Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Philosophy Departments are Dishonest, or at Least Have Bad Business Ethics

Many philosophy departments have a “Why Study Philosophy?” section on their home pages. Many of them argue that philosophy must do an unusually good job developing students’ intellectual skills. As evidence, they post graphs showing how philosophy majors consistently get the highest scores on the verbal and analytic part of GRE, and get the highest score among all humanities majors (and higher than most social science and many natural science majors) on the quantitative part of the GRE.

For example, see here

If you’ve taken even a semester’s worth of an empirical social science, or if you’re just a generally thoughtful person, your first reaction to such graphs should be: treatment effect or selection effect? That is, from the fact that “Students declaring an intention to go to graduate school in philosophy have the highest mean scores on the Verbal section of the GRE (mean: 589) of any major ” we cannot conclude that “Philosophy prepares students for the Graduate Record Exam.” Instead, we would need to know whether philosophy A) makes people smarter, or whether instead B) the people who study philosophy are on average smarter.

Departments make no effort to try to show that it’s A, not B. And, in light of the vast empirical on how little students develop in college–literature which most philosophers have come across–they should know better than to just assume it’s A, not B. In fact, by default, given this vast empirical literature on learning, we should presume that it’s B, not A, until shown otherwise.

So, I think philosophy departments have immoral advertising practices. They are not dishonest, but they are at the very least negligent in how they advertise. They claim philosophy delivers certain goods, but they do not have sufficient evidence that it in fact delivers these goods, and they should know that they lack sufficient evidence. Most of my philosopher colleagues would rightly condemn a pharmaceutical company if it tried to sell medicine on such flimsy evidence.


Stuck in the middle: Empowering schools

In my previous two posts (here and here), I highlighted the plight of Missouri’s education system. We are stuck in the middle in terms of academic achievement, and do not look to be improving very rapidly. Sticking with the status quo or even tinkering at the margins is unlikely to have any significant effect on improving our educational system. We need bold strategies that will allow Missouri schools to innovate and compete and Missouri students to thrive.

One of the challenges of our schools is attracting and retaining great teachers. Top-performing teachers generate learning gains almost double that of a teacher in the bottom 20 percent, equivalent to almost six months of learning (see study). Unfortunately, institutional rules and burdensome legislation make it difficult for schools to hire and retain great teachers or to remove low-performing ones. In fact, a recent study revealed schools retain teachers from the top and bottom at “strikingly similar rates.”

Part of the problem is schools treat teachers like they are interchangeable. In reality, teachers vary wildly in terms of performance and have markedly different opportunities based on their expertise.

Bold Solution 1:

Empower schools to attract and retain the best teachers and promote a system that equips schools to remediate or remove the worst.

Schools need to be able to hire the best person for the job, regardless of certification, and they should be equipped to pay each teacher what they are worth based on their performance and market options. To do this, schools need control over their compensation system, including the retirement package they offer to their employees. Additionally, schools must be able to identify and remediate or remove poorly performing teachers.  One way of doing this would be to actually evaluate teachers based on their performance and make tenure decisions based on their ability to impact student achievement (see here for an example).

Some teachers are great and some are not so great, some have a lot of other employment options and some do not. We need to be smart in how we staff schools and stop relying on an antiquated system that treats teachers as if they are all the same.


Only Warmists could pass this British High School Exam

While Michael Gove tries valiantly to remedy our dysfunctional exam system he might take a look at some recent papers, such as that set last June for A-level General Studies students by our leading exam body, AQA. Candidates were asked to discuss 11 pages of "source material" on the subject of climate change. Sources ranged from a report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to The Guardian, all shamelessly promoting global warming alarmism. One document from the Met Office solemnly predicted that "even if global temperatures only rise by 2 degrees C, 30-40 per cent of species could face extinction". A graph from the US Environmental Protection Agency showed temperatures having soared in the past 100 years by 1.4 degrees - exactly twice the generally accepted figure.

The only hint that anyone might question such beliefs was an article by Louise Gray from The Daily Telegraph, which quoted that tireless campaigner for the warmist cause, Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute, dismissing all sceptics as "a remnant group of dinosaurs" who "misunderstood the point of science".

If it were still a purpose of education to teach people to examine evidence and think rationally, any bright A-level candidate might have had a field day, showing how all this "source material" was no more than vacuous, one-sided propaganda. But today one fears they would have been marked down so severely for not coming up with the desired answers that they would have been among the tiny handful of candidates given an unequivocal "fail".


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