A Philosopher's Blog

Why So Few Excellent Teachers?

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 30, 2010
University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni Sch...
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Since I have a fair amount of experience in higher education, I will venture to answer this question. One obvious reason is that teacher salaries at the K-12 level generally are not that great. However, even when the salary is good, the rewards for excellence tend to be disproportionate to the excellence. That is, teachers often get out far less than they put in.

Interestingly enough, one drain on the pool of excellent K-12 teachers is probably higher education. If someone loves to teach and has excellent abilities, they will quickly realize that the college/university level provides far more return for the effort. The pay, status, facilities, and benefits are generally much better. The problems are far less. In my own case, I did a stint as a high school teacher. While I love to teach, running study halls, dealing with discipline problems, and so on all made the job more of an ordeal than a pleasure. So, I did the obvious thing and became a professor, thus keeping the best aspects of being a teacher and ditching most of the bad ones.

Another obvious drain on the pool of excellent teachers is that someone who has the virtues needed to be an excellent teacher (intelligence, knowledge, leadership, creativity, charisma and so on) can excel in other fields that generally offer far more to a person. Such an amazing person could start her own company, have a high paying and rewarding career, or become a major force in politics. While some people do find the rewards of teaching to be sufficient, obviously enough most people with such excellence do not. They seek other careers and far greater rewards.

While it is tempting to say that such excellent people should be suitably rewarded (bribed) into going into K-12 teaching, there is the obvious question of whether the resources spent to get such stars would yield greater benefits than spending the same resources to get more average teachers. While sports teams can often afford to pay stars cosmic wages, there are actually very few professional sports teams while there are many,  many schools.

Of course, improving salaries and fixing the problems that make teaching K-12 unpleasant can go a long way in improving the quality of education. This might well be better than trying to take a star approach.

Another reason why there are so few excellent teachers is that there are relatively few truly excellent people. After all, think about your own general experiences at stores, work, and so on. How many truly excellent and amazing people do you know? Of course, I suspect that one reason why we have few excellent people is that our educational system has some serious problems. This creates a rather unfortunate problem: we need a better education system to get better people, but we need better people to have a  better educational system.

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Luck & Education

Posted in Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 29, 2010
Seal of the United States Department of Education
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Education is once again in the spotlight and what this light reveals has generally not been very good. Since the general consensus is that education is “broken”, I will not endeavor to argue for that point. Instead, I will look at the role that luck plays in the American education system.

I am not taking luck as some sort of metaphysical force on par with the ancient Greek concept of Fate. Rather, I’m using the term in a fairly general sense to stand for what depends primarily on chance rather than choice.

One obvious role that luck plays in education (and life in general) is the matter of birth. A person’s parents and their economic status have, obviously enough, a huge impact on a person’s educational future.  While the role that the parents play in the education process is important, the factor I will focus on is the matter of economic status.

As a matter of fact, the quality of schools tends to vary in proportion to the wealth of the surrounding community (with some notable exceptions). Parents generally know this and often attempt to move into the neighborhoods that serve the best schools. Obviously enough, parents who lack the money needed to live in such areas will generally lose out on getting their kids into the better schools. This will begin the process of shortchanging their education and this will most likely lay down a weak educational foundation.

Money also allows parents to send their kids to private schools, an option that is generally not open to poorer families. While private schools are not always better than public schools, parents can buy a good education for their kids provided that they have the money and do some research. For the kids this is, obviously enough, all a matter of luck-being born into a family that has enough money to buy a good education either directly (private school) or indirectly (by living in the right area).

The solution  to this is obvious enough: make all public schools good, that way luck/chance is less of a factor in the quality of education that American children receive. Of course, the idea of making things equal and fair might be regarded by some as a sort of creeping socialism. After all, if all the schools were equally good, people might start thinking that other inequalities will need to be addressed. Perhaps that is why certain folks are against true education reform: they can see where it might lead.

Another way in which luck plays a role is clearly an example of chance. I recently learned that some of the best public schools actually have a lottery system. As such, getting into such schools is (supposed to be) entirely a matter of luck. While this can be seen as a random sort of democratic approach, it hardly seems like a very good approach. While having some good schools that people want their kids to attend so badly that a lottery is needed is better than having none, but it seems unjust to leave something so important to random chance. The solution, as before, is to work so that all schools are good and thus eliminate the need for a lottery to divide up scarce resources. Of course, this is easy to say but hard to do. Obviously, we are busy dumping vast sums of cash into two other countries and our war machine, so it is hardly surprising that funds are a bit short for such endeavors. However, we might find that as well are trying to build up Iraq and Afghanistan, that we are sliding down ourselves-at least when it comes to education.

