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Education Zombies again

May 18, 2013

Recall Diane Ravitch, education activist, promoted a Rhode Island zombie high stakes testing protest and then she said it a bunch more times. So yeah, she used “zombie” again 2 weeks ago in a blog post on May 5th entitled “Zombie Federal Policies” about failures of “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top”. Ravitch claims:

There is no such thing as a “failing school.”

zombie diane ravitch

She says schools are the building. The “school” isn’t failing, the people are failing to get the school to function properly for their community. As Ravitch claims:

Closing schools doesn’t make them better. It shatters communities

More recently (yesterday), Ravitch wrote: “Can Machines Grade Essays? Should They?

This question of robots taking human jobs has been a recurrent topic here at ZombieLaw. Recall: “We become zombie as robots do more creative work

Ravitch objects to new Xerox machines designed to grade student writing. She appeals to human communication theory and writing for an audience, of thinking about the Other:

I realized I was a writer was when I discovered many years ago that I write for an audience. I think of my reader(s).

She quotes Robert Shepherd:

The whole point of the enterprise of teaching kids how to write is for them to master a form of COMMUNICATION BETWEEN PERSONS, and one cannot eliminate the person who is the audience of the communication and have an authentic interchange.

Ravitch thinks machines can’t read. But has she never used spell check software and grammar check? The issue is not the machine, the issue is how the results are used. If the only point of school is to score well on the machine, then the school is failing, but the machine is just a tool, like the building. Teachers aren’t all linguists able to spell check every word instantly and their own aesthetics may make them prone to certain grammatical biases. The computer can help the teacher; the machine can grade spelling and grammar and active voice and verb conjugation, subject-object coordination, – it just can’t understand aesthetics and we will always need teachers for poetry, for passion and motivation.

The problem is a “conflicting messages” (recall also: “Vampire in a Thaumatrope“) – the “conflicting message” writes Peter DeWitt in EduWeek: “N.Y. Chancellor Tisch Sends Conflicting Message to School Leaders“:

What worries me most about some leaders leading from the 30,000 foot level is that they seem to send conflicting messages as if they really do not understand what is going on. They feel that all schools are failing, and that one-size-fits-all is good for all students, but then they change their mind and say that not all schools are failing. Do they not see the contradictions?

DeWitt quotes Merryl Tisch (Chancellor of New York State Board of Regents – and married to the CEO of Loews Corporation):

“In classrooms around the state, exciting conversations are taking place. For the first time, students are exploring longer and more challenging texts, debating economic issues, applying math to engineering concepts, and working in teams to solve real-world problems. These are not curriculum mandates, but examples of good teaching, the kind that many educators have practiced for years.”
[emphasis Dewitt’s]

DeWitt continues:

which is it? Are they doing it for the first time or have they been doing it for years? To be perfectly honest, I find her position to be offensive. Many, many educators have been using those instructional practices for a long time. This is not the first time students have been exposed to this, and it’s not because of the Common Core and accountability that it is being done.

And so as said Rob Zombie: “Everything Old is New Again, I Guess” !!!

See also, from “the becoming radical” by P. L. Thomas a reminder of science fiction and of the great Kurt Vonnegut: ““Eager to Recreate the Same Old Nightmare”: Revisiting Vonnegut’s Player Piano“:

The science fiction (SF) genre has always been one of my favorites, and within that genre, I am particularly found of dystopian fiction, such as Margaret Atwood’s brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Like Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut spoke and wrote often about rejecting the SF label for his work (See Chapter 1 of Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons), but Vonnegut’s genius includes his gift for delivering social commentary and satire wrapped in narratives that seemed to be set in the future, seemed to be a distorted world that we could never possibly experience.

That sentiment is surely related to zombie fiction. Also “Slaughterhouse Five” with it’s themes of war horrors and time-travel is thematically similar to zombie fiction. Education is a project in transhumanism, of becoming more than what we are.

zombie pl thomas becoming radical

Thomas continues:

In 1952, Kurt Vonnegut published Player Piano, offering what most believed was a biting satire of corporate American from his own experience working at GE…. in Vonnegut’s dystopia, computers are at the center of a society run itself like a machine, with everyone labeled with his or her IQ and designated for what career he or she can pursue… Vonnegut’s Player Piano is as much a warning about the role of testing and labeling people in our education system …

But again, it’s not the machines that are the problem, it’s how we use them. Like medical diagnostic labels, the words are merely tools not themselves definitions for the person. The person exists beyond the test scores; a ghost in the machine.

Meanwhile, some students and faculty at Teachers College, Columbia University are protesting the College’s choice to honor Merryl Tisch at the upcoming Teachers College graduation. They see these reforms as insulting to the profession of teaching and not worthy of honor by their own college. Professor Celia Oyler wrote to her students (as blogged by Ravitch: “Professor Oyler: An Open Letter to My Students“):

If I were at the graduation convocation, I would wear a sign on the back of my robe. It would probably say, “USING STUDENT TEST SCORES TO RATE TEACHERS DISHONORS US”. Some people are suggesting that students and faculty could turn their backs when Tisch is talking; other people have the idea to hold up signs. In any case, I know that I couldn’t be silent. I would feel complicit; my silence would be condoning the award.

This is about more than just Chancellor Tisch it’s about the corporations in education. A similar group is protesting Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman for ties to corporate test provider, Pearson.

To her credit, President Fuhrman has responded with a post of her own linked to the main page: “A Message from President Fuhrman” in which she defends the arguments against her in ways that are nearly meaningless to the types of objections raised above. These people are talking on totally different pages — the protesters see a zombie apocalypse in teaching, but TC recently promoted itself as “The Next Generation” — to which I respond with this parody art:

This is a battle between epistemologies – of neoliberalism vs. radicalism? or maybe of Star Trek vs. Zombies; a difference between utopian and dystopian science-fiction? (a popular debate right now while “Star Trek: Into Darkness” is getting positive press while “World War Z” is attracting early skeptics in a zombie-saturated culture).

Recall also conjecture that Star Trek’s Borg are like zombies (here and here). This theory has offended fans of both zombies and of the Borg but, as zombies are for humanity, it’s useful to see the Borg as dialectical paired-opposite to the machine that is the Enterprise. Both ships function through the coordinated action of a crew that acts with directed purpose. The question is how much responsibility (agency?) we give to each individual and whether that matters.

Disclosure: I remain a Teachers College student and despite this controversy I have no intention to drop out (too much sunk cost already). That said, my zombie dissertation is in shambles and at this rate, I may never graduate. If I were graduating this year, I would want to protest TC’s other honoree Thomas Friedman as much as Merryl Tisch = dammnit man, the world is NOT flat, history and geography still matter and inequalities abound — which is to say spacetime is curved (and there are wormholes)!!!

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