Are robo-graders the answer to English teachers prayers?

If the Educational Testing Service and its competitors are right, the lives of English teachers across the country will get a lot easier this fall thanks to various automated scoring programs that can grade student essays in a fraction of the time teachers spend.  Artificial intelligence techniques can now judge anywhere from 50 to 100 features, with more likely to come (“Automated Essay Scoring Remains An Empty Dream,” Forbes, Jul. 2).

But whether they can identify good writing is an entirely different story, which is why English teachers remain skeptical.  They don’t dispute the ability of robo-graders to rapidly scan student essays for basics like spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure. They’re grateful for being relieved of that drudgery. Evaluating creativity, however, remains beyond robo-graders’ capability.

That’s the essence of the controversy.  All art forms by their very nature are idiosyncratic.  If they weren’t distinctive, they wouldn’t receive critical acclaim.  AI is a whiz at carrying out formulaic tasks.  When it comes to assessing originality, however, it fails. If that were not so, then editors at all major newspaper would rely on robo-graders to determine which op-eds to publish. Think of the cost savings that would accrue if computers could do a better job.

High school English teachers are unique among their colleagues because of the heavy paper load they carry.  Composition classes eventually require students to engage in what is called a creative response, rather than a selected response. Teachers of other subjects routinely use multiple-choice and true-or-false questions to determine what their students have learned.  These tests can be machine scored rapidly, cheaply and objectively.

Essays that are designed to probe the ability of students to make an argument, for example, take time and thought to evaluate.  If all we want are students who can demonstrate their basic knowledge by writing a two-or-three sentence paragraph, then robo-graders are indeed a godsend.

Yet taxpayers demand more of schools than just that. They want evidence of critical thinking.  AI is presently used by Utah and Ohio, as well as by several other states in scoring their standardized tests.  Massachusetts, which is known for the quality of its public schools, is considering using robo-graders on its state-wide Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests.  Whether education officials there will be satisfied is unclear.

The National Council of Teachers of English correctly predicts that students will eventually learn how to game the system.  There’s already evidence that this is happening.  Essays making little sense can receive a high score as long they tick off all the boxes that robo-graders seek.  Length, for example, impresses the computer. Therefore, if Lincoln’s 272-word Gettysburg Address were submitted, it would be downscored for its brevity compared with, say, a typical State of the Union address.

Lofty words and key phrases also rate high in the mind of a computer.  But these alone do not constitute graceful writing. In fact, they detract from it, as Ernest Hemingway proved.  Vendors will argue that they can minimize such shortcomings by tweaking their products.  I doubt that.

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College grad underemployment is risky

If a college degree is the key to a well-paying job, then how to explain the results of the latest study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York?   It found nearly 43 percent of recent graduates are working in positions that do not require a degree (“Settling for subpar job right out of college can hurt your career for years ” Los Angeles Times, Jun. 13).

Making matters worse, the longer grads stay in these jobs, the worse their career prospects become.  Let’s not forget that this situation is exacerbated by heavy student loan debt.  Despite this bleak picture, we persist in the fiction that college is still for everyone.  I’ve not seen a study that compares lifetime incomes of vocationally-educated students with academically-educated students.  By the time student debt is paid off, I wonder if the premium attached to a four-year degree would be nearly so high.

Better yet, how about a study of students who went to community college and earned a certificate in a trade with students who went to a four-year college and received a degree in the humanities.  Instead, we have generalizations about the marketable value of a bachelor’s degree.  I’m not saying that college should be evaluated solely by what graduates earn over a lifetime.  There are clearly other benefits.  But the cost of a four-year degree today is unprecedented.  Try telling graduates who are struggling to pay their bills that they made the right decision.

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If literacy is not a right, what is?

Of all the things public schools are supposed to teach, literacy has to be the most important.  Yet a Federal District Court in Michigan ruled that it is not a fundamental right (“ ‘Access to Literacy’ Is Not a Constitutional Right, Judge in Detroit Rules,” The New York Times, Jul. 5).  Public Counsel, which led the legal team representing the students in the class-action suit, intends to appeal.

