Friday, December 29, 2006

Freeing learners from those who hold them back

I have said on various posts and comments that I believe public school teachers need the authority to remove disruptive and apathetic students from their classes. Recently that belief was reinforced. When I was in the Twin Cities during the holidays, I had the opportunity to talk with a public school graduate who was not very happy about her experience. The person who introduced us told me that I wasn't going to like what she had to say about public schools, but that didn't turn out to be the case.

The young woman attended middle and high schools in an urban district in Florida before going to college where she earned a degree in computer science. She now has a good job in that field. When I suggested that her public schools couldn't have served her too badly, she completely disagreed. She credited her success entirely to the small private college that she attended. So I then asked her what she thought was so bad about her public schools. She said that she felt like she was always being held back by other kids in her classes. She said very few of them had any desire to go on to college. I then asked her if the problem was one of having too many kids who didn't care in her classes, or if it was one of having too many disruptive kids. She looked squarely at me and replied, "The answer to your question is yes and yes!"

Now, having one young person tell me that she thought the problem in her public school was too many bad students might not give me the right to say "I told you so!" but I really don't think it was an accident. (I did ask her about her teachers in her public schools, and she said it was a mixture--some very good, some very bad, and a lot in-between.) The effect of students on other students is one of the least appreciated factors in the education that takes place in public schools. It is a factor that is almost never addressed when politicians and other reformers talk about how to improve public education. What many educational "experts" don't seem to understand is that if there are too many apathetic kids in a classroom, the learning of the other students is going to suffer, and if there are just two or three truly disruptive kids in a classroom, it can make learning impossible for everyone.

I want to make it clear that I believe there should be some effort to turn around troubled students within the classroom itself. As a classroom teacher, I believe it's my responsibility to make it possible for every one of my students to be successful, and I try to set my classes up that way. This year I have a number of kids who started out miserably and are now performing at least adequately. I've even got one who earned an F the first marking period and is now earning a B. But I also have my share of kids who started out miserably and continue to make almost no effort. Now, I know that American History might not be the number one priority in a sixteen-year-old's life, and I also understand that some kids don't get much support from home and that others have other problems in their lives, but by this point in the year my sympathy level for kids who won't try is pretty low. It is hard to me not to look at them as simply being in the way. Since I am a classroom teacher, my greatest empathy lies with those students who come to school every day and actually want to learn something, especially those to whom it doesn't come easily. And they are the ones who are affected most adversely by the non-learners.

It seems to me that one of the most effective things we could do in our efforts to improve public education would be to enable students who are willing to behave and make a reasonable effort to learn in an environment with other kids who are willing to behave and make a reasonable effort. At least at the junior and senior high school levels, these kids need to be separated from the others who are unwilling to do those things. The more apathetic and disruptive kids there are in a school, the more important this becomes. I gathered from my conversation with the young lady from Florida that her schools had more than their share of them.

Public education should put the most focus on the students who are willing to help themselves for two reasons. The first reason is that these kids deserve it. They have positive attitudes, and they are making good decisions, and they should be rewarded for that. The second reason is that they are the ones who have a real chance to be successful. Put them in classrooms with other kids who want to learn, and they will almost certainly do well. It is a tragedy when these students get stuck in classes with enough kids who couldn't care less to make real education impossible. I hate to say this, but by trying to educate everyone, I'm afraid that sometimes we educate no one.

One way to separate kids who are assets to a classroom from ones who are liabilities is with vouchers. Most kids with positive attitudes toward learning have parents who make education a priority, so this would allow them to escape their public schools and go to private ones where kids who were going to hold back their learning probably wouldn't enroll, and if they did, they wouldn't be tolerated. Obviously, this would leave kids with parents who don't care about school in the public schools, which would basically become holding centers educational malcontents. The problem with this is that there are some kids who are eager to learn despite having unconcerned parents. Every year I see a number of kids like this, and no one deserves to be in classes with other motivated students more than them. A voucher system would almost certainly leave them behind, and that would be a gross miscarriage of justice.

