How good is the US education system?

The US education system comes in for a lot of trash talk in the media and by politicians and business people. This has seeped into the public consciousness and it is now taken as a given that the US educational system is in dire straits and needs radical changes in order to be rescued from disaster. The 2011 book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa is another such book that pointed the finger at US college education as failing its students. Using a single measure of achievement, it compared a cohort of students from the first semester to the fourth semester and claimed to find negligible gains in learning, hence the title of their book. [Read more…]

The hare and the pineapple

You may have heard about the infamous question on New York State’s test for all eighth graders that gave them a fable about a hare and a pineapple and then asked them two questions. (You can read the fable and the questions here.) This caused a lot of head scratching by students, parents, and educators alike because the story and the questions seemed to make no sense. [Read more…]

Those dangerous dinosaurs

I am a little late to this story about how in the US extreme sensitivity to religious people’s beliefs can result in the most bizarre policies being implemented. For example, the New York City department of education has banned certain words in citywide tests because they may upset students. What words? ‘Dinosaur’ for one. [Read more…]

Using education to entrench privilege

Suppose you are in charge of a community college and there turns out to be a huge demand for math and English classes so that students are being repeatedly turned away because they are full. You might think that it is a good thing that people are seeking more education and that the solution is to open up more classes to meet that demand by (say) hiring more math and English teachers. [Read more…]

Critical thinking and argumentation

If there is one thing that people can agree on as a universal good in education, it is that we should seek to increase the critical thinking abilities in people. Actually, that is not quite true. During the days when the debate over intelligent design was raging in Ohio in 2003, one letter to the editor by an ID advocate dismissed [Read more…]

Teenager faces down Kansas governor and school principal

High schooler Emma Sullivan refuses to apologize to the governor of Kansas Sam Brownback for criticizing him on Twitter. The governor’s staff apparently scours the internet for unflattering things about him and noticed her tweet and reported her to her school principal who, rather than stand up for Emma’s free speech rights (after all, if making fun of a politician isn’t allowed by the First Amendment, what is?) demanded that she apologize.

You knew from the beginning that this could not help but end badly for Brownback and so it has. He is now forced to apologize for his staff over-reacting. The school district has also backed off in its demand for an apology.

Once again, I think that this is a victory for the internet. Emma received a lot of support from the blogosphere and it may have helped her stand firm against the bullying.

Way to go, Emma.

Case Connection Zone

One of the best things about working at Case Western Reserve University is that it has been very forward-looking and supportive in providing technology to serve the needs of its students, employees, and the community.

In the early days of the internet CWRU, with its Freenet system, was the first in the nation to provide free internet access to anyone who had a dial-up modem. It later was the first university campus to have an entirely fiber-optic network going to every office, classroom, and dorm room on the campus.

In partnerships with other local non-profit groups, CWRU has been expanding access to free broadband access to city dwellers. This video (admittedly also a plug for the university) shows a new initiative to provide free gigabit broadband fiber-optic network access to the campus community and an adjacent neighborhood to research what kinds of new uses might emerge, with an eye to expanding the reach of the network.

The secrets of an academic ghostwriter

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had an article by someone who has made a good living (about $66,000 this year) by writing custom research papers on almost any topic for undergraduate and graduate students who hire him to do their assignments.

I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

His strategy was to collect the minimal information necessary from Wikipedia and other online sources and simply write everything down, cutting and pasting quotes, and using filler language to get to the necessary word count, without rewriting or editing or polishing.

After I’ve gathered my sources, I pull out usable quotes, cite them, and distribute them among the sections of the assignment. Over the years, I’ve refined ways of stretching papers. I can write a four-word sentence in 40 words. Just give me one phrase of quotable text, and I’ll produce two pages of ponderous explanation. I can say in 10 pages what most normal people could say in a paragraph.

I’ve also got a mental library of stock academic phrases: “A close consideration of the events which occurred in ____ during the ____ demonstrate that ____ had entered into a phase of widespread cultural, social, and economic change that would define ____ for decades to come.” Fill in the blanks using words provided by the professor in the assignment’s instructions.

The reason he gets away with this is because this is what some students do on their own. For them too, their first version is the one they hand in as their ‘finished’ work, so the roughness of the submitted manuscript must seem familiar to the teacher. As the author says:

I don’t ever edit my assignments. That way I get fewer customer requests to “dumb it down.” So some of my work is great. Some of it is not so great. Most of my clients do not have the wherewithal to tell the difference, which probably means that in most cases the work is better than what the student would have produced on his or her own. I’ve actually had customers thank me for being clever enough to insert typos. “Nice touch,” they’ll say.

As a writing generalist myself, I was vaguely curious about whether I could be as successful a ghostwriter, assuming that I could overcome any scruples. I don’t think I could simply because over the years I have developed habits that would give me away immediately. I would not be able to avoid being opinionated and this would undoubtedly set off suspicions. I am also somewhat obsessive about avoiding typos and grammatical errors, repeatedly rewriting and editing even for my blog posts. My books may not be great works of literature but they are ‘clean’ in the sense that they have very few or no basic errors of this sort. All this attention to detail would slow me down too much, while also likely to set off alarm bells for the reader. As an academic hired gun, I would be a bust.

I was of course bothered by students passing off other people’s work as their own and wondered how widespread it was. But I was also impressed with the writer’s ability to churn out papers on topics for which he had no training and yet be able to fool the student’s teachers and even their graduate thesis advisors into thinking their students had written them.

This article makes for fascinating but disturbing reading and is as much an indictment of the way our educational system is structured, that enables such practices to pass undetected, as it is of the students who use ghostwriters.