Saturday, February 23, 2008

Should education be compulsory?

My last post was based on disagreements I had with Benny the Troll, who does not believe in public education at all. This post is based on something that I actually agree with Benny about--compulsory education. I not only think that education should not be compulsory, I think that it's impossible for it to be compulsory. The only thing that we can make compulsory is attendance, and I think it's a mistake to do that. So libertarians, unite! I'm with you on this one!

The idea of compulsory education is based on the idea that we can give someone an education. We can't give anyone an education, but we can give them the opportunity. In order to take advantage of that opportunity, however, young people are going to have to listen, they're going to have to read, they're going to have to study, and they're going to have to try. But what if some people don't want that opportunity? Should we force them to be in school anyway? I don't think so.

There are some parents who don't want their children given shots to inoculate them from certain diseases. Courts have ruled that the state can give children those shots anyway, because otherwise they might catch the disease and then infect other kids. Education doesn't work that way--in a way it is just the opposite. We can't inject anyone with education, and when we force people into our schools who don't want to be there, that is when they "infect" other children.

It's sad that there are some parents in America who don't care if their kids get an education, but I'm afraid they do exist. If some kids are unfortunate enough to have nitwit parents who don't want them to go to school, we should let the parents have their way. And I say that because the chances of those children getting any meaningful benefit from public education are either slim or none, and they will only make it more difficult for us to work with kids who we really have a chance to help. In reality, parents can do that now simply by saying that they will homeschool their children. I don't mean that as a slam on parents who actually DO educate their kids at home, but I know that in our district there are some parents who say they are homeschooling their kids where absolutely nothing of the kind is happening.

But what about kids who decide they don't want to be in school, regardless of their parents wishes? When should we allow them to make that decision? I'm not sure exactly how old they should have to be, but I definitely think it's something younger than it is now. I know many would argue that we can't allow young people to make such an important decision, but how many fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen-year-olds who have developed this mindset can we expect to "save"? I don't know what that number is, but I doubt that it comes close to equaling the number of kids who they end up dragging down with them.

All students in any school fall somewhere on a continuum of whether or not they actually want an education. At one end of the continuum, we have the students for whom getting an education is very important. Nothing is going to sway them. At the other end we have kids who have no desire to get an education, and don't want to be there at all. It's going to be very difficult to do anything to sway them, either. Most students, however, fall somewhere in the middle. Many of them have heard that getting an education is important, but they've never really given it much thought, and they're really not committed to it. These are the kids who are most subject to the influence of other students--they can be tipped one way or the other. If they hang around with kids who believe that education is important, they will begin to believe it's important, too. But put enough students who believe that education is worthless in classes with those kids, and we will tip a lot of them the wrong way. I think that's happening in too many places right now.

I want to emphasize that I am all for allowing young people to come back to school any time they make the decision that they want an education. I don't care how young or old they are or how long they've been out of school. Wouldn't it be a wonderful influence in a school to have young people who have left school for a while, taken a minimum wage type job, and then decided that maybe education is something they could use?

You want educational reform? Well, here is a revolutionary educational reform idea: Let's try reserving education for those who actually want it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Big John is makin' a comeback!

About a month ago I did a post (Priorities) on my father-in-law, John Engberg, who was gravely ill. When I left school in the middle of the day last January, I brought along my suit, because I assumed my stay in the Twin Cities would be capped off with his funeral. I'm writing this because I thought that anyone who had read that post might be interested in John's progress, and I'm happy to tell you that he's making a comeback.

Our hockey team had no games this weekend, so I was able to drive down to see John, who has now been moved to a care center. The last time I saw him, he was completely unresponsive, and he had more tubes coming out of his body than I'd care to count. To catch sight of him this weekend as I wandered around looking for the correct room on the second floor of that care center, sitting up in a wheel chair, hair nicely groomed, and waving to me was one of the most gratifying feelings I've ever had. Once I got into the room, he was full of questions about how my JV hockey team was doing and what I thought the chances were that our varsity would make it down for the state tournament. Unbelievable!

John has a cancer called multiple myeloma, and he's got a long way to go including a ton of physical therapy, but he sure seems to be off to a good start. The first major hurdle has been learning to swallow again, something he couldn't do at all when he first came out of his coma. He finally had his feeding tube taken out last week, and he's eating mashed up potatoes, mashed up peas, mashed up meatballs, and mashed up everything. It takes intense concentration for him for each swallow, but as he told my wife and me as we sat next to him, "If I want to live, I've got to eat!"

Monday, February 18, 2008

American public schools: abducton, theft & indoctrination?

In my last post, "Benny the Troll" submitted this comment:

The answer to improving education in America, the ONLY right answer, is to subject it to free market forces instead of government control. You are beating your head against a wall, Dennis, trying to make any progress within the present system of mandatory attendance (abduction), mandatory curriculum (indoctrination), and financing by taxation (theft). And you wonder why so many parents don't seem to want to be involved in public education.

