Thursday, September 27, 2012

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday!

I learned that from my colleague here at the Teaching Underground.  I think people use the initials of those three words as an exclamation to express surprise, confusion, or perplexity... is that a word, if not, I want credit if you use it from now on.  So what are my Wednesday, Thursday, Friday moments from this week?

First, it's Mitt Romney.  Here's what he told Brian Williams at NBC's Education Nation:

I believe that we simply -- we simply can't have a setting where the teachers' unions are able to contribute tens of millions of dollars to the campaigns of politicians and then those politicians, when elected, stand across from them at the bargaining table, supposedly to represent the interest of the kids. I think it's a mistake.

I think we've got to get the money out of the teachers' unions going into campaigns. It's the wrong way for us to go. We have got to separate that.

Get the money out of the teachers' unions going into campaigns?  Never mind the money coming from Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Phillip Morris, or even PEARSON!  They don't use their money to exercise influence over the decisions of politicians.  And they count as people anyway since they're incorporated.  It's the money pouring in from the overpaid teachers that flooding our political system with graft.

Seriously, I hate to be immature, but this is stupid.  You're going to call out the teachers' unions for having too much influence and suggest their ability to contribute to campaigns be limited.  Maybe there's a better place to start if you want to remove the influence of money from education.

Romney also said:

So I reject the idea that everybody has to have a, if you will, a Harvard expense level degree in order to be successful. I find a lot of people have degrees from a lot of different places, public and private, that are highly successful.

He referenced Geoffrey Canada frequently in his speech and q&a session.  I attended a talk by Canada last year in D.C. where he said as a general rule of thumb, when you don't know what to do in education, "do what the rich people do?"  Romney was referring to the $38,000/year tuition at his former high school.  So, if money doesn't matter, why do rich people spend so much on education?  They're not rich because they waste money, apparently they understand it's value more than most.  So why do they insist on spending a high dollar amount to educate their own children?    Why doesn't the market bring this cost down, or do they just send their kids to keep them away from the riff raff one finds in public education.

Speaking of money, I've addressed my W,T, so here's my F.  One of our local teachers, Michael Farabaugh qualified for Jeopardy.  I'm a little bitter, because I made it to round two with him several years ago when the "Clue Crew" came to Charlottesville.  Neither of us made it to round three, but apparently he persisted while I gave up and helped start this little blog.  He'll be flying to California soon for taping.  Pretty cool achievement wouldn't you say?  Apparently not everyone thinks so.  Here's a link to the news story, but the comments are priceless.  Here's a sampling if you're not motivated to click the link provided to read them for yourself:

-What a shocker! Instead of actually doing what he is paid to do and that is teach, he is going off to try to get even more money, probably during school hours that he is being paid for! Greed! Greed! Greed! That is all we get from teachers! Certainly not results! 

-Are the taxpayers paying for substitute teachers so that these freeloaders can go win money on gameshows instead of doing their jobs?!?!?!?!?

No wonder the kids are as stupid as dead roaches! 

-They should dock his pay an amount equal to his winnings if he is getting paid to teach but is not doing it. 

-It is hard to have a positive impact on students when you cannot even be bothered to show up for your classes you are being paid to teach! I am paying his salary and I say fine him or fire him! 

For what it's worth, congratulations Mr. Farabaugh.  We know you've served your students and this community well and wish you the best on Jeopardy.

As for the comments, all I can say is Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

And to preempt any inevitable conservative backlash, be patient, we'll take a few jabs at President Obama and Arne Duncan in the near future.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

We can spank kids in school? Really?

I felt really dumb after reading this headline the other day:

"School Violates Policy When Girl Spanked By Male Administrator"

I felt dumb because I should have known that even today, some schools allow administrators to spank children.  I had no idea that this could still happen.  The school in question violated the policy because "opposite gender" spankings are not allowed-- they're perfectly o.k. of it's done by someone of the same sex.

Apparently corporal punishment is not only o.k. in the Springtown school district of Texas, but also in nineteen other U.S. states.  Really, adults who aren't the parent of a child can spank them in nineteen of fifty United States.  Parents in their home present a whole different issue, but anyone who thinks corporal punishment in a school is still a good idea should certainly find a different line of work.  They are an embarassment to the profession and a threat to our children.

