Saturday, September 5, 2015

Merry Christmas!

Courtesy of
It’s late summer, a new school year’s afoot, and for most educators the mere prospect of Christmas vacation is so remote right now as to inspire morbid depression.

But for the professional-development business, the yuletide is already here, at least in terms of commerce. Just as Black Friday traditionally kicks off the retail sector’s most profitable season, in public education each Labor Day tends to coincide with a renewed frenzy of workshops, institutes, convocations, conferences, retreats, and other assorted, candy-colored happenings aimed at rejuvenating teachers with all the festive flair (but not the potency) of a spiked eggnog. And like your Aunt Tilly’s fruitcake, they show up whether you want them or not.

The PD industry absorbs (absconds?) around $6 billion a year in taxpayer funds. That’s one hell of a gift bag—the equivalent of 12,500 full-ride college scholarships, or 500,000 iPads, or 1.1 million gold-flake cupcakes. Okay, so not all of these examples would necessarily improve the lives of students, but at least they’re all tangible. The PD industry, on the other hand, surpasses them in at least one dismal-yet-miraculous aspect, which is that it manages to consistently, often gleefully, year in and year out, provide nothing of tangible value in return for its high-priced services. That’s right: nothing whatsoever.

How is that possible? Oh, we can talk specifics. We can talk about my own experience, which is hardly atypical, as a for-instance. We can talk about this as well. We can talk about the relentless stopwatch activities, the infantilizing crowd-control tactics, the incessant “turn and talk,” the brazen shilling by the presenters of their own products, the perpetuating of bad research, the armchair opinion presented as empirical fact, the “well poisoner” stereotyping, the churchy moralizing, the childish hand-clapping, the overwrought techno, the pop psychology, the hypocrisy, the platitudes, the poster-making, the Post-Its, et cetera.

But let’s not delve into all that. Every teacher in America knows what I’m talking about, and naturally every vendor behind these top-dollar travesties will only nod in agreement when confronted with such examples and chime in with Yes! We know! Isn’t most teacher-training the pits? That’s why you should try us, because we’re different! For a $6 billion industry, it’s amazing how the PD sector remains both large enough and obscure enough to afford everyone involved the constant comfort of plausible deniability.  

Having just endured, under district mandate, yet another daylong deluge of drivel from one of those ubiquitous superstar expert-led PD firms whose name is now synonymous with elite, pre-packaged, “research-based,” jet-set proselytizing, I was struck for the jillionth time, somewhere in between the presenter’s casual exhibiting of the book titles she’s co-authored on the overhead screen (“No big deal,” she assured us) and her mentioning that she has to fly to Guam next week to give another training, how so many presenters at these events are ex-administrators. There are, to be sure, many veteran teachers who conduct excellent subject-specific trainings, usually at the professional-association conferences like NCTE or at College Board institutes, but throughout my career I’ve always had to seek out and specifically request that kind of professional development, and somehow I don’t believe those veteran teachers, invaluable as they are, are earning $6,500 for a day’s work as this presenter did.

Her handout bio made reference to her “passion for education” along with the customary litany of impressive job titles spanning thirty years. Of those titles, “classroom teacher” seemed lucky to have made the list, as humble and pedestrian as, say, “homemaker.” Apart from the book plug, she comported herself with sincerity, humor, and keen, unrehearsed insight, and also with obvious concern for her audience (the air-conditioning failure that afternoon was that of the meeting facility itself). Much as I like to pigeonhole these people as curbside hucksters and used-car salesmen from the first instant, I am usually frustrated in that regard. True, they seem to have made an easy adjustment to the showbiz aspects of their work, but they are almost always intellectually formidable. Our presenter was indeed accomplished, intelligent, erudite, and genuinely funny. In fact, she was exactly the kind of person who most school-aged children would benefit from interacting with.