So how can we separate the kids who are willing to work and follow rules from those who won't within a public school setting? I think the obvious answer to this is alternative learning centers. We have them now, but at least in my school, we need to make it easier to move kids there who should be there. A few weeks ago I was mildly rebuked for suggesting to parents of kids who were obviously headed toward failing the first semester that they should look into enrolling them in our ALC. I was told that the kids can't enroll there until they actually fail, so right now, I've got six kids in my American History classes who can't possibly pass. Mercifully, none of them are particularly disruptive, but this is not a healthy situation, and there are times when they definitely drag some of their classmates down.

As a classroom teacher, I would like the authority to send kids from my classes to the ALC. I am not ashamed to admit that one reason for this is that it would make my job easier. My job is to teach; my job is to help as many kids as possible be as successful as possible. If something is interfering with that, should I just grin and bear it? Besides, doing this would be in the best interest of the kids who get sent to the ALC. If I can see that a student doesn't have the self-discipline and work habits to pass my class, that student is better off trying "alternative" education.

I have tried to stay away from pushing for more money for more educational programs, because I know that turns off a lot of people, but I think it would be well worth it to put more money into alternative learning centers. I don't claim to be an expert on alternative education, so I have no idea what the best methods are for educating kids who don't fit into a normal classroom situation. I don't think kids should want to go to alternative learning centers, so I'm certainly not proposing that we put more money into them so that they will be more desirable places for kids to go. But I am proposing that we fund them so that they can adequately handle all of the kids in a school district who belong there. And in some places that might be a lot of kids.

There are teachers who's greatest concern is to try to reach the troubled student. I have great admiration for those teachers, but I'd be lying if I said I was one of them. As far as I'm concerned, any kids who can actually be reached by the alternative learning centers that they have been sent to should be considered a bonus. My concern is to free the millions of kids in public schools who want to learn from the disruptive and apathetic kids who are holding them back. I think we are doing a disservice to them if we don't.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Public Education: Giving America What It Wants

One of the things that irritated me the most about the recent Nation at Risk II report from that blue ribbon commission on education was the message it sent that our nation's educational problems lie solely inside the schools. The commission made it pretty clear that they believed American schools are not nearly demanding enough. On the CBS news story that I saw on the report, I was most annoyed by some fine upstanding looking American high school students they showed who laughed when they were asked if they were being adequately prepared for the new globalized world. This news spot gave the very strong impression that American high school students are eager for more challenging classes. When I saw that, I could not help but think, "Yah, right!" I am open to the idea that American schools aren't challenging enough, but if we aren’t, it isn't because schools and teachers aren't willing to be. The major reason that American schools aren't more challenging is because the American public doesn't really want that.

Before I go on, let me make it clear that I know there are some parents who do want schools to be more demanding. I have no doubt that people like KDerosa, Crypticlife, and Rory want their kids to be challenged, especially in math. But I have seen no evidence that they are even close to being in the majority. In fact, during my 32 years of teaching, I have seen overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

American parents want their kids to be educated, but they also want a lot of other things. I have been a coach, so I love sports, but I am also very aware of the overemphasis that many people put on athletics. There are hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of parents out there who are dreaming of college scholarships and professional contracts for their children. For some of those families, those hopes are realistic, but for the great majority of them, they are not. Whether they are or not, many of these parents are willing to sacrifice many things for their dreams, and in many cases, one of those things is academics. Sports and school don’t always have to conflict, but if it comes between putting time in to be a good student or a good athlete, parents often encourage their kids to put the time into their sports. But they know that their kids can't afford to do too poorly in school, so they expect the school to be very "reasonable" in their academic expectations. And it isn't just sports. A few years ago, we had a girl who missed school every Wednesday because she had to travel 150 miles and back to take piano lessons from the right instructor. Believe me, very few of these kids or their parents want the classes in our schools to be more challenging.

