Friday, July 3, 2015

Another serious one: a Friday Thirsty on college and societal misery

Some rich people who want to pay lower taxes have been advocating splitting California into six states. If this were to happen, I'd live in the state of Central California, since I live in Fresno and teach at Fresno State (formally, California State University, Fresno). Central California would be the poorest state in the U.S., even poorer than Mississippi. It would also be less educated than Mississippi.

Governor Jerry Brown has let it be known that there's no prospect of this passing. I suppose I should be heartened. Here in Fresno, we’re far from any other large cities. I therefore have my work cut out for me, educating an ever-growing enrollment, thanks in part to the insanely high cost of real estate elsewhere in California.

Still, parts of Fresno look like a Third-World country, and are best avoided, especially at night. Car thefts, meth production, and gangs are rampant, and Fresno consistently comes in #1 for the worst air quality in the nation. Against this backdrop, the recent “sheep incident” on campus here looks like comic relief.

(An unexpected benefit of Fresno's isolation and social problems is that we have relatively few exploited adjunct faculty here. Without tenure, we simply couldn’t hire faculty.)

I recently attended a workshop for Fresno-area K-12 teachers to meet Fresno State faculty, to discuss science education. It wasn’t the first time I’d listened to local K-12 teachers relate how they, in my opinion, should get combat pay. A common refrain was how the highest priority when the school day begins is to get some breakfast into the students, since so many of them live in poverty. I’d say “impoverished households,” but a noticeable fraction of them are homeless: I’d say “impoverished families,” but family breakdown and general societal chaos make this also sound funny. Even after breakfast, and lunch, the schools have their hands full: one teacher told about some student who’d set the grass on fire just outside the school. (We're in the fourth year of an unprecedented drought.)

At that point, I wanted to stand up, throw up my hands, and scream: “HOW does ANYONE expect to teach ANYTHING as demanding as SCIENCE under THESE CONDITIONS?” I’ve wanted to yell this before, since about half the students in my large, general-ed science class for non-majors can’t solve the following equation, or even understand what it’s asking:

1/3  +  1/4  =  ?

Despair isn’t a very constructive or useful response, so I said nothing. I sure did want to VOMIT.

A century ago, John Dewey, who got a superb education himself, advocated that working-class kids be given educations that emphasize “practical skills.” (Once again, conventional language fails me: many Fresno students aren't really "working" class, since chronic unemployment is so common.) This sounds to me like writing them off and dooming them to second-class employment prospects and citizenship, which I thought education was supposed to prevent.

(Q) What the hell do I do about this? Aside from freaking out in despair, which is easy.

Please don’t tell me to watch “Stand and Deliver,” because that movie was fictionalized. As the teacher, Jaime Escalante, admitted, in no case was a student who didn't know multiplication tables or fractions taught calculus in a single year.


  1. Replies
    1. Nah, as the product of California's public education system, even **I** know that the answer is 2/7 . You always sum horizontally.

  2. Tisdale sends this in:


  3. I crafted a response when this showed up briefly yesterday and lost it. Thinking that was just a submission bug I wrote a second, slightly less well crafted response---and I saved the text in a spare emacs buffer before submitting and losing that. Then later I thoughtlessly closed emacs sending that version to the bit bucket as well.

    So what follows are a few, poorly crafted bullet points.

    * I get a few of these students too, though the math department shields me from most of them. You can't fix these students, and you can't teach them at a college level.

    * I target my "for poets" class at the first three tiers of Bloom's taxonomy, and don't lean too hard on the application, at that.

    * Assigned reading, (and reading assurance quizzes for 1/4 of their grade) will contribute to failing the ones that simply won't do the work and will give the ones that will do the work pass one over the material.

    * Various tricks from the "active learning" playbook will help them to stay focused in class while you give them pass two over the material. Interactive demos, poll questions with "turn to your neighbor and try to convince them that you are right" discussions, sometimes some small-group activities. I also use slideware for these classes and post the slides after class.

    * I've been trying to work in some physlets and other simulations even though I am not a big fan so simulations as a replacement for hands on stuff.

