in the public schools but the truth is more complicated than that.
The Federal Reserve, through its monetary polices, creates inflation by printing dollars. The more you make of something, the less each unit is worth.
Below are two charts which highlight this fact. The first shows the increase in the supply of money since 1920.
Compare this with the second chart below which shows the decline in the purchasing power of the dollar.
The charts speak for themselves, but just in case you need a translator, here is what they are saying:
As money supply has increased, the purchasing power of your dollars have declined.
Liberals and progressives always want to turn to the government to help them right the supposed wrongs of society.
Well, in this case, the government, itself, seems to be the problem.
Sorry NEA President Garcia, not all in the “church of educators” say “Amen” to free college tuition.
“Higher education in America should be a right for all, not a privilege for a few.”
Senator Bernie Sanders
LILY GETS SILLY
In her latest blog post, NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia wants us all to celebrate “Community College Month” by “ensuring college is a right – not a privilege.”
In other words, she wants it to be free.
Her response to Senator Bernie Sanders’ “College for All Act?”
“… let the church of educators say ‘Amen.’”
Just four months after our last article, do I have to give Garcia another lesson in what the word “free” really means?
The NEA Says Education is Free: Joseph Goebbels would be so proud
The obvious fact of life is that there is no such thing as free anything. “Free” college tuition for you just means that someone else is paying for it. It is either being covered by:
However, we do agree with her one statement:
“… because all of our students, regardless of how much their families earn, deserve the opportunity for a great education.”
But there is a big difference between the opportunity for an education and a free education.
My daughter is in college.
After all of our bills are paid, two teacher salaries (my wife and I are both in the profession) don’t even come close to being able to pay her tuition.
At no point did we expect that someone else was obligated to pay for her education.
So you want to talk free college education?
How about a free car in order to get to class at college?
Free gas for that car? Naturally - how else do you expect that car to be able to move?
And then there are free oil changes, tire rotation, brakes …
And I almost forgot, you will probably need a free computer so that you can do all of that work at school.
Where does it end, full-blown socialism?
Which brings to mind the old proverb:
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
“When people have nothing left to lose, and they’ve lost everything, they lose it.
Gerald Celente, Author of the Trends Journal
THE PENSION CRISIS: Nicaragua or the United States – it’s the same issue
The problems facing the Nicaraguan pension system are similar to those found in many U.S. states today. It all boils down to one of two possible characterizations:
So how bad is it exactly?
Eight years ago the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had this to say:
“The IMF is demanding reform because it has calculated that without it, the State will have to assume huge costs within 10 to 15 years that will destabilize the economy.”
In other words, the system is severely underfunded.
As for the generosity of the benefits, consider that most citizens …
“… are now able to retire at 60 years of age, though teachers may retire after working to age 55.”
NICARAGUA TRIES TO FIX THE PROBLEM
The Nicaraguan government recently made an attempt to reform its troubled social security system by implementing the following three rule changes:
CITIZENS PROTEST – VICTORY IS WON?
The citizens were having none of this - they took to the streets in violent protest (Molotov cocktails, stone-throwing, etc.).
After 25 people were killed, President Daniel Ortega …
“… decided to cancel planned changes to the Central American country's pension system that have triggered violent protests.”
Victory for the workers!
Ortega scrapped his plans to cut benefits saying …
“… that the government would examine other ways to reform the pension system and improve its financial outlook.”
FORGET PENSION REFORM, WE’LL JUST PRINT MONEY
But what “other ways” are there?
Consider recent Nicaraguan monetary history for some clues as to how the financial outlook of the pension system might be “improved.”
“The Central Bank of Nicaragua, established in 1961, has the sole right of issue of the national currency, the córdoba. “
Let me translate the underlined/bolded section of the above quote:
The bank can print up as much money as it wants to pay its pension bills – after all, it has the “sole right of issue of the national currency.”
So, problem solved, it seems.
