I was very disappointed my Chinese food was delicious. The dumplings were tasty, the chicken with broccoli authentic, the rice only a bit different. After months of cynic anticipation, I was excited to lambast, eviscerate and expose the cheap imitation Chinese food served mostly by Koreans in New York City. My Fulbright friends talked it over countless times over bowls of straight-from-old-Taiwanese-woman noodles. Demonstrated worldliness in one easy critical step.
Unfortunately, my first Chinese meal at home was very good and pretty authentic. What happened? Who warned them? Who’s the rat? How else am I to make friends if not by being the guy who scoffs, “Oh, Chinese food!” when someone proposes ordering Chinese? I felt satisfied. And betrayed.
Not all was lost, thankfully. Somewhere in the middle of my fourth American-Chinese food dumpling, I remembered I haven’t blogged in a few days. I saw that Nikka, an Yilan ETA, started to update her Taiwan blog about her goings-on in Detroit. That was enough for me. Welcome back, readers.
Did I mention how much writing helps me clarify my thoughts! Who needs readers, anyway?
I wrote one piece about my trip to China. I haven’t posted it yet because my mother convinced me to take a shot and send it to the New York Times Magazine “Lives” section. It’s a long shot. But hey—I took a long shot in November and it worked out. I appreciate the long shot. Anyway, if my long shot is dumped in e-mail purgatory by unimpressed editors (i.e. if I don’t hear back in a week) I’ll post it here where it is loved and cared for (by my mother).
In the meantime, I hope to wring out of my creative muse a few posts about China. I’ll probably pick the highlights and write little in-the-moment pieces. Things fit for the “Lives” section. You get the idea. If any of you know of another place I could pimp my writerly wares, please include a comment to this post or e-mail me at email@example.com.
My mother’s a persuasive lady, but my motivations for pursuing “Lives” fame extend beyond her inviolable logic. I have a lot of time on my hands and no job, for starters. Why not use time productively?
Raw productivity isn’t the best term for describing the preceding fortnight. At the moment my life consists of a lot of reading, eating, sleeping, and hanging around with friends. Productivity aside, I’ve really enjoyed the reading time. I’m reading an average of one book every two days alongside countless newspapers, magazines and blogs. My favorite book I’ve read since I returned is The Big Short by Michael Lewis, an account of three men who bet against the subprime mortgage industry before it turned sour. Highly recommended: it’s an easy, informative read.
Another book that’s kept with me is The Life and Death of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch. I bring this up with future Fulbrighters in mind, many of whom (ETAs especially) probably have more than a passing interest in education. In the book Ravitch pushes against the prevailing consensus that math and reading tests should determine government treatment of schools and teachers (a policy goal not only of the US federal government, but the Taiwanese federal government). It’s hard for me to say whether this book will make the same impression on someone not preparing for graduate study in education policy (or someone who works/has worked in education more generally), but I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with an interest in how the government regulates education in the U.S. My opinions changed in response to Ravitch’s clear, compelling arguments. Accountability systems should be test data-informed, not test data-driven.
One of the most interesting findings Ravitch highlights in her book concerns test data sorting of high performing teachers from low performing teachers. From year [x] to year [x+1] to [x+2] (say, for example, 2007 to 2008 to 2009), only a minority of teachers designated high performing in 2007 maintain their standing the following year. Likewise, the majority of teachers who earn high marks didn’t earn those marks the preceding year. Overall, there’s a lot of fluctuation for most teachers from year to year.
At least in the one city from which Ravitch pulled the data (I’m sorry I can’t find the precise numbers; my Kindle charger somehow disintegrated in my bag—caveat emptor), the clear upshot is that there are, if judged by test data, very few consistently good teachers. Rather, teachers are like the majority of professional athletes: they have good years and bad years. If Ravitch’s data apply broadly, it’s hard to argue that hiring, firing and promotion decisions in schools should be based solely on test scores, especially when there are performance tiers based on specific scores.
Should we trust the data? Assuming most teachers teach the same grade and curriculum each year, how to explain wide variations in individual teacher performance from year to year? The most obvious explanation would be the effects of different students. Teachers get along well with some groups, not so well with others. Could a longstanding teacher be so influenced by the young faces in front of him? I wonder. I don’t have the experience to know.
My money is on there being something wrong with Ravitch’s data. Maybe the trend she highlights is confined to the one city she discusses. Maybe that city reformed the curriculum midway through the sample period, maybe there was an unusual amount of hiring and firing, maybe the city likes to give teachers different teaching assignments year to year. To me at least, the notion that one teacher’s performance, as measured by testing, can vary so much year to year is so counterintuitive I want to see very solid data before I change my mind. Nevertheless, the chance she’s right (along with other arguments to the same point) is enough to convince me that testing data isn’t reliable enough to by itself determine major personnel decisions at schools.
Taiwanese education officials, like their American counterparts, worry about the lack of accountability in their schools. However, Taiwan has the luxury of a very successful school system already in place. Reform is more urgent in America. Diane Ravitch’s central recommendation, i.e. producing a tough, clear set of nationwide curriculum standards for core subjects like reading, math, history and science, gain credence from acknowledging that such policies already exist in Taiwan and contribute to Taiwan’s superb track record of K-12 success. It is also no coincidence that states with high standards for core curricula (e.g. Massachusetts, Virginia) outperform states with lower standards.
The vague intention behind the specific analysis above is to emphasize the value of international experience. Getting a hold of another country’s culture, government or set of institutions is a good way to make sense of your own. I learned this lesson very well while in Taiwan. I’m reminded of it every time I sit down and think carefully about education.
Like teacher performance, ETA classes change year to year. A few days ago the 2010-2011 crop of Fulbrighters arrived in Taiwan, sleepy-eyed and leg cramped. Right now they’re probably sitting in an air conditioned conference room, watching the video my coworkers and I created about co-teaching. Thinking about their arrival, and remembering my arrival (vividly, to this day), made me feel nostalgic. I wish them all the best. I warn them not to eat hamburgers in Cambodia. I insist they drink Presotea strawberry milk tea.