In the video above, a tenth grade high school student chose a spanking over in-school suspension because she didn't want to miss more class.  She'd been accused of cheating.  A male principal administered the spanking which according to the girls mother was excessive and in violation the the school policy calling for same sex spanking only.  The family claims to have pictures that would prove their assertion that the spanking was excessive.

It disturbs me that well respected and powerful adults could support this.  I can hear the comment now, "that's what's wrong with this country now, these kids ain't got no discipline in their lives."  Maybe that's true, but can that lack of discipline be replaced with the blunt side of a principal's paddle?  It's nothing more than an excuse for abuse.

District Superintendent Mike Kelly wants to change the policy.  He's leading the school board to fix this problem by, WHAT?, he wants to get rid of the restriction that forbids males from spanking females and vice versa.  Apparently, the gender distribution of male and female administrators makes it too hard to abide by this policy. (Apparently he succeeded)  This man is a district superintendent.  He's got power and influence and he's using it for this?

Someone please tell me this is a joke.  Otherwise, I might start to think that conventional wisdom is right, maybe it is time to destroy this system of public education and start all over again.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Has Teaching Gone Out of Style

On Wednesday nights, I teach a group of youth at our church.  This week, at the end of our session, a seventh grader whipped out a handful of balloons and a pump and started making balloon animals, much to the delight of all the other middle schoolers in the room.  It was actually quite amazing to watch him work.

One of his friends asked excitedly, "How'd you learn to do that?"

"I learned it on YouTube."

That sentence stopped me in my tracks.  My brain immediately started thinking, "Have I become unnecessary?"

I shared the thought with a parent who arrived to pick up his child.  "Yeah, you can learn anything you want on the internet nowadays."

And I replied, "you're right, if something breaks or I want to find out something that's the first place I go."

Have I become unnecessary?  I even admit to myself, if I want to learn something, I go to the internet and find out.  How to fix my car, why the pilot light on my gas logs burn so high, what was the name of that guitar player from Extreme, is John Tyler's grandson really still alive, and on and on.  If I want to find something out, I go online.

But sometimes, I don't know what I want.  Sometimes I find myself unprepared because of something I don't know.  Sometimes I need more than knowledge and find it helpful to see the example of a person who can lead me, guide me, or maybe even inspire me.

The internet has so fueled our desire for "disruptive change" we move at such breakneck speed that sometimes we end up, well, metaphorically with broken necks.  In the past few weeks, I've prematurely mourned the deaths of Morgan Freeman and Carlton from the Fresh Prince of BelAir because of incorrect Facebook and Twitter posts.  This year we've seen major errors in one time trustworthy news media outlets reporting on the Supreme Court health care decision and the Colorado theater shooting.  And I'm sure that the television show Mythbusters could manage two or three more seasons just debunking all of the false information that spreads as truth online. (Remember the cellphone popcorn popper?)

Maybe I'm not so unnecessary after all.  Despite these problems, the internet has brought about quite a positive revolution in both availability and quality of learning, and this I appreciate.  But until all students become completely self motivated to learn; until learning takes place in isolation rather than community; until we stop relying on each other to expose us to new and interesting ideas...

Until then, I am necessary and relevant.  Even if I can't teach a twelve year old how to make a balloon monkey.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Hollywood Gets it Right?

Maybe not, but the Teaching Underground isn't afraid of low-brow and October 12 will definitely be movie night in my family. "Here Comes The Boom" is Kevin James' latest cinematic masterpiece in which he plays a burned out teacher inspired to take up cage fighting to raise money for the arts program at his school.

If you're looking for a "brain rest" on a Friday night after a hard week of work, this looks like the film. Judging from the trailer, James' character is one of those teachers that fit the negative profile. Lazy, going through the motions, incompetent, etc. But, when he finds out that funding cuts threaten the arts at his school, he gets inspired to make a difference.

I haven't seen the movie yet, but that's never stopped us at the Underground from having an opinion before, so here's what I think. You can't make a movie about teachers in 2012 without showing at least something negative, but here's what I think I like about this film.

