Career, College, Citizenship

Summer Camp Versus Summer Internship

June 8, 2012
A recent blog in the New York Times discusses the trade-off between a college student spending the summer as a camp counselor versus getting an internship.  I discuss that trade-off with many of my students frequently.  There is no one-size-fits-all response.  As a student progresses through college, an internship or a summer job with responsibility, skill development and career exploration is a better choice.   Being a camp counselor is okay the summer after freshman year but in most cases, not okay the summer between junior and senior year.  In the case of camp counselors, students who want to work with children gain more from the experience than those want to work for a large corporation or become a lawyer. 
While a camp counselor position provides an opportunity for students to develop many of the 10 skill sets, working in government, non-profit or business internships or jobs usually provide more opportunities to develop the skill sets “gathering information” and “using quantitative tools.”  These two skill sets are in short supply among many college graduates even if they take a heavy research and quantitative course load in college. Internships and summer jobs are about skill development and career exploration in preparing for a good job after college.  The most important question is whether the choice is about living in the present and having fun or making a commitment to the future.  That is a choice we all have to make every day.

Good citizens never use the word “utilize

June 1, 2012
You may question this advice to good citizens because the choice of the word “utilize” over the word “use” is only a matter of style.  So let me give you three reasons why good citizens should choose “use.”
First, “utilize” is an affectation of the upper and academic classes. The majority of Americans, therefore, do not use "utilize" because they are not in those classes.  In America, majority is supposed to rule, but let’s not get into that one.
Second, “utilize” is an attempt to intimidate others into accepting an action as something legitimate. For example, “I utilize an electric razor” is more convincing than “I use an electric razor.”   It is a subtle but obnoxious form of propaganda.
Third, “utilize” is twice as long a word to pronounce and write as “use” and therefore a violation of the principle less is more.  What is worse, “utilize” uses more ink if written and more hot air if spoken, which makes it a contributing factor to global warming, if in fact there is such a thing. 

Good Citizens Don’t Confuse Correlation with Causation

May 27, 2012
May 14, 2012 article in USA Today presents the findings of the Centers for Disease Control’s study which shows that people with college degrees live longer and are less obese than those with only a high school degree.  The implication is that a college degree will lead to happier, healthier and longer lives.  Anybody in their right mind knows that most people who graduate college are in the middle to upper classes and are more likely to live that way than those in the lower classes.  But that is because college and these good outcomes are correlated.  We have no evidence that college causes a better life.
The problem is that USA Today and almost all pundits, politicians and journalists slip from correlation to causation much too easily.  The first sentence of the USA Today article reads “education may not only improve a person’s finances, it is also linked to better health habits and a longer life.”  This is a causative statement. There is no empirical evidence establishing causation.   Good citizens need to think straight and watch out for this intellectual sloppiness.  If they don’t, they will support bad ideas such as “college for all.”

It’s A Wonder They Can Teach At All

April 23, 2012
I am talking about teachers in New York State who are given curriculum guides, sometimes hundreds of pages long.  These guides include objectives, standards and a lot of talk about what students should learn. Put together by committees and changed periodically, these guides cannot possibly be read, remembered or understood, let alone followed. They are bloated, redundant, full of imprecise language and too ambitious to be taken seriously. If they were taken seriously, they would take most teachers out of the classroom for an extended period of time. What exactly do you mean “take most teachers out of the classroom?" If they were taken seriously, teachers would need to be given yearlong, paid leaves to study and incorporate them in their teaching.
If that isn’t enough, a teacher recently wrote me saying, “standards in curriculum guides are only the beginning. Now add Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) for measuring non-tested areas and it is a wonder anyone will decide to go into education. Unfortunately, the students will be the ones to suffer when all this is intended to help.  All this is to roll out and be implemented NEXT YEAR!” 
Fortunately, most teachers and administrators can use the necessary buzzwords to keep the State Department of Education off their backs.  Like in the bad ol’ days of the Soviet Union and Red China, people who were governed by out of control committees just mouthed the words when they thought police were around. Only a small percentage in the Soviet Union and Red China were shot. Hopefully, very few or no teachers will be fired for failing to provide “proof” that they meet the standards. It’s time for a Teachers’ Declaration of Independence.

Coplin’s Principles for Undergraduate Teaching

April 20, 2012

1. When designing a course, decide whether or not you want to treat students as scholars within your field or as users of your knowledge and skills outside of the field. In most cases, you can’t do both.