Of course, the problem of education cannot be fixed merely by throwing money at it. Many of the fixes would actually save money or cost little. But, more must be said about the solutions.

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A Farewell to Chalk

Posted in Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on September 28, 2010
stick-slip effect with a shalk on a blackboard
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As a young student, I was not very fond of chalkboards, probably because they often figured prominently in various punishments (cleaning them or writing something 100 times on them both come to mind). In college I grew indifferent to them, but when I first started teaching I disliked them. Too much dust, too much squeak.

Then I encountered dry erase markers and white boards. At first, they seemed kind of cool: bright colors, no dust, and no squeak. My positive view lasted about as long as my first dry erase marker (that is, not long).

One reason for my lack of love for dry erase is purely practical: the markers cost way more than chalk. But, one might wonder, why should I care? Doesn’t the school provide supplies? Well, I did get a box of expo markers once, a few years ago. Since then I have had to buy my own.  Chalk is wicked cheap, so my wicked cheap side likes chalk.

Another reason for my lack of love is that the dry erase markers are plastic and run out quick. That means that at the end of the semester I’ve used up a lot of plastic. Sure, they might recycle it (or not), but chalk just turns to dust as you use it. I suspect that creating chalk also has less environmental impact. Or perhaps they have to kill an endangered chalk owl to make each box. I never asked because I suspect that might be true.

Chalk also has in its favor that you can tell how much chalk is left in a piece by looking at it. With a dry erase marker, I find out that it is dead when I try to write, then start digging through my backpack trying to find a live one. Never had that problem with chalk.

Another handy thing is that when another professor was out of chalk, I could easily break my piece in half, thus sharing the chalk. While I can break a dry erase marker in half, that generally does not work out quite so well.

Sadly (or maybe not) I’ve accepted that my chalk days are over. All the classrooms where I teach now have dry erase boards (probably to condition the students for corporate culture by getting them accustomed to  people  putting ridiculous things up on a white board). I admit that I have been carrying a few pieces of chalk, on the off chance I would someday see a blackboard again. But, I accepted the end today and put my chalk away.

Of course, I didn’t throw it away. Maybe someday we’ll learn that dry erase markers cause thyroid inversion or spontaneous goat pox and the chalk board will be back. On that day I will be ready, regardless of how poxed my goats are.

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On Being Freshly Pressed

Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 27, 2010
WordPress
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Like most folks on WordPress, I see the Freshly Pressed blogs each time I log in. If a title or graphic interests me, I will go and check it out. I was recently pleased to see one of my own posts listed as Freshly Pressed.

There are two main effects of being Freshly Pressed. The first is that the hits to the blog go way up. Second, that post is flooded with comments.

In regards to the blog hits, it might interest some to know that it is a spike in two ways. First, there was a massive increased of hits from previous days. Second, the hits are a spike in that they are very large on the pressed post but there is little spread to the other posts. As such, it seems that people come to see the post and then most depart without looking around much more.

I did notice that the hits were greater on the second day of being Freshly Pressed. But this might be due to the day of the week rather than due to the second day being a spike day. I suspect that the long term impact of being pressed will be very modest or even minimal. My 15 minutes of blog fame, so to speak.

As far as the comments go, I suspect that people are mainly drawn to comment on a Freshly Pressed post out of a desire to funnel traffic to their own blogs. This is, of course, sensible and all part of the blogging game. However, some people are clearly interested in the post itself and have some interesting and relevant things to say. As with the hits, the comments also seem to be a spike. They increased dramatically and center on the post. While I did get some extra comments on my other posts, the comments are clearly focused where they can do other bloggers the most good-on the Freshly Pressed post.

I’m reasonable sure that the hits and comments will soon return to their previous quantities: good, but hardly remarkable. On one hand, I will be sorry to see my fleeting minor fame fade away. On the other hand, being Freshly Pressed is a bit like hosting a free beer keg party: people you don’t know show up, tap the kegs and leave…most likely to never be seen again now that the kegs are dry. While having such a party is fun for a while, having one everyday would get a bit tiring.