First, regardless of his presentation at first, this teacher obviously cares about his students and his school. Enough to get the crap beat out him. That's true of most teachers I know. Mostly. I can't imagine any of them would actually enter the octagon and take a pummeling, but we'd go to some pretty extreme lengths for the benefit of our students and our school.

Second, it's getting cliche to say, but school funding is getting tough. Too many people think it can be done on the cheap. My district is far from poor, and we're still better off than most, but each year, we see the quality of education further hampered by funding restrictions. I know, more money doesn't naturally equal better education, but it's like that whole "money doesn't buy happiness" proverb-- it sure does help. This film seems to portray the fact that school programs take a hit when funding drops.

Third, it co-stars the Fonz! I haven't kept up with his career since he so expertly jumped the shark, but he's transitioned from the leather jacket wearing rebel to the coat and tie professional very well judging by the trailer.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to just watching a film with no hidden agenda or messages about education or school reform, a mindless diversion from time-to-time is good for the soul.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Won't Back Down- Won't be Good

 In the midst of the Chicago teacher's strike, embassy attacks and 2012 election I looked for an escape.  A movie sounded good.  But given I am busy and poor I settle for watching free trailers.   This looks like a great film.  The struggle against hopelessness.  The power of the individual.  Overcoming incredible odds.  Good vs evil.  It is an irresistible narrative that celebrates all that is right.  Teachers are lazy, do harm to our kids and are protected by fat cat unions.  Wait...what?  I'm a teacher.  Like many films the storyline is simplified by filmmakers to a narrative that is easy to consume.  Major players are neatly reduced to caricatures that embody what is necessary to make a quick buck with a film.  As we know, real life is rarely so simple.  So thinking more critically... does the narrative of the film reflect the narrative of the nation?

No doubt the "our schools are failing" bandwagon is tempting but it is equally inaccurate.  Actually it is farcical.  Let me queue up to be the first to say, too many of our schools and too many kids are in trouble.  Too many schools are broken and might even be described as dysfunctional.  But they are as much the victim as the students within them. You don't have to look far to find kids struggling and not getting the help they need.  Tragic.  Many of our kids are indeed trapped in some of these schools.  But did the system and those schools create this situation?  Will choice solve it?   Should schools be able to solve the social ills we've now saddled them with and expect them to remedy?  It is worthwhile to remember that as a whole there is a great deal of evidence that we are in many ways performing better and doing far more than ever.  TU's favorite Diane Ravitch provides solid rationale as to why the NAEP, the most valid measure of the state of education tell a different story from the one scripted by powerful groups and individuals.  Failing....that is a long leap, even for Hollywood.

After our very first post Should We Trust Superman, we have written about 200 times about what we think as teachers.  But other than Tony Danza, there is little public discourse  or attention focused on what teachers think.  Unless it was in the context of the strike in Chicago.  At the TU our unique perspectives likely differ little from hundreds of thousands of teachers around this great nation.  A group that is wearing thinner each year from the negative press.  We are not all crazy.  We are not all lazy.  We are not the problem.  Quite the contrary.  In the three years since we began the blogging on the topic the public understanding of the state of education has changed little.  When a non-teachers asks what I think I rarely speak as openly and freely as I want and honestly don't even know where to begin to express my frustrations.   Teacher voice gains no momentum. 

During that time the movement to radically change the make-up of our nation's schools has gotten more organized, better funded, and found more success politically.  For profit entities, well funded foundations and others framing the public perception of how we are doing have motives far more complex than the lowly teacher occupying the classroom.  Recent events in Chicago force us to acknowledge that the demonization of teachers meets a receptive audience.  Maybe they want to cash in on one of the last frontiers of government funds, maybe they want to blame schools and ignore growing poverty, maybe they believe everything they say.  It doesn't matter.  fact is, they are wrong.  The outlets preaching gloom and doom have become ubiquitous and inescapable.

Teachers, some seasoned veterans who have poured their lifeblood into the profession, work alongside green newcomers who are eager to make a difference.  Yet it many in the media, statehouse,  and in private foundations would rather vilify than support.  Who could blame them when the common story of where fault lies for these perceived ills appeals to the psyche.  Movies, or more accurately some influential groups and people in Hollywood, it seems have it out for teachers.  Who and why matter less than the absence of a balancing voice. On the whole we can always do more and should always try to do better.  But how we go about that is a matter where a great deal of informed people disagree with the political momentum.  And movies, as such a powerful medium,  make things worse and do a great disservice to just about everyone.

