The ideology of an “ideal” science

One of the worst fates to befall an idea is that it becomes an ideal. We argue against this when the ideal is a deity; ever notice how defenders of religion like to fall back on the argument that they’re helping people, that they inspire high sentiments, that they’ve supported arts and music, etc.? I agree with all that. My problem is when they bring in their invisible, unquestionable god as an authority (who must be addressed through the medium of his priests, of course), and suddenly we’re dealing with an idol who is, by definition, perfect, and all argument is shut down by fiat. Yeah, maybe the church is a bit exploitive, but JESUS LOVES YOU, so sit down, shut up, here’s the donation plate, and you’re going to Hell if you don’t love him back.

And by “love him back”, I mean support child-raping priests, preach the prosperity gospel, and burn that witch over there.

We are constantly asked to pretend that sordid realities don’t exist, in the name of the Lord. The servants of the church may be subject to human frailties, but keep your eyes on the perfection of the ideal, on paradise and the imagined flawless reification of the gods. It’s an old game, but it works. Humans are often quite ready to overlook overwhelmingly horrid situations if it’s done in the name of a beautiful concept — we’re used to suppressing our decency out of loyalty to a beautiful higher cause. Concentration camp guards enisted to serve the dream of Volk and Vaterland; brutal abuse of people who weren’t part of the dream were a small price to pay. Crusaders murdered and raped their way across the Holy Land in the cause of liberating Jesus’ home for Christendom. Americans vote to deregulate coal and oil extraction so they can work in dirty, dangerous jobs because Capitalism has taught them that jobs are important, and that tax breaks to plutocrats are a small price to pay to keep the dehumanizing machinery running.

And some people will allow people to suffer a lifetime of untreated syphilis in the name of the sacred Scientific Method. Some have their idealized vision of a future rational world where the variables are all flattened out, the control group cheerfully meets their fate, and the experimentals regard the electrode, the poison, the deprivation, the hallucinations, the sterilizations, the radiation burns, as a small price to pay for Progress.

Yeah, Science gets deified, too.

None of that is true. Not one word.

Science is universal…if you are wealthy enough to get the education you need to understand it.

Science is international…except for those cases where competition is whipped up to drive investment (space race, anyone?), or we are driven to keep technology out of the hands of countries we don’t like.

Science is inclusive…except that it isn’t. It’s expensive and difficult and access is restricted.

Science is nonpartisan and apolitical…hah. Lamar Smith. Scott Pruitt. Donald Trump. How out of touch can you be?

Science is a-gender, a-race, & a-ideological…the only people I’ve ever heard claim that are the kinds of people who complain about “identity politics” with a straight face. Identitatarianism is an alt-right, racist affliction.

Shermer is now trying to defend his fantasy by claiming that I was tweeting about an ideal we should strive for. That’s nice. If we haven’t met that ideal, shouldn’t we be addressing our shortcomings? And what definition of “strive” are you using that says we ought to be silent about disparities and failings and not march to oppose them?

An ideal is not a reality, and swiftly swapping in a nonexistent ideal when confronted with real problems does not make the problems go away.

And then there’s this appalling piece of theater:

Yesterday I hosted the theoretical physicist and popular science writer Lawrence Krauss for our Science Salon series and we were asked our thoughts on the March for Science by an audience member who had been following the Twitter-Storm over my tweet. Given that Krauss has worked in academia his entire career, including being involved in the hiring process of physicists, I asked him why people seem to think that science still excludes women and minorities (and others) when, in fact, it is peopled by professors who are almost entirely liberals who fully embrace the principles of inclusion (and the laws regarding affirmative action). Are we to believe that all these liberal academics, when behind closed doors, privately believe that women and minorities can’t cut it in science and so they continue to mostly hire only white men?

Krauss was unequivocal in his response. Absolutely not. There has never been a better time to be a woman in science, he explained, elaborating that at his university, Arizona State University, not only does the student body perfectly reflect the demographics of the state of Arizona, the President of ASU has mandated that if two candidates are equally qualified for a professorship, one a man and the other a woman, the woman should be selected for the job. Full stop.

Holy crap! Two white men have declared that the problems of sexism and racism have disappeared from the academy! High five!

What? No high five? I’m sure these guys will give that demonstration a standing ovation.