Why would anyone claiming to be passionate about education choose to work in a field that is most far-removed from the reality of teaching? Why would someone who preaches that “research” and “data” are the keys to school improvement choose to apply that belief in the most statistically pointless of occupations? Why would they accept money for doing something they know is the least likely way to change the life of a single child? The evidence is clear that professional development doesn’t work, certainly not in the manner it is usually provided by the most expensive PD firms in today’s marketplace—both for- and non-profit—yet the absurd, lavishly priced, infomercial-style junk inservice sessions go on and on, year after year. And the providers, the evidence also shows, are smart enough to know better.

Like your Aunt Tilly’s fruitcake, some nasty things are too nasty to go ignored for very long. That so many smart and therefore culpable educators are capping their careers—hell, building their careers—by participating in such a racket, and that such a racket reaps such an obscene and thoroughly unjust windfall from a public-school system already in financial straits…well, let’s just say it stinks. At the risk of hurting a few feelings, why don’t we toss this smelly fruitcake in the trash?

Merry Christmas!   

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Scaling Mount Proficiency

Courtesy of
Among other random pursuits this summer, I’ll be spending a week helping to cook up fresh curriculum for my school district. It used to be that curriculum-writing gigs offered a fun, relatively informal opportunity to network and talk subject-matter with colleagues with whom we wouldn’t otherwise get to work; a chance to recharge, rethink, and reconnect with what we teach outside the daily grind of the classroom. And while I’m hopeful that’ll still be the case this year, I also fear this is yet another realm of teaching which the deadly New Clinicism has managed to pollute.

Case in point: the executive leadership has saddled each of us with a mint copy of The Art and Science of Teaching beforehand, with a directive to meditate carefully on the proficiency scale described in Chapter 1. It seems the purpose of this summer’s overhaul isn’t the curriculum content per se, but rather reorganizing that content into discrete learning goals that can be tracked and measured. We’ll also tackle the thorny problem of how to reconcile Bob Marzano’s generic four-point scale with traditional 0-100 grades. Something tells me that this time around there will be scant discussion of composition and literature and all too much discussion of the usual, ubiquitous gurus and gimmicks. 

In ASOT and other texts, the Good Doctor assures us that proficiency scales are good for helping students to track their own learning, and that having students do so yields an average—wait for it—32-percent gain in student achievement. Like many other superstar researchers, Marzano clouts us with precise figures while avoiding precise definitions—like just what in the hell is meant by “achievement.” The 1986 study which Marzano often cites on this topic, for instance, employs the terms “student achievement,” “student progress,” “goal attainment,” and “educational effects” interchangeably without stipulating what any of these measures is supposed to, you know, measure. We might surmise that they refer to the usual pre-test/intervention/post-test structure, but one must hunt down the original twenty-one other studies to find out (the Fuchs and Fuchs paper is a meta-analysis). In doing so, we will also find that 17 of those original studies dealt with special-education students, and that 98% of the student subjects in those 17 studies were “mildly to moderately handicapped.”

But anyhey, let’s grant the Good Doctor his premise. Most teachers would agree that encouraging students to monitor their own progress, and thus to assume more responsibility for their own learning, is a good thing. But there is surely an infinite number of ways to do this. For example, when I require students to maintain portfolios of all their essays, as I’ve often done in the past, I’m requiring them to monitor their own progress as writers. The manner in which students monitor their own learning should reflect the nature and variety of the academic disciplines themselves. In typically clinical fashion, however, the good Dr. Marzano advocates developing a four-point scale for measuring every learning objective taught in every course or unit, and then requiring teachers (and students themselves) to plot students’ individual learning in line-graph form on a standardized worksheet. The Fuchs article is especially exuberant about requiring teachers to maintain physical graphs of student progress:

When teachers were required to employ data-utilization rules, effect sizes were higher than when data were evaluated by teacher judgment.…Data-evaluation rules required practitioners to analyze student performance at regular intervals and, if the data suggested certain patterns, to introduce instructional changes into a student’s educational program. For example, Fuchs, Deno, and Mirkin (1984) required teachers to calculate a line of best fit through every 7 to 10 data points. If a line of best fit was less steep than the goal line, running from baseline to the intersection of the criterion performance and the goal date, teachers were required to institute a programmatic change. Results suggest that, in order to effect greater learning for pupils, teachers might employ explicit, systematic rules to evaluate the data they collect.…Finally, the method by which data were displayed produced a significant finding. When data were graphed, effect sizes were higher than when data were simply recorded. With graphing, systematic formative evaluation boosts the average achievement outcome score almost .8 standard deviation units over control group outcomes.  