Their depiction of schools and teachers are akin to, indulge the comparison,  the way movies portray(ed) Native Americans.  Speaking prophetically in broken English, and only taking what they needed was the norm for the "noble savage" of the New World.  Such stereotyping in film is the norm.  Teachers in movies usually appear in a similar one-dimensional roles.   (There are some notable exceptions with say Mr. Holland and Jaime Escalante standing out).  But those are older movies.  They oversimplify complex issues and situations for the sake of time.  They take liberties with facts for the sake of story and combine individuals into aggregate characters making them more powerful symbols.  This cutting of corners can also be seen in how we portray educational issues.  All our kids it seems are enrolled in underperforming poverty magnets staffed by callous self serving unionists.  Our teachers and schools are being stereotyped and we are letting it happen.  No one speaks up.  Far more dire than the erosion of professional status is the fact that many changes are destroying the quality of what schools do.  

Overworked and voiceless teachers still staff the classroom face to face with the students.   They show up every day, do what they can and know at times they will fall short in many ways.  There is your movie right there.  Their story is the story of our nation's children.  They are inseparable.  But I suppose it is far easier to make a movie for public consumption that only tells part of the tale rather than one that tells the truth.  It is shame too as a good teacher movies go a long way in portraying schools and teachers in a more positive light.  That helps garner much needed support from their community. But the other movies seem to be the norm,   The effect, like the movie, won't be good for teaching.  Sad too...because I love me some Maggie Gyllenhaal.

The film's line is "Change a school; change a neighborhood."  Wow that phrase drips with hope blended with Rage Against the Machine.  Skipping the substance since I have not seen the film, and probably won't,  I can only surmise that the movie will do more harm than good for children and schools.  What ails our schools will take much more than parents flipping a switch or a company taking the reigns to truly "change".   Keeping how movies help define how education is perceived in the public consciousness in mind, we should be a bit more careful with which movies will not only be good, but maybe do some good as well.  Because as I see it,  Won't Back Down, Won't be Good.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Should I Flip?

Today was frustrating.  Once again, I spent way too long covering content and left little time for students to engage in what I saw as the "true" learning activity of the day.  Last class, we learned about different research methods in Psychology-- descriptive studies, correlation studies, experiments.  I covered basic elements of each before students were placed in groups and given the task of generating a hypothesis based on a common proverb or piece of folk wisdom, then creating a research study to test the hypothesis.

I didn't fully cover experimental design, assuming that after three to four years of science, the students would already have know it.  As I moved around the room checking on groups, it became clear that only a few of them understood the purpose of control groups or how identify an independent and dependent variable.  They had fun working together, but the finished products were quite shallow.

Today, I spent more time reviewing those concepts before we moved on to Ethics in research.  After discussing guidelines for using animals in research, students formed "Review Committees" and read case studies to determine whether the studies met ethical standards.  By the time we got to the activity, we only had time to cover one of the four cases before getting cut off by the bell.

Throughout the year, I let this happen.  We spend too much class time covering content that is readily available in the textbook and elsewhere and leave little time for interactive problem-solving and discovery.  But, when I make the time, students aren't prepared.  What do I do?

That's a perfect lead in to "flip the classroom."  I've considered it.  I'm considering it.  I think I want to.  But...

I teach AP Psychology, an elective.  Each year, over one-hundred students (almost all of them seniors) take my class, by choice.  They enjoy what we do in class enough to spread the word to friends, and every year the course fills.  They learn.  AP scores are good, and I hear from many of them later about how the class helped them in some of their college courses.  But I know they can do more.

Two weeks ago I lost my first student.  "We met with a college advisor who said I'd have a better chance of admission by taking AP Statistics.  I don't want to drop, but I can't take both."  Then this week, another, "I'm really sorry, but I've got so many other hard classes and I'm working two jobs.  I just don't have the time."  Over the course of the year, I'll probably lose two or three more who wanted to give it a try, but with too much going on in their lives, my class is usually the least necessary for graduation, therefore, the first to drop.