It’s made exceptionally ironic because these two men have…unfortunate…histories. Shermer, as is well known, has an unsavory reputation at conferences, and even tried to sue me for exposing his behavior. Krauss seems to think there’s nothing wrong with Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy convicted sex offender; Krauss has even bizarrely used science to defend him.

“If anything, the unfortunate period he suffered has caused him to really think about what he wants to do with his money and his time, and support knowledge,” says Krauss. “Jeffrey has surrounded himself with beautiful women and young women but they’re not as young as the ones that were claimed. As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people.” Though colleagues have criticized him over his relationship with Epstein, Krauss insists, “I don’t feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it.”

Oh god. Yes, that’s exactly the kind of person I want defending the ideals of science. It’s all right! He’s buying young women, but they’re not that young!

I have to explain that while academics are largely liberal, they are also people, and mostly white people at that, and often mostly men. People, it turns out, are flawed. We can have ideals (that word again!), but we rarely live up them, and we have to struggle to compensate by imposing policies to consciously compel us to meet those ideals. Since Krauss has been on hiring committees, he knows that there are constraints placed on his impulses — we get training from human resources on our policies — every time! I’ve been on many hiring committees, and every time we get the same rules recited at us in the same lectures. Why all the repetition? Why all the rules? Because even liberal professors can be implicitly sexist and racist, and it takes hard work to correct your biases.

These policies do work to correct historical injustices — most universities are working hard at social justice to create a fair balance of women and minorities. As Krauss points out, correctly, Arizona has seen excellent steady progress in improving representation in their student body, which is impressive for a state that elected Jan Brewer and Joe Arpaio.

But the triumphal attitude is inappropriate. It may be true that there “has never been a better time to be a woman in science”, but that does not mean the problems have gone away — it only means that in recent history the treatment of women in science has been abysmal. I suggest that Dr Krauss read Paige Brown Jarreau, or perhaps this summary of top issues for women faculty in science and engineering. He’s sufficiently liberal that he’d probably agree with all of those concerns, while simultaneously suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t be so loud about bringing them up.

I would also point out that while it’s very nice to point out the great strides that the University of Arizona is making, I also took a look at the University of Arizona Physics faculty page. It’s very impressive. 31 faculty listed.

Two of them are women. I know I’m only a biologist so maybe my math skills aren’t up to snuff, but I think that’s about 6.5%. I rather doubt that that accurately reflects the demographics of Arizona.

That is not to criticize the faculty! They may be entirely enlightened and eager to improve faculty representation, but are simply the recipients of a long history of privilege and unfair investment in education. It’s OK. I would not be at all surprised if a majority were active in bringing attention to the inequities present in science, and think we ought to be bringing these problems to the attention of the public, and funding agencies, and political entities.

Some, obviously, don’t.

By the way, I laughed aloud at that declaration from the university president that “if two candidates are equally qualified for a professorship, one a man and the other a woman, the woman should be selected for the job.” It sounds good. It’s completely cosmetic, though. There has never in the history of science been two candidates competing for a science position who are equally qualified. Never. There are so many skills involved in these occupations that people can’t possibly be equal in all things, and some of the reasons one might offer a tenure position to someone are subjective. Taking a look at the literature on implicit bias would be a good idea.

“Most people intend to be fair,” Handelsman insisted. “If you ask them, ‘When you do this evaluation, are you planning to be fair?’ they will 100 percent say yes. But most of us carry these unconscious, implicit prejudices and biases that warp our evaluation of people or the work that they do.” The biases Handelsman is referring to are most readily measured in hiring studies, where hiring managers are asked to evaluate potential candidates for a job or a promotion. With astonishing reliability, the evaluators will assign higher scores to the exact same application if the name on the application is male versus female. These studies are “absolutely canonical” in the social psychology literature, and their results have remained shockingly consistent over the past four decades despite all of the social progress that this country has made.

Most universities have initiatives to attempt to correct, or at least make us aware, of theses biases; mine certainly does, and here’s Northwestern’s list of resources for faculty hiring.

For anyone to tout an administrator’s declaration as if it definitively ends the problem is embarrassingly naïve. Or a conscious attempt to diminish a serious issue.

Academic corruption

I have literally been in this position: consoling a young black man who didn’t get into medical school despite getting straight As and demonstrating a deep commitment to working in community health, and an hour later meeting a young white woman who sailed into medical school despite having marginal MCAT scores and nothing but straight Cs, and who also never showed much concern about her career, just assuming she’d get in. The difference? He was a first generation college graduate. Both of her parents were doctors who had attended the medical school she got into. She was a “legacy”. Jebus, but I despise that casual acceptance of what is actually a corrupt practice.

