Posts Tagged ‘education’

Chasing Mediocrity

May 8, 2013 Leave a comment

I think that mediocrity is easy to measure while excellence is not, which creates a dilemma in the current era of objective assessment: when we insist on objective metrics of success — grades (for children), evaluations (for teachers), quarterly profits (for companies), recognized rules of writing (for authors), etc. — we motivate people to chase mediocrity.

For example, high schools in this country have been on a steady path toward more objective standards (starting with “No Child Left Behind”), while university professors, once they achieve tenure, are essentially accountable to no one. As a result, I believe, U.S. high schools fare terribly compared to the rest of the world, while our universities are arguably second to none.

Indeed, Forbes reports that “70% of engineers with PhD’s who graduate from U.S. universities are foreign-born.” These engineers come to the U.S. only for the education system that has no objective metrics of success, and, similarly, U.S. high-school students are unprepared for graduate work after their educational path based on test scores.

In the completely different realm of fiction, best-selling author Lee Child critisizes the writing industry for focusing on objective criteria of good writing, starting with the most well-known rule: “show don’t tell.” Writers follow the rule, Child says, because they’ve been “beaten down.” They are chasing mediocrity.

The now-defunct Bell Labs had a well funded department of researchers whose only job was to tinker; they were not required to demonstrate that they were earning their salaries. The department developed the transistor, the solar cell, the laser, and the first communications satellite, among many other innovations. Freed of objective metrics of success, the researchers were able to thrive.

The highly coveted MacArthur “genius” grants, officially the “MacArthur Fellowship” stipends, come with no strings attached and make no reporting obligations on the fellows, because, the foundation believes, the fellows “are in the best position to decide how to allocate their time and resources.” They don’t want to push their fellows toward mediocrity.

The catch is that I think there’s a place for mediocrity, because sometimes the alternative is ineptitude. Or to look at it differently, “mediocrity” is sometimes “competence.”

I’d rather have a mediocre airplane pilot than an inept one, for instance, so I’m glad the FAA requires (14 CFR 121) pilots to undergo “check rides” to demonstrate their continuing competence.

So we seem to have two approaches: an objective-assessment model that pushes people from ineptitude up to competence, but also pushes people down from excellence to mediocrity; and a more flexible model that allows people to excel but also to fail.

The trick, I suspect, is knowing when to apply each one.


Summer is for Planning

May 30, 2009 Leave a comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

excerptAccording to Proverbs, summer is a time for preparation: “Who gathers food by summer is wise,” we learn in Proverbs 10:5. Later on in 30:25 we read that, “Ants are not strong, but they prepare their food by summer.”

Although summer is usually counted as the second season, it has a certain feel of finality to it. We’ve made it through another year. The winter has passed. The days are getting longer. The laziness of summer sunshine, barbecues, and summer camps awaits.

For educators in particular, summer is very different than the other three seasons. Because class is not in session, it really is a time to plan. And the first stage of planning is reflection. How was the year? What went well? What worked? What needs improvement? What might need to be completely reworked? And how do we know?

So here are some of my reflections on what we’ve done this year, and some hints of what to expect in the fall.

This year we implemented weekly musical worship services on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Each week, grades 3 and higher met together in the sanctuary for worship, and the younger kids had their own weekly worship program. To judge from the enthusiasm I saw in the sanctuary and the smiling faces on the students, to say nothing of the positive reports I’ve received from parents, services are going very well. The students are learning the prayers, learning how to pray, and even sometimes praying. And I personally look forward each week to hearing over 100 children sing the Shema together.

We expanded the “Hebrew Center,” a forum for one-on-one or small-group instruction. I challenged the Hebrew-Center teachers to create an environment where every student would thrive, and they rose to the occasion. A good classroom teacher usually reaches around 80% of a class. The Hebrew Center is for the other 20%. We require weekly Religious-School attendance of every student, so I think we have an absolute obligation to make sure that each week is worth attending. The Hebrew-Center is one way we do that. (In spite of its name, it’s not just for Hebrew.) It’s important to me to keep in mind the words of my teacher and friend, Rabbi Manny Gold: “No one fails Judaism.” The Hebrew Center of part of making sure that Judaism doesn’t fail any student at Temple Israel.

In addition, the year was marked by numerous special programs, including field trips, holiday celebrations (most teachers offered a model Seder of some sort), guest presenters, art projects, the creation of a music video in Hebrew (it’s on the school website), nature walks, and much more.

We even augmented the food we serve midweek, offering vegetables and chicken in addition to pizza.

Most of the students seem to like being in school. More than once, we had to remind students that their ride home was waiting, and that they had to leave, because frequently they didn’t want to. They were enjoying one last moment of class, or laughing with friends in the entrance, or talking to me or one of their teachers. It’s hard to learn when you’re not having fun, and, I think, the level of joy here is rising.

So what will I work on over the summer?

We have a new cantor coming, which means we’ll be planning a new music program, and better integrating Religious-School services into the broader worship life of the Temple.

Our curriculum needs work, and summer is the time for that.

Grades 7-10 are crucial ages in personal religious development, so I’ll pay particular attention to re-evaluating the programs we offer to those ages. Look for exciting changes soon.

I’m also looking forward to my own learning. My background in linguistics means that I know a lot about teaching Hebrew. And my own teaching experience has given me significant insight into working with older kids. I know less about young children. Fortunately, other people on our staff are strong in that area, and I hope to spend some time with them, learning from their experience and expertise.

“Im ein torah, ein kemach” the Mishnah teaches. If we have no learning, we have no food. This summer I hope you’ll join me in heeding the words of Proverbs and the words of the Mishnah, gathering not just food but also learning.

Categories: education