You would probably say that if we removed the government from the provision of education, some would go without. But do you honestly think that many don't go without now?

Before there were public schools in America, literacy rates were high and education was in demand. And that demand was being met by market forces. There was no reason whatsoever for the government to get involved in education, except to indoctrinate young minds into subservience to the state. In that respect, public education has worked remarkably well.

I really do appreciate every comment that is added to my posts. If anything makes any of my posts interesting it is those comments, and it is the ones who disagree with my point of view that make them most interesting of all. Nevertheless, I must say that Benny's comment reflects a mindset that drives me crazy. But, I owe Benny a debt of gratitude because there is nothing like reading something that drives me crazy that inspires me to write posts.

I want to respond to just about everything Benny said, but I don't like long posts, so I'm just going to hit a couple of his points in this one. Benny says, "Before there were public schools in America, literacy rates were high and education was in demand." I have heard that type of statement from public education bashers before, but I have to wonder what that statistic is based on. Who gathered that information and compiled those statistics? What is "high," and just who were the literacy rates "high" for? Did they include the four million slaves in the country? Did they include farming families out on the frontier? Did they include immigrants from Ireland coming over here as a result of the potato famine?

I have to admit that I have no idea what our national literacy rates were before public education became widespread in the country, but I do know some things. I do know that Southern states came up with literacy tests for voting, because they knew that most freed-blacks were illiterate due to not having any education. I do know that they found it necessary to provide a special provision to allow illiterate whites to vote despite the test. That would seem to suggest that the number of illiterate whites in the South was significant. Things like that make me question the statement that literacy rates were high before public education.

On the one hand, public education bashers blast us because we are so ineffective that we can't teach kids anything. In the next breath, however, they argue that we are so effective that we are able to "indoctrinate" the youth of America. Indoctrinate them to what? We have a Republican president right now. Are we indoctrinating our kids to be good little Republicans? Or are we indoctrinating them to be good little Democrats since that's the party that controls Congress? And if that's the case, what were we doing when the Republicans controlled Congress? Or what were we doing when Clinton was president? Or does it go state by state? Well, then what are we doing in Minnesota, because we have a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature? Man, I'm getting really confused here! Would someone please tell me what I am supposed to be indoctrinating my kids to, because I'm getting a headache trying to figure it out.

Although many might disagree with me on this next point, I have to admit that I have little sympathy for those who are constantly whining about taxes. The fact is that the United States has one of the lowest tax rates of all industrialized nations. Iceland and Ireland are below us, and that's about it. My generation has done a wonderful job of convincing our federal government that our taxes are too high, and we now have a nine trillion dollar debt to show for it. That's okay, though. We'll just let our kids worry about that. After all, they owe us something for all that indoctrination.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Choice? Standards? Balderdash!

I am now in the middle of reading Left Back, Diane Ravitch's history of reform in American education. One of Ravitch's clear messages is that we should be wary of movements. After having spent nearly all of my life in American public schools--first as a student, then as a teacher--I can only say, "Amen!"

Over the weekend Joanne Jacobs ran a post on competing articles from Sol Stern and Lisa Snell in which they debate which of the two educational movements of the early 21st century, "choice" or "standards," is the true answer to improving education in America. As someone who actually works in the classroom, it is frustrating for me to read their thoughts. They are both so certain that the movements they advocate are the answers, but it seems to me so obvious that neither of them will lead to much improvement. And while they argue about which of their fads is better, they, like all the other experts and policy makers, ignore a simple change that could do so much.

Lisa Snell insists that what is needed is choice, and Stern has also been a strong advocate of that in the past. Well, I have news for both of them. The most important reason that kids from the low-performing urban schools, that Snell is most concerned about, need choice is to get away from all of the disruptive and unmotivated kids they have in their classrooms that make true education impossible. We have always heard that kids in urban schools need choice to get away from poor instruction and uncaring teachers, but I suspect that some of the teachers in those schools are more caring and better than many of the rest of us could ever hope to be. Those teachers are working in incredibly difficult situations, and I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for them to constantly hear that they would improve if only there were competition to make them try harder. After promoting it for years, even Stern has given up on that idea.

Stern, a strong critic of so-called "progressive" teaching methods, now believes that standards will force us to improve our instruction methods. Well, I've got news for him. If I have enough disruptive and unmotivated kids in a class, like I do in one of my classes this year, it doesn't matter what my instruction methods are--not much learning is going to take place. I have had a great deal of success during my teaching career, but this year I have one class out of my six that has me tearing my hair out. I have a sneaking suspicion that this class is giving me a taste of the conditions that teachers in some of those urban districts face with regularity.