Here’s another kind of corruption: Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is going to have a high position in his administration despite being a bit of a boob, just like Trump. But he is rich, just like Trump.

…a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their underachieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations. It reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5m to Harvard University not long before his son Jared was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League school, which at the time accepted about one of every nine applicants. (Nowadays, it only takes one out of 20.)

I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as a less-than-stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,’’ a former official at the Frisch school in Paramus, New Jersey, told me. “His GPA [grade point average] did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought, for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.’’

Basically, this is a story of bribery and nepotism. But no one is going to do anything about it.

Furthermore, it can’t change because of a self-serving cycle. The Republicans have spent decades starving our universities so they’re desperate for funding, and then it’s the Republicans who benefit by providing back-door graft to the schools.

Don’t worry, it’ll change when we get university administrators with honor and integrity who will refuse special favors in return for the donations of billionaires and millionaires. (That’s a joke, son. Laugh. Laugh through the pain. It’s a talent that will serve you well for the next several years.)

Mano is commenting on the same thing. All academics know about this sleazy practice.

The sad little #seriousacademic

By now, probably everyone has read that strange moan of anxiety about social media titled “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer” — or at least, if you’re an academic who enjoys a good eye-roll over someone with a massive 2×4 rammed up his butt, you’ve read it. It’s the one where an anonymous young Ph.D. student whines about people on Twitter or taking selfies or using instagram or writing blogs…in an anonymous blog post. They make a lot of silly complaints about people using hashtags at conferences and how the powers-that-be keep telling them how important their social media presence is to their career (which is really weird: my experience has been that administrators dread the fact that professors are speaking publicly about their experiences at their institution, and would love to be able to bottle that genie back up). There has been a flood of rebuttals to the fundamental wrongness of the “serious academic”, and I’ll just mention The Tattooed Professor, Meny Snoweballes, and Dean Burnett as good examples.

I want to take a different tack. I feel for this person.

It’s a really tough time to be a starting academic — it’s always a tough time. We get so many demands. Publish. Publish lots. Write grants. Write many grants, because almost all of them will be rejected. Teach. Every course is a challenge, and some of us have to teach multiple courses per term. Serve on committees. Attend meetings. Review papers. Dance, monkey, dance, or you’ll never get an academic job (you probably won’t anyway), you’ll never get tenure, you’ll never get promoted.

And then all those voluble assholes on the internet are adding pressure to tweet or write blogs or get out of the lab and talk to the public? Oh, hell no. Let me just fill up my lab notebook with numbers and gel photos and data, and pay me to do that. I’m running as fast as I can to just keep up without throwing these damned social obligations on my back.

I sympathize. Really, I do. There are lots of things I don’t like about my job (die, committee meetings, die), but I’m obligated to do them, so I do them. No matter what your job, there are always inevitable requirements to occasionally shovel out the stables. Academia in particular is rife with an excess of expectations, and everyone knows it.

But the first thing I have to point out is that social media isn’t one of them. You won’t get tenure for your Twitter activity, and in fact there is an academic bias against outreach and social activity and public engagement. “Serious academic’s” bleat is less an act of rebellion than a performative act of solidarity with staid traditional academics. It’s a person looking in terror at the chaos and uncertainty ahead of them in academia, and picking what they think is the side of the establishment…and they aren’t even certain that that is the right side to pick, witness the fact that their essay is anonymous.

But the most important thing I have to say is that they’re doing it wrong. They’re focusing on the obstacles and forgetting about the purpose. Nobody goes into academia for a love of grant writing and committee meetings. We don’t even go into it over the thrilling prospect of tweeting to a conference hashtag.

We go into it for the joy of the discipline. Remember that?

Personally, I signed on to this life because of some great experiences in science. I was lucky and was employed in a lot of extracurricular science stuff through college, and it was that that was more influential than my classes, I’m sad to say. I was doing animal care and assisting in animal surgeries in the department of physiology and biophysics — lowering electrodes into a living brain was enthralling. I worked with Johnny Palka on fly pupae, watching nerves grow into the developing wing. I did mouse brain histology in the psychology department with Geoff Clarke. I was Golgi staining fetal tissue with Jenny Lund and counting dendritic spines. These were the events that convinced me that I wanted to do more.