Nicaragua doesn’t have to reform its pension system. If it needs money to pay retirees, all it has to do is issue more cash whenever it wants.
BACK TO REALITY
Of course, the more money printed, the less each unit is worth.
Take a look at the following chart of the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar and the Nicaraguan cordoba since 1998:
As of April 23, 2018 you needed 31.12 cordoba to buy 1 dollar. Back in September of 1994 you only needed 6.73.
That is what happens when you just print money out of nothing and issue it – its value declines.
By the way, another name for this is inflation.
The decline was even worse if you go back to 1991:
“Inflation has seriously eroded the value of the nation's money, the córdoba. In 1991, inflation reached 750 percent which made the currency relatively worthless since what had previously cost 1 córdoba cost 750 córdobas.”
CONCLUSION – There’s that predicament again …
The poor condition of many U.S. state pension funds is widely acknowledged.
But, unlike Nicaragua, they can’t print money to “solve” the problem. Instead, states have only three basic choices:
Like a broken record, here we go again - the pension crisis is not a problem, it’s a predicament.
Quoting Chris Martensen of Peak Prosperity:
“A problem can be solved to avoid a certain outcome. A predicament has no solution, only an outcome.”
“…corrupt politicos promised the moon to public employees, and now the fiscal chickens of insolvency are coming home to roost. Public pension obligations are rising so fast that even repeated tax increases can't keep up.”
Charles Hugh Smith, Of Two Minds Blog
We haven’t written about the sorry state of teacher pensions in a while, but when we read Smith’s Blog yesterday, we were inspired once again.
We have been warning teachers at every opportunity not to rely on their expected retirement pensions. Our recommendation has always been for them to save as much money as possible outside of the system, so that they will actually be able to retire and live a lifestyle similar to what they enjoy now.
TYPICAL TEACHER RESPONSE
But almost without fail, every time we post an article dealing with pensions, we get blow-back from teachers claiming something along the lines of …
“You are wrong - the state contractually owes us this money. How can you just give up and accept this? Our unions will not compromise – they will fight for our benefits to the bitter end.”
Well the bitter end is fast approaching because the “Tax Donkeys” who pay our pensions are not going to accept it for much longer.
Of course, the typical teacher response is:
“But we pay into our pensions. It is our money. The taxpayers have nothing to do with it.”
Unfortunately, this is not true. Leaving aside the contribution that the state makes to the pension program, if the money we contribute is invested and doesn’t increase in value to a proper level, there is no way that it will cover our monthly benefit in retirement.
And if it doesn’t, then the taxpayers have to make up for the deficit. As Smith makes clear:
“… pensions can't be paid with borrowed money like Social Security and Medicare; public pension obligations come out of local and state taxes, and as those obligations soar then public services must be slashed and taxes jacked up by annual double-digit increases.”
ABOUT THOSE “TAX DONKEYS”
The way we see it, the term “Tax Donkeys” has two connotations.
First, it refers to taxpayers who are forced to bear the costs of government programs – donkeys are beasts of burden, after all.
But more importantly, it also refers to taxpayer mobility.
“… in the war between public pensioners and the Tax Donkeys, the pensioners can't switch pension programs, but the Tax Donkeys can move to lower-tax states.”
Smith suggests that there will be a
“… Great Migration of the Tax Donkeys from failing cities, counties and states to more frugal, well-managed and small business-friendly locales.”
PREDICAMENT VS. PROBLEM - It is what it is ...
In past blog posts we used the word predicament (rather than problem) to describe the current pension situation. It is important to understand the difference.
Problems have solutions but predicaments don’t – they only have outcomes.
Solutions make people happy: “Yea, we solved the problem!”
Outcomes, not so much: “That really sucks – but it is what it is.”
We can’t predict the specific outcome that will unfold for teachers, but none of the possibilities we envision will be pleasant. Teachers will have to:
Yes, they all really suck ... but it is what it is.