The answer to improving education in America is maddeningly simple, and every so often Sol Stern stumbles over it without seeing it. He says that one of the reasons he admires small Catholic schools is because they "enforce order in the classroom." Well, how about giving those of us in public school classrooms the power to enforce order in our classrooms? In order to do that, when some kids behave horribly day after day, and when some other kids make absolutely no effort to succeed day after day, it has to be much easier for us to remove them from our classes than it is now. Then we wouldn't need to give kids a "choice" to find a different school. Then we can actually take a look at which instruction methods work best, because they will matter. I don't know any public school teachers who don't want to be able to enforce order in their classrooms, but we are forced to be unbearably tolerant. If Sol Stern and Lisa Snell really want to improve public education in America, why don't they help us do something about that? That is a reform that would do more to improve public education than choice or standards ever could. I guarantee it!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

I-pods and underachievement

I admit it. There are more and more symptoms that I am becoming a crotchety old man. I try to fight it, but sometimes I just can't help it. One of the things that brings out the crotchety old man in me is seeing kids walking down the halls in our school wearing I-pods.

It seems to me that walking in the hallways is a social situation. People are walking next to you, people are walking toward you, many of whom are friends, and in a small school, nearly all of whom are at least acquaintances. To be walking through all of this with your ears plugged, grooving to your music, trying to be totally in your own world and ignoring everyone seems so unsocial as to be bordering on rudeness.

My own kids bought me an I-pod for Christmas last year, and I do use it once in awhile. But I only use it when I'm by myself. I tried wearing it one day when I walked from my house to school on a Saturday afternoon, and even that felt wrong. Walking to school isn't exactly a social situation, but it's not unusual to come upon someone walking the other way, or to wave at people driving by in their cars, so I just felt like I was missing something. But these kids wear theirs in the middle of a hallway crowded with people they know. It boggles my mind.

This last week, I decided to make a mental note of just who the kids were who actually wore their I-pods while walking through our hallways during school hours. The results of my rather informal survey were incredibly consistent. The first seven kids that I saw with the I-pods were all kids who had failed or were presently failing my American History class. Then I saw some ninth-graders who I didn't know, and I asked teachers standing next to me how they did in class. Everyone of them was an underachiever.

So in our school, at least, there is a very high correlation between wearing I-pods in the hallways and underachievement. The natural assumption to this would be that our underachievers are turned off by school, and the I-pods are simply a symptom of that. But I'm not so sure that that's all it is. The number of underachievers in our school has skyrocketed during the last few years. Is it possible that I-pods and other gadgets like them are not just symptoms? Is it possible that they are contributing to this in some way? I don't know.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Teaching and coaching

As a teacher-coach, I appreciated this article about coaches by Tanya Judd Pucella in Teacher Magazine. Pucella is a self-described "recovering anti-coach" who ended up marrying one.

Pucella had reason to be an "anti-coach." As she says:
"I was a social studies teacher—the department most often dominated by coaches—and eventually found myself as one of only three teachers who did not also have a coaching assignment. Many of our coach-teachers matched the traditional stereotype. They tolerated a classroom assignment for a few hours a day so they could pursue their true profession on the fields and courts of our campus. They rarely attended our department meetings and avoided service on teacher committees. Professional development? Forget it! Their classrooms tended to be dominated by worksheets and seat work, rather than instruction designed to meet identified student needs."

Unfortunately, there are too many of those stereotypical teacher-coaches that Pucella describes, but allow me to say a few words in their defense. The demands on head coaches are enormous, and they've grown dramatically since I first became a teacher coach 34 years ago. It used to be that coaches were expected to be decent men who knew a little bit about the game. Some of the towering figures in early Minnesota high school hockey were wonderful men who cared greatly about their players, but when it came to coaching, they did little more than throw the puck out on the ice and let the kids go at it. If they had enough talented kids, they would win. If they didn't, they would lose, but they wouldn't have to worry about being fired unless they did something incredibly stupid. In fact, they were still highly respected in their communities. My, how things have changed!

Now coaches are are expected to run highly sophisticated practices, and each practice should be different from every other. They are expected to have each game videotaped, and then they are expected to spend hours analyzing those videos. Opponents are to be thoroughly scouted. Coaches are also expected spend time working with their youth (or feeder) programs, and to attend meetings of various boards dealing with those programs. This is not to mention the hours spent on buses going to and coming from games and scrimmages. And then, no matter how thorough and conscientious and inspiring they've been, if there are too many years with not enough wins and not enough championships, they can expect to be unceremoniously dismissed.

I was appointed as a co-head coach in 2004, but after two years, I decided that I had to step down. Trying to do the kind of job that I wanted to do with my coaching and teaching responsibilities was overwhelming. If I'd have continued in that position, I'd have either begun to slip in my teaching or slip in my coaching, or burned out on both. And my kids were grown, so I didn't have the family responsibilities that many younger teacher-head coaches have. The demands on them can only be described as impossible.

Yet, as Pucella's article makes clear, there are teacher-head coaches, and even teacher-coach-parents out there who manage to do a great job at all of their responsibilities. Quite frankly, I don't know how they do it.