I went off to graduate school with Chuck Kimmel and discovered zebrafish embryos. Do you people even know how beautiful an embryo is? Exploring how cells behave in the complex environment of the organism is what kept me going.

Very serious academics

Very serious academics

I did a post-doc with Mike Bastiani and saw that grasshopper embryos are just as beautiful.

Then my first job at Temple University, where I had teaching obligations for the first time, showed me that I really enjoyed teaching. So I’ve followed that star, too. It all works. At every step, pursue the joy, while never forgetting to also do the duties. Some people don’t enjoy the teaching, so they focus more on the research. Some people, believe it or not, have a talent for management, so they move into administration, or into running large labs.

And some people write books. Or make videos. Or compose music or poetry about esoteric subjects. Or write blogs. It’s all good. You don’t have to do it all. You just have to always keep your attention focused on what brings you to your bliss.

Don’t let other people tell you what you must do with your life, and avoid the temptation to lecture others on what is the one, true, proper way to be an academic. If you find deep satisfaction in grinding out data, do it. If you enjoy teaching, do it. If you enjoy communicating to the public about that weird stuff you’re doing, do it.

I feel sad for “Serious Academic”. So young, and so certain of the one true path for all. He reminds me of someone.

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

Try being the “Joyful Academic” for a while. It can be hard, especially in the current climate, but if nothing else, being true to yourself is more rewarding than trying to be true to someone else’s ideal.

I’m done, almost!

Oh, man. I just finished my last lecture for this semester — this was a rough term, and I feel like I just barely dragged myself over the finish line. The big strain came from the fact that I revamped everything: I completely changed the content of my neurobiology course, with a new textbook, a new emphasis, and a different direction for the labs, and some stuff worked and some stuff failed catastrophically (the last few weeks of the lab in particular were a disaster). I offer this course again in two years, and I think I can fix the bad parts by then. I also patched up a lot of material in my Fundamentals of Genetics, Evolution, and Development course; not so much changes in lecture content, but stretching to reach out and get the students interacting more. That worked entirely — I got some significant improvements in average exam scores which I will take complete credit for, although it could just be that our incoming freshman class was full of geniuses this year. I also got much more disciplined in the writing course, and imposed a whole series of step-by-step deadlines on the big term paper. It required a bit more effort during the term, but the payoff is now — I’m not getting any papers dumped cold on my desk for grading, they’ve all been fussed over already.

It’s tiring, though. Show business is hard work; getting up and doing 4 or 5 lectures a week (and about half of them new) is exhausting. It would be much easier to just write this stuff. Why didn’t anyone tell me that a career in science involved so much singing and dancing?

My neuro students are all done with their bloggery now, and here’s the final list of neurobiology weblogs I forced them to start. Some might fade away after this, others may move on to new sites, some might keep going. However it works out, this can be my little public monument to Fall 2011. Stop by and congratulate them on surviving a whole semester with Old Man Myers.

Next: I’ve got final exams to give, a nice break to catch up on deadlines, and lots of preparation for next term to do. Spring will be worse, with an all-new, starting from scratch course in cancer biology to teach.

For now, I’m going into seclusion for a bit to wrap up some extracurricular writing that must get done right now. It’s not much of a celebration yet.

(Also on FtB)

Strangely, my salary has not been following the same trajectory

Minnesota tuition rates have also been skyrocketing. My salary has been creeping upward at single digit percentage rates — low single digits, and we also had a freeze for a few years — and also, we haven’t been hiring swarms of new faculty, but only replacing retiring faculty (which, by the way, immediately reduces salary expenses). Why is this happening?


The answer is easy: state governments have been jettisoning their responsibilities and not paying for the educational institutions earlier, wiser generations invested in. Thank you, Republicans, the party of irresponsible spendthrifts, for coasting on the infrastructure built up 50 years ago, and letting it decay now.

(Also on FtB)

What’s going on at CUNY?

I hate to see a great university system get thumped upside the head by chowder-brained legislators, but that’s what’s going on in New York. The chancellor of CUNY is pushing for a major revamp of the curriculum, system-wide. This ignores the unique culture at each institution and tries to turn them into cookie-cutter degree factories, and ends up targeting the lowest common denominator.

