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Credentialing and Grade Inflation

Does my title capture a curious correlation or a cause and effect relationship? I ask because quantitative analysis can only direct us to correlations, as serious statisticians frequently remind us.

The context of education is too full of variables for us to confidently ascribe causes (and therefore responsibility) to the decline in virtually everything of value in education. This is a problem. It means, in effect and in practice, that no conclusions can be drawn about education from within the accepted means of assessment.

Therefore, there can be no solution to the schooling crisis because of the way we structure and analyze education. In a word, the pedagogical powers stand far removed from the consequences of their actions.

Consider: If a teacher teaches poorly, will he lose his job or even be trained? How will they know that he has done poorly? Grades? But he gives them.

Ah, then let’s turn to an external verification: standardized tests. But then how will they identify the actual cause of the student’s poor performance? Is it the home, media, teacher, school environment, chemical imbalance, diet or something else? Could it be caused by the test itself?

And after all, what does it mean to perform poorly? Who “imposes” the standards.

The “teacher”, who is closest to the performance of the student, is often least able to make judgments about how to improve the students capacity. He has a test to teach to, a curriculum to administer, and an abstract bureaucracy to report to that is disappointingly unable to help him. When we talk about thinking outside the box, maybe this is the box – the prison cell of constraints placed on teachers – that we need to escape from.

Unfortunately, the verification or proof of any solutions proposed to the nation-wide catastrophe that we call education would have to be demonstrated on the same quasi-scientific, quasi-analytical grounds that have created the crisis.

Have you ever thought about why we credential teachers? Has there ever been any evidence produced to indicate that it has improved life for the students? George Leaf and discuss this in a provocative exchange here, here, and here.

Of course not, because the evidence the “education establishment” recognizes is driven by the null hypothesis, which, to simplify only slightly, argues that no hypothesis can be positively demonstrated, though hypotheses can be disproven.

In other words, consistent with the world view of NCATE and other educational organizations, nothing can be known.

Here is my hypothesis: credentialing changes the nature of education and removes success from the realm of the possible.

Until the late 19th century, education was viewed through agrarian and sometimes mercantile metaphors. So, of course, was most of life.

With the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, one begins to see a shift to industrial/mechanical metaphors, as seen for example in the belief in a Watchmaker God. However, the reach of this mindset or world view does not seem, so far as I can tell, reach education until the 19th century or maybe late in the 18th.

I don’t mean that people thought of education as preparation for the farm. Quite the contrary. It was often quite explicitly and unfortunately seen as a means to escape the farm – as a means to escape dependency on the one hand and hard physical labor on the other.

What I mean when I say that educational thought was dominated by agrarian metaphors is simply that the view of reality, and especially of the human soul, was informed by the soil and not by the factory.

I know of no 20th century educator who better captures this mindset than Charlotte Mason, who seems to have seen straight through the modern mind to its core metaphorical structure. She saw that it couldn’t work, and established a profound and thorough and eminently practical theory of education that corrects many, many errors of modern practice. If you want to understand the nature of education, I believe you need to read her works.

But back to the point: the Christian classical and the Greek minds were inclined to think about education in agrarian terms. They knew that what you sow, you reap; that seeds have to be planted to bear fruit; that fruitfulness trumps power or even production; and that education is a process of cultivation that takes a long time.

They also perceived (because of the metaphors they used to think about the matter), and perhaps this is most important, that an educator could not be produced through specialized training in teaching any more than a farm, an estate, or a latifundia could thrive under the specialized, technical training of an expert.

Practices had to be practiced and judgment had to be gained through complex human experience just as a farmer had to learn how to farm by farming. It was seen as an art, not a technique. And it was understood that one had to be prepared through an apprenticeship until he had mastered the skills of the art.

But once he was a master, he was ready to teach – and he was widely revered.

The world-altering change occurred when mastery was replaced by credentials. Credentialing teachers alters the very nature of the educational experience. It turns it from something agrarian and organic into something industrial and dead. And it redirects our energies from developing mastery in the art of teaching to something very different that comes under the same name. I think the best word for it is conditioning.

