Friday, January 09, 2009

Educational Caging, Blue Books, and Cashing in on Cans

Michael Schmidt asks,

"Can the idea of 'caging,' which you often apply to moral discourse, also be profitably applied to education? Is the current emphasis on 'standards,' 'assessment,' and 'accountability' effectively 'caging' what education can or should involve? In the absence of these emphases, are there other impulses amongst faculty, students, and educational bureaucracies that 'cage' education? Should we care?"
Man, what a great point.

For those who have not followed this occasional conversation here, the notion of rhetorical caging is a trick used when you want an entire subject area placed outside of community discourse. The trick is to pick a single issue from the subject, generally the one that can be most easily or effectively framed to give you the rhetorical advantage, and take it out of the cage. You scream and yell about it at the top of your lungs in order to present your opponent with a dilemma -- either they concede the issue to you putting you on a roll and letting you take another issue out to beat them on, or they match you in intensity thereby using up all the oxygen in the room and nothing gets done in the entire area just as you wanted, but with the added bonus that to most people the yelling and screaming from both sides makes it look as if there is fair and open debate.

Is the assessment-crazy edu-fad an example of this? No one is satisfied with our public schools. Some are wonderful. The public school I went to produced some amazing minds attached to wonderful people who are living interesting rewarding lives contributing to society -- and sometimes this blog. But if you look at the overall results of our educational system compared to other industrialized nations, they are lacking.

But while there may be universal agreement that there are problems in public secondary ed writ large, exactly what the problems are is not a point of agreement. A major source of discord is the question "What are the goals of public education?"
A pre-collegiate education should provide a background of basic skills and knowledge needed what? To get into college? To become employable? To be able to cope in modern society? To be an informed and rational citizen? To become an interesting person capable of thinking for him or herself?

I heard a couple behind me in line at Border's the other day complaining that a friend of their son's is in college and cannot do long division. The were people whom I would be willing to bet $1000 could not locate Afghanistan or Iraq on an unlabeled globe. Are either of these essential? What skills do we need? What facts do we need to know? Science? Civics? Geography? Grammar? Literature?

From there we reach the more difficult problem "How do we best reach these goals?" Accountability folks love objective test measures, but they raise two problems. First, are the tests valid? Consider the famous example of the SAT which is designed for one thing only -- as a predictor of success in the first year of college. Well known that males do better than females on the test and that overwhelmingly females do better than males in the first year of college. Second, of course, observing the system alters the system. In the educational version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, high-stakes testing changes how teachers teach. They teach to the test, killing the real educational value of classroom time. Think of that teacher -- and we all have one -- the one who lit the intellectual fire, the one who made you excited about a subject you had never heard of. Testing destroys the gems to give us more rocks.

All of this, of course, is based on the assumption that skill acquisition and fact memorization is the primary, or only, goal of public education. Is it? Of course not. But it is all that we will talk about, so Michael, I think you may be onto something here.

ay asks,
"Ooh, this was bugging me a few weeks ago while I was grading exams. Why blue books? Why are they blue, where did they start, and how did they spread?"
From the LA Times:
Michele V. Cloonan, chairwoman of UCLA’s Department of Library and Information Science, believes they evolved from the cheaply produced, paper-covered school books, almanacs and novels known as the bibliotheque bleue, or blue library, in 18th century France.

Before the invention of chlorine bleach in 1774 revolutionized paper production, white books had to be made from white rags. Blue books came from blue rags, often from the old clothes of sailors. Blue paper was the cheap stuff, used for the covers of throwaway books...

It was 1857 when Harvard’s faculty and Board of Overseers approved the first use of blue books in the New World. The rationale was that this was a better test of a student’s analytic and writing skills than the traditional oral exams, said John R. Thelin, a University of Kentucky historian. By 1865, Yale fell into line with written exams. Blue books spread from there.
Now, many are made from recycled paper and some producers are using green covers to market that point. Other schools pick their own colors to prevent cheating (blue books are easily attained) and as a fashion statement.

Finally, YKW asks,
"What would the price of a gallon of gas need to be for one to turn a healthy profit on the driving of a truck loaded with 10-cent refund cans to Michigan from New York City? Assume for purposes of this question that the cans can be collected over time for no marginal cost (or that the collector/s enjoyed the beverages well enough to consider the cans garbage and not worth the $0.05 return available). Also, lets assume a Ford Econoline, rentable for $100/day."
Is it even possible? Well, given that it is 614 miles from NYC to Detroit and econoline vans get 17 mpg on the highway, and according to the latest Lundberg Survey of 5000 gas stations nationwide, the average price of a gallon of unleaded is $1.75, it would cost $63.21 in fuel. Add in the c-note for the rental (assuming you can drop it off in Detroit), that's $163.21 in overhead. now, if you get the cans for free and turn them in for a dime a piece, that 16, 321 cans. Assuming that each can can be crushed to about 3 inches by 3 inches by 2 inches, you could fit 22,080 of them in the 230 cubic foot econoline making it possible.

However, in light of the Seinfeld episode, there were folks who tried importing out of state cans and were given 25 years hard time for fraud and continuing a criminal enterprise. As a result, a new law has been put into place where a single person can only be reimbursed $25 per day. So, now you need to factor in overnight stays for seven nights and the cost of twenty-one meals. Let's say, a $60 motel and $20 a day for food -- that's another $560 to be added to the cost.

At this point, my guess is that the price of gas would have to be a healthy negative number to make the endeavor profitable. But, of course, if gasoline was available for a negative price, you could just make a living taking gasoline, getting paid for it, and storing it somewhere.