City University of New York’s Chancellor Matthew Goldstein is about to turn the prestigious system of senior and community colleges into a glorified high school. And few people seem to even want to try to stop him. This is bizarre, as Goldstein is a CUNY graduate himself and has been credited with major accomplishments since he took the lead at CUNY in 1999 (e.g., he raised admission standards, created the William E. Macaulay Honors College, and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism).

Goldstein has recently begun what is known as the “Pathways to Degree Completion” initiative, which is being quickly rammed down the throats of the faculty members at all CUNY Colleges, in blatant disregard of faculty governance, interfering with curricula and the structure of majors, and possibly resulting in the elimination or great reduction of entire departments, mostly in the humanities (beginning with foreign languages, arts, assorted studies programs, history, and philosophy). The science and math requirements also are being reduced to ridiculous minimum common denominator standards, all in the name of increasing the graduation rate and decreasing the time to graduation of CUNY students — apparently the only currencies understood by the inept (to say the least) State legislators up in Albany.

This is a familiar story. All administrators care about is a couple of simplified parameters for “success”: the average time to degree completion, which is supposed to be around four years, and the percentage of incoming students that graduate. It’s throughput, baby, how fast can we shovel ’em through and get ’em out the other side with a diploma.

There is a good solution to this problem. That is, you hire enough faculty to staff all your programs with good teachers, they teach the students well, they have time to advise and guide students efficiently to degree completion, and they’re there to catch any students who threaten to fall through the cracks, and give them personal assistance. In other words, you give the students the best possible education and help them over any hurdles so they emerge from your program knowing stuff and best of all, knowing how to learn more.

Any faculty reading this are laughing cynically right now, because that’s not the solution we generally get to follow.

The poor and realistic solution recognizes the fiscal reality that state legislatures want to cut, cut, cut higher ed’s budget, and so administrators are looking at cheap ways to get graduation rates up and years to graduate down, and there is an easy way: cut graduation requirements. Standardize the curriculum. The job of the college is no longer to deliver an education, but to issue diplomas, which are awarded for attendance in a defined series of classes. I’m sorry to see that CUNY wants to get into the business of mass-producing diplomas.

Hey, 99%, this is an issue for you, too. The higher education system in this country has been starved for decades — state contributions to university budgets have been steadily declining, and tuitions have been rapidly increasing to compensate, squeezing out many worthy prospective students. What’s driving it is the short-sightedness of legislatures that don’t realize what’s involved in teaching and learning, and want to low-ball education. You get what you pay for, and I don’t think we need university administrators who cater to economic catastrophe rather than advocating for good education.

(Also on FtB)

The Fox Effect

What a curious phenomenon: this is a video of the notorious Fox Effect, in which an actor pretended to be an expert and babbled fluff and nonsense at an audience of psychiatrists, and they sat and swallowed it and came away with an impression that the speaker was competent. I knew the content was going to be garbage, but I have to wonder if my prior knowledge colored my perception, because listening to it now, it all sounded immensely vacuous — I kept trying to catch a cogent or useful point, and he never delivered any.

I wonder if this could be pulled off in front of an audience that deals with more concrete data than psychiatrists — could an actor speak in the language of gels and in situs and sequences and fool an audience of molecular biologists? I don’t think so; it’s too specialized and specific. But I could be wrong, somebody ought to test it.

The video makes a point that this effect could be important in teaching — it strongly affects student evaluations. All you have to do is go to the “Rate My Professor” site and discover that one of the categories for evaluation there is whether the professor is “hot” — and, dammit, I think I’ve failed on that parameter for my entire life (I haven’t actually looked, though: I shudder at the prospect of seeing those weird reviews full of disgruntled students who didn’t pass one of my courses).

(Also on FtB)

William Crenshaw and Erskine College

I think I like this guy.

Science is the litmus test on the validity of the educational enterprise. If a school teaches real science, it’s a pretty safe bet that all other departments are sound. If it teaches bogus science, everything else is suspect…. I want a real college, not one that rejects facts, knowledge, and understanding because they conflict with a narrow religious belief. Any college that lets theology trump fact is not a college; it is an institution of indoctrination. It teaches lies. Colleges do not teach lies. Period.

That’s from William Crenshaw, who was an English professor at Erskine College. “Was”…no more. He’s been fired.