I'll also watch several other students working like crazy to keep up the grade in AP Calculus, AP Government, and AP English among other classes.  Their grades usually start out well, slide toward C in the middle of the year when the workload hits full stride, until it drops too close to the unacceptable range, then they'll double down on effort to bring back up to par.  Some of my other students work struggle all year.  For many kids who don't take AP courses, this one is very accessible.

On the whole, I'm satisfied with my students' achievement and I'm confident in their learning (through more than just the test score even).  But I know I could push them harder.  I know that we could learn deeper skills and concepts in the classroom if we didn't spend so much time learning content.  Should I do it, should I flip?

What if it means that fewer kids are able to take the class because they're already working as hard as they can?
What if it means that my class is not accessible to kids who leave school and spend a few hours at practice, then go to work, and then get home and get down to schoolwork?
What if it means that a student who wants the challenge of an AP course can't take it because the workload has increased?

Almost all of my students seem extended to their full capacity.  They enjoy what they learn in my class, and they're willing to put in the twenty minutes or so required each night to complete assigned readings and work.  But they are not going to prioritize this elective course above English, Government, or other "core classes."  I've actually had to recommend to a few students in the past that they drop AP Psychology because of failing Government or English.  How can you let a kid put time into your class to do well while they fail the courses they must pass to graduate.

I could hold them more accountable for nightly reading, require more written work to demonstrate understanding and comprehension of vocabulary and facts.  When I remember Psych 101 in college I remember reading the text, three hours of lecture a week, one hour in a discussion session with thirty other students and a T.A., and four multiple choice tests to determine my grade.  I think I'm already doing better than that in my course.

So I'm torn.  In theory, flipping my classroom sounds like a great idea.  It would just require that students spend more time at home preparing for my class than they already do; but in class we could engage in much more authentic work.  In practice, I worry that my students, many already with a full schedule, extra-curricular activities, and jobs, might find the requirement more than they can handle and give up.

In the end, is it o.k. that they want to come to class and learn about Psychology because they don't have the time outside of school to really get into it.

So what's the decision?  Should I flip?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Return to Normal

 I open my eyes and for a brief few seconds I forget why today is different.  Quickly, I remember how significant the Eleventh of September will always be and how for many, this will never be just a normal day.  As I prepare for the day I think ahead, realizing that for most of my 9th graders, this day is probably as normal as the next.  Eleven years ago they were only three.  Once among them in class I ask, as part of a journal entry, "How many of you would say September 11th has had a major impact on your life?"  Slowly, only about 3 hands raised.  We don't live in New York City, Washington, D.C., or Pennsylvania, but part of me was angry, part of me confused, but part of me completely understood.  Just as on that morning what we knew evolved and changed, so does our nation's memory of September 11th.

This generation of children sees the world with a different set of experiences than those of us tasked with teaching them.  September 11th to them is more of a historical event and less a personal memory. Not yet a mere historical marker on the side of the road, but in the decade passed we have moved forward in many ways.   At our school we take time to recognize and reflect on the significance of the day as a group with a ceremony.  We pause to gather on the breezeway with music, a moment of silence and the playing of taps.   It has become an event each year and for now we have no plans to change that.

Just as schools had to help kids make sense of unthinkable events on that day, they must navigate the passage of September 11th from a vivid recollection to something much less familiar.  We must teach students to think about events but not necessarily what to think about them.  We must help them develop an understanding of their world and how it is not static and changes with time.   While we gathered a colleague asked what I thought of the event, adding "I think this might be more for the teachers than the kids."  He may be correct.   It is conceivable that at some point most will no longer pause or think much at all and September 11th for those not personally affected will just be normal again.  This will never be true for countless Americans and others around the world, but for the young, it might already be so.  When that will happen and when it is "OK" to move on, I can't say.  Maybe no one should.  But as December 7th of '41, November 22nd of '63, April 19  of '95 and April 16  of '07, the healing begins and with it so does history's unending march forward.