    * I only use 35-40 minutes of each 50 minute class for presenting material. Then I hand-out the day's worksheet(s). This is pass three over the material. If the worksheets call for application of skills rather than finding and explaining data they include a refresher in the instructions block. Most of these are self-graded and the students simply get credit for completing them, which takes some of the scary pressure off of them and keeps my grading load under control. I collect about one a week for hand-marking so I can see who is keeping up and who is struggling.

    * Tests are multiple choice and don't call for calculations (with the exception of the unit on energy and thermodynamics, when they are allowed their calculators and I give them an equation list). This is primarily so that I don't wast^Wspend too much time grading. The format of the test questions mirror that of the in-class polls (and in fact I use some of the polls in the exams) or that of the worksheets.

    When all is said and done I feel like I am teaching primary school, but the students who are willing to work at the class actually learn something. I usually get one or two a year who tell me that "..I thought I didn't like science ... but this was fun". In truth, those moments leaves me dancing on air.

  4. I contended with the same things while I was teaching. The high schools didn't want to deal with the matter, the institution's administrators certainly didn't, and those who taught the prerequisite courses only passed the buck because all they wanted to do was pass as many of them as possible. The result was that the whole mess ended up on my desk.

    I was expected to make up for all the deficiencies, even if it meant giving up large amounts of my own time for that. The reason was that I was supposed to be "invested" in the success of my students.

    The problem was that many of those students weren't stupid. They were, quite simply, lazy and were accustomed to being praised and amply rewarded for whatever rubbish they handed in. Most of them weren't particularly interested in doing much except the minimum required to pass the course, a mentality, sadly, encouraged by the administration. So much for educational "excellence".

    But, like PP mentioned, those who wanted to get something out of it made an effort. Unfortunately, there weren't enough to make any of it worthwhile for me.

  5. Oh Frod, I hope no one is seriously telling you to watch "Stand and Deliver" as a solution.

    The problem is that intractable structural issues are being dumped into our laps. Midtier jobs--manufacturing jobs with decent wages, benefits, and job security--have been outsourced, automated, and union-busted nearly out of existence. So now we're deliberately sending 55% of high school grads off to compete for the 25% of jobs that actually require a college degree . (Unless you believe the Georgetown study, which posits that there's no such thing as underemployment, because any job employing a college graduate is by definition a "college level" job).

    As Pumpkin and QWV have mentioned, there are always a few students who have the desire to learn. Personally, I try to spend most of my effort on those students. Even if their ability or preparation isn't top-notch, persistent, conscientious, curious students can accomplish a lot. Fortunately or unfortunately, those hungry minds are few enough that I'm not overwhelmed.

    1. I tend to either love or hate situations in which truth is stranger than fiction. When something in space that's weirder than anyone imagined is discovered (the latest being a Thorne-Zytkow object), I love it. When a fatuous Ed.D. and so-called science education expert who constantly beats the Sputnik drum that "America is facing an imminent critical shortage of STEM workers" and gives a deer-in-the-headlights look whenever asked "So why is it so hard to get a job as a scientist?" and gushes over "Stand and Deliver," I hate it. Unsurprisingly, screaming "IT'S JUST A MOVIE!" gets that same deer-in-the-headlights look.

  6. I feel like I've been kicked in the stomach.

    1. Just hope that "as goes California, so goes the nation" doesn't happen this time, Bubba.

  7. Ugh. Just ugh. I'm too lazy/tired to look up the link(s) right now, but it's becoming increasingly clear that teacher "inputs" (don't you love the lingo?) have far, far less effect on student "achievement" (however defined/measured) than basic things like socioeconomic status and family stability and such.

    And I'm quite sure that mine is not the only campus with a food bank, and flyers telling students where to look for help if they're facing homelessness. Of course it's a good thing that the problem is being recognized, but not a good thing that it exists. The major difference is that such issues in my area come from local class/income stratification (a very high cost-of-living area that needs plenty of service workers, many of whom are my students, or my students' parents), while it sounds like the issues in your area are coming more from statewide/nationwide stratification.

    Bottom line: when the wealth gap grows this big (for whatever reason, and Frankie has named some good ones), all kinds of things just plain stop working.