Monday, March 31, 2008

An experiment I would love to try

Last week, Darren, the Conservative Teacher, posted about an experiment he has joked about trying. There is an experiment I would like to try, but I'm not joking.

When I read Diane Ravitch's Left Back, I learned that way back in 1934 a leading educational scholar named Isaac Kandel said this: "There is one part of our educational system, secondary and higher, in which there is no compromise with standards, in which there is rigid selection both of instructors and students, in which there is no soft pedogogy, and in which training and sacrifice of the individual for common ends are accepted without question. I refer, of course, to the organization of athletics." He suggested that American education could reinvigorate itself by following the model of athletic programs. That made me think of something a wonderful female English teacher in our school said to me a number of years ago.

It was early in the hockey season, and that year we had so many kids out that we had to make some cuts. That is something every coach dreads more than anything else, and I was complaining to our English teacher about it. She said to me, "You know, I wish I could make cuts for my English class. I wish the students had to try out." And that leads to my proposed experiment.

On the first day of school, I would like to announce to my American History students that they are going to have to try out for my history class. At the end of three weeks, cuts will be made. Making the class will not be based on ability. It will be based on the willingness they demonstrate to do the things necessary to be successful in the class, and their willingness to behave appropriately in the classroom. At the end of three weeks a list will be posted on my classroom door with the names of students who have made "the team." Students who make the cut can still be dismissed from the team anytime during the year if their effort or behavior should fall below the standards expected in the class. Students who fail to make the cut can certainly try out again next year.

Do you think I might end up with a pretty good American History class if I did that?

Saturday, March 29, 2008


In a comment on my last post, Charley, whose views on public education differs a tad bit from my own, recommended that I read a couple of pieces by John Taylor Gatto, a former New York City teacher of the year. One was called "Why Schools Don't Educate," and the other one was "Against School: How Public Education Cripples Our Kids, and Why." I came away impressed with Gatto's intelligence, and I assume he was probably a pretty good teacher. But I feel strongly that the picture he paints of our pubic education system is horribly inaccurate, and quite frankly, I resented most of what he had to say.

In "Why Schools Don't Educate," which I assume is the speech he gave in accepting his teacher of the year award, Gatto started out graciously enough:

I accept this award on behalf of all the fine teachers I've known over the years who've struggled to make their transactions with children honorable ones, men and women who are never complacent, always questioning, always wrestling to define and redefine endlessly what the word "education" should mean. A Teacher of the Year is not the best teacher around, those people are too quiet to be easily uncovered, but he is a standard-bearer, symbolic of these private people who spend their lives gladly in the service of children. This is their award as well as mine.

I'm not sure which teachers he's talking about there, but I assume it's not many of us, because that's the last positive thing he has to say about anything in public education. I would imagine that people like my friend Daniel Simms are thrilled that Gatto basically argues that the entire purpose of public education has been a plot by some nameless entities above us all to keep the masses in their place:

We don't need Karl Marx's conception of a grand warfare between the classes to see that it is in the interest of complex management, economic or political, to dumb people down, to demoralize them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them if they don't conform...But the motives behind the disgusting decisions that bring about these ends need not be class-based at all. They can stem purely from fear, or from the by now familiar belief that "efficiency" is the paramount virtue, rather than love, liberty, laughter, or hope. Above all, they can stem from simple greed...

We must wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants.

Now, I just finished Diane Ravitch's history on public education, and I got the impression that there had been a lot of mistakes made, but I completely missed the idea that Gatto is selling in his history. I don't know how anyone could spend any time in a public school these days and come to the conclusion that we are making kids too compliant. And as if it isn't bad enough that public education is simply there to turn young people into servants, Gatto also blames public education for nearly all of society's ills:

Think of the things that are killing us as a nation - narcotic drugs, brainless competition, recreational sex, the pornography of violence, gambling, alcohol, and the worst pornography of all - lives devoted to buying things, accumulation as a philosophy - all of them are addictions of dependent personalities, and that is what our brand of schooling must inevitably produce...

Maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work at relationships; easy credit has removed the need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment has removed the need to learn to entertain oneself; easy answers have removed the need to ask questions. We have become a nation of children, happy to surrender our judgments and our wills to political exhortations and commercial blandishments that would insult actual adults. We buy televisions, and then we buy the things we see on the television. We buy computers, and then we buy the things we see on the computer. We buy $150 sneakers whether we need them or not, and when they fall apart too soon we buy another pair. We drive SUVs and believe the lie that they constitute a kind of life insurance, even when we're upside-down in them. And, worst of all, we don't bat an eye when Ari Fleischer tells us to "be careful what you say," even if we remember having been told somewhere back in school that America is the land of the free. We simply buy that one too. Our schooling, as intended, has seen to it.

My first question regarding Gatto's point of view is this: If that was the way he felt, why did he stay in the field for thirty years? Wouldn't the honorable thing to do have been to resign and find something else to do?

There is only one answer that I can think of, and it is that Gatto saw himself as having a messianic duty to save as many kids as possible from those of us who are unwitting saps and simply cogs in the machine. I have read books by "progressive" educators before who have the same mentality, and I am turned off by it. The arrogance of Gatto and other "expert" teachers like him make me want to vomit. They seem to be saying, "Those few teachers who do things like me are wonderful and caring and saving kids from the system. The rest of you are all uncaring, inept, educational Neanderthals." Gatto gives a couple of examples of things we should be doing as teachers, but I didn't exactly get how I'm supposed to apply his ideas. I think maybe we're just supposed to wing it.

During my career as a teacher I have seen educators with greatly varying styles be successful with them. Quite frankly, the ones who have most consistently been successful have been the ones with the most order and discipline in their classes, and by the end of the year they are often the most popular with their students. Unless I am completely misreading him, these are the teachers that Gatto seems to have the most disdain for. But, on the other hand, I've also seen teachers who use so-called progressive methods be very successful. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that one size does not fit all.

Unlike Gatto, I do not see public schools as prisons. Do I ever get frustrated? You betcha! But nearly every day that I leave my house and head for school, I feel pretty good about it. I see our school as a place of fantastic opportunity for young people. I have seen and continue to see wonderful kids excel in academics, sports, and the arts. I have seen and continue to see kids in our hallways with a spring in their step, and smiles on their faces. Is that true for all kids in public schools? Obviously not. In fact, it's not true for enough of them. But it is true for most of the kids who come to school with the right attitude--the kids who have the desire to take advantage of the opportunity in front of them. If that's a prison, then it's one helluva nice one, and despite all the complaining I do and the frustrations that I feel, there's no place I'd rather be. The good kids we have make it more than worth it. I don't see myself as the educational messiah, but the hope that I'm making a small difference in some of their lives gives me a pretty good feeling.

Monday, March 24, 2008

My Three Sons

I set this blog up to defend public education, but I feel like I haven't been doing a very good job lately, especially when I look at the comments. Many of the comments at least imply that public schools don't do a very good job educating kids, and a number of people have made it clear that they believe we should dismantle our public education system. They have argued that we would be better off if education were totally subjected to market forces. Those who really wanted education for their kids could either homeschool their children or send them to a private school.

This made me start thinking about the effects that public education has had on my own kids, and it made me wonder what things would be like if there had never been any such thing. All three of our kids went to public schools (Surprise, surprise!), all three of them have graduated from college, and all three of them seem to be doing quite well. There are those who would argue that they would be doing just as well or better if there were no public schools, but I really have to wonder about that.

If there were no public school system, education for my own kids would have been a problem. My wife and I were both working when our kids were growing up, so that would pretty well shoot the homeschooling option for us. That leaves private schooling, and that would have been a battle. Now that we are older and our kids are gone, we are living quite comfortably, but things were very tight when our kids were in school. My salary when I began teaching was less than $10,000 per year. (Of course, my salary has always come from the public school system, but I doubt that anyone would argue that teachers would have higher salaries if we only had private schools.) Education is important to our family, so I suppose we would have found a way, but it sure wouldn't have been easy.

Many would argue that if we had sent our kids to private schools they would have gotten a superior education, but I don't see how they could have done any better. Our youngest son, Garrett, is very bright. After graduating from high school, he went to Stetson University in Florida which is populated largely by graduates of private schools in the South. I once asked Garrett if he felt like he was at a disadvantage because of this, and he actually laughed at the question. He ended up graduating Magna Cum Laude from Stetson.