Our school is a working class community, and a huge percentage of our kids work during the school year. In most cases, they are encouraged to do this by their parents. I don't know how many times I've heard kids in my classes say that they didn't have an assignment done because they had to work. Once again, I can assure you that none of these kids or their parents want the classes in our school to be more challenging.

Another thing that amazes me is the number of students who miss school at the drop of a hat. You expect a certain amount of "illness" excuses in a school, and some kids are going to milk any "illness" for every day that it's worth, but those are not the only excuses we see. Every day we see excuses that have been signed by parents for "needed at home", "parent request", or "out of town". I will guarantee you that these kids and their parents don't want school to be any more demanding than it is.

And it isn't just working class families. Every year we also have kids whose parents take them on family vacations for up to two weeks, and sometimes even more than that. These, of course, are usually families with pretty good incomes, and some of them have real clout in our school district. In fact, an absence policy our school had adopted a few years ago seemed to be making a difference until it fell apart after an influential parent made a gigantic stink to our administration because the Caribbean cruise he planned to take his daughters on in the middle of the school year would have put them over our limit. I think it's safe to say that that parent wouldn't have wanted us to make our classes more challenging for his daughters.

If a poll was taken in America, I have no doubt that most parents would say that they think American schools should be more challenging, but I don't buy it. Once you get down to actually doing things that make school more demanding, the response from parents is a lot different. I can't think of any teachers who have gotten into trouble for giving too many A's and B's, but I can definitely think of teachers who have gotten fired because they gave too many F's. I think the school district in which I work is a good one, and I also like our community. But when I first came here, I had a terrible time, and a major reason was that my standards were too high. Parents were calling board members, and one board member even went into the principal's office and pounded on his desk because he was so upset with me. I ended up lowering my standards. After I got established in the school I was able to gradually raise them again, but I'm convinced that if I hadn't adjusted to what the community wanted during that first year, I'd have been gone. Believe me, this is not meant as a slam on my community. And if anyone thinks that this is the only community in which a teacher could get into trouble for being too demanding for that community's standards, they are dreaming.

There are parents in America who want their kids to be able to go to college, and there are others who don't think that's important. Regardless of whether or not they see college in their children’s future, the great majority of American parents also want their kids to do other things outside of school. Some want their kids to excel in sports, some want their kids to work, some want their kids to be able to stay home for nearly every reason under the sun, and some want to be able to take their kids on family vacations. Most parents also want their kids to be able to date and to have active social lives. The great majority of these parents are getting what they want. One thing the typical American parent couldn't care less about is whether or not their kids beat somebody from India or China on an international test. Maybe they should care about that, but they don't.

Although I am offended when people say that American public schools are doing a lousy job and that we are putting our nation at risk, I am not arguing that we shouldn't begin to challenge our kids more than we are. But if that is going to happen, people like those on that "blue ribbon" commission can't simply try to change things inside our schools. The American public is going to have to be made to understand just what "being more challenging" will actually mean for their kids and their families, and they will have to be convinced that it is really necessary. Believe it or not, a lot of us inside the schools are willing to do our part.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Here We Go Again! Another "Nation at Risk"

Last night while I was working in my room at school, I had the TV on and I flipped the channel to watch the CBS Evening News. Lucky me, I happened to catch this story that they called "All Children Left Behind."

CBS begins by telling us this: A bipartisan panel is warning that America's students are falling behind those in even some of the poorest countries, CBS News correspondent Thalia Assuras reports. "I am really worried about where this country is," says ex-Sen. Bill Brock, a former Secretary of Labor. "We've got an information world, we're networked to the rest of the world, it's a global economy and we're not preparing our young people for that world."

Students from Asia to Europe outperform Americans on tests. Thirty years ago, the U.S. boasted 30 percent of the world's college students. That figure is now 14 percent. Meanwhile, most other industrialized nations educate their 16-year olds at a college level.

Emerging giants like India are churning out college graduates who often have more advanced skill sets than American graduates. Many go on to take U.S. jobs. "That is going to drive the standard of living down in the United States," says Commissioner Mark Tucker.