Such is the irrational rationalism teachers must contend with these days in the name of professional development. Forcing teachers to “calculate a line of best fit through every 7 to 10 data points” or perform other tortuous scientific maneuvers will not transform teaching into the precise, surgical profession the New Clinicists so keenly desire, particularly in those academic disciplines which are not, themselves, sciences. True, it’s easy enough to fabricate the illusion of science, and maybe that, after all, is the actual point. Marzano’s proficiency scale still depends on subjective teacher judgments regarding what student mastery of a given objective looks like, and it is therefore no more valid than traditional grades—but that’s okay, because “proficiency scale” just looks and sounds more sciencey. Marzano calls for making a (false) distinction between learning objectives and actual tasks or assignments, which is impossible in an academic setting; the work is the learning and the learning is the work. There’s also pesky evidence that too much “metacognition,” i.e. requiring students to “think about thinking,” has its own negative effects. But no matter. Proficiency scales are sexy, they’re sciencey, they’re data-riffic…and lest we ever forget, data is fabulous!

It demands repeating every so often: since the progressive-education era first kicked off a century ago, education researchers, as a community of professionals, have labored under a persistent credibility problem, and nothing much in the decades since has occurred to mitigate that (except, perhaps, the advent of modern marketing techniques). One reason is that the endeavor itself is misguided; the attempt to reduce all learning to strict empirical procedure ends in mockery of the deliberately non-empirical humanities, those areas of study we invented to cope with areas of life that can’t be measured or quantified. Another reason is the just as persistent hypocrisy of a profession that apparently aims to subordinate another profession (teaching) to itself, demanding that teachers abide by numerous “research-based” gimmicks du jour when the researchers/authors/gurus themselves operate in one of the most under-licensed, under-regulated, under-scrutinized sectors of education. It is this very anything-goes environment that allows brand names like Marzano the luxury of leading us and selling to us at the same time. 

So please excuse me if I, like John Proctor in The Crucible, “like not the smell of this ‘authority.’” In the scheme of things, I believe my students are better served reading a play (or writing one of their own) than charting the artificial peaks and valleys of some equally artificial quest for proficiency.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Right to Gripe

In a September 2013 Phi Delta Kappan article, Julie Underwood correctly asserts the right of teachers to engage in public discourse, especially on matters related to public education. I agree, but I would add to that a right which is just as vital to a healthy education system: the right to publicly criticize the policies and leadership of one’s own institution.
Underwood implies not just a right but a moral obligation of teachers to contribute to policy debates: “Public educators are in the best position to influence public policy about public education. Ignoring that opportunity is a mistake.” But teaching is policy in action, and issues often arise at the teaching level that the public never hears about when, perhaps, it should. As the personnel who work most closely with students, teachers wield vital influence yet relatively little authority over how policy is executed. Much of that formal authority lies with local administrators, who occasionally exceed their own mandates by micromanaging or undermining teachers in a variety of ways. The recent MAP-test controversy in Seattle demonstrates how an authoritarian administration may resist and ignore the repeated protestations of teachers until public pressure is brought to bear. In organizing their boycott of a district-mandated assessment, teachers at Garfield High School risked charges of insubordination and disciplinary action, which, in the end, did not occur, but only because those teachers were able to enlist public support. But what if fewer teachers had been willing to face that risk? What if it were only one? Teachers must sometimes go it alone in voicing their objections, and doing so shouldn’t cost them their jobs.
As Underwood notes, the Supreme Court in 1968 affirmed the First Amendment rights of one teacher who’d written a letter to the editor criticizing his own district’s school board and superintendent (Pickering vs. Board of Education of Township High School District). Unfortunately, the court later muddied the waters in Garcetti vs. Ceballos (2006), ruling that public employees who speak out in the line of their “professional duties” do not have First Amendment protection. So where does that leave teachers who have legitimate complaints that might transcend a mere workplace grievance? Many wise administrators encourage open dialogue and even dissent from their faculty members, but many others either discourage these or dismiss them as “negativity.” Still others retaliate through harsh evaluations, reassignment of dissenters, budget cuts, and other petty tactics. When education executives abuse their authority, impose harmful policy initiatives, dictate faddish instructional techniques, demand excessive benchmark testing, refuse to provide necessary resources, mandate grade inflation, pursue unethical (if legal) business relationships with district vendors, enact arbitrary budget and program cuts, or target teachers for reasons other than misconduct or incompetence, teachers should be able to register their objections, to share them with the rest of the faculty, and, if necessary, to publish them without fear of reprisal.  
The right of teachers to dissent is so imperative that its survival shouldn’t be left to the magnanimity of administrators. Only an explicit guarantee of protection, perhaps in the form of a contract clause—something akin to the academic freedom afforded college and university professors—can ensure that teachers will speak up when their conscience tells them they should. Teachers should indeed participate in the public square, but not if doing so invites the crosshairs of their superiors.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The SLO Creep of Idiocracy