We keep hearing that graduates of American public schools don't have the skills to go into high tech fields, but both Garrett and our oldest son, Pat, are in those fields. That's not so surprising for Garrett, but it is for Pat, because he was a student of average ability. It's especially surprising because our school has now failed to meet it's AYP in math for the last two years. I guess that makes us a failing school when it comes to math, but I have to wonder how that can be when I've got two sons doing so well who got their start right here. Pat had to work quite hard at those upper level math classes to make it, but isn't that the way it should be?

Perhaps the one who benefited most from public schools was our middle son, Andy. Andy has developed amazing people skills, and is now a third grade teacher in Pleasant Valley, Iowa. Like Pat, he was an average student, but he was a very good hockey player. He was elected by his peers as captain of his high school team, then his junior team, and then his college team for both his junior and senior years. He was also appointed assistant captain of one of his professional teams by the management. Andy believes his greatest strength is an ability to relate to almost any personality type, and I would have to agree. All I have to do is remember the variety of friends he brought home when he was in high school. When he got married, two of his old high school friends were groomsmen--one who had been near the top of his class academically, and the other who had been near the bottom. I have to believe that there could have been no better places to develop the skills he has for relating to people than the public schools that he attended for thirteen years.

The point of this post is not to brag about my sons (although you may notice that I manged to do that). In the last few posts there have been comments from a number of people who, whether they intended to or not, gave the impression that it's nearly impossible to get a decent education in a public school unless the student has a great deal of ability. This reflects what I believe to be a growing perception in our society, and I think a very dangerous one. I know this perception isn't true. I know it isn't true most intimately from the experience of my own sons, but I also know it from seeing the experiences of hundreds of other young people who have gone through the public schools in which I've taught.

Our kids got a good education in a public school because it was reasonably important to them to do so. In my 34 years of teaching, that has consistently been the case. Kids get about as good an education as they want. The problem is that we have too many kids who don't care about that. The personnel in our math department has changed little since Pat graduated, so when our school fails to meet its AYP in math for two straight years, I have to wonder why that is. Is it because the people in our math department suddenly started doing a lousy job? Or is it because we don't have enough kids who are willing to put in the work that Pat did to learn it? Since I have nearly all of our students in at least one of my classes by the time they graduate, and I see first-hand the effort they put forth, I think I know the answer to that one.

Our kids wanted to get a decent education in large part because it was important to my wife and me. That's almost always the way it is--when the parents really care about their kids' education, the kids almost always end up doing at least okay. I do have to admit, however, that I did have one huge advantage over other parents: I worked at my kids' high school. Every day, I would see how they behaved in the halls, and if they fell behind or did something stupid in one of their classes, it wouldn't be long before I found out. But most important of all, I would see who they were hanging around with, and I would know what those kids were like in school.

The biggest danger for concerned parents sending their kids off to middle school and high school is not that the school will have poor administration or even poor teachers. The biggest danger is that their kids might end up following the wrong crowd. The influence of peers is enormous to teenagers, and it is something with which many parents can't compete. This is the area where I wish those of us in public schools had more power to help the parents who care about their kids education. If we could separate the most incorrigible kids, it would be a big step forward.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I'll sue you!

Last weekend, Joanne Jacobs did a short post on a 15-year-old who is suing his high school because his math teacher woke him up in her class by slapping her open palm on his desk. The fine lad's lawyer called it an assault and battery.

This might strike some as funny and others as ridiculous, but it really is harmful. If there is one area in public education that needs improvement, it's discipline. A major reason for that is that teachers and principals feel like they're walking on eggshells when it comes to dealing with misbehaving students because of the constant threat of lawsuits. This situation is a prime example of that.

In my first couple of years in Warroad, I had two separate incidents in which students did something blatantly wrong, and when I looked at them with obvious displeasure, each of the students said to me, "If you hit me, I'll sue you." Not, "Sorry!" Not, "I won't do it again," but "If you hit me, I'll sue you." Now, I had no intention of hitting either student, but I think this speaks volumes about what these students thought of a teacher's authority. They knew that my options were very limited in dealing with their misbehavior. Nearly all of the worst behaving students in public schools have that mindset.

