Altar girls

Well, it’s Sunday, time for more criticism of the Catholic Church.  I guess I haven’t been paying enough attention– and I’ve gotten plenty used to altar girls at the Catholic churches I attend– but apparently many places in the U.S.  still do not allow Altar Girls.  And more distressingly, many places are actually moving backward.  Nice article on the matter in the Post today:

Mass had just begun at Corpus Christi Catholic Church when Jennifer Zickel, a Sunday school teacher, glanced at the church bulletin and saw something that made her sick to her stomach.

Tucked in with announcements about a new electronic donation system and a church dinner at Margarita’s Mexican restaurant was news that Zickel, the mother of two girls, had been dreading: Corpus Christi would no longer train girls to be altar servers.

Zickel burst into tears and ran to the bathroom…

The subject has played out unusually in the diocese, which was the next-to-last in the country to say, in 2006, that girls were eligible to help priests at the altar. (The diocese in Lincoln, Neb., still has a boys­-only policy.) Arlington Bishop Paul Loverde left the decision up to individual priests. Five years later, about 60 percent of the diocese’s 68 parishes across northern and eastern Virginia still allow only altar boys, a diocese spokeswoman said.

Some share Taylor’s belief that the positions should be reserved for boys, who may become priests and help ease a major Catholic clergy shortage. Girls who had already trained as altar servers at Corpus Christi were allowed to continue, but they cannot wear the new black, priestlike robes the boys began wearing. People who opposegirl servers see the task as priest-like and note that the church teaches priests must be male because they model Jesus.

I think the reason that this bothers me so much is because I used to strongly believe in idiotic things like how altar servers should be male when I had the knee-jerk intellectual traditionalism of a teenager.  Then I learned how the world works and realized just how asinine this is.  Oh, also, I read the gospels, where it is quite clear that Jesus was very progressive on the issue of gender.  Instead, the Catholic church has simply chosen to institutionalize the very man-made cultural biases against women and give them an utterly transparent intellectual veneer.  (Obligatory plug for one of the most eye-opening books I’ve ever read, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and the Catholic Church).   And then there’s this:

But debate over such subjects is less widespread than it was when the Vatican first allowed altar girls. While Washington’s archdiocese allowed female altar servers almost right away, Arlington’s decision not to caused more open debate than when Loverde approved female altar servers in 2006. Some experts on U.S. Catholicism say this is because many liberal Catholics have left the church in recent years.  [emphasis mine]

Well, that makes sense.  Sure is frustrating being part of a church that is interested in turning back the clock on basic issues of human equality.   And, of course, the more liberal Catholics leave, the more the reactionaries win the day.  Alas, I’ll stand by that reason to stick with it for now.  If this keeps up, at some point I’m going to have to give up.

Kids today

Seems to me a lot of people are guilty of what I like to call “kids today syndrome.”  That is, there convinced that education– along with everything else– is surely getting worse.  Thus, I really liked this Kevin Drum post that showed that when it comes to education, there’s actually been some decent progress in the past couple decades (at least at the elementary level).

So here they are. The chart below shows test score improvements over the past 20 years on the NAEP reading and math tests, widely considered the “gold standard” of national testing.The source material is here. (Note that for the 1990 starting point I used an average of the 1988/90/92 scores for reading and an average of the 1990/92 scores for math.)

The usual rule of thumb on the NAEP test is that ten points equals one grade level. So what lesson can we draw from this data?

Answer: it’s mixed. Nine-year-olds in all three groups have indeed made huge advances in both reading and math, ranging from 10 to 20 points. But things start to slide when you move up to middle school. Improvement among 13-year-olds in math is more modest than among 9-year-olds, though still quite respectable, but reading scores are up only a few points. And when you get to high school things really go to hell. Reading scores for 17-year-olds have gone down and math scores have improved only a bit.

This is all just raw data. You can decide for yourself whether standardized test scores are a good measure of student achievement. You can also decide for yourself which age groups matter the most. My own take is twofold: (1) Our students aren’t doing any worse than they did in the past. Panic isn’t really justified. (2) Improvements in reading and math scores that wash out by the end of high school aren’t that impressive. Until we see substantial improvements among 17-year-olds, I don’t think you can say our students are doing muchbetter either.

Right, it would be nice to say that we are doing better across the board, but its pretty much impossible to argue that we’ve gotten worse based on this data.

Good teaching = good student retention

Interesting piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about what actually helps keep students in college.  Short version: good teaching and diversity (I’ll leave that part alone because it’s not well-explained in the article so I don’t want to draw controversy on something I’m not prepared to defend).

Good teaching was not defined by test results. Instead, its attributes were identified on a nine-item scale, which included student appraisals of how well the teacher organized material, used class time, explained directions, and reviewed the subject matter.

The likelihood that freshmen returned to college for their sophomore year increased 30 percent when students observed those teaching practices in the classroom. And it held true even after controlling for their backgrounds and grades. “These are learnable skills that faculty can pick up,” Mr. Pascarella said.

Encouraging indeed.  Nice to know that what we do in the classroom actually matters.  These are practices that college educators can certainly improve at if they have an interest in doing so.  Truth is, despite some lip service and awards, university administrators– at least at research universities– don’t care all that much about good teaching.  The biggest reason they don’t, is that they don’t really have an extrinsic incentive to do so.  That is, a dean is not rewarded because his college is full of good teachers; he is rewarded if his college is full of good researchers.  Here’s the thing: university administrators do care about student retention.  A lot.  The results here were based only on liberal arts colleges (where I’m pretty sure they actually do care about good teaching), but if they can be replicated at research universities that would give administrators a compelling reason to actually care about and reward good teaching.

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