It’s hard to understand the judge’s thinking.  He agreed that giving students the opportunity to learn to read was “of incalculable importance.”  He also said that conditions at some Detroit schools were “nothing short of devastating.”  Yet despite these acknowledgments, he dismissed the suit. I’d like to know what would persuade the judge to reverse himself?

It’s important to note that the state had been managing Detroit’s schools when such an outrage took place.  I stress that fact because there is widespread belief that states are better at operating failing schools than local authorities.  Clearly, this is not the case in Michigan.  I intend to closely follow the case as it is appealed.

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Teachers’ summer jobs are essential

One of the myths that refuses to die is that teachers spend the entire summer relaxing (“ ‘It’s the Only Way.’ These teachers Are Working Summer Jobs to Make Ends Meet,” Money, Jul. 12).  But teachers are 30 percent more likely to have second jobs than non-teachers.  And summer is particularly when they try to make ends meet.

I realize that the cost of living varies enormously across the nation.  Yet $59,660, which is the average salary earned by the 3.1 million public school teachers during the 2016-17 school year, isn’t very much.  In Los Angeles, for example, housing takes a huge bit out of monthly income, with a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Santa Monica typically going for $2,800.

It’s not unusual for teachers to hold second jobs during the regular academic year, as well as during the summer.  In Texas, 31 percent did so during the academic year.  I remember being taken aback as a child when I saw one of my teachers working as a bartender.  Today, they’re more likely to be Uber drivers.

Moonlighting for teachers is not new, but the percentage of teachers doing so is unprecedented.  It’s little wonder that the best and the brightest college graduates shun teaching as a career.  They may teach for a few years before moving on, but few make it a lifelong commitment.

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The New Orleans charter school paradox

It’s hard to understand the reaction of residents of New Orleans to the Recovery School District, which was created after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city’s public schools (“Charter schools’ progressive promise for the future of US education,” New York Post, Jul. 4).

Prior to the creation of the state-controlled entity, the city’s schools were among the worst in the nation.  Since taking over all but a handful of city schools, the Recovery School District has improved student performance.  In 2017, for example, 59 percent of public high school students there graduated in four years.  That compares with just 54 percent in 2004, an improvement rate almost three times as fast as the state’ average.

Yet many New Orleans residents have resented the Recovery School District from the very start.  Black residents in particular, who constitute the majority of the population, don’t think the schools are better after Katrina.  Perhaps that is because the black teaching force decreased from about 71 percent to less than 50 percent.  Moreover, over 7,000 other school employees lost their jobs, and 60 percent of the charter board members are white.

Attitudes about schools anywhere are dependent on so many factors that can’t be quantified.  New Orleans is no different in that regard.  At first glance, I would have thought residents would be pleased with the improvements there.  But that is not the case.

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High school journalism advisors are on thin ice

Advisors to high school newspapers have long found themselves caught between their duty to their students and their responsibility to their school district (“Hard News. Angry Administration. Teenage Journalists Know What It’s Like,” The New York Times, Jul. 2).  Although in 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that school administrators do not violate the First Amendment when they exercise control over student speech in school activities, the ruling did not specifically apply to newspaper advisors.

Recognizing their precarious position, California in 2009 passed the Journalism Teacher Protection Act, which prohibits administrators from retaliating against advisors for helping to ensure free speech.  At the time, it was the most stringent in the nation.  Yet to this day, many teachers are highly reluctant to become newspaper advisors.  It’s not their job that they fear.  Instead it’s their uneasy feeling about censorship, and the pressure they feel trying to balance their duties.

I understand their hesitation.  Most high school principals view school newspapers as house organs, existing primarily as public relations vehicles.  Anything remotely controversial alarms them.  During the height of the Vietnam War, the principal of the high school where I spent my entire 28-year career confiscated The Warrior, the school newspaper that expressed views he deemed unpatriotic.  To get around his veto, student published an off-campus version titled The Worrior that they distributed on the street surrounding the campus.

To this day, the rights of newspaper advisors are murky because of local customs and state laws.  I wouldn’t want to be an advisor under those conditions.

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Sensitive speech inoculates high-schoolers

High school is supposed to prepare students for the world beyond graduation.  Yet in avoiding controversial topics, schools are doing just the opposite (“Stop shielding high-schoolers from sensitive speech,” New York Post, Jun. 26).