Maybe then we will no longer gather as a community to reflect.   We will still have a wealth of media from which to share modern events with emerging generations and can use these to give meaning and context.  I will still ask the journal questions, will still share where I was that terrible day and still speak of my friend who died.  Maybe they were too young to understand or remember.  Maybe they won't even have been around.  But we must help them develop historical empathy for those who were there and all those who experienced it.  We should help them try to understand today.  Because it will always be a day that changed the world.  We should never forget that it will never quite be normal.  

Monday, September 10, 2012

Our Kids Do Not Deserve This

Our Kids Do Not Deserve This.

The cheap shot to counter any teacher efforts to improve the quality of education that runs counter to the prevailing corporate-reform ideology of the day.  Of course the kids do not deserve to be deprived of an education for even one day, but the Chicago teachers’ strike is bigger than completely depriving students of an education for several days; it is about consistently flawed effort that deprives students of a quality education every day.

The Chicago strike is more than a Union issue.  It is an education reform issue that affects union and non-union districts alike.  Teachers in Chicago just have the ability to bring those issues to national attention while many others across the nation have no recourse beyond trying to get the word out to anyone who will listen.

What is the Chicago Teachers’ Union asking for?  Read for yourself here. In summary,

Number one on the list: recognize that class size matters.

Two: Educate the whole child.  This includes a plea for adequate arts, languages, and library services in schools.

Three: Provide more counselors, nurses, social workers, etc., to better serve low-income students.

Four: Address economic and racial inequities in funding.

Five: Full day kindergarten and better pre-school services.

Six: Better salaries, more time and autonomy for teachers.

Seven: Better services for bilingual and special needs students.

Eight: Better maintenance of school facilities.

Nine: Help and encourage parents to become more involved in their children’s education.

Ten: Fully fund education in Chicago.

Don’t be fooled.  This strike is not about low pay.  Nationwide, salary and compensation are not the driving forces behind teacher dissatisfaction.  Teachers are dissatisfied that increasing reform and legislation directed at improving public school is harming public education in America. 

Opposing current policies that affect teacher salaries and pensions, tenure laws, evaluation systems and accountability are easily written off as matters of self-interest.

But, these policies are only a part of an education agenda that denigrates the role of teacher and sacrifices quality education for an illusion of efficiency.

Our students do not deserve this.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Was Obama Right?

I can't speak for the other half of the Teaching Underground (but I'm guessing he agrees), but I am not a fan of the Presidents education policy. The democratic platform's comments on education in general are not very appealing either. Without a Republican plan for education that looks any better, it looks like education may be in for another tough four years regardless of the election.

I used to think that the President didn't matter to public education in America. After all, state and local governments oversee the education of children. But, unless I didn't know any better before the mid-90's it looks like that balance began to shift under the Clinton administration and certainly tipped during the Bush years to the point where today, what the President says (or perhaps more importantly, who he appoints) makes a significant difference in the way we do public education in the fifty states. We've gotten used to the rhetoric.

Obama says repeatedly that we shouldn't over test our children, yet still creates and enforces policy that drives the testing craze. The Administration's words speak highly of public education and educators, but actions increasingly follow the path of corporate reform instead of educator initiated improvements. I know that the words don't always reflect the reality, but one single sentence uttered last night by the President made me think that on some level he gets it:  

Government has a role in this. But teachers must inspire; principals must lead; parents must instill a thirst for learning, and students, you’ve got to do the work.

1) Government has a role- we can't continue to short-change education under the guise that we're throwing money at a failing system.  We can't deny the responsibility, the "rightness" of government to provide for the education of our children and the long term benefits of this investment for our nation.  But Government has a role, and especially the federal government should take care to ensure that states and districts are adequately providing education without encumbering them with excessive regulations that may not apply across the board.

2) Teachers- to inspire must be inspired.  We've heard enough empty thanks and platitudes of how important we are.  It's not just about money, but we are more than a pool of workers.  Evaluation methods should be fair, we need to stop inflating the idea of "bad teachers" ruining education, and teachers need more influence and input in policy and decision-making.