First of all, you can become a credentialed teacher without ever becoming an educated person. You can be entrusted with the teaching of children because you learned what some expert judged to be a necessary technical skill or even skill set.

Second, as a consequence, teachers are conditioned to direct their attention away from mastering the art of teaching to merely functioning within an un-natural, artificial environment. In other words, the uneducated teachers who have received technical training don’t have time to become educated because they are busy preparing for tests, managing classroom behavior, and otherwise not teaching.

These credentialed teachers will, in turn, be assessed by the same industrial standards that prepared them for the classroom. Industrial management contends that what cannot be measured cannot be managed. So everything must be measured.

And how will the teacher be assessed? One would hope that student performance would be a part of it. But here’s the rub: the uneducated teacher will be the one to assess student performance. This is a perpetual stress point in education. Obviously the teacher should assess student performance. But only an educated teacher is capable of doing so. Solution: grade inflation, which can mean job security.

Solution to the solution: standardized tests, which creates a false accountability for the teacher. Do you see how the industrial/mechanical assumptions of education can’t work?

An irony flows through the catastrophe though, because people do want to educate children, even if their incentives are impure. Standardized testing is a measure of the decline it helps to cause.

What then are we to do? Well, American schooling will come to an end as surely as Soviet communism. It is parasitic and cannot survive separation from or the death of its host. Hopefully, we can figure out a way for the first option.

But more importantly, we have to drop the world view of conventional education. We have to stop thinking in modern management and industrial terms. Instead of hiring credentials we need to hire artists, for teaching is an art. Instead of turning to institutions that sell out to the modernist approach, we need to turn to institutions that apprentice teachers, like Hillsdale College. We need to get the best teachers we can get and we need to free them to teach.

Seal of Hillsdale College (Gold), Hillsdale, M...

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In the longer term, we also need to revise our governing structures, our curricula, and our school calendars, each of which has been handed to us by the anti-educational industrial culture. We have to figure out what it means practically to begin with faith and the fear of God, because right now we are driven by anxiety and the fear of college.

But the controlling idea of this post, and my sincere appeal, is to recognize that the industrial/modernist mind, the habit of thinking in industrial metaphors and applying modern management principles to schools, is not compatible with a Christian classical education. Indeed, it is not compatible with education at all.

No well-integrated farm has ever grown by isolating the measurables of production, efficiency, the assembly line from the well-being of the soil and the health of the family.

Lest I have hurt the feelings of some credentialed teachers, perhaps I should explain what it meant to be educated for 2500 years under the agrarian model: it meant that you could read fluently in at least your own language, were familiar with the roots of our culture in the ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Roman worlds, could move between forms of literature effortlessly, while knowing when a sentence was eloquently long or merely a run-on, could calculate with facility, could write with grace and a pleasant hand, could distinguish excellent from good from bad writing and objectively identify faults that could be improved, could speak with sound grammar and without slang – and knew why some things were sound grammar and others were not, knew where a significant number of mountains, rivers, and lakes could be found, could communicate information and ideas to children, and could assess whether or not they had learned what they needed to know, were able to do what they needed to do, and understood what they needed to understand.

Any teacher who can’t do those things with pleasure and facility needs to go back to school. As we like to say: for the children’s sake.

Here’s a controlling principle: work gets done when energy is directed toward an end. The way we think about education directs our attention to unprofitable ends. Direct your attention as a teacher toward becoming a good teacher.

I mean no offense, though it is impossible that none will be taken. But you cannot do good in school if you are not educated yourself. And education is not a subjective state. It is not as hard as people seem to think. There are no mysteries. It’s right there for you. Just do it. Forget the credential. Get an education.

If there is a future (for only educated peoples have pasts and futures), historians will find our gasping efforts to solve our problems risible. They will see uneducated people picketing for the privilege of making more money to educate children.

They will see an ever-increasing centralization of control over education, so that uneducated teachers report to uneducated bureaucrats and, surprisingly, argue more about job security than about how and what children learn.

They will see so little actual education take place that they will be convinced they are watching a Keystone Cops movie in super slow motion. The funniest scene will be the continuation of that argument while the old jalopy hurtles off the cliff and destroys everybody on board.

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