In any case, I appreciate the folks at WordPress picking my post and I am glad that so many people stopped by to read, comment, and plug their own blogs.

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Pledging a Deficit

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 26, 2010
"Republican Party Elephant" logo
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While I have been accused of being a typical liberal, I am actually a fiscal conservative. This means that I think that we should be careful in our expenditures and be certain that what we are getting is worth the cost. I am also not a big fan of taxes. In general, I think that I can spend my money more wisely that the folks in Congress. However, I do recognize the need to fund essential public goods and services, such as education, defense (against enemies foreign, domestic and medical), and infrastructure.

When Republicans talk about cutting the deficit and reducing taxes, my ears perk up a little bit (they would perk up more, but I am familiar with their past promises). Seeing their actual plans, in contrast, makes my eyes sad. This was true in the Contract with America and is also true in regards to the latest Republican “X to/with/on/behind America.”

In addition to the usual vague statements about “traditional family values” and reducing the deficit, they also present a fiscal agenda. Unfortunately, this agenda is inconsistent with reducing the deficit.

First, they plan to extend all the Bush tax cuts. While this is supposed to help the economy, the fact that these tax cuts have been in effect through the recession should indicate something about how effective they are in that regard. As far as the deficit goes, the estimate is that keeping all the cuts in place will increase the deficit about $4 trillion by 2020.

Second, they plan to offer small businesses new tax breaks over the next two years to the tune of $25 billion. While the received wisdom is that small businesses create jobs, the actual job numbers seems to contradict this. If this is the case, than tax cuts for small businesses would not be a wise investment and would seem to primarily serve to increase the deficit. Of course, politics is a largely about perception and not reality and the perception is that small business is the key to American employment.

Third, they explicitly leave national security funding out of the cuts, despite the fact that defense and security spending are truly massive. It is indeed ironic that one area in which some meaningful and effective cuts could be made is being placed off limits. Lest anyone think I am anti-defense liberal, my view on defense spending is largely influenced by Eisenhower and Gates. As such, I am for an effective defense while being against the defense of the bloated and wasteful.

Fourth, as far as what they plan on cutting, they point to $100 billion in discretionary spending that is not related to security. However, this is a rather small amount and the plan is currently lacking details as to what, exactly will be cut.  They also say they will push back Obamacare while also suggesting that any popular aspects of the plan will be retained.

In light of this, it seems unreasonable to believe that the Republicans plan would actually reduce the deficit. In fact, it seems reasonable to expect that it would actually increase it. They, as politicians do, rely on the hope that people will be taken in by their vague promises while not actually looking at the details. The Republicans promised fiscal restraint years ago and then spent eight years amassing a mountain of debt. I suspect that they will do the same if given the chance.

Lest anyone leap in and accuse me of favoring the Democrats, I will say that Clinton did a good job, but that it seems equally unlikely that the Democrats will do anything meaningful about the deficit. I had hoped that the Tea Party would have had more of an impact on the Republicans, but it seems that spending is now hardwired into both parties.

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Sharktopus

Posted in Aesthetics by Michael LaBossiere on September 25, 2010

The greatest thing since Velveeta. It looks like it even kills Crockett and Tubbs.

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Old Wine in Old Bottles

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 25, 2010
A bottle of Pécharmant wine
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Since the Democrats seem to be largely unable to accomplish much, despite holding the White House and Congress, I was actually hoping that the Republicans would make good on their post defeat rhetoric. They had shown some contrition over what had happened on their watch and promised that they would learn from this. I was skeptical, but willing to see what they would bring forth. The Tea Party Movement also gave me some hope-it seemed like a true, independent movement had arisen that was critical of both parties. However, it would seem that my hope (like many folks hope in Obama) was mistaken.

The Republicans recently released their Pledge to America in a lumberyard. Perhaps this was a clever pick to show, metaphorically, that they were going to rebuild America. Or maybe they were saying they were going to be nailing America (again). Or both.

For those who have been around a while, the Pledge sounds like a less impressive version of Newt’s Contract With America. Newt at least had the sense to do his event someplace other than where they sell wood.

While the Republicans are promising something new, they seem to be trying to sell old wine in the same old bottle. They did, however, paste a new label over the old one (or at least part of it). This is not very appealing, given the past results.

