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Great Lecture, Professor . . . What’s on the Test?

December 21, 2010
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I don’t want to wear everyone out with links to ISI posts, but I really liked this piece by a political science instructor who says our students don’t know the liberal arts well enough. Even the great students tend to be accomplished “hoop jumpers” instead of reflective people. The author shares some good ideas on how to handle in-class writing assignments, including summaries of assigned primary-source readings.

We might be able to implement some of these things in Western Cultural Heritage sections at Faulkner, and you may be able to use them if you end up teaching somewhere.

Another Perspective on the “What Can You Do With . . .” Question

November 19, 2010
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None of you MLA students has allowed yourself to be derailed by the “But what can you do with a liberal arts degree?” question. For this you are to be commended. To reinforce your conviction, here is a piece by someone who majored in art history dealing with the same issue. Enjoy!

Sure, I’ll Write Your Paper. Pay Up!

November 18, 2010
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Apologies for cross-posting, but I thought this post from my blog was very relevant to the MLA students.

Does College Make Students Dumber?

October 30, 2010
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No, I’m not talking about Western Cultural Heritage class. I’m referring to the title of a recent blog post over on the ISI site. The anonymous author describes a core curriculum class he teaches in which the underclassmen are more responsive and engaged with the primary source material than the upperclassmen are. He suspects that as students get entrenched in a discipline, they put on blinders and are unable to break out of the received wisdom in that field or think independently.

Have you witnessed this phenomenon at any point in your academic careers? Or is this guy just blowing smoke about “historicism”?

How Much Will This Cost Me?

October 18, 2010

The issue of the costs of education is especially hot in the run up to midterm elections.  But just exactly how much is enough to pay for “a good education”?  I’m afraid the answer, especially when talking about money that comes from tax revenues, is virtually always “more.”

A 2008 estimate of the ’07-’08 school year by the Cato Institute pegged Washington, D.C.’s cost per student at over $24,000 per year.  In contrast, the same piece estimates that average annual per pupil spending (including non-tuition sources of revenue like donations) at D.C. area private schools to be just over $14,000.  (This video is a little more recent and explains a bit more clearly the hiding of true spending per student in public schools.)  Were public schools successful in educating young minds, few people would question the amount of money being thrown into schools districts.

However, rather than pontificate on the shortcomings of the public education system, I want to point out a program that seems to be working in an area where success has often been nothing but a dream.  In the Woodlawn area of Birmingham there is a school making a difference, Cornerstone School.  “Ninety-eight percent of the 230 students who attend the private school in Woodlawn live in the Birmingham school district. Ninety-three percent live in poverty. Seventy percent are from single-parent homes.”  Yet, in spite of these challenges, standardized test scores in math alone are almost double the scores from Birmingham city schools and exceed the state average by almost 10%.

Cornerstone is in its second year of candidacy for becoming an International Baccalaureate school.  “The IB program is rigorous, requiring not only the core courses such as language, social studies, math and science, but also technology, arts and personal, social and physical education. It also requires students in the program learn a second language and perform community service once a month.”  Not only is Cornerstone pushing students to success in subjects taught at all schools, but they have included additional requirements as well.  And the students are responding and succeeding.

The following story is illustrative of the schools influence on parents and students alike:

There are no regular school bus pickups for Cornerstone students. The parents must provide the ride, and they do it by any means necessary.

For Jacquelyn Moore, that sometimes means catching two MAX buses to get her three children from Smithfield to Woodlawn (about 6 miles) for school. She doesn’t complain.

“It’s worth it,” she said. “It’s really worth it because it’s your child’s education.”

When her car breaks down, which happens once or twice a month, it means having her 4-year-old, 10-year-old and 14-year-old at the bus stop at 6:15 a.m.

“I’m showing them that education is important just by getting up to take them there,” she said. Her two oldest children, a son and daughter, attended Gate City Elementary School until her oldest finished fifth grade.

Faced with having to send them to a Birmingham city middle school — which Moore said she refused to do because she didn’t consider the city’s middle and high schools safe –she made the decision to send them to Cornerstone.

“I knew it was an excellent school and I’ve been very happy,” she said. “The class sizes are much smaller, which allows more one-on-one time with the teachers, and the teachers don’t have to deal with other kids who are being disruptive. That gives my child more time to learn.”

Read the article for more on discipline at Cornerstone (hint: they have very few disciplinary problems).

After knowing that public schools spend as much as $20,000 and $25,000 per pupil for the poor results they get, it would seem a bargain for a school like Cornerstone to cost even that much because of the results they achieve.  While Birmingham’s stated (and often misleading [see video linked above]) spending per student in ’09-’10 was just over $10,000 (16th in the state), Cornerstone’s officials say that it costs about $7,200 per student annually to run the school (much of that coming from donors, fundraisers and grants).

Cornerstone’s success (along with the success of hundreds of other private schools) along with failing public schools should be a clarion call that public education is broken.  It needs an overhaul.  No amount of money will fix the problems.  To expect more money to fix education is like having a car with a blown motor and expecting it to finally run if you pour enough fuel into it.

A Response to Derek Bok on Great Books and Classical Education

October 14, 2010
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Some of you may have seen former Harvard president Derek Bok’s 2006 book, Our Underachieving Colleges. In it he dismisses the classical education model as something “nobody wants to go back to” and also gives the thumbs-down to the Great Books approach.

A Pepperdine-educated English professor has posted a reply to Bok’s arguments here. What do you think of it? Can her argument be improved? Are her central points sound?

An Argument for Distance Learning over the Classroom?

September 21, 2010
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I would very much like to know what the MLA students and faculty think of this essay, in which an undergraduate student argues for the superiority of the online learning environment over the traditional classroom. It looks as though her professors are giving the students some tough love.