Saturday, April 28, 2007

Should we get rid of high school athletics?

Mr. McNamar, in The Daily Grind, had a very thoughtful post recently in which he suggested that it is time it is time to end high school sports. He gave valid reasons, but I strongly disagree with him. I've written posts before that defended athletics, and also that expressed my concerns about them, so I might be repeating myself at times. This is a very important subject to me, however, so I hope you'll bear with me.

Despite the problems that Mr. McNamar points out, there is no question in my mind that high school athletics is a good thing. For starters, it is probably the high school sports teams more than anything else that unites a community around a school. Strong proponents of academics might think this isn't the way it should be, but it is. Park Rapids is a school district in northern Minnesota that has had financial difficulties for some time now, but referendum after referendum failed there. Finally, last fall they gave it one more try. The superintendent announced that if this one failed, they would have to cut their sports program. Magically, it passed. Does anyone think that by getting rid of high school sports that communities will begin to care more about their schools?

Mr. McNamar refers to the sense of entitlement that some high school athletes acquire. I know that there are some athletes who think they are God's gifts to the world, there are some who think they deserve special treatment, and there are some people in authority who are stupid enough to give them exactly that. But this is something that is definitely not inevitable, and in fact, it should not happen. Obviously, it is the best athletes who are mostly likely to acquire this self-destructive attitude, and this is where good coaches are crucial. Good athletes and good teams need to constantly be reminded that they are fortunate rather than wonderful, and the school has to make it clear that they won't be given any special favors if they don't do their school work or if they don't behave the way they should. I would have to be very naive not to realize that there are coaches out there who lack integrity and do want special favors for their players but, at least in Minnesota, they are clearly a minority.

Two of Mr. McNamar's reasons for getting rid of high school sports have to do with the unfair pressure on coaches from parents and administrators. It is true that this has become more and more of a problem over the years. Parents who are unhappy with a teacher don't like the teacher, but parents who are unhappy with a coach often view him with unmitigated hatred. The answer to this problem lies in having good administrators, especially good athletic directors with real backbone. I know that this is very possible because during my coaching career I was blessed with excellent ones. I should also say that most of the parents of players I coached during my career were supportive, and the only time I would hear from them was at the end of a season when they thanked me. The problem is that, just as it is true for teachers, one obnoxious parent can make a coach forget about thirty good ones.

Mr. McNamar also gives the cost of high school sports as a reason for getting rid of them. I can only say that I think they are worth the cost. In Minnesota statistics show that students involved in sports get better grades and are much less likely to drop out than students who aren't. I assume that is probably true across the nation. During my career, I have known many kids who worked much harder in school than they otherwise would have because they believed they had a chance for an athletic scholarship. I have also known several students who graduated only because they played high school sports. They didn't care at all about their English, history, math, and science classes, but they cared greatly about staying eligible so they could play football, basketball, or hockey. I think the best thing about high school sports--especially team sports--is that it gives young people something to really care about.

I enjoy my teaching job, but one thing I find frustrating about it is the lack of effort demonstrated by too many students. That is one reason I loved coaching hockey so much--lack of effort was definitely not a problem. Watching high school kids put every bit of their hearts and souls into something the way the kids did who played on teams I coached and on teams I coached against was nothing less than inspirational. I don’t know how many times I saw players do things I never thought they’d be capable of, and they seemingly did it through sheer force of will. And they did it because they cared so much about their team and their teammates. These kids wanted to play through injuries they had no business trying to play through--cuts, bruises, strains, and sprains--while some of their classmates took a day off from school anytime they sneezed or got a runny nose. During my thirty-two years in coaching, I never heard an "I don’t care" from a player who hadn't performed well. There has to be great value in that, and if anyone thinks that by taking sports away from kids that this concern will be transferred to academics, they are dreaming.

