Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Special Education

The "Education" part of Higher Education really comprises two different sides.  One side is fairly bread-and-butter, and for the masses.  There are classes, mentored research projects, individual advising, advising of student clubs, and so forth.  These are things that have been happening in universities for a very, very long time.  It is important to note that the people who do these things are NOT called "Education People."

"Education People" are mostly involved in a different side of education:  Special projects, initiatives, grant-funded efforts, etc. Money comes down from above, whether from a federal grant, a private foundation, or funds allocated at the discretion of the central administration or higher state-level authorities.  They might be setting up an advising center, or teaching a class in a new format, or using new teaching tools, or experimenting with pairing younger students with upperclassmen as mentors, or something else.  Most of these efforts are perfectly fine ideas, at least on the surface.  Some of them are actually great and workable ideas.  A few of them can take on a life of their own and get incorporated into the normal way of doing our jobs as we teach classes, supervise research projects, advise individuals and clubs, and so forth.  Most of the rest will either keep going with some sort of special stream of funding, or fade away when the money shifts to some other fashion.  Almost inevitably, these projects are expensive, and few of them prove to be successful and sustainable.

On one level, maybe that's fine.  Innovation is risky, what with Thomas Edison trying thousands of filaments before building a working light bulb and all that.  So what if we try a bunch of things and only a few work?  We didn't know until we tried, but that's no reason not to try.  What could I possibly object to?

Well, part of it is obviously the kool-aid-eseque, hyper-fashionable nature of much of it. The people who do this often have very different mindsets than those of us focused on the fundamentals of teaching, research, and mentoring. They like to sling jargon like "Assessment plan" and all that. Any reader of this blog knows how much that rubs me the wrong way.  But that's just me.

A deeper problem is that tons of money gets thrown at these expensive efforts that involve lots of people and time and money for projects with a handful of students, while the fundamentals are under-funded.  Universities put a huge chunk of their freshman courses in the hands of people with the least status, least security, and least support, because it's cheaper that way, while the people with the most status, most security, and greatest access to resources are disproportionately put on "Education Projects" (which are quite distinct from teaching classes, you know).  It's one thing to have some fraction of your resources in pilot projects and innovation--it would be bad if you didn't do that!  It's quite another thing to under-fund the fundamentals while focusing flashy resources on flashy projects.  Freddie DeBoer had an excellent blog post about how a new building in Purdue's "Student Success Corridor" was flashy and shiny...and under-utilized, while the building where a great many actual English classes were actually taught to actual students is in disrepair.  It sends a powerful message to students when their Introductory Composition course (indisputably the single most important course that students take in college!) is taught in a building that is old and in disrepair, and moreover that the course is taught by the lowest-status and lowest-paid people on campus (adjuncts).

I should say up-front that I actually adopt some (but far from all) fruits from Special Education Projects.  Moreover, I actually think that some of these Special Education Projects are rooted in sound principles--lots of individual attention and mentoring is great for students!  What concerns me is when the money only exists to apply sound principles in an intensive manner to students who need it as long as the project is hitting some note that is fashionable with The Right Sort Of People, while most of the actual education will be under-funded and will not only be relegated to the lowest-status people, but will actually be regarded as low-status by (some but definitely not all) Special Education People.  I know an edufad aficionado who will talk the big talk about Best Practices, High Impact Practices, etc. He is very heavily involved in Special Education Projects. This big talker will even cite (of all things) Academically Adrift, a book that bemoaned the decreasing number and length of reading and writing assignments in colleges.  Meanwhile, this miserable excuse for an "educator" has published an article in a peer-reviewed journal (it is only the thinnest pretext of civility that keeps me from linking it and naming his name) in which he boasts that students can pass his GE class without reading the book, and notes that the class is graded primarily on the basis of multiple-choice tests.  I should note that this GE class is offered under a category that is ostensibly supposed to include significant writing assignments and readings of primary sources.

This person is an extreme example, but the bigger point remains:  There's an entire world of Special Education Projects, populated by people who shuffle from one project to the next, and they enjoy status and resources while the fundamentals are under-funded.

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