2. Clearly Distinguish between Stuff Goals and Skill Goals

  • Skills require modeling and student practice
  • Stuff can be delivered through lectures, reading, videos, simulations and research

3. Always start with the concrete; never start with the abstract

4. Use a two-fold grading system

  • Points Gained
  • Points Lost –writing mistakes, lateness, disorganization

5. Use undergraduate teaching assistants to:

  • Take role
  • Punish misbehavior like Texting Obsession Syndrome (TOS)
  • Grade papers using a clear rubric
  • Tutor and mentor students

6. Promote student participation by:

  • Keeping your mouth shut and looking for student discussion
  • When reacting to what students say, comment on the positive and if you have something negative to say, ask the class what they think first
  • Break the class into groups and use extra credit points to create competition among these groups
  • If you ask a question and there is silence, say talk to the person next to you and come up with an answer

All of these are tips I have successfully implemented in my classroom. Please don’t hesitate to contact me about any of the above principles; I would be honored to discuss these and others.

Excel Alert

April 19, 2012

I have written before about the importance of Excel and how it is neglected in many of our high schools and even colleges as a necessary part of the curriculum. My recent experience in front of 800 parents and newly admitted students in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University suggests that things are getting worse.  I asked the students to raise their hands if they could use Excel.  Less than 20 percent of the students who were good enough to be admitted to the University raised their hands as their parents watched in horror.

The failure of our schools to prepare students for the real world, where business, government and non-profits rely on spreadsheets, does not seem to be a top reform priority of our politicians and school administrators. But it should be. Students with good Excel skills will get better internships and part-time jobs more quickly, and we all know how important internship and job experience is.  

Where does the blame lie?  From reliance on standardized testing, to a curriculum still tied to the Middle Ages, there is plenty of blame to go around. They will eventually learn that “Excel is Life,” but at what cost?

Skills Versus Stuff: The Citizenship Vacuum

April 18, 2012

Just about everyone laments over the vast majority of high school and college graduates who know very little about American government. Students do not know such facts as the number of Senators in the U.S. Senate, and they have little understanding of the broader organization of federal, state and local governments. Many also whine over the apathy that leads to low voter turnout and the selfish behavior of citizens at all levels and ranges of education, social statuses and political parties.

Plenty of blame exists in and outside the educational community, but let’s just focus on the academy. As is true in mathematics and English, professors of history, political science and other social sciences are more interested in making mini-experts out of their students rather than functional, active citizens. The fractured college curriculum has wrecked the high school curriculum because courses in psychology, sociology and anthropology have become alternatives to courses in government, economics or civics.

The community service and “do-good crowd,” to which I belong, frequently minimize the importance of governmental institutions. The left-wingers want to teach how government does bad things, and the right-wingers want students to recite the constitution. Neither care to help students understand what their rights and responsibilities are and how they can shape government policy in the public interest.

The students do not help in this very much. Most think government is boring, in part because it’s complex and confusing and in part because, well, it is pretty boring to worry about jurisdictions and legal details. 

Filling the citizenship vacuum requires providing students with the basic skills necessary to understand how government affects them and how they can participate in government. For students to see the need for government, the ways in which government can solve or at least ameliorate societal problems and how policy is made, they need a host of skills that are in short supply among our high school and college graduates. Among these skills are attention to detail, information gathering and evaluation skills, a problem-solving approach and the ability to work with and influence people. With these skills, students will be ready to interpret the constitution, case studies on governmental decisions and current policy debates.

Why We Have a Financial Crisis

April 17, 2012

If you really want to understand the grass root cause of our current overdose on debt, just sit in my office as I talk with juniors and seniors. Several of them are able to graduate a semester early or go part-time in their last semester. Such a move could save them as much as $15,000. 

When I suggest this approach, some students are excited to save the money. But almost as many say, “but I like college.” I am not sure whether they mean they like studying and going to classes, or they like getting drunk on a Tuesday night.

I usually ask, “Will you be graduating with debt and will the extra semester raise your debt?” I figured that they might be willing to pleasure themselves with another semester of college at the expense of their parents.

Shockingly, they almost always say that they have debt and spending an extra semester would add another $5,000+ to their debt. Even more surprising, many of these students have worked 30 hours a week while carrying a full load and have paid for a lot of their college education. They also cannot tell me how much the extra $5,000 will add to their monthly payments over a ten-year period.