When we enter our middle ages, and we think back to our high school days, it is not the time we spent in our English, math, or history classes that we think of. It is those times on the football or baseball fields, the basketball court, or the hockey rink. For those who were never in sports, it might be the school play or the choir or band concerts. This is not my original thought, by the way, and it is not a coach or even a teacher who first shared this thought with me. It was my doctor.

Once again, strong proponents of academics might think it shouldn't be this way, but it is. And if they think that those very valuable and memorable high school experiences that people of my generation had can be replaced for the high school kids of the future if sports are taken away from them, I think they are very wrong.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Billionaires to the rescue!

The New York Times says that Bill Gates and Eli Broad, a couple of billionaire businessmen, want to reform high school education in America. Oh boy! I can't wait!! I suppose I shouldn't be so cynical about this, but it's hard not to be. I'm sure these two gentlemen have the best of intentions, and I can hardly object to their desire to make the American public and politicians care more about education, but I can't help but find them insulting and arrogant.

Speaking about American high schools, Broad says, “If we really want to get the job done, we have got to wake up the American people that we have got a real problem and we need real reform.” He also says, "America’s schools are falling behind. It’s a crisis that takes leadership to solve."

This isn't the first time I've said this on one of my posts but it's true: I've been hearing this crap for the entire 33 years that I've been in teaching. Shortly before I began typing this, my good buddy, Brit Hume of Fox News, announced that the stock market had gone above 13,000 today for the first time. The stock market is so high because our economy is so good, and our economy is so good because American workers are more productive than anyone else in the world. And over eighty-five percent of those Americans went to public schools. It looks to me like we couldn't have screwed them up too badly!

Broad's comment that American schools are "falling behind" implies that we are getting worse, and that simply isn't the case. There is no evidence that there has been any drop in the performance of high school students since the 1960s. This despite the fact that the social problems we've had to deal with have dramatically increased.

I will be the first one to admit that there are problems in todays American public high schools. But I really don't think Broad or Gates understand what the most important problems are. They believe all of the problems are things we are doing wrong inside the schools. They believe we should have merit pay because teachers aren't good enough. They believe we should more school days because the school year isn't long enough. They believe we need a national curriculum because our curriculum isn't good enough. On the other hand they say nothing about what to do about kids who won't try; they say nothing about what to do about kids who won't behave; they say nothing about what to do about parents who allow their children to be absent from school for 30 or 40 days per year. One of Gates' and Broad's first advertisements for their program will feature a kid at a blackboard writing, "The histery of Irak." Gates' and Broad's proposals may not be bad things, but you know what? I'll bet you could have merit pay for teachers, add school days to our year, change our curriculum, and that same kid would still be spelling those same words the same way.

I'll bet Broad and Gates have talked to a lot of CEOs of major corporations about their ideas. I'll bet they've talked to some politicians, and they've probably even talked to some university professors. No doubt, they've also talked to superintendents from large school districts. But I wonder if either Broad or Gates have ever sat down with a regular old high school teacher and asked, "What do you think needs to happen in order for your students to be more successful?" If they haven't, it might not be a bad idea to do that.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Congress attacking Direct Instruction?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about trying to make more people aware of how effective Direct Instruction has been proven to be, especially in teaching basic skills. I thought it was scandalous that most colleges of education ignore Direct Instruction and continue to push more "progressive" methods of questionable effectiveness. With Congress seeming to be willing to investigate everything under the sun, and with so much attention on the effectiveness of K-12 education, I thought this would be an obvious target. Since I did that post, I've found that Congress is conducting an investigation involving Direct Instruction. But this investigation is happening not because DI is being ignored, but because its use is being encouraged.

Christopher J. Doherty, who oversaw the Reading First program from 2002 until last fall, is being accused of having stacked panels that were supposed to review state Reading First grants with Direct Instruction advocates. By doing this, they say that Direct Instruction was fraudulently presented as being at the top of an approved list of reading programs.