Like a lot of teachers, I frequently moonlight as a college adjunct, and in recent years I’ve observed a slow but steady incursion of the same noxious trends that plague the K-12 system into the realm of community colleges. Like a lot of adjuncts, I take on the extra teaching duties for an extra paycheck, but there are other benefits too, such as the perspective to be gained from working with students at both levels, the chance to explore subject matter in greater depth, and the relative autonomy college instructors have long typically enjoyed compared with their K-12 counterparts.

Until now. Under pressure from the almighty regional accreditation bodies, many community colleges are adopting technocratic, busy-sounding Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) statements for the purpose of measuring the overall “efficacy” (read: productivity) of their academic programs. This in addition to the outcome statements already present in most course descriptions and syllabi, probably because there’s less utility in such antiquated documents in the 21st century. SLO’s are new, baby; they’re hip, they’re now, they’re happening. Syllabi are too medieval, evoking the pedagogic horrors depicted in The Paper Chase

What isn’t so new, however, is the specific phraseology and pseudoscience that go into concocting SLO statements. The unspoken conceit of SLOs (and all “research-based” gimmickry) is that teaching is a clinical practice, delivering precise treatments aimed at yielding precise results; the student is the patient. Ergo teachers are solely accountable for any results, good or bad. The obligatory verbal stem of an SLO statement, “The student will be able to…,” ironically shifts the weight (and the satisfaction) of achievement from student to teacher. And now that SWBAT has wormed its way into college curricula, all the other demented reforms wrought by the accountability movement can’t be far behind: the standardized tests, the instructional fads, the data-crunching, the common assessments, the mandatory posting of McJectives in every classroom, the puerile “team-building” exercises, the strong-arming of teachers to guarantee “success” for every student, and (ugliest of all) the subjugation of college faculty to an oily, opportunistic, anti-intellectual new breed of education executive

Beginning this semester, along with our grades, I and every instructor teaching certain English courses will submit a Scantron form that allegedly gauges the extent to which our students met the designated SLO for the particular course. The extra paperwork is more nuisance than burden, just a few more minutes’ labor, certainly nothing compared with the hours of grading and patient counseling of students through their essays, research projects, presentations, and other works that college English instructors already provide. But it’s significant nonetheless that the hours, the grading, and the guidance are no longer enough. There must be an institutional solution when students don’t meet our expectations—some wholesale, universal intervention which no one teacher has ever thought of before but perhaps which squads of teachers (with the aid of a few enlightened bureaucrats) can contrive and enact. 

