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Testimony for Cherish Act hearing

I drafted comments to be presented at the Cherish Act hearing tomorrow at the State House.

Biology is a discipline where modern facilities and equipment are critical to providing an effective education to our students: to prepare them to move seamlessly into the growing life-science industry. Unfortunately, after years of declining funding, our introductory biology facilities had suffered.

We have been successful at attracting large grants from Howard Hughes Medical Institute and others to make improvements over the years, but those organizations are rarely interested in funding the basic infrastructure.

Recently, the University re-introduced "lab fees" to raise money from our students and their families to fund these needed renovations. This purchased new lab benches and facilities for more modern labs. But it's yet another example of the state shirking its responsibility to provide for the basic needs of the curriculum and requiring students to shoulder a larger burden, through debt, that many will still be paying for years to come. It's disgraceful and makes me ashamed to be a part of the institution.

Exactly the same is true regarding the new "technology fee." The University should be funded sufficiently to provide the basic infrastructure needed for a 21st century education. Students should not be going into debt for our necessary facilities and infrastructure.

Please fund our future and pass the Cherish Act.

I am hopeful that, after years of declining state funding for public higher education (we're still below 2001 funding levels) there is enough momentum to pass this act which would bring funding up to 2001 levels over 5 years during which time we could freeze tuition and fees. We can always hope.

Melamine Effect

In the book Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn describes the perverse effects of incentive systems. Incentive systems fail because it's always easier (and cheaper) to game the system than to actually win. If you incentivize "call length" in a call center, for example, employees will hang up on people. If you incentive "resolutions" the staff will find short cuts to mark calls as "resolved" rather than to actually solve people's problems. He found that the best way to get people to do good work is to compensate them adequately and support their efforts to do good work.

Several years ago I wrote a post about educational measurement in which I described a phenomenon I have come to call the Melamine Effect. In 2007 and 2008, pet food and then milk were found that were contaminated with melamine. The consequences were horrific. In 2007 hundreds of pets were killed. In 2008, tens of thousands of infants were poisoned, many suffering liver damage. Several died. It turned out that unscrupulous people were diluting milk with water and then adding this cheap, industrial chemical — that coincidentally increases the score on a widely-used test for protein content — as a way to increase their profits.

Seeing the effects that standardized testing and so-called education reform were having on schools, I realized that the circumstances are perfectly analogous. If you measure something and use that measure to understand natural systems, you're fine. But if you start looking for treatments that will shift the measure, you're inviting all kinds of perverse effects, because educational measures can't actually measure what people are interested in (i.e. learning or understanding): they only measure factors that tend to covary with them in natural populations. Once you start applying treatments -- especially the cheapest ones -- you're almost assured of toxic effects.

And it should go without saying that just changing a measure doesn't mean you will actually produce better outcomes either. For years, people were told to take niacin to improve their cholesterol test scores. But a long-term study revealed that, although it did improve the scores, those gains were not actually associated with reduced risk of disease.

For a while the term was "data driven", but more recently the term is "evidence based". When people start using words like this, your hackles should rise. Look critically at the underlying model and how it relates evidence to the dimension of interest. This isn't always easy with the "dashboards" of the modern analytics systems. But it's the only way to avoid the "melamine effect".

How to Reduce Cheating Without Evil Robots

Recently, Turnitin was purchased for $1.75 billion dollars. Turnitin is the malicious corporation that neoliberal universities use to de-skill faculty labor. Ostensibly, it's to "reduce cheating", but -- as many have pointed out -- they do so in a simple-minded way that steals student work (everything students submit in the so-called "learning management systems" gets piratically stolen by the corporation and used to support their business model) and undermines the relationship between students and faculty. I use three strategies to reduce the incentives and potential for student cheating without Turnitin.

My primary goal is to have each student or group do novel projects. If work is actually novel, there are no easy candidates to cheat from. If each student (or group) is working on something unique, they can collaborate and share resources without the potential for competition or cheating to come into play. If you have students all working on identical papers (or solving "classic" problems) there is always a tempting array of examples of the "work" already done (and probably done better than any student could do it).

Second, I have students do their work in an environment where I can see the the development of the project over time. I used to use a Wiki or Drupal Revisions for this. Currently, I'm using Google Docs. This way, I can see snapshots of the project from inception to outline to finished document. I can provide feedback along the way and, in the end, have great confidence that the finished product was the authentic work of the student(s) -- much more so than if the document sprang into existence the night before it was due.