As I've said before, I'm a high school teacher, so when I start getting into elementary education programs, I'm out of my element, and I must admit that I know next to nothing about Reading First. Can someone explain to me what's going on here? I keep on reading on the blogs how fantastic Direct Instruction is, and it is often made to sound like a panacea for our nation's educational problems. Has someone in Congress determined that it's not that great after all? I would love to have someone, who knows a lot more about this than I do, fill me in on this.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Out the door with a bootmark on his backside!

A couple of weeks ago, Education Wonks did a post about the student who mooned his teacher in school. His parents then sued the school because they felt the punishment for their little darling was too harsh. That punishment: to send him to a new school for the rest of the year. Too harsh?

As bad as this one is, it's not as bad as others that occur. Last year, I had an exchange of "letters to the editor" with a junior high school teacher of 26 years in St. Paul who had been beaten up by a student. The punishment for that student--you guessed it--transfer to another public school. In another incident two years ago a student in Kansas intentionally threw up on his Spanish teacher. Although he had a lawyer to argue his case when he went to court, this kid was sentenced to four months of cleaning up after people who threw up in police cars. Now, that's my kind of judge!

It is my very strong belief that teachers need to be given the power to have disruptive students removed from their classes, and I also believe schools need more power to expel students. Whenever I say that I feel compelled to propose solutions regarding what can be done with kids who are kicked out. There are some kids, however, who I don't think we should have to do anything for. Every so often there is a student who should simply be sent out the door with a bootmark on his (or her) backside.

Our nation has just witnessed a terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech University. A very disturbed young man decided to kill as many people as he could before taking his own life. He did what he did, and he knew he was going be dead when it was over. I don't know how we stop that. But the incidents I've talked about that have happened in high schools aren't like that. They happened because the students involved assumed that nothing serious would happen to them. They assumed that their outrageous actions would be well worth any slap on the wrist they might receive.

This happens because of our concept in America that students have a right to an education. Because of Supreme Court rulings in the 1970s, if a school official wants to take strong action against a student, he or she risks being sued. In his book, The Death of Common Sense, Philip K. Howard argues that this has done more damage to public education than anything else over the last forty years. I agree. Howard also argues that education should be considered a benefit provided by a democratic society, and not a property right.

In Minnesota, and I assume in other states, if a student does something outrageous enough to be expelled, the public school district is still responsible for paying for his education. A few years ago there was a teenage boy who committed some sort of sex crime and was put into an institution, and our school district had to pay $16,000 per year to that institution because his mother moved into our community. The boy, himself, never set foot in one of our buildings. We also had to pay for the education of another "student" who got sent to prison for a brutal rape-murder of an infant!

One of the best common sense statements about disruptive students was this one from Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers: "We are about to create a system of choice and vouchers, so that ninety-eight percent of the kids who behave can go someplace and be safe. And we're going to leave the two percent who are violent and disruptive to take over the schools. Now, isn't it ridiculous to move ninety-eight percent of the kids, when all you have to do is move two or three percent of them and the other ninety-eight percent would be absolutely fine?"

I've used this quote frequently, so one person who disagreed with me on this subject used the two-percent figure, and calculated how many kids we would "lose." The problem with his line of thinking is that, because of that "two-percent," we are losing a lot more than that now.

When I argue that we should not have to come up with some sort of alternative education for every malcontent who behaves so badly that he should be kicked out of school, I'm not saying they should never be able to come back and try again. They should be able to do that on a strict probationary basis after a year or even after just a semester. But if they fail to show an understanding that they are going to have to behave, and if they continue to act as if education is something that society owes them, they should be sent right back out the door again.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

It makes me glad we had all boys!

I hope I don't offend anyone with this post, because I'm really not trying to. I'm also not trying to be sexist. I'm just making an observation, and it's an observation that constantly leaves me befuddled. In any high school, boy-girl relationships are constantly forming and unforming, and we see it happen before our very eyes. Some of those relationships last a week, some months, and some years. I know that, as a teacher, I am supposed to love and see the wonderful potential of every student. I suppose that means that I should never view any student as being any better than any other but I just can't help myself. I'm always amazed at how often I look out into our hallways and find myself thinking, "Why in the world is that girl with that guy?"