It’s a shame to witness postsecondary institutions drinking the Kool-Aid of outcome management. Maybe it’s unreasonable to expect colleges and universities, especially publicly supported ones, to resist every sociopolitical pathology that comes along, but it’s a damn sight reasonable that they should remember who and what they are. No college diploma ever came with a moneyback guarantee, and if we’re going to start issuing such promises now, then every college had might as well go public and every diploma had might as well come with a free bag of Doritos (cf. the movie Idiocracy). There are so many reasons why deliberately managing educational outcomes is a terrible idea that stating them seems to belabor the obvious, but I’ll do it anyway: it conflates the benefits of learning with immediate results; it perpetuates the lie that learning arises from correct teaching procedure; it blunts or altogether removes student responsibility for learning; it limits and diminishes the nature of student achievement; it propels the need for an “expert” class of administrators with little if any teaching experience of their own; it distracts teachers from academic subject matter in favor of data analysis and other bureaucratic minutiae; it promotes the whole academic enterprise as something it isn’t—a treatment, a cure, a product, a prize.

Education is an uncertain endeavor. We invented the academic disciplines, in part, in an effort to understand uncertainty. But attempting to eliminate the uncertainty from education means attempting to eliminate it from life. Such an “outcome” would surely be ironic—in a guaranteed world, who the hell needs college?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Love Stinks

In one of those perky web-only junk articles masquerading as news, Yahoo! Education offers predictable advice on selecting a major for the college-bound: ditch the humanities and go with what employers love—the “real-world,” the “practical,” the instantly marketable.
The article doesn’t say so explicitly, but given that four of the top five “hated” majors belong to the arts and humanities, the upshot is obvious. The five most beloved (as determined by employment stats) supposedly offer useful, rigorous training in today’s hottest professions. No theory, no poetry, none of that feckless navel-gazing crap they do in the liberal arts. “Companies are not hiring based on potential or general intelligence as an upside,” notes one human-resources guru. “They are hiring for the here and now.”

Yet two of the favored majors are notorious for slinging their own brands of useless theorizing, philosophy, and even pseudoscience. There is scant evidence that business schools have any positive effects on the careers of their graduates, and the collective reputation of America’s ed schools remains deservedly soiled. A 2011 analysis of Texas colleges found that business and education programs, especially, don’t require substantial writing or reading—two activities without which there can hardly be much “here and now” learning, or any consequential learning at all. The authors of Academically Adrift, published the same year, also found that students majoring in the humanities fare better in complex writing and reasoning skills than those who major in business, education, and communication. That’s three of the Fab Five. 

Americans are superficial lovers. If American employers “love” the five college majors named in theYahoo! article, it isn’t because those academic degrees actually signify more capable workers. It’s because, wittingly or unwittingly, business executives still abide by the long tradition of anti-intellectualism in these here United States, and because the academic programs in those areas enjoy a widespread perception of cutting-edge, 21st-century newness that contrasts unflatteringly with the musty old artsy-fartsy liberal arts. (In other words, majoring in communication is sexier than majoring in English.) But education and job training aren’t the same, and it’s worth remembering that while both may prepare us to serve, only one will keep us out of slavery.   