Part of the reason that I was treated with such blatant defiance was that I was relatively new in the school. I've now been in Warroad for nineteen years, and I've managed to establish a certain reputation, so nothing like that has happened to me since those first couple of years. But I still have more problems than I should have. (When students tell me that I am known in the school for being strict, I can only shake my head in wonder.) I might not have anyone coming out and saying what those two students said, but my worst behaving students still know that there's only so much I can do. The only way a teacher can have real power in dealing with students like this is if they are afraid the teacher might be willing to do something they know he actually isn't supposed to do.

One Warroad teacher, who had the best discipline of any teacher I've known, once told me how he handled a disruptive student. He took the student into a back room, and when they were alone, he got nose to nose with the student and physically threatened him. End of problem. Knowing that teacher as I do, it's safe to say he wasn't bluffing. I have no doubt that the student involved understood that a lawsuit wouldn't deter that teacher. But is that what it should take to have good discipline?

Our nation is the most litigious in the world. We have far more lawyers per capita than almost any other nation on earth; nearly three times as many as Britain, four times as many as Germany, and nearly twenty-five times as many as Japan. No, that is not a misprint--twenty-five times! Do you think there are many kids suing their schools there?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Should public schools teach patriotism?

Daniel Simms and I have had a running argument about whether or not American public schools "indoctrinate" students. In the comments section on an earlier post, Daniel pulled this quote out of the woodwork from a judge's ruling in 1961 and threw it at me:

"A primary purpose of the educational system is to train school children in good citizenship, patriotism and loyalty to the state and nation as a means of protecting the public welfare."

That brings up two interesting questions: Should public schools teach patriotism? and: If we do, does that amount to indoctrination? When I've seen lists of things that schools should do, teaching patriotism has usually been included. I would guess that about 90 percent of the public would agree with that. But Daniel thinks we shouldn't. Well, you know what? At my level, which is high school, I agree with Daniel--kind of.

I believe that it is my job to impart as much knowledge as possible to my students. I believe it's also my job to encourage them to use that knowledge to think for themselves. I don't believe it's my job to teach them what to think. In fact, that seems to go against everything that I am trying to do.

A few years ago, not too long after 9/11, our school board issued an edict that all teachers were supposed to lead their classes in the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of class at least once a week. I did that for the first few weeks, but then I just kind of forgot about it, and I haven't done it since. I was very uncomfortable doing the Pledge in my classes. One reason I was so uncomfortable was that I am a high school teacher, so I had never done that before. As strange as this might seem to some, it didn't feel "American" to me. It felt forced and phony.

As our old friend Richard Nixon used to say, let me make one thing perfectly clear. I believe in the United States of America. I believe we are the greatest country in the world, and there is nowhere that I would rather be. I believe in the things the Declaration of Independence says, and I think the Constitution was a work of genius. And although I know our country is less than perfect today and has done some horrible things during our history--slavery, treatment of Native Americans, treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, some of the things we've done in our foreign policy--I believe we are a decent people, that our political leaders usually try to do the right thing, and that during our history, in fits and starts, we have gradually moved closer and closer to living up to the things that the Declaration of Independence calls for.

But I don't believe that it's appropriate for me to try to sway my students to my point of view on that any more than it would be appropriate for me to try to sway them to my religious or political beliefs. I would rather teach American history as honestly and as fairly as I can, even with all it's warts, and let my kids come to their own conclusions about what kind of country we are. I'm confident that if I do that, most of them will develop a healthy respect and appreciation for our country. And if they don't, that's their choice.

When I start talking about what goes on and what should go on at the elementary school level, I am getting out of my wheelhouse, but I'll take a stab at it anyway. I have no problem with elementary classes opening up their days with the Pledge of Allegience. It seems to me that that goes along with teaching a healthy respect for authority. I also have no problem with focusing on American heroes at the elementary level--in fact, I'd like to see them do a lot of that.

I suppose that Daniel would consider that proof of the indoctrination that he talks about, and maybe it is. But I would guess (and hope) that these are things that private, and even some homeschools do. Public schools don't do those things because we are an arm of the state; we do them because we believe they are the right things to do.