Maybe it's just in our high school, but I doubt it. I will have a girl in class who seems to have everything going for her. She's smart, she has great work habits, she's personable, she's attractive, she seems to have solid values, and she really seems to have her head on straight. With her whole future in front of her, it appears that she will be able to go anywhere she wants to go and be anything she wants to be. Then, I will see her walking down the hall, hand in hand, with some boy who is almost the exact opposite of her in character. He might not be among the absolute worst element of our kids, (although sometimes they are!) but he's definitely in the bottom half. He has one or two Fs going in his classes, the effort he makes in the things that he's involved in is never better than mediocre, and he seems to have absolutely no drive.

Being a parent is not easy these days; I know that. It wasn't easy when my own children were young, and it certainly hasn't gotten any easier. We have a culture in our country that does a lot to encourage kids to move in directions that no parent wants them to go. Parents have to worry about the effects of the movies their kids watch, the video games they play, the music they listen to, and some of the lousy "role models" they might be tempted to look up to. They have to worry about who their friends are and what they're doing on Friday and Saturday nights. They have to worry about drugs, alcohol, sex, and the combination of the three.

I can't help but feel great sympathy for girls' parents who have seemingly done a fantastic job of parenting and end up with this situation. They have daughters who any parent would be proud of in every way, and then one day they bring Bozo the Idiot home. I have seen members of our staff go through this, and you could literally see the strain that it caused in their families. What makes it even more frustrating is that sometimes, after the girl finally gets around to dumping the guy who has been an albotross around her life, she will pick another one from the same batch that he came from.

My wife and I have three sons we are very proud of, but we would have also loved to have had a daughter. When I see the choices of boyfriends that some of the best girls in our high school make, it makes me wonder if maybe we weren't lucky that we didn't.

I am going to close with these two questions: Is this as common in other places as it is in my school? Why do I see this so often with our better girls and almost never with our better boys?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Religion and Public Schools

I've just finished reading TIME Magazine's "The Case for Teaching The Bible." The article was written by David Van Biema, and I agree with its premise. Van Biema makes the point that The Bible is the most influential book ever written and a key part of our culture, but as George Gallup has said, we are "a nation of biblical illiterates." I think there would be no subject more interesting for a social studies teacher to teach, but I would be flattering myself if I pretended to think that I am qualified to do so.

Although TIME's article gives examples of public school teachers who are apparently teaching The Bible successfully, I think it would be a very challenging job. I know how hard it is to walk the tightrope of trying to show impartiality in dealing with Democrats and Republicans in my A. P. Government class. That would be dwarfed by the problem of teaching The Bible while trying not to offend Catholics, Lutherans, fundamentalists, Bhuddists, or athiests. (We have all of those in Warroad, but--sorry--no Jews or Muslims.) According to TIME, Jennifer Kendrick, the teacher featured in the story, did a good job of this, but it's one thing to pull it off for one day while a national magazine has someone observing your class; it would be quite another to pull it off day after day for an entire semester when it's just the teacher and the kids.

Although people who take an absolute view of "the wall of separation" might become apopleptic at the idea of having classes on The Bible in public schools, I actually think that those who would end up raising the strongest objections in practice might be people to whom religion is important. Looking at The Bible objectively means that everything would be subject to question, and when it comes to the religious beliefs of their children, many religious parents would be squeamish about that.