It is said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Perhaps the Republicans are thus insane. Or maybe they think we are: perhaps Republican political strategy is saying the same thing over and over and hoping people will vote for them. It did work once, so perhaps it will work again. Provided that people either forget that all this is the same old stuff or are so sick of the Democrats that they will let the Republicans returns to power. Of course, in the Republicans favor, they actually have some wine (albeit old) in their bottles while the Democrats don’t even seem to have a bottle.

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Deleting Principles

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 24, 2010
Police
Blog Police (Image via Wikipedia)

Despite the post name, this is not about getting rid of your principles (although that could be handy for folks considering a career in politics). Rather, it is about when it is acceptable to delete comments from a blog post.

To start off, let me get the easy ones out of the way. As I argued in an earlier post, deleting spam and web droppings seems perfectly acceptable. No blog has an obligation to serve as free advertising for spammers and web droppings have as much right to remain as bird droppings.  Now on to matters a bit more controversial.

In general, there seem to be two main areas on which to assess whether a comment should remain or be banished by deletion. These are, obviously enough, tone/style and content.

In regards to tone/style, those that are excessively negative tend to provide a basis on which to delete in a principled way. Examples of negative tone/style include being needlessly hateful, needlessly condescending, or needlessly hostile. As others have noted, being negative (or, to be more technical, an ass) out of proportion to the provocation seem to provide grounds for considering deletion.

Not surprisingly, drawing a line that will allow consistent deletion can be a challenge. Despite this challenge, a consistent principle seems to be rather desirable. After all, as in law and ethics, the rules should be consistent and non-arbitrary. That way people know, in advance, what sort of behavior is acceptable and what is not. From a practical standpoint, this also helps avoid conflict over such matters and this is generally a good thing for a blog. After all, the idea of having a blog is to attract readers and active participants rather than drive them away.

Blog moderators will vary in what is considered tolerable in regards to tone/style. Those that prefer a rougher approach will tolerate more negative tones and styles. Those who wish to have a nicer environment or prefer a blog that seems more professional in character will no doubt tolerate less.

As a general principle, it does seem reasonable to expect civil behavior. Since there is already a well established set of principles in this area, it makes good sense to assume (unless otherwise noted) that these general principles apply on a blog. For example, being hateful, using needless vulgarities and being excessively condescending all violate the intuitive standards of civility.

However, to the degree that these are a matter of etiquette there is a great deal of flexibility. After all, what counts as rude or negative  is often a matter of context.  For example, some people are quite comfortable with the casual use of “obscene” words and see them as part of everyday vocabulary. So, while it seems reasonable to accept the general principle that  excessively negative comments should be deleted, what counts as excessively negative will need to be defined by the blog moderator, preferably by working with the community of the blog.

On my own blog, I follow the “common sense” rules of civility: don’t be needlessly hateful, keep the obscenity in check, avoid being excessively condescending, and show the degree of respect that one would like to receive in return. Since I lack Victorian sensibilities and have been hardened by years of online gaming, I tend to be fairly tolerant of some rough talk-provided that there is some merit to the comments. This provides a nice transition to the matter of content.

Deleting on the basis of content is perhaps the most controversial (with some notable exceptions like spam). In some cases, it will seem quite acceptable to delete comments. For example, comments that entirely lacking in relevance but are full of racist, sexist or other hateful remarks are excellent candidates for deletion. Not surprisingly, many blogs have rules against such comments (as well as against comments that can cause legal trouble, such as threats and libelous claims).

In these cases as well as less extreme cases, a reasonable principle seems to be to weigh the positive value of a comment (its merit measured in terms of what it adds to the discussion) against the negative aspects of the comment. These negative aspects can include both style/tone and content. For example, a comment might be relevant to a post and raise a legitimate criticism of said post, but it might be presented in a condescending tone and might also contain insulting content.

As is to be expected, if the positive value of the comment is determined to be outweighed by its negative aspects, then deletion would seem to be justified. This can be justified by the obvious fact that the person making the comment could have written the comment without the negative aspects and thus made her point without all the negative tone/style or content. There is, after all, generally no need to be an ass and no one has a right to expect that such needless “assing” will be tolerated.

On  my own blog I am inclined to tolerate a fair amount of negative content or style/tone, provided that it is offset by an even greater amount of positive content. Rather than deleting such comments, it seems that a better approach is to at least make an attempt to persuade the person to be less negative and thus contribute more to the discussion.