Monday, March 17, 2008

A Re-run: Is God allowed in public schools?

In my last post, Mrs. C. and I got into a discussion on whether or not God is allowed in public schools. This is a subject that I feel very strongly about. I grew up in a lower-middle class Catholic family in Minneapolis. My parents wanted me to go to college, but they didn’t want me to pursue a career based on how much money I could make. That’s one of the reasons I ended up becoming a teacher. I’ve never been one to wear my religion on my sleeve, but I’ve always felt like I’m practicing my faith when I do my job well. One of my earliest posts was on this subject, and I thought my best answer to Mrs. C. would be to do a re-run of that post. Some readers have already seen it, but I think there are a number of people who check into this blog now who didn't when I first started. So like I told Mrs. C., if TV can do re-runs all the time, why can't I do one? Here it is:

Of all of the myths that are spread by critics of public education, this is the one that I find the most offensive. It is the myth that God is no longer allowed in public schools. In November of 2001, a couple of months after 9/11, I received one of those mass emails that has become so common. It had been forwarded by one of our teachers to everyone on our staff, so please understand the context of my response. This email message, like so many of them, was supposed to be profound, but, because of the way it began, it only managed to anger me. It began by telling about an interview with Billy Graham's daughter, Anne, that had been shown on TV. I am sure that Anne Graham is a wonderful person, but like so many others, when it comes to public education, she doesn't know what she is talking about. I will share with you the beginning of the email, which includes Ms. Graham's statement, and then the reply that I sent.

Billy Graham's daughter was being interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her "How could God let something like this happen?" And Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said "I believe that God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman that He is, I believe that He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand that He leave us alone?"

I want to make it clear that this is not meant as a criticism of anyone for sending along this e-mail message. I have no doubt that anyone doing so had the best of intentions. I'm responding because it contains a message that infuriates me when I hear it, and I've been hearing it for a number of years, now. That is the message that we do not allow God in public schools.

One of the reasons this message angers me so much is because it is frequently used by the people who decide to homeschool their children. If we didn't have so many Warroad kids being homeschooled, we wouldn't be in as much danger every year of losing some of our best young teachers and having to cut programs that benefit kids.

The people who promote this message object to the fact that we do not have prayer at the beginning of our school days, like we did up until the mid-1960s. Everyone knows that the basic reason we don't have that anymore is because we have a separation between church and state in this country. The alternative to this is to have whoever is in power impose their interpretation of their religion on society. If you want to know how this would work just look at the Taliban's policies regarding women in Afghanistan.

Many good people argue that the separation of church and state shouldn't preclude prayer in school. Although I'm not sure they're correct, I don't think they are being unreasonable. But I can also remember the discomfort I felt as one of the few Catholic kids in a predominantly Protestant elementary school in the 1960's when we said a prayer in class that did not include the sign of the cross. It wouldn't bother me now, but when I was that young, it did. I never felt any of that discomfort when I said prayers with my family. I wonder how hard it would be today to come up with a prayer that would not cause some discomfort for some of the kids with all of our various religions. I'm not saying that people who believe we should have prayer at the beginning of our day are definitely wrong, but I am saying that those of us who have reservations about this are not necessarily Godless.

Although I wouldn't feel comfortable leading my first hour class in a prayer, God is very important in my life, and I try to bring that to school with me every day. I think there are many teachers like me in that respect.

Even if we don't have school prayers, that doesn't mean we don't allow God in school. Maybe I'm spiritually confused, but I see God more in the way people go about their everyday affairs than in whether or not they are comfortable with public prayer. When teachers go out of their way to help students, isn't God in our school? When some kid who "gets it" tries to help some kid who doesn't "get it," isn't God in our school? When we saw all that concern and love in our school for Katie Olafson [a sophomore who had been killed in a car accident] and her family last year, wasn't God in our school? When Rick McBride's beeper goes off and he goes running out of school to help out with the volunteer fire department because he wants to help people, isn't God in our school? When we buy frozen food, magazines, candy or candles for ridiculous prices, or when we fork out ten to twenty bucks for raffle tickets that we don't really want because we feel like we should help out kids involved in various activities, isn't God in our school? When special ed. or ESL or Indian ed. teachers come and plead with some crotchety old teacher, like me, for some kid that they care about, isn't God in our school? When Nadine ran her food shelf program last week wasn't God in our school?