The commission recommends these sweeping changes in American education: Public schools would no longer be run by local districts. Instead, schools could be managed by groups of teachers or private companies. Teachers would need to pass rigorous assessments ... and be paid a lot more. All 4-year-olds and all low-income 3-year-olds would enroll in universal pre-K. Finally, high school students should be prepared to pass college-level board exams by age 16.

Okay, I'm not going to knock the concern expressed by this "Blue Ribbon" commission. I'm not even going to knock their recommendations for radical change in our educational system. But before we take them seriously, I think we are owed an explanation.

Twenty-three years ago we had another report from a "blue-ribbon" type commission on American education. That report was titled Nation at Risk, and it made what was a very insulting statement to those of us in public education: "If an unfriendly power had imposed our schools upon us, we would have regarded it as an act of war." "Our nation is at risk," the report stated. "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people."

I think it's fair to say that the situation described by Nation at Risk was not one which had occurred over night. After all, test scores were not significantly worse than they had been in the 1960s. And, although I wish I could say that this wasn't the case, our test scores are not significantly better now than they were when Nation at Risk was published. That's at least fifty years of "mediocrity" threatening our very future as a nation.

Yet, here we are in 2006. We have a four percent unemployment rate, while many of those nations who are hammering us in those educational test scores have double digit unemployment. As I sit here typing this, Shepard Smith of Fox News is announcing that the Dow Jones is at a record high--the stock market is as good as it's ever been. Last week, I handed out this current event item to my students making it clear that the United States is the richest country in the world. I think it's fair to say that according to the dire proclamations of Nation at Risk, this should be an impossibility.

So to those members of this year's "Blue Ribbon" commission, I ask these questions: Why did the implied predictions of Nation at Risk turn out to be so wrong? Why should we assume that your forecasts of gloom and doom will be any more accurate than those of that other "Blue Ribbon" commission?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Best Job I Never Got

This is a different kind of post for me. The Minnesota high school hockey season began about a month ago, and for the first time in my teaching career, I am not coaching. I loved coaching, but combined with my teaching responsibilities, it had just become too much, so I resigned at the end of last season. To be honest, I became a teacher because I wanted to be a coach, and I think I became a good teacher because I wanted to be a good coach. This is a story of a coaching job that I didn't get. It was in the rough draft of my book as I worked on it during the 2003-04 school year, and it was called The Best Job I Never Got. But as the book developed and was edited, it became clear that the story no longer fit, so I had to drop it. I hated to do it, because it was my favorite story in the book. I've always wanted to share it, so here it is. It is about how the biggest professional disappointment in my life became one of the best things that ever happened to me.

The first fifteen years of my teaching-coaching career were spent in Mt. Iron, a small town in Minnesota's iron range. I moved to Warroad in the summer of 1989 after the school district contacted me and offered me a social studies teaching job. They told me the reason they wanted me was that their head hockey coach at that time, Tom King, would be retiring from coaching in two years. Their plan was for me to become an assistant to Tom with the idea that I would become the head coach when he stepped down. I had always dreamed of being the head coach of a team with a real chance to make it to the Minnesota state hockey tournament--a hugely prestigious event that receives four days of state-wide television coverage--and after having struggled for twenty years in a little town that didn't even have an arena, I was thrilled at the prospect of becoming the head coach of a truly competitive team. Our family had made a lot of friends in Mt. Iron, but the financial situation of the school district there was worse than ever. So we decided to make the move.

When I came to Warroad, the high school hockey team had been to the state tournament for three consecutive years, and the coaching staff was viewed with something approaching awe in the community. It's amazing how quickly things can change. Tom King didn't resign after two years, but he was "encouraged" to quit after four. Warroad's high school hockey team, which had been so successful, went through some mediocre seasons, and the man who had been viewed as being able to do no wrong came to be viewed by many of his former fans as someone who could do nothing right. The fans perception of the rest of the coaching staff was no better. Nevertheless, when Tom resigned and the head coaching job was posted, I had high hopes that the Warroad school district would fulfill what I had taken as the promise it had made to me four years earlier.