It turns out Erskine College is the Institution of Indoctrination for some fringe sect called the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, which I find hilarious. It’s some dinky, smug, pretentious religious group that thinks their peculiar dogma dictates the laws of the universe. One of their big issues is that Crenshaw doesn’t think science ought to bow down before biblical literalism.

The conservative element has apparently been lobbying to give him the boot for years, and they’re celebrating now.

The ARP Talk blog called Crenshaw’s comments on science evidence that he is “functionally an atheist who, in his rabid, secular fundamentalism, preaches his views with as much vigor and determination as an old-time Methodist revivalist of 100 years ago.” The blog added that Crenshaw was “an evangelist of infidelity” and said that he encourages students to question faith with “his secular brain-dribble.”

I like him even more.

The school and the troglodyte alumni wanted him out because they claim he was “disloyal” and “discouraged potential students from enrolling at Erskine.” The ironic thing is that the actions of the college to muzzle faculty are a better reason to discourage students from attending Erskine.

Not that it’ll matter much, because I suspect most of their enrollment comes from Mommy and Daddy DumbThugChristian telling their kids that they have to go to Erskine, but I’ll chime in: you’re nuts if you go to Erskine. Pick a better school. If you’re already at Erskine College, TRANSFER. It’s not too late to get a degree with a name on it that won’t be quite so embarrassing.

(Also on FtB)

A goal to strive for

The American education system is a mess — thanks to the right wing cranks, we keep trying to apply free market principles to a process to which they don’t apply. Watching America deal with education is a lot like watching the old USSR trying to cope with competitive economies — that there’s a place for everything does not imply that one strategy is the solution for all problems.

What we ought to do is look at other countries around the world that have successful educational systems, and emulate them (isn’t that a good capitalist value? Steal the ideas that work?). I have a suggestion: Let’s steal Finland’s educational system.

The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. “I’m still surprised,” said Arjariita Heikkinen, principal of a Helsinki comprehensive school. “I didn’t realize we were that good.”

In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on compe­tition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

There’s a brief summary of how they did it. I think the first and most important step was making a decision that education was important.

In 1963, the Finnish Parlia-ment made the bold decision to choose public education as its best shot at economic recovery. “I call this the Big Dream of Finnish education,” said Sahlberg, whose upcoming book, Finnish Lessons, is scheduled for release in October. “It was simply the idea that every child would have a very good public school. If we want to be competitive, we need to educate everybody. It all came out of a need to survive.”

Practically speaking–and Finns are nothing if not practical–the decision meant that goal would not be allowed to dissipate into rhetoric. Lawmakers landed on a deceptively simple plan that formed the foundation for everything to come. Public schools would be organized into one system of comprehensive schools, or peruskoulu, for ages 7 through 16. Teachers from all over the nation contributed to a national curriculum that provided guidelines, not prescriptions. Besides Finnish and Swedish (the country’s second official language), children would learn a third language (English is a favorite) usually beginning at age 9. Resources were distributed equally. As the comprehensive schools improved, so did the upper secondary schools (grades 10 through 12). The second critical decision came in 1979, when reformers required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities–at state expense. From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive. In 2010, some 6,600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots, according to Sahlberg. By the mid-1980s, a final set of initiatives shook the classrooms free from the last vestiges of top-down regulation. Control over policies shifted to town councils. The national curriculum was distilled into broad guidelines. National math goals for grades one through nine, for example, were reduced to a neat ten pages. Sifting and sorting children into so-called ability groupings was eliminated. All children–clever or less so–were to be taught in the same classrooms, with lots of special teacher help available to make sure no child really would be left behind. The inspectorate closed its doors in the early ’90s, turning accountability and inspection over to teachers and principals. “We have our own motivation to succeed because we love the work,” said Louhivuori. “Our incentives come from inside.”

They put good teachers in charge of deciding how students should be taught? How radical.

(Also on FtB)

The wellspring of grade inflation

I hate to discourage teachers (we need them!), but there’s a problem in teacher education.

Well, guess which students earn the highest grades? It’s future teachers. According to a new study by Cory Koedel published by the American Enterprise Institute:

Students who take education classes at universities receive significantly higher grades than students who take classes in every other academic discipline. The higher grades cannot be explained by observable differences in student quality between education majors and other students, nor can they be explained by the fact that education classes are typically smaller than classes in other academic departments.

This is despite the fact that education majors have the lowest high school grades and standardized test scores of all college students.

(Also on FtB)