3) Parents- this thirst for learning will look different for different families.  This is the part where government may play a larger role.  I do a good job of working with kids, but add responsibilities with parents and my job gets tougher.  I can't do the job of a parent and I can't make parents do their job.  I'm not talking about laws and punishments.  Most parents are doing exactly what they need to.  Opening schools and creating access often just makes active parents more active.  We need to figure out the best ways to engage the unengaged and that solution might not be found within the wall of the school.

4) Students- do the work.  We need to hear this more often from our leaders.  I take responsibility for the job I do, but I can't take 100% responsibility for the performance of others.  I teach students, I don't "learn" them.  Learning is what you do yourself and what I learn is my responsibility.  Until student responsibility re-enters the national narrative on how to improve schools, schools will not improve. 

Last night Obama set forth a pretty decent rhetorical formula with these words.  I only wish it could translate into effective and reasonable policy.  Unfortunately, based on the record of the last four years, I don't have much hope in that.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Life, Liberty, and Milk

Choice alone doesn't create democracy.  Meaningless choice can link the chains of complacency.

I enjoy the fact that I can choose from hundreds of breakfast cereals.  When I’m feeling bold I love me some Fruity Pebbles, but when I want to feel a little healthy I’ll go for the Fiber One.  Is this the freedom that comes at so high a cost?

Choice as freedom characterizes 21st century political thinking.  We fight wars in the name of freedom and ask the ultimate sacrifice from some while trying our very best to keep everything normal at home.  As long as I can buy what I want it’s o.k., right?

During the last local election, I cast a ballot for five offices.  Three of the five were unopposed.  But I could still choose from over fifty different brands and styles of soda when I visited the market.

I only get three-minutes per meeting to talk if I want an audience with my local board of supervisors, and it’s one way, not dialogue.  But after I talk, I can choose from a few hundred different restaurants for my family to eat.

I had to maintain a distance of at least 75 feet from the president’s motorcade when he passed my house on the way to the airport.  But with the phone I picked this summer I was able to take a pretty good video.
Sometimes I wonder if the choices that don’t really matter obscure the fact that I’m not getting a chance to influence some of the choices that really make a difference and impact my life.

I’m not arguing against choice, but perhaps sometimes we’re placated with the idea of choice just to keep us satisfied enough to give up real choice and participation in decision-making.  

And so, we’re sold the idea of “school-choice” as the answer to the problems of education.  Here is an excerpt from Jeb Bush’s speech at the Republican National Convention last week:

Education is hard work, but if you follow some core principles, and you challenge the status quo, you get great results.  So here’s another thing we can do: Let’s give every parent in America a choice about where their child attends school. Everywhere in our lives, we get the chance to choose.  Go down any supermarket aisle - you’ll find an incredible selection of milk.  You can get whole milk, 2% milk, low-fat milk or skim milk. Organic milk, and milk with extra Vitamin D.  There’s flavored milk-- chocolate, strawberry or vanilla - and it doesn’t even taste like milk. They even make milk for people who can’t drink milk. 

Shouldn’t parents have that kind of choice in schools? Governor Romney gets it. He believes parents - regardless of zip code or income - should be able to send their child to the school that fits them best.

That has set him against some entrenched interests.  There are many people who say they support strong schools but draw the line at school choice.  “Sorry, kid. Giving you equal opportunity would be too risky. And it will upset powerful political forces that we need to win elections.”  I have a simple message for these masters of delay and deferral: Choose.

You can either help the politically powerful unions. Or you can help the kids. (1)
Now, I know it’s hard to take on the unions. They fund campaigns. They’re well-organized. Election day? They’ll show up.  Meanwhile, the kids aren’t old enough to vote. (2)

Choice is not a bad thing, but politicians are selling us a false hope for meaningful choice.  Current reform efforts highlight the problems of public education, and instead of investing in problem-solving, they declare the problems “unsolvable” in the current system.  Environmental issues of poverty are written off as irrelevant and options that show short-term promise in isolated cases free of restrictions placed on public schools are offered as proof that the solutions to the problems of public education rest only outside of the system.

In my school district, we currently have an alternative public charter school that functions in tandem with the county system, a vocational school run jointly by the county and city, an engineering academy housed in one of the three comprehensive high schools, and a health sciences academy housed in another.  All of our students have the opportunity to move in these directions when it fits their interests and needs.  The district enjoys strong public support even in the midst of a range of private school offerings.  And we still work to expand choices and opportunities for parents and students.