When I meet with juniors and seniors for career and academic advising (I always do both), I am astounded that none of them can answer the question “how much debt will you be leaving college with,” never mind how much will that cost a month. We are training the next generation to embrace debt so they can have a good time in college.

Does this sound like the people who bought bigger houses than they needed because they could get the loan? Does it sound like those who run up credit card debt for the purpose of immediate gratification? Who says colleges don’t teach students anything? Learning to live with and expand debt may be the most widespread lesson of a college education.

Too Many People are Going to College

April 16, 2012

In his latest book, Real Education, Charles Murray writes, “too many people are going to college.” Murray, whose earlier books Losing Ground and The Bell Curve made him a darling of the right and an enemy of the left, is not afraid to say what others do not. Whether it is political correctness or the fear of losing their jobs, faculty and administrators in higher education cannot bring themselves to utter such blasphemy, at least in public.

His focus is on the 35% students completing liberal arts degrees. He argues that about 10% of the students should be going to liberal arts programs because only about that number are interested and capable of getting a “real” liberal arts education. By admitting so many incapable and uninterested students into traditional four-year programs, he argues that we are dumbing down the educational experience. On the one hand, we fail to prepare the elite to run the country and, on the other hand, we deprive those who don’t belong there of an education that will pay off.

The 10% sounds about right to me if we define the B.A. as Murray does, the old fashion academic study of what was offered (not really studied) a hundred years ago. From my experience, most students cannot master even the fundamentals of what professional scholars do in their disciplines. This is not a recent phenomenon. When I did my Bachelors at Johns Hopkins in the late 1950’s, the majority of those students couldn’t even handle the Federalist Papers. In fact, if you read histories of higher education since antiquity, the vast majority of students in college were never in engaged in the life of the mind.

Murray maintains there is a place for almost all students in some kind of post-secondary education. He favors technical programs of shorter duration, but I would suggest long-term programs that give students time to grow up and to develop the skills and character employers want. These programs would place students in internships and off-campus experiences for as much as 50% the cost of a four-year program. It would not require of them 120 credits of traditional, and often unnecessary, academic coursework.

If we accept Murray’s analysis that too many people are in traditional college programs, we would have to face a more shocking and destructive idea--- there are way too many liberal arts faculty in higher education today.

TFA Is For Real

April 15, 2012

I have been an advocate of Teach for America since the early 90’s when I learned of the ideas of its founder, Wendy Kopp, and more importantly, that she made the idea happen against all odds. More than 50 students I have advised have become TFA members over the last decade.

TFA is no organization that claims “excellence” and then lets anyone and everyone in. Nor are accepted TFA teachers just tossed into struggling schools to “wing it.” Teacher training is intense and the standards are high. TFA takes its business seriously, and the results show.

TFA’s accomplishments are well known. 35,000 applicants applied for 4,100 available positions in 2009 alone. Principals report in surveys that first year TFA teachers are better than first year teachers from traditional B.A. and M.A. programs. Math and English achievement student test scores year-in and year-out demonstrate that TFA teachers improve student performance. Most TFA teachers manage to push their students to achieve multiple years reading level growth in a matter of a few months. Even after their two-year commitment to TFA expires, alumni go on to do remarkable deeds, including establishing new and successful schools and advocating for educational reform.

As a student of high school and college education, however, I have learned not to trust statistics, survey results and reported success stories alone without direct backup. I need more hard evidence because the truth is in the details.

I have found such details in one of my 2009 graduates, Katelyn Hancock’s blog that provides an insider’s take:

Here is what I learned so far from her descriptions of what she calls “boot camp:”

1. The five-week training session is intense both with respect to time on task (80 hour workweek) and focused training with approximately 50 hours of direct instruction in the form of talks form TFA staff members, practice teaching and different kinds of exercises).

2. The message to the new corps member is clear; raise the academic achievement of students.

3. Each corps member continuously updates a monster spreadsheet as the key management tool which insures delivering the coaching that is necessary for new teachers. Read Katelyn’s blog to get the full picture from a shrewd new college graduate who knows how to detect BS.

If TFA is for real, why does the majority of faculty in Schools of Education and their academic apologists attack TFA? That is a topic for another post.