Friday, February 28, 2014

Let's Be Clear

Over at All Things PLC we have a striking illustration of the reality gap between education executives and peasant teachers.
A middle-school principal presents a problem gleaned from his breeze-throughs of multiple classrooms, which is that students often can’t articulate what they’re learning or why. When the students are asked to explain what they’re learning, “[t]he response usually includes a shrug and a series of guttural grunts that sound vaguely like ‘Uhhh…I dunno.’” Even when the teacher posts a formal learning objective on the board, as is mandated in so many schools these days, the majority of students still can’t articulate what that objective means.
The solution, he says, is “providing clear targets and communicating them” [emphasis retained from the original]. Too often, he notes, “teachers lead their students along the path of compliance without communicating a true understanding of what they are supposed to learn.” Indeed, communication and “true understanding” are arguably the very aims of education itself. But the presumption that no meaningful learning is taking place when students can’t produce a ready answer under sudden administrative scrutiny reveals a profound lack of understanding all too typical of today’s educational leaders.
There isn’t a career schoolteacher dead or alive who hasn’t experienced “Uhhh…I dunno” and its many variants; who doesn’t know the shock and frustration of the rudimentary communication breakdown. Whether it’s asking the class to open their books to page 175 and, seconds later, hearing “What page is it on?”…or discovering that one of your top students used APA documentation style in her research paper after you’ve spent weeks going through the minutiae of MLA style with the whole class…or recognizing that the distinction between Aristotle’s hamartia and Elizabethan “tragic flaw” is so subtle that most students who aren’t aspiring English majors will probably never “master” it (but you keep teaching both concepts anyway because the discussion has value if no clear payoff)…such examples demonstrate that while communication may break down regularly in education, it doesn’t mean students aren’t learning. It is a human problem, not a technical error to be corrected through tightening of procedure and adjustments of protocol. It will always be a human problem, and no amount of goal-setting, PLC-ing, or other technocratic jive will change this elemental truth.
If you’re not convinced that “Uhhh…I dunno,” discouraging as it is for us to hear, is not evidence that students are learning nothing, then consider the inverse scenario: what would it prove if every student when randomly asked could expound in marvelous detail on each day’s lesson? We might be tempted to believe that the great technocratic breakthrough has arrived at last—pedagogical nirvana, optimal and effortless learning for all, despite all odds and obstacles. But after we sobered up, we might be forced to concede that the remaining explanations are a lot less intoxicating: either students aren’t learning anything new, or they’ve been more schooled in the almighty OBJECTIVE than they have in the learning itself. The latter is indeed a sad, growing reality, as more well-meaning teachers succumb to this latest, noxious trend of displaying objectives on every available surface and reciting them like holy catechism.  

Let’s be clear: good teachers do communicate goals often and in a variety of ways, explicit and implicit—but they don’t belabor them either, because goals are not curriculum, and because “true understanding” is a benefit of learning but not a discrete, manageable product in itself. To accuse teachers in general of leading students blindly down the “path of compliance,” and then to offer as the solution “providing clear targets and communicating them”—these are the vapid, patronizing insights of armchair sophists, not experienced, practicing teachers. Strange how such intellectual shallowness seems sufficient to propel so many out of the classroom and into the realm of education expert.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Research and Sour Owl Poop