Finally, I aim to have students work on projects that are genuinely engaging. If students do authentic work that they see as valuable, there's no incentive to cheat: students will do the work because it's real work that has intrinsic merit to them.

The only reason for something like "Turnitin" is that we've created an environment where faculty have too many students to get to know them all personally. Neoliberal universities are constantly reducing the number of faculty, increasing their workload, and substituting robot labor like "Turnitin" to allowing faculty to know their students well enough to offer meaningful work and guide their writing personally. Faculty should resist the speed-up and opt-out of having their students' submissions be stolen by the parasitic corporations that aim to create a hostile environment for everyone.

Children and Power

Governor Patrick released a set of new strategies to close persistent performance gaps in education as a summit at UMass Boston. Unfortunately, it represents more of the same fundamentally wrong-headed approach that education has increasingly adopted in our country: it treats students as the product of the system, rather than participants or partners. Our educational system has become a place where compliance is valued over creativity and passion. Worst of all, it fails to empower our children.

Few adults would tolerate being treated the way we treat children. Few adults would consent to this kind of regime: having their waking hours regulated by a series of bells, being required to ask permission to stand or use the bathroom, being given hours of tedious drudgery to perform every day -- drudgery that didn't really matter -- that will just be marked up with a red pen and then thrown in the trash. Why do children put up with that? Why do we tell them they should accept that? What does it teach them that these are the expectations we set for them?

Some people will say that there are developmental differences that require children to be treated in this way. Or that they need to be taught certain things before they can take charge of their own learning or do anything interesting. These are false -- and demonstrably false. Children that do take charge of their own learning can be remarkably successful: many entrepreneurs (most recently Steve Jobs) cite dropping out of school to pursue their own interests as providing the key insights that led to their success. How many children's gifts are wasted because they never realize the prison that is cunningly woven around then beginning with preschool and kindergarten.

I saw it most clearly when my second son started kindergarten -- and my older boy was in fourth grade. In kindergarten, we start teaching children to wear chains: to stand in line, to ask permission, to respond to authority. The chains aren't pulled tight, but children get used to hearing them jingle as they run. By fourth grade, the chains are pulled in tight, locking them into their chairs.

When my younger son was in fifth grade, we had a particularly clueless teacher. Even though the school day didn't start until 8:40, she required students that arrived before then, to sit in their seats and do worksheets. My son, having a clue, refused to arrive to arrive before 8:40. Why would anyone willingly subject themselves to such a regime? And when he refused to do his homework, she kept him in from recess week after week, even though she admitted that he could easily pass the tests that the homework was supposedly practice for.

There are unquestionably developmental differences between children and adults, but the largest differences in our society are cultural: the fact that children are systematically disempowered by society. They are threatened with punitive actions for exercising power and are systematically discouraged from even learning about the power they have. Our society compels children to comply with a punitive regime of senseless drudgery and busy-work that destroys the potential for genuine human relationships between children and adults.

Some people really do have power over one another, but in most cases that power is conceded by one to another. We really only have power over ourselves. We can choose to act in compliance with the wishes of another or we can withhold our cooperation. They can choose to punish us, but rarely do they have the power to genuinely compel. Few adults help children understand that they have this power and can choose to exercise it.

One of the main causes of childishness and poor behavior on the part of children is that they don't believe they have any power and don't know how to effectively use what power they have. When children have a voice and recognize that what they do matters, the childishness tends to fall away. That isn't to say that children don't need protection from being preyed upon -- or from the consequences of serious mistakes. But we would all be better off if there were more genuine interactions between children and adults, rather than the artificiality produced by the dominance/subservience relationship demanded by our educational institutions.

Rather than trying to control children, we should be providing leadership: creating an environment that is fertile for students to choose to learn. Children so empowered could pursue their own agendas with supportive adults around them to provide guidance and mentorship. Children that are able to pursue their interests, have the potential to discover "work" as their life's calling -- and not just meaningless drudgery necessary to placate a faceless authority. Children who pursue meaningful work will find it necessary to learn reading and writing, math and science, history and literature. And by pursuing these things for themselves, it will actually mean something -- and not just be marks on a paper soon to be thrown in the trash.

We need to stop the madness.

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