There are always several sides to any issue.  The sooner young people learn that reality the better able they will be to handle diverse opinions.  Unfortunately, some parents and some special interest groups believe that only their views on a given issue should be allowed.  They are unwittingly doing a disservice to students.

Today’s young people have been regularly exposed to images and words that previous generations lacked.  As a result, they are not naïve children.  They also physically mature earlier than ever before.  It’s one reason that so many high school students are bored to death by the curriculum and instruction.

I realize that public schools don’t have the same freedom to teach as private and religious schools.  But they need to be given greater latitude if they are expected to engage students and provide them with the wherewithal to handle life after graduation.

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Academics are more important than athletics

Only in this country are athletics given such high priority.  A class-action lawsuit filed in State Supreme Court in New York says that black and Hispanic students have far less access to teams and sports than other races (“New York’s Playing Fields Aren’t Level, Students Say,” The New York Times, Jun. 29).

I don’t doubt this is true, but I question if it is a problem.  During the past two decades, New York City, like so many other cities across the country, has opened scores of small high schools in order to provide students with more personal support.  The unavoidable downside is that most sports require large numbers of students.

In an ideal educational world, there would be no conflict between academics and sports.  But in light of the dismal academic performance of so many public schools in New York City, I submit that academics should get priority.  I don’t doubt the benefits of team sports.  But they pale when compared with the benefits of a sound academic program.

Moreover, there is a difference between team and individual sports.  Small high schools are still able to field students, say, for tennis and golf.  I think these are far more likely to be pursued later in life than basketball and football.  But given the obsession with team sports that characterizes this country, I expect the plaintiffs to prevail.

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Student loan-debt forgiveness has unintended consequences

Student debt now amounts to about $1.5 trillion, which is more than credit card and auto loan debt combined.  But abolishing it is not the solution (“Americans are drowning in student-loan debt. The U.S. should forgive all of it,” The Washington Post, Jun. 19).

I say that because it will merely encourage students who are not college material for one reason or another to pursue a degree in a field that is not in demand.  If the argument for going to college is primarily to qualify for a well-paying job to accelerate upward mobility, then loan forgiveness, coupled with free tuition going forward is counterproductive.

The assertion that a four-year college degree is indispensable for a comfortable future fails to take into account the major.  Why does a degree in gender studies, for example, prepare its holders for a job better than a certificate in, say, plumbing?  There are so many college graduates who are underemployed.  They would have been far better served by attending a community college, where they learned a marketable skill.  Moreover, they would not be burdened with debt because community college is a bargain.

Our competitors abroad are far more realistic about education.  They begin sorting out students early in their education.  While we can argue that doing so too soon is harmful, we cannot deny that not everyone should be going to college.  Germany, for example, sends only a small percentage of young people to university.  The rest attend schools in line with their ability and interest.  As a result, Germany has the lowest youth unemployment in Europe.

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Get real about student achievement

It’s one thing for school boards to establish educational goals and quite another to lose sight of reality in doing so (“Here’s the problem with L.A. Unified’s latest pie-in-the-sky ideas – they’re likely to fail,” Los Angeles Times, Jun. 12).  The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, is a case in point.  A new resolution originally called for all third-graders to meet standards on the state’s annual standardized tests, for all eighth-graders to earn at least a C in English and math, and for all high school graduates get a C or better in all courses required for admission to the University of California and California State University.

I can understand if the board had stipulated a realistic percentage who would achieve these objectives.  But instead it said 100 percent.  That’s impossible in a district as large and diverse as the LAUSD.  The large number of students from impoverished backgrounds alone would make this impossible.  In fact, even the best school districts can’t be expected to do so.

What will surely happen is that widespread cheating by teachers and principals will follow.  That’s because of the existence of Campbell’s Law: the more any quantitative indicator is used for decision-making, the more it will be subject to corruption and the more it will corrupt the very process it is intended to monitor.  We saw that happen in other school districts.  Why would the LAUSD be any different?  The best any district can hope for is that scores will improve over time.  Even then, not all students will show improvement for one reason or another.

Recognizing its unrealistic thinking, the LAUSD board reversed itself by saying that the goal was to “prepare” all high school graduates to be eligible to apply to a California four-year university.  I still maintain that the board is living in a dreamworld.

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