I’m a lifelong Trekkie, and one of my favorite bits of Star Trek lore concerns a feud between writer Harlan Ellison and Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Ellison scripted probably the best episode of the entire series, and for years afterward he and Roddenberry traded accusations over the experience (Ellison claimed Roddenberry usurped his script, first butchering it and then assuming credit for its eventual success; Roddenberry claimed Ellison wrote an overpriced epic and wouldn’t make the needed cost-cutting changes). Time has given Ellison the last word, as Roddenberry died in 1991, but it’s also shown that the rift was more than incidental: here are two of the most celebrated figures in American science fiction, and you won’t find a sharper contrast in personal philosophies.
            In his definitive book on the subject, Ellison speaks often of Roddenberry’s “immaculate view of human perfectibility” and how this view repeatedly threatened to derail not just Ellison’s script but other episodes and feature films throughout the franchise. As enlightened 23rd-century avatars of progress, no one on the Enterprise crew could be seen acting or even thinking in unsavory ways, and so, for example, Ellison’s subplot about drug-dealing on the Enterprise—which provided a logical reason for a deranged crewman to go back in time and change the past—gave way to Bones clumsily injecting himself with a hallucinogen (because human ineptitude, even by a trained physician, is apparently nobler than human vice). Director Nicholas Meyer confirms this predilection of Roddenberry’s separately, noting how the Trek guru’s unwillingness to allow for human imperfection in the future caused serious sour grapes during production of one of the later movies.
Human perfectibility is also a theme throughout educational literature and, especially, educational research. One encounters phrases like “what works,” “high-yield strategies,” and “continuous improvement,” as if good teaching were strictly a matter of technical, state-of-the-art proficiency—and the more recent, the more proficient. Marzano Research Laboratories, whose motto is “Leading the Way,” offers “continuous action research in all major areas of schooling in order to provide effective and accessible instructional strategies…that are always at the forefront of best practice.” And so it would seem that the modern educational enterprise is much like the Starship Enterprise, perpetually warping outward and onward, seeking out new fads and new pedagogical gimmicks, its forward motion its most singular saving virtue. But this view is a fiction in itself, because the seductive appeal of “progress” is that it allows us to ignore our own real and present foibles.
Science fiction is not (and never was) a romanticist’s genre: it’s been sounding the alarm against rash, rapid progress for a hundred years—at least since H.G. Wells’s Time Machine, that nightmarish novel in which the future’s favorite children, the apparently utopian Eloi, are just deluded, docile slaves (and nightly McNuggets) of the beastly Morlocks. Sci-fi’s most consistent message, if anything, is that technology can’t save us from ourselves. Among sci-fictionists Roddenberry was the rare exception, a dedicated, innocent-hearted utopian, although he wasn’t exactly a career practitioner. As a screenwriter he cut his teeth on the TV police drama and the western—no romanticism there!—before pitching Trek to NBC as a “Wagon Train to the stars.” In contrast, Ellison had contributed numerous now-classic short stories to the popular science-fiction magazines of the 1950s, and scripted two now-classic episodes of The Outer Limits, before taking on Star Trek. To read Ellison’s speculative fiction today is to pick up one’s tablet or e-reader and get a glass of ice-water thrown in one’s face.
Two philosophies: one unyieldingly positive, progressive, and equating technical progress with human perfectibility; the other darkly cynical, shrewd, and finding solace in the constancy of human nature rather than its supposed capacity for improvement. But now we’re talking about education, not sci-fi, because the same dichotomy nicely captures the age-old tension between progressive and traditional pedagogies. The “darkly cynical” aspect poses a slight problem, of course, since even though (I suspect) “Cordwainer Bird” Ellison would accept that tag with sporting good grace, most educators would find it a bit uncomfortable. As they should. But the bigger problem is the darkly ironic reversal that occurs when we apply our sci-fi analogy to education: the cynics are almost entirely to be found on the progressive side.
By “progressive” I don’t mean the venerable movement inspired by John Dewey, and I certainly don’t mean anything political. I’m applying it to technical progressives, those who advocate state-of-the-art teaching and would demand compliance with the latest research findings from all teachers, everywhere. If progressivism most literally means belief in the intrinsic value of forward movement, then technical progressives are the Gene Roddenberrys of education. Consider this speech by Edith Keeler, as played by Joan Collins in the final “aborted, stunted, thalidomide-baby, script-by-committee” broadcast version of “The City on the Edge of Forever” that aired in 1967:

One day soon, man is going to be able to harness incredible energies—maybe even the atom; energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds in some sort of spaceship. And the men that reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases. They will be able to find a way to give each man hope and a common future...and those are the days worth living for.
(“That was Gene,” says Ellison. “Couldn’t write for sour owl poop.”)  
That same exultant faith in a coming technocratic breakthrough has long pervaded educational literature, professional-development workshops, and teacher-training programs. But faith in technocracy requires faith in technocrats. Even if education (unlike man) is perfectible, at present there is no evidence that our growing class of “expert” educators is any closer to perfect than plain ole peasant teachers—that they are any less susceptible to the classic failures like venality, avarice, or hubris...which are always unethical but not always illegal. One can have “evidence” on one’s side and still seek to manipulate others for selfish gain. Trust if you will that an actual Starfleet would use its might to feed worlds rather than conquer them; trust if you will that the research-citing expert isn’t just a little bit full of himself or even totally full of shit. Just remember that you might get the Morlock, not the Eloi. You might get the Ticktock Man and not the Harlequin.
The most profound difference between Ellison’s “City on the Edge of Forever” and Roddenberry’s is the ending. Both versions agree that Edith Keeler, the well-meaning airhead—er, humanitarian—must die in order to set the universe right. The question is how: will it be Kirk who (if we imagine him perfectly) literally throws his beloved under the bus for the sake of everyone else, or will it be Spock, that cold-blooded, calculating Vulcan, who does what must be done? Only one version is truthful.
Watch the broadcast version sometime, and then read Ellison’s. But be warned: cynicism is contagious.