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.


Blogger Parentalcation said...

Denny boy,

You got it all wrong.

1st... the goal of the plan is to push education to the forefront of the presidential race. Now you are right, they are concentrating on several issues... lets take a look.

a call for stronger, more consistent curriculum standards nationwide; - remember you work in a state that has one of the top educational systems in the country, so this probably wont affect you, but is there anything wrong with establishing higher standards for states that don't have them?

lengthening the school day and year; - our current school day is a relic of more agrarian times. Longer days and longer school years are especially needed in urban school districts. Studies show that low SES students loose more knowledge and skill over the summer than middle class students.

and improving teacher quality through merit pay and other measures - I find it hard to believe that you would argue against improving teacher quality. I am sure during your long tenure as a teacher you have seen many poor teachers. You know more than anyone, how much we could improve teacher quality.

If you check out the Gates Foundation website, you will also note that Bill and Melinda don't believe that there are no societal influences to poor student performance. They have just decided that education is the best way to halt the vicious cycle of poverty and crime.

4/25/2007 7:49 PM  
Blogger Robert Ward said...

I wonder what Gates and Co. would do if they had to teach a group of 7th -12th graders for a whole year.

Throwing computers at schools and teachers who can't use them effectively (and lets face it, even I think there is only so much you can do before the kids think it is more fun to find out what flash games made it through the school's screening)

I am curious as to why almost every other form of schooling has failed while the public school format remains in place.

If you would watch the reports, you'd think that we all wear flak jackets and that we are all upset because we didn't "really make it in our field."

Bill Gates would be able to put up with the average high school classroom for under a week before he realizes that the problems are not always the school's.

4/25/2007 8:40 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Rory my man,

I know that you and I disagree on this one, but not so much for the reasons you wrote about. Gates and Broad think we are doing a lousy job. I don't! I think it's safe to say that you are a lot closer to Gates and Broad on this one than you are to me.

I really don't have a problem with any of the things Gates and Broad are pushing for and that you support. For example, if anyone could actually figure out a good way to award merit pay, I think it would be a good thing. The only problem is that I suspect that in reality, the best politicians on a staff, rather than the best teachers, would end up being the ones reaping the benefits. As I think you know, I believe that it is much more important to give principals the power to keep their best teachers and get rid of their worst ones. I am not a fan of tenure and the seniority system, and I know that a lot of my colleagues disagree with me on this one.

My argument with Gates, Broad, and you is that even if all their reforms were instituted, I don't think you'd see nearly the improvement in student performance that you'd expect. And that is because the major problem in high school education is that kids just don't care that much. In that, they are a reflection of their parents.

Rory, I know you care greatly about your kids' education. I think there is a tendency for all of us to think that other people are more like us than they really are. Because of that, I think that you don't comprehend how low a priority education is for a lot of people. And that is what I see as the major problem in high school education. Until that is addressed--and that is not what Gates and Broad are proposing to do--we will never see the improvement that you and I both want to see.

And Rob, they don't call you the amazing Mr. Ward for nothing!

4/26/2007 5:33 AM  
Blogger Parentalcation said...

I agree with you about some of Gates and Broads specific recommendations. I think the concentrate too much on technology and small schools. He also neglects to take into account the effects of IQ, instead concentrating on poverty of parents, etc...

The positive thing about this new project is that its sole purpose is to raise the awareness of education in the voting public. Even you would have to admit that the importance of education on our countries future isn't fully acknowledged at the political level.

(I didn't mean "Denny boy" to sound condescending, I meant it as a term of endearment... I always forget that the internet isn't the best medium for transmitting all aspects of communication)

I am glad we can finally debate once again, we were agreeing to much the last couple of posts :)

4/26/2007 8:33 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Rory, believe me, I had no problem with the "Denny boy." In fact, I got a kick out of it, and I was just trying to respond in kind. But I know what you mean. When you correspond over the Internet, you can't see people's facial expressions when you say something, so you never quite know how some things come across.

And I agree with you about our disagreeing. We had been agreeing too much. Oh no! I'm doing it again!!

4/26/2007 9:18 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

What I don't understand is how Broad and Gates can possibly think that education isn't already an important issue, at least to most American families. And if it isn't an important issue to politicians, that isn't because it isn't important to American families--it's because it isn't important to wealthy campaign donors. I find this attempt by Broad and Gates to be either 1. Curiously naive or 2. A disingenuous stunt to increase their popularity or 3. An attempt to make themselves feel good as they believe they are actually going to have some effect.

4/26/2007 10:22 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Elizabeth, my first reaction is to disagree with you about education being an important issue to most American families, but maybe we're talking about different things here. We hear so much about how poorly American students place on international tests, and we hear about students in places like India and China being better in math than American kids. We hear people in corporations and colleges complaining because they have to teach people things they believe they should have learned in high school. I think parents couldn't care less about that. If you ask John and Mary Parent if they would like higher standards in American schools, they will answer, "yes." But if that means that their kids will get lower grades, or if it means there may be more demanded of them so that it causes inconveniences for the family, forget it!