It's hard to describe how important it was to me that I get that job. In many ways, Warroad is one of the worst possible places for my wife and me to live. It is six-and-a-half hours away from any of our family, and anytime we need anything it involves about a two-and-a-half hour drive to Grand Forks, North Dakota. The Warroad area is the hunting and fishing capital of the world, but I do neither of those things, so my social life, at times, resembles that of a monk. Whenever I am with more than one male, the conversation inevitably turns to hunting and fishing, and anyone observing could probably see my eyes begin to glaze over. Warroad is a great place to bring up kids, and I love my teaching job, but if I had not been promised the head hockey coaching job, we would never have moved here.

I had never campaigned for anything in my life, but I did campaign for that job. I was well prepared for my interview, and came in with a viable plan to get the Warroad hockey program back on track. I could tell that I had made a good impression on the panel, and the athletic director even told me privately the next day that I had the job, so I waited anxiously for the phone call to make it official. Two weeks later, the school announced that they had hired Cary Eades, who had just coached the Dubuque Fighting Saints to the national junior hockey championship, as Warroad's new head hockey coach.

I was devastated. Perhaps even more devastated was our middle son, Andy, who had been a defenseman on the high school team for the preceding two years. Since he was a little boy, Andy had dreamed of having his dad as his head hockey coach, and he knew that one of the criticisms of me involved him. Andy had always been what is referred to as a "stay at home" defenseman whose main priority is to prevent goals. Certain influential hockey fans in our town preferred "rushing" defensemen who like to take the puck from end to end in an effort to score goals. Consequently, they didn't think Andy was very good. All of them believed he played too much, and some of them thought he shouldn't be playing at all. Naturally, they thought that the only reason Andy played as much as he did was because of my presence on the coaching staff. Every town with high school sports has its share of fans who are considered to be authorities, but in Warroad these people have an unusual amount of influence in the community and school district, and they were the ones who wanted Cary Eades. Andy had reason to be concerned about what this decision meant for him.

To say that my immediate reaction to the decision was anger would be an understatement. I was determined to hold on to my job as assistant coach, do just enough to keep it, and nothing more than necessary to help the new head coach. If I could undercut him, I would. We even thought about sending Andy to another school under open enrollment. I hated Warroad, I hated our town hockey "authorities," I hated the school officials who had given them their way, and I hated this new coach!

Fortunately, the day after the decision was announced, I began to calm down. I thought about the situation and Andy and my future, and I realized that the anger I was feeling wasn't going to accomplish anything. There are people who are very good at being vindictive--some of the Warroad “hockey authorities" could give classes on the art--but I had never been one of them. I knew that the only thing I had ever accomplished when I had tried to be vindictive was to make a complete fool out of myself. As I was driving to church, appropriately enough, I began what turned out to be a 180-degree turn in my thinking. If I was never going to make it to the state tournament as a head coach, maybe I could at least make it as an assistant. I decided to call Cary Eades, congratulate him, and let him know that I would do anything I could to help him be successful.

Cary Eades turned out to be the best hockey coach I have ever known. He stressed a defensive system which emphasized doing the things necessary to keep the puck out of our own net, and Andy's style of play fit perfectly into it. Seven months after making the decision I had made as I parked my car by that church, I stood at the blue line in the St. Paul Civic Center and watched as my son received the state championship trophy as one of the team captains, and he was named to the all-state tournament team. I have heard the saying, "I thought I had died and gone to heaven," and I now knew exactly what is meant by that. No moment of my life could match that one for the feeling of pure joy.