Since I am writing about religion, I should probably tell where I am coming from on the subject. I am a Catholic, and although there are doctrines of the Church that I struggle with, I try to make my religious faith the major driving force in my life. I would have to let somebody else judge how successful I am at that. Non-religious people like to point out the terrible things that have been and are still being caused by religion, but I still believe that religious faith is usually a very good thing. I actually see that in my school all the time. I don't know what people in other areas of the country see, but in our community there seems to be a very clear difference between kids who attend church regularly and those who don't. The kids who go to church seem to have a kind of compass directing their lives that is lacked by most kids who don't. That is most obvious when it comes to having a sense of right and wrong, but it goes well beyond that. Yes, there are exceptions, and yes, you can definitely see some hypocrisy in many of the church-going kids from time to time, and yes, they can also be judgemental in ways that can be rather obnoxious. Nevertheless, based on what I have seen, if I were going to give advice to young parents who wanted to raise solid kids, one of the first things I'd say would be, "Go to church."

As the TIME article points out, while it is unconstitutional to teach religion, it is perfectly okay to teach about religion. Despite that, I think having classes on The Bible in public schools would actually be a very positive thing for religion in America. No matter how secular a teacher was in his or her approach to the class, it would be impossible for kids to avoid taking a good look at their own beliefs. A religious faith that has been examined is a much more mature and solid faith than one that hasn't, and I think this kind of faith is one that makes a more positive difference in people's lives. I also believe that examining one's faith would help to eliminate some of that hypocrisy and judgementalism that can turn so many people off. The TIME article suggests having a class on The Bible paired with a class on the other world religions--one semester each--and that idea makes sense. Whether that is the way schools do it or not, having classes on The Bible is a trend in public education that I like, despite the very real challenges it presents. I hope it continues and grows.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Public education, the news media, and glass houses


I am an early riser on the weekends, so last Sunday I had the TV on as I worked in my office at 5AM. It was tuned to “The Journal Editorial Report” on the Fox News Network, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I was aware that Paul Gigot, the host, was blabbering on about their upcoming reports following commercials, and then I heard him use the phrase “our failing schools.” Using that term in my hearing is a little like waving a red flag in front of a bull, so Gigot definitely had my attention. I got ready for public education to take another bashing by the genuises in the news media. Gigot and his band of merry men didn't let me down.

The story itself was actually about some huge donations by rich donors to the KIPP program in Houston. Gigot and his cohorts mixed doses of praise for KIPP schools and the charter school movement in with their insults for public education. In the process, they demonstrated their ignorance of what really goes on in public schools.

Dan Henninger, the most obnoxious of a very obnoxious crew, proclaimed that today's public schools are not "your father's public school." The clear implication of this statement is that public schools were much better in the good ol' days. Like when, the 60s? I am fifty-five years old, so I went to public schools in the sixties, and test scores, which pundits like Henninger are usually so fond of talking about whenever they look bad, are basically the same as they were when I graduated. Which "fathers" is he talking about?

If Henninger told my wife that today's public schools are not those of a generation ago, my wife would probably tell him that's a very good thing. She suffered a series of ear infections that caused her to have a severe hearing problem when she was in elementary school in the 50s. Her hearing was so bad that she didn't know that walking on grass made sound until after a surgery she had when she was fourteen. Yet, she never received any help for her problem from her school system, and was even spanked once by a substitute teacher in front of the class because she couldn't say her name correctly. Things like that probably don't matter to people like Henninger, but public schools are definitely better than they used to be in a lot of ways.

The educational villain held up by Henninger and his buddies was one of the favorite whipping boys of conservatives: teachers' unions. Here is how Henninger put it: "These unions are running the schools like you would run a coal mine or an auto factory. They are like industrial unions. They are just simply in the grip of a straitjacket that is does not allow principals to choose teachers and put them where they want. And as a result, they're in decline." This statement was followed by a lot of nodding by the other "experts" on the panel.

Now, I have said numerous times that I believe principals should have the power that Henninger refers to. I agree that that is a problem. But anyone who says that is the root of the problems in public education simply doesn't know what he is talking about.

