Racing to the Test

by Matthew Koslowski on March 31, 2010
in Essays

In This Essay

“Only Two States Win Race to Top” by Neil King, Jr., The Wall Street Journal, March 30, 2010
On the surprising science of motivation by Dan Pink, TED, August 2009
Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us by Daniel M. Koretz, Ph.D.

I think the “Race to the Top” initiative by the Obama administration is as wrongheaded as “No Child Left Behind”.

Do not get me wrong, I believe that both President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have the best interests of our children at heart. And, I believe that President Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy, who people forget co-sponsored the legislation in the Senate, had the best interest of our children at heart. But I think they all are gravely mistaken.

I have worked at banks for the past three years. I have a pay-for-performance incentive plan, based on how many checking accounts, savings accounts, home equity loans and lines of credit, and investment referrals I make.

And it does not motivate me.

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Are Stars Fixed?

He grimaced after he realized what I had asked. He thought of how to phrase what he had to say. He was not happy that I had asked the question. He took sip of his drink. While he was fidgeting, I figured out what he was thinking. He tossed around for what else he could do to avoid answering the question.

“You don’t think my writing has much potential,” I answered for him. I had heard it before, though before it had been about my poetry and not about my fiction.

“Well, here’s the thing, Matthew, you’re a friend and I like you.”

“That is true, but that doesn’t change the quality of my writing.”

I thought about what he had said about the piece I shared with him. At first he had thought it was a thinly veiled diary entry. When I told him I’d never experienced anything as painful as my character had, he complimented my imagination.

“I think you may well be published and you will well get some good reviews. But is it enduring? When I think of a novel, I think of a piece that is art for art’s sake. I don’t see the art there.”

I thought about Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft which I’ve been reading. He writes that he think it is possible for a competent writer to become a good writer, but it’s never possible for a good writer to leap the chasm, becoming a great writer. Since reading that I have been wrestling with the idea.

If, for example, there is a limit to how quickly an individual can run — only a limited number of people can run at Olympic speeds — does it follow that there is a limit to how well one can write? Perhaps writing talent is like singing talent: everyone is born able to sing in a specific range, with some training someone can reach some notes higher or lower, but a bass will never be a tenor.

As I sipped my own drink, I thought about how just the other night after reading a friend’s work, I told her that I wasn’t sure if there was any there there. And now I was hearing the same thing. I thought about what he said.

What I had shared were five and a half double-spaced pages of my first foray into writing after a long absence. Could Faulkner’s friends see the art in his first attempts? Didn’t Shakespeare’s genius develop through his first plays before he had fully mastered his craft? Some critics say that Shakespeare’s first plays show strong attempts to emulate the more established playwrights of his day.

My friend smiled. “What the hell do I know? Every genius was underestimated in his day. Here’s to your writing!”


by Matthew Koslowski on March 17, 2010
in Anecdotes

The covers were all rolled in on themselves. I knew all the pages would be stuck together. The first book I picked up was On Love and Barley: The Haiku of Basho. And it dripped like a wet sponge.

Despite the grief at having lost hundreds of dollars worth of books, I found comfort in picking up the works of Basho. Although he could have had a comfortable life as a military officer or a small official, Basho renounced that to become a poet, to teach poetry, and to travel. His disciples built him a modest hut and planted him a banana tree. In fact, they built him several huts throughout his life because each was destroyed.

All Basho owned was some clothes, his hut when he had one, his banana tree, and his art.

I have long admired Basho’s poetry and the sparseness of his life. Back in college I remember, perhaps after spending time reading Basho, saying that a trunk full of books, a trunk full of clothes, a pen and paper, and a sleeping bag was all that I should ever need.

Quite against my choosing, my life will be more spare. More spare materially, but perhaps more full.

Perhaps because I picked up Basho first and I remembered my old ideal of living a life around my art instead of around material goods, I was not too grieved by the loss of my books. There were some losses I will grieve.

Many of the papers I wrote in college and course readers and other miscellany were soaked through.

The next book I picked up was priceless. As a Christmas gift, I received a dual language edition of Rilke’s poetry, in the original German with Russian translations. A hardcover book, I had had some hope that I could save it and set it in front of a space heater. When I looked in after it the next day, it looked swollen and beyond saving.

Another priceless book, a dual language edition of Petrarch’s Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Lyrics in Italian with English translations by Robert M. Durling, sat in the water. I have two copies of that book, though only the ruined one is accounted for right now and the other may share the other’s fate. What I do know is that I received the one that was ruined as a gift from my favorite college literature professor, Dr. James Biehl.

Then I picked up Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. While sad to lose that book, I chuckled. How appropriate a book to lose. As I picked up books and papers, tried to guide water to the sump pump, I felt there was something Sisyphean in the effort. And beyond the effort of clean up, I thought of other Sisyphean tasks.

Will I work to earn money to buy these books again only to worry that they may get ruined again? Or will I use this opportunity to create my life more consciously, to consume less but enjoy more?

Perhaps even Sisyphus can smile.

Can we teach teachers?

by Matthew Koslowski on March 11, 2010
in Anecdotes

While study after study shows that teachers who once boosted student test scores are very likely to do so in the future, no research [Jonah Rockoff, economist at Columbia University] can think of has shown a teacher-training program to boost student achievement. So why invest in training when, as he told me recently, “you could be throwing your money away”?
–From “Building a Better Teacher” by Elizabeth Green, The New York Times Magazine, March 2, 2010.

When I first read the above in The New York Times Magazine, I was shocked. This economist questions if we can teach people to be successful teachers.

While I believe that there are natural limits to each person’s ability, I believe that education and training help people increase their natural strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. Being able to teach someone something requires more than just knowledge, it requires the ability to communicate that knowledge. Education and training in methods can help teachers acquire the ability to communicate their knowledge.

Imagine that instead of providing hands-on training to Emergency Medical Technicians we taught them only the theoretical concepts behind the techniques. They learn anatomy, biology and some chemistry; they discuss the theory and the history of the techniques; but they are never taught the techniques themselves. Then, in the field, the technician does not know how provide CPR and someone dies.

In this scenario, would an economist question whether teaching particular techniques and methods in addition to academic knowledge was worth the money?

If you think my scenario sounds far-fetched, please read the following quote. In 2006, Arthur Levine, a former president of Teacher College at Columbia University, wrote:

“Today, the teacher-education curriculum is a confusing patchwork. Academic instruction and clinical instruction are disconnected. Graduates are insufficiently prepared for the classroom.”
–Arthur Levine, quoted in “Building a Better Teacher” by Elizabeth Green, The New York Times Magazine

Despite these two quotes, the article “Building a Better Teacher” focuses on Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools and his research into what makes good and great teachers. He systematically surveyed and videotaped teachers who students consistently scored well year after year. From his research, he was able to distill many techniques that he found the best teachers employed.

Mr. Lemov’s work shows that research is being done into whether teacher training can help improve educational outcomes. The article convinced me that it is possible to improve communication of ideas using techniques and methods that are not currently a standard part of teacher education.

Future teachers and their future students will be best served by the changing focus of teacher training institutes from high level, abstract pedagogical theory to on-the-ground, concrete teaching methods.