Because he had the opportunity to play in a state tournament, Andy was noticed and recruited by a junior team in Iowa where he played for two years. He had also been noticed by the hockey coaches at Minnesota State University-Mankato, which was just about to enter Division I competition. They followed his junior career and then offered Andy a scholarship. He was highly valued at Mankato for his defensive style of play and was chosen team captain both his junior and senior years. He only scored seven goals during his college career, but three of them were in overtime -- one against Ferris State to give MSU its first win ever in Division I competition, one against North Dakota to give his team its first win ever in the WCHA playoffs, and one that gave MSU its first win ever over the University of Minnesota Gophers. Because of my own coaching responsibilities, I rarely got to see Andy play in college, but I was in the arena for his goal against North Dakota, and I watched him score his goal against the Gophers on TV. If anyone happened to be looking from the street into the window of our house at that moment, they must have wondered why in the world that middle-aged man was doing cartwheels across his living room floor.

The thrills and joy that Andy's hockey career gave our entire family went beyond our wildest dreams, and he met a beautiful and intelligent young woman named Kelly in the process who is now our daughter-in-law. I am convinced that all of this was made possible because Cary Eades was hired as the hockey coach of Warroad High School. In the first twenty years of my hockey coaching career, no team that I was involved with ever came close to making it to a state tournament. During Cary's tenure in Warroad, our high school hockey team was in seven state tournaments and we won three state championships. Andy, of course, played on the first state championship team, and our youngest son, Garrett, played on the second. Besides the hockey success, I gained a great golfing partner and one of the best friends I've ever had out of the deal. My all-time favorite line from a novel comes from a Stephen King horror story, believe it or not. It says, “if life teaches us anything at all, it teaches that there are so many happy endings that the man who believes there is no God needs his rationality called into serious question." The Warroad High School head hockey coaching position turned out to be the best job I never got.

In August, 2004, Cary Eades shocked our community when he announced that he was leaving Warroad to accept an assistant coaching position at the University of North Dakota. I was named as co-head coach of our high school hockey team along with Albert Hasbargen, who had been a very successful coach in our youth program for several years. Albert and I were blessed with an outstanding group of players, and the work habits and knowledge the veterans on our team had gained playing under Cary was apparent. In March of 2005 our team won Warroad’s fourth Class A State Championship and completed the school’s first ever undefeated season by beating Totino-Grace 4-3 in double overtime.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Milton Friedman, the Founding Fathers, and Public Schools

A couple of weeks ago, Milton Friedman, the famous economist died. Friedman was no fan of public schools. In fact, he urged people to refer to them as "government schools" because, according to him, the term "public schools" gave a false impression. He said they're not public in the sense that you can use them without cost, since we pay for them in taxes. He also said that they aren't controlled by the public in any meaningful way.

Quite frankly, Friedman's thinking on this confuses me. Doesn't public generally mean that something has been paid for with taxpayer money? I mean, I've used "public" restrooms, and I always assumed they cost money to build, and I assumed that money came from the taxpayers. I used to play golf on "public" golf courses, and not only did taxpayers pay for those to be built, but the managers had the audacity to make me pay when I played, too!

Teachers at my school, and I would guess, many other "government" schools, would be surprised to know that our publics have no meaningful control over us. At my school, it is possible that if one parent calls with a complaint they won't get satisfaction, but that is certainly not always the case. And if two or more parents call with a reasonable complaint, administrators and teachers in our school will be falling all over themselves trying to meet their concerns. Like many other school districts, ours has been in constant need of passing referendums in order to make ends meet during the last several years, so there is the constant awareness that we must do whatever we can to keep the public happy. Do we manage to keep all of the people happy all of the time? Of course not. In a republic, that's something that doesn't happen. But the idea that public schools are oblivious to the wants of the public is ludicrous.

Friedman was the father of the idea of vouchers which he first endorsed in an essay that he wrote way back in the 1950s. As an advocate of public education, I have to admit that the idea of vouchers scares me. Although I think that in places where the schools are truly bad that vouchers are justified, I'm afraid that a full-fledged voucher system would destroy public schools. I did a post on vouchers in June, so I won't rehash that here. Suffice it to say that I have often suspected that destroying our public school system was part of a hidden agenda for those who advocate vouchers. I mean, who would ever admit that they would like to see public schools disappear? But in the last couple of months, I have been introduced through these blogs to Steven, who says just that. I do have to hand it to him; Steven is definitely up front about what he believes. And I know that it comes as no surprise to him when I say that I think he is way off base.