Some blogs take the approach of deleting comments that disagree with the slant, agenda or goal of the blog. For example, a liberal blog moderator might delete any criticisms that are conservative in nature even if the comments are well reasoned and civil.

While blog moderators have the right to do this, this does not seem like an appropriate approach to such comments. Of course, my view is based on the assumption that an open discussion that allows criticism is both valuable and desirable. Other folks, obviously enough, see “discussion” as a tool for advancing a specific agenda or view and thus have no tolerance for any opposing views or criticism. That, I believe, is the wrong way to run a blog on both moral and critical thinking grounds. I’ll leave my reasons here for the discussion that is likely to follow.

In the case of a philosophy blog, this sort of approach would seem to grossly violate the traditional spirit of philosophy. As such, on my own blog I never delete comments because they are critical of my views, arguments, or beliefs.

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Obama’s Downturn

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2010
Official presidential portrait of Barack Obama...

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Obama came into office riding a wave of hope about change. Now that he has been in office for a while, the big change seems to be a loss of hope.

While the Obama administration managed to succeed in the health care matter, there seem to be few other clear victories. One aspect of the problem is that much of what he has done was focused on damage control in regards to the economy and handling the two wars that he inherited. In the case of the economy, his efforts probably helped prevent something significantly worse. However, telling people “hey, it could be a lot worse” generally does not win them over or make them glow with positive feelings. What people focus on is not how much worse it could have been, but how bad it is and that they want it to be much better. While the Republicans have worked hard to foster this perception, the folks in the Obama administration have failed to fight an effective propaganda war. More importantly, while the big companies are growing fat once more, “main street” Americans are still facing high unemployment and other economic woes that were largely created by the companies that are doing quite well now. Obama and his fellows seem to be unable to solve this problem.

Obama and his administration are also the target of a massive propaganda effort on the part of pundits like Rush and Beck. He is also the prime target of Fox News. While the rest of the media is supposed to be liberally biased, they seem to be quite willing to criticize him now.  This, of course, does not help Obama. The administration seems to have lost the old Obama magic that enabled him to charm (or, some might say, dominate) many folks in the media. Now, it would seem, he is just another President.

Obama has also been hampered by Congress. While his party is in charge, the Democrats are…well, Democrats. While comedians such as Jon Stewart like to make fun of the Democrats ability to screw themselves, much of the mocking is grounded in solid facts. To use a specific example, Obama promised that he would get “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repealed. While most Americans favor his plan, the attempt to repeal it failed in an orgy of political bickering. This makes the administration look ineffective and also makes congress look even worse.

I think some of the problems Obama is having can also be attributed to his lack of experience as well as his character. He does not seem inclined, as of yet, to do the sort of things that are needed to actually get things done in the fetid swamp that is Washington. He also seems unable to herd the Democrats (to be fair, that is harder than herding drunken cats), keep the confidence of those who believed in him, and effectively fight against the Republicans and their media allies.

Obama still has time to turn things around. Of course, he also has the time to win the undesirable title of Carter The Second.

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Proving X, Concluding Y

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 22, 2010

Description:

This fallacy occurs when a conclusion is drawn from evidence that does not support that conclusion but another claim.  The form of this reasoning is as follows:

  1. Evidence for claim X is presented.
  2. Conclusion: Y

While all fallacies are such that the alleged evidence provided in the premise(s) fails to adequately support the conclusion, what distinguishes this fallacy is that the evidence presented actually does provide support for a claim. However, it does not support the conclusion that is actually presented.

This fallacy typically occurs when the evidence for X seems connected or relevant to Y in a logical way, but actually is not. It is this seeming relevance or connection that lures the victim into accepting the conclusion. As such, this differs from fallacies in which the victim is lured to the conclusion by an emotional appeal.

Obviously, this fallacy (like all fallacies) is a case of non-sequiter (“does not follow”) in which the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises. However, this specific sort of mistake is common and interesting enough to justify giving it its own name and entry.

Example #1

“I am troubled by the reports of binge drinking by college students. According to the statistics I have seen, about 19% of college students are binge drinkers and this leads to problems ranging from poor academic performance to unplanned pregnancies. Since people often drink in response to pressure, this shows that professors are putting their students under too much pressure and hence need to make their classes easier.”

Example #2

“Our product testing revealed that 60% of the people on Acme Diet Master reported that they felt less hungry when using the product.  This shows that 60% ate less when using our product. I think we have our next big product!”

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