They do care about having school as a place where they can send their kids. Most parents hope their kids are engaged productively there in some way, and they want their kids to be safe, but some don't even care about those things. Some parents want their kids to be able to go to college. If they are able to do so, they're happy. Other parents just want their kids to be able to go to a vo-tech, and some others just want their kids to be able to join the workforce with a high school diploma. Some parents care about how good the athletic teams are, so their kids can be sports stars. But parents, as a whole, are definitely not looking for more rigorous academics. If that concern really was there among American parents, I'll guarantee you that our schools would be better in that way.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Public schools are basically giving American parents what they want. It would be difficult and politically unpopular for Broad and Gates to try to get parents to change those wants. It's a lot easier for them to attack the schools, and that is exactly what they are doing.

If I didn't already know it, writing a book and trying to get it published taught me how important education is to the American public. I was told again and again that education wasn't a very marketable subject. People just don't care about it. If you don't believe me, just go to the education section of a Barnes and Nobles sometime and see how many people you have to elbow out of the way.

4/26/2007 12:06 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Neil Postman said that there are no education issues or problems that exist, which will can be mitigated by technology. I agree with him. I have been teaching High School History for 12 years and have seen a steady decline in reading habits and ability, and I attribute it to technology. Kids do not sit with books the way they used to. Students reflexisively look for short summaries of everything.

Bill Gates has pushed the PC his whole professional life an to his his merit has created thechnological needs. His 3Rs sound are rehash of progressive educrats.

Technology does make kids smarter and better learners.

Yes, it is a new world out there, but students need to walk around with knowledge in their heads, not depend on technology. They need to have built thousands, millions of myelin sheaths though rote memorization so that they can function at a higher inellectual level.

WHo did Gates get his advice form?


4/26/2007 12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Technology does NOT makeKids smarter or better leaners


4/26/2007 12:57 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Dennis, I suppose you're right. But I mostly have lived in upper-middle class/wealthy neighborhoods; people I've been around all wanted their kids to go to college. In fact the poor families I've known, mostly black and hispanic, also wanted their kids to go to college. I have a feeling that your lower-income white locality is stuck in some type of mass delusion that their kids are going to do all right because they're white Americans when that is no longer any type of guarantee of anything. I think you and other teachers should spend more time giving kids and their parents the hard facts of what happens to people, including white American boys, when they don't go to college and don't have any special skills or a trade either.

4/27/2007 9:46 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

So I was in the bookstore (Borders) last night, and there were:
3 people in education
0 people in sports
0 people in games
5 people in social sciences
1 person in bargain
4 people in magazines
1 person in computers
3 people in fiction

Lots of people in the cafe (but yes, reading). Additional evidence that Americans care about education:

* growth of Sylvan/Huntington
* growth of Kaplan/Princeton Review
* waiting lists at virtually every charter school that opens
* numbers of nonreligious people who send their children to parochial schools
* astronomic rises in private school tuition, which parents continue to pay

I think as far as book sales, it's possible few are interested in education theory -- but lots of people are interested in results. And a lot of the education books are likely fluff anyway. I'm not surprised they don't sell.

David, though I agree with the overall thought that technology is often overrated, I think it goes a bit far to say there's no educational issues it can mitigate. Research, visualization, monitoring, recording classes for later playback, and exposure to different ideas and cultures can all be aided by technology. Heck, electric lights are "technology", do you think they didn't help mitigate any educational issues? Plus, if technology doesn't make kids better learners, the theory of income gaps causing educational issues sort of goes out the window, doesn't it? I mean, the theory is that rich parents buy their kids all the neat Baby Einstein videos, phonics toys, etc, and the poor kids don't have them.

But, yes I agree kids need to do a lot of memorization, and sit with books more often rather than read through page-long summaries.

4/27/2007 1:57 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, only you would actually take me up on that! Seriously, I go to the education section every time I go into a Barnes and Noble, and I've never had more than one person for company. Maybe at Borders, the education section is on the way to the bathroom. And how come you didn't tell us how many were in the religion section? ;)

By the way, congratulations on your new blog. You are an interesting person who definitely should have one.

4/27/2007 2:26 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Elizabeth, I'm sorry! I forgot to respond to yours. Now that I'm so late with this, I can only hope that you'll see this.

I never quite know how to take some of your comments. I think I've given you a horrible impression of Warroad, but I actually believe we are pretty average. It seems to me that test scores across the country are evidence of that. Your advice for my kids is solid, and maybe in a few years they'll see what is meant by it, but right now they're not buying. One educational problem we have right now in this country is full employment, and you can really see that in my community. Kids here just assume that they will have no trouble finding jobs. In three of the five classes that I teach (American History, Economics, and Sociology) we have organized discussions about poverty, and most of the kids have almost no sympathy for poor people. They'll say, "Why don't they just get a job?" or "Why don't they get a better job?"

The greatest improvement in the performance of students I've ever witnessed took place when I was teaching on the Iron Range and the floor fell out from the taconite industry in the early 1980s.

I know that I have used our nation's good economy as evidence of American schools doing a better job than we are given credit for, but I also strongly believe that our good economy is a reason our kids don't perform better in school. American kids are just too complacent.

4/29/2007 3:33 AM  

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