Steven says this about public education: "The government has no business using public funds to provide for private goods such as education. People should provide for their own education, just as they provide for their own food, clothing and shelter. I don't buy the public benefit argument. That argument could be used to justify just about anything that the government wished to do 'for the good of society'."

Steven justifies his disdain for public education with his view of the intent of the Founding Fathers of our country, especially Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights: "My 'radical' views regarding the proper role of governemnt in a free society are pretty much in line with those of Jefferson and Madison. The purpose of our written constitution and our bill of rights is to limit the power of government to only what is necessary to secure the natural rights of individuals (life, liberty and property)."

I think it's fair to say that Steven's use of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as a basis for his views is stretching things. Steven is a "small government" guy, but The Constitution was actually created to strengthen the national government. It replaced our first constitution, The Articles of Confederation, which was clearly failing because it hadn't given the national government enough power. As John P. Roche points out in his classic essay on the Constitutional Convention, the framers were nationalists who were trying to create as strong a national government as they could, and still get the states to swallow it.

Another other problem with using the framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in an argument against public education is that they deal with the national government, and public schools have always been products of state governments. The Bill of Rights was created with the purpose of limiting the powers of Congress, not state legislatures. In fact, it wasn't applied to the states at all until the Fourteenth Amendment was passed after the Civil War. Since tax supported schools had been around since 1647 in certain colonies, I don't know how anyone could make the case that the framers of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights wanted to prohibit them.

Okay, if you can't use framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in an argument against public education, how about Thomas Jefferson, who wasn't even at the Constitutional Convention? After all, if there is a father of the idea of small government in America, it would be him. Steven makes frequent references to Jefferson in his arguments against public education, and he quotes him here: "A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government."

But there is a slight problem with using Thomas Jefferson in a denunciation of public education, because Jefferson was one of public education's earliest and strongest promoters. The man who said, "All men are created equal," believed that meant making education available to all through government. Jefferson said, "I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it."

Steven's response to this is that while Jefferson's overall philosophy was correct, he was wrong about public education. Nevertheless, I think it's questionable, to say the least, to invoke Jefferson's name and philosophy in an argument against something that he so strongly supported.

Steven is a believer in small government. If he was questioning some of the laws passed by legislatures and rulings made by courts dealing with public schools, I'd say he has a point. If he was saying that the national government has become too involved in public education, a lot of teachers would say that he has a point. But that is not what he is saying. He is saying that there should be no public education. Steven has every right to say that, but I think we need to make one thing perfectly clear. When he says that we should not have tax-supported public schools, he is not giving us the Jefferson-Madison philosophy of small government; he is giving us the Steven philosophy of small government.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Tuesdays With Morrie & Me

I just finished reading Mitch Albom's wonderful book, Tuesdays With Morrie. I have watched Albom on ESPN's "Sports Reporters" for years, and I had an idea what the book was about, but I didn't know that Morrie had been Mitch's teacher. I think my reaction to the book is probably not unusual--I was inspired by Morrie's example, but I also felt guilty about how far I come from following it.

If you haven't read the book, it is based on weekly conversations between Albom and Morrie Schwarz, who had been his favorite college professor. These conversations took place during the last several weeks of Morrie's life, who was suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). Morrie finally succumbed to the disease, but he had been determined to live his life to the fullest even as the disease gradually sapped him of everything but his incredible spirit.

One gathers that Albom was only one of many people who felt the way he did about his former teacher. Morrie was a person who was full of love for others and not afraid to show it. He was one of those teachers who seemed to make a very real difference in many of his students lives. I admire Morrie, but I also can't help but envy him. How can anyone envy someone who has died from ALS? I don't know, but I sure do.