The amazing thing is that if they would take a close look at the KIPP schools that they were so eager to praise, and if they would think about why so many kids in those schools do so well, they could reach a much better understanding of the problems we have in public schools. KIPP schools are able to demand that the students work hard to learn. The KIPP schools are able to demand that their students behave appropriately. The KIPP schools are able to demand that parents take an active part in their children's education. Public policy determined by legislatures and courts make it impossible for regular public schools to do any of those things. You might think that journalists as wonderful and marvelous as those who get to be on the panel of The Journal Editorial Review might see some clues here as to why public school students don't perform as well as we would like, but nope! It's those darned unions!!

As I indicated, the panel members were all gloom and doom when looking at the performance and future of public schools. James Taranto said this: "You know, Paul, as you know, I'm an optimistic guy. But I find this subject of education unremittingly grim because here we are, sitting on television, talking about how wonderful it is that there are a few schools, here and there, that are actually able to educate children. Something is terribly wrong with education in this country." And of course, this fine segment on public education just wouldn't have been complete without a closing statement by Henninger: "I really have gotten to where I think the public school model is irreparably broken, because any potential reform gets gridlocked by politics now. And I think probably we're going to have to try to go to a more independently based school system."

I have been hearing crap like this from the news media for over thirty years now, and I'm sick of it. The only difference is that conservative journalists, like those on The Journal Editorial Report, have gotten increasingly shrill since vouchers have become an issue. They now see hope for their desire to privatize education. Oh, excuse me! I mean make it independently based. Well, I would like the panelists on The Journal Editorial Report, and other members of the news media to know that I don't think they're doing such a hot job. In fact, I think that their industry is irreparably broken. Henninger and company aren't pleased with the test scores of kids attending public schools. I wonder how the American public would do if they were tested on important current events that they should have learned from the news media. Last week, Jay Leno went out on the street and showed people pictures of Speaker of the House, Nance Pelosi. They didn't have a clue. I'll bet you nearly everyone would have known who it was if they'd have been shown pictures of Anna Nicole. The news networks might not have much coverage of the nation's most powerful Democrat, but their coverage of Anna Nicole has been unrelenting. Great job, guys!

I have argued, and continue to argue, that public schools have been doing a much better job than we are given credit for. One of the most important factors that I base this on is that, regardless of test scores, we are giving people what they want. I don't know any parents who care whether or not their kids do better than kids from India on an international test. I do know parents who want their kids to be able to go to college, and as long as they are able to pass that desire on to their children, they are almost always able to do so. If more kids wanted to go to college, our overall scores would be higher, but that's their choice. Some kids simply want to become mechanics or hair stylists, and that's what they end up being able to do. Is that a bad thing?

On the other hand, I know that I would like to get a reasonably unbiased source of information about what is going on in our nation and the world, but I can't find one. The major networks and CNN have a blatantly anti-Bush slant in nearly all of their political stories. Meanwhile, the Fox News Network is basically a 24-hour-a-day commercial for the Republican party. Oops, I take that back. They do have some swell stories on Anna Nicole, so maybe it's only 23-hours-a-day. One day I watched a news story dealing with President Bush, Congress, and Iraq on the Fox News Network, and then I switched channels and came to the news on CBS. The two networks were talking about the same story, but it was almost impossible to tell that. One slanted it completely one way, and the other slanted it completely the other. Unbiased journalism?? You bet!

The Fox News Network has the audacity to call itself fair and balanced. It is unquestionably the most biased network in the history of television. Have you ever watched Fox and Friends with its hosts Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade, or worse yet, Judge Andrew Napolitano? Have you ever watched John Gibson? I would challenge anyone but the most committed Republican to try to tell me that they are fair and balanced. This is the network that carries Dan Henninger, Paul Gigot and their friends on The Journal Editorial Report. I wonder if they've ever thought that the saying, "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," might apply to them. Although throwing stones is apparently part of his job, Henninger, and journalists like him, are living in a very large glass skyscraper.