The future of public education depends of the issue of choice.  It’s not even a dichotomy of “choice vs. no choice.”  It is a question of what kind of choice and how we make sure it is for the benefit of children.  Choice that funnels public money into private hands to do education on the cheap won’t help.  Choice that allows dollars to follow children in order to increase the profit of online providers won’t help.  Choice that promotes ideology instead of pedagogy to inform the education of our children won’t help.  Choice that makes avoiding rather than working through a difficult situation won’t help. This kind of choice won’t improve education anymore than an incredible selection of milk will improve health.  

But what about the milk.  The red bottle with the rabbit on front sure does draw my child’s attention.  I hear that organic might not even be healthier than the regular.  The Strawberry milk costs more, but maybe my kids will drink more milk if it tastes better.  Is the extra sugar worth the extra calcium?  It does look really good and it makes the kid happy and after all, it is about the kids.  Right?

Post-Script- I couldn't just ignore a few other points from Jeb Bush's address so I've footnoted below.

1) I’m not in a union and Virginia doesn’t have them.
2)Saying kids can’t vote is a back door way of saying that since I don’t agree with you I don’t really have their interest in mind.  That’s like me saying, “Hey Jeb, you don’t govern the way I think you should.  I know your family has given their entire lives to public service, but be honest, you’re in it for the money right.  You don’t care about people.”

Monday, September 3, 2012

Why Labor Day?

Like most American civil holidays, we rarely take the time to recognize the meaning and reason of Labor Day.  Memorial Day has become an unofficial kick-off to summer, as likely to be marked by cook-outs and pool openings as by ceremonies to honor fallen soldiers.  And, Labor day is more likely seen as the last hurrah of the season than a day to recognize the contributions of Labor to the American society.

In 2012, Labor deserves a Day.  In the face of job losses and a struggling economy, labor still takes its kicks, even when down.  Originally conceived, Labor day was placed on the first Monday of September and not on International Worker's Day.  The president feared associating the holiday too closely with a communist or socialist ideology.  Today, we still observe the holiday, but national opinion toward organized labor is cool at best, hostile at worst.

The question of Labor Day is similar to the question out of the mouths of children every Mother's or Father's Day.  "When is there going to be a kid's day?"  You know the answer to that question.  So why a Labor Day.  "When do we get an entrepeneur or business owner day?"  The answer isn't quite as strong, but much the same.

Folks who sell the only good they own, their labor, are at quite the disadvantage in a populated society.  We look at them skeptically when they organize to set wages or workplace standards for themselves.  If they stood as individuals, the market would govern and wages and conditions would set themselves in a real, rather than artificial and fixed way.

But what of the chambers of commerce, the industrial lobbies, the trade agreements, etc., of the business class.  They work to change the law of the land toward conditions that fit their goals of production and profit.  They bind themselves together to fix markets and create favorable conditions to do business. 

And Labor, divided, stands as individuals standing at the table of prosperity waiting to work for the crumbs that may drop from the table.  This scene wouldn't be a problem if the very labor waiting for a bone didn't help build the table in the first place.

America was founded through struggle.  Our nation was birthed through a war.  The fundamental document that sets the law of the land was a process of conflict and compromise.  So goes the relationship between labor and capitalists from the origin of industry until today.  Conflict and compromise is hard, and often painful, but when both sides are working for the American ideal, the outcome is strength and unity.

Labor isn't the good guy, it's just often the underdog.  And let's face it, the hands that built America deserve at least a day of recognition.  The faceless millions who gave an honest days work for an honest wage to drive the economy of prosperity-- and yes, despite our troubles of 2012, we are still a prosperous people.

So enjoy your last day of the swimming pool, take that one last mini-vacation, enjoy a movie on your day off, or take care of the last minute business if your school year starts tomorrow.  But, at least for a minute, take pride in the work that you do and say thank you to someone for doing the same. 

The Underground plans on taking our first annual Mountain Bike outing to celebrate.  But Tuesday, it's back to work.  Satisfying, life-giving, nation building labor.

Happy Labor Day.