As a teacher, I think I am a great manager. I set my classes up so that every student will be able to be successful, even the ones who don't have great aptitude in the subjects I teach. But I think I also do a good job of challenging my more able students. Doing both of those things at the same time is not easy, and it requires a lot of work. I think it would be fair to say that no teacher in our district works harder or puts in more hours than I do. So success is there for any students who want it, but if students are lazy, I am not merciful. Because of that, I am considered by most students and parents to be reasonably demanding. I also make frequent use of my sense of humor in my classes, and I'm not a yeller, so I am popular with most of the kids.

Despite all that, when I read about someone like Morrie, I feel like I've been missing something. I know I don't do enough to jack up those kids who fail. I know that I should be keeping them after class and getting on them more often than I do. I know that when kids do good things, I should keep them after class and encourage them more often than I do. I know that I should try to get to know more students better than I do. I ask myself, how many kids have I influenced the way Morrie influenced Mitch Albom and so many others, and I have to admit that my answer to that question is depressing. I've had good relationships with a lot of kids, especially kids who played hockey for me, but even in those relationships, Morrie puts me to shame.

I can console myself somewhat because Morrie did have a different situation than I do. After all, he taught in a college, not in a high school. Let's face it, it's got to be a lot easier to relate to college students than to some of the high school kids that I've had. One time, a few years ago, after a retired teacher had substituted for me, he was so frustrated with my Basic American History class that he said, "They should throw a grenade in that room, and lock the door." I doubt that Morrie had many classes like that. He also had an office with hours when kids could come and chat, giving him a chance to get to know them. He didn't have six classes, and a constant situation where as one class is leaving, another one is coming in. It's tough to get into meaningful conversations with students when that's going on.

Nevertheless, I know that those are just excuses. I know that there are high school teachers out there who have Morrie-like effects on a number of their students. I think I do a pretty good job of teaching, and I don't have that long before I hit retirement, but in the time I've got left, I want to be more like Morrie.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Richard Dreyfus to the Rescue!

If you are a civics teacher, take heart! It's Richard Dreyfuss to the rescue! Today in a taped interiew on ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulus, it was announced that Dreyfuss will soon be beginning a "personal campaign" to teach civics. Lucky us!!! Dreyfuss might have wanted to enlist people who teach civics and government for a living, like me, as allies, but his approach for doing that is about as smooth as John Kerry's for winning the hearts and minds of American soldiers in Iraq.

Dreyfuss began his interview by saying, "The teaching of civics presently in the United States is dismal and startling." I always love it when some "important person" repeats that type of cliche, because they are oh so knowledgeable. Dreyfuss didn't explain why he believed the teaching is so dismal, so I have no idea where he got his information--maybe at a Hollywood cocktail party. But I guess that doesn't matter, because after all, Dreyfuss did play a teacher in a movie once. That should qualify him as an expert on the subject shouldn't it?

Dreyfuss goes on to say, "It used to be, when I was a kid, that there were classes in civics and you learned not only the checks and balances, but hows and whys and wherefores. And you learned what was the reasoning behind the creation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. …" The obvious implication of this is that they used to teach civics a lot better than we do now. I am fifty-five years old, so I went to school in the 1950s and 1960s, and I don't think that's the case. I wonder what evidence Dreyfuss has to the contrary.

I would like Dreyfuss to know, that at least in my neck of the woods, we are doing our best to teach civics. The problem is that a lot of kids don't really care. Some do, and it's entirely possible that Dreyfuss did when he was a student, but most of them don't. They simply don't see how it matters to their lives now, and now is the time that most kids care about. My guess is that when Dreyfuss was in his teens, many of his classmates probably didn't care that much about it, either, but he just didn't notice.

If Dreyfuss wants to go on a campaign to convince kids that civics does matter, we would love to have his help. But to begin that campaign by simply repeating cliches that the subject isn't being taught well can only infuriate people like me who actually have to try to do the job. I can tell you one thing: if there is ever a rematch between Richard Dreyfuss and Jaws, here's one guy who will be rooting for the shark.