We are fortunate in Warroad that most concerned parents who care about their kids send them to our school. They send them to our school because they care about their kids, but also because they care about other people's kids and the community. Am I wrong when I think I see God in many of them? These parents are confident in the values they've instilled in their kids, so they don't keep them home out of fear that they will somehow be corrupted by all the sinners among our students and faculty. It is their kids more than anyone or anything else--teachers, administrators, or all the computers money could buy--that make this school a good place to learn. We see these kids everyday, and we see what they do, and I would bet there are at least some kids like that in every public school in America. So if some people can't see God in our public schools, maybe they better take a better look.

Friday, March 14, 2008


Homeschooling has been in the news this week. The California State Supreme Court issued a ruling that seemed to require a crackdown on homeschooling in that state, but then their state education superintendent announced that there would be no change in their policy. Ms. Cornelius expressed her concern about the laxity of standards for homeschoolers, and I can see where she's coming from because in Minnesota, we aren't exactly rigid about it. Since I recently wrote a post saying that education shouldn't be compulsory, however, I can't very well take a stand against weak standards for homeschoolers. In the book I wrote, I had a section dealing with homeschooling, I hope nobody minds too much if I do a little plagiarizing from that now.

Homeschooling has gotten a great amount of favorable press, and more and more people are choosing this option for their children. Reports tell about how well many homeschooled kids do on ACTs and SATs, and when homeschoolers do things like winning national spelling bees, they get a lot of attention. With public education being portrayed as a disaster in the media, homeschooling must look very attractive to a lot of parents.

I should begin by saying that I do have a prejudice against homeschooling. Our school distict has lost a lot of kids to homeschooling over the past several years, and because of that we've lost some very good young teachers who ended up being cut. That would be bad enough in itself, but in Warroad, many of the homeschoolers belong to the "God is not allowed in public schools" crowd. If you want to send this fairly level-headed person into an absolute rage, all you have to do is say that.

We have two kinds of homeschoolers in Warroad, and those students in one of them definitely won't be winning any spelling bees or dazzling us with their college entrance exam scores. A typical example is a boy I had at the beginning of a recent school year. He showed up the first day, missed the next two, then showed up again, then missed, and so on. I can't remember all of his excuses, but I do remember one was the ever-popular, "My grandfather's sick." Who knows? Maybe he was. But why a high school student would have to miss eight days for Grandpa's illness is beyond me. In any case, after about three weeks, our school secretary showed me a note from his mother: "I will be homeschooling my son for his last two cources." (Her spelling, not mine.) Her son's last two "cources" were the American history class that I teach and--you guessed it--English.

I am all for homeschooling this type of student. Unless he was suddenly transformed, he wasn't going to contribute anything positive to his classes, and he had the definite potential for dragging another student or two down with him. I think our school actually owes that mother a big thank you.

There are other homeschoolers in our district, though, who will do well on college entrance exams. I have no doubt that, with an intelligent parent, a child can get a great education at home. There are valid questions about what a homeschooler misses socially, but from the point of view of a student's academic development, having an individually tailored curriculum could certainly be an advantage.

My biggest concern with homeschooling, as far as motivated students are concerned, is not what they are missing out on, but what our schools are missing out on by not having them with us. We need those kids! A few years back I had one such student in my economics and sociology classes. He had been homeschooled for most of his life, but he took some classes at our high school. He was a great kid who was very bright, and there could be no doubt that his parents had done a fantastic job. He was a very mild mannered young man, but he took part in our discussions--almost reluctantly, it seemed--and he always had something intelligent to say. My economics and sociology classes were better because of him. I don't know what he missed by not taking all his classes in our schools, but I know that we missed him. I would have loved to have had him in one of my American history classes two years before, and the other students would have loved having him, too. Had he been in one of those classes, that class would have been better, and the students in that class would have learned more. He is now the student body president at the University of North Dakota.

It would be hard to criticize parents who homeschool their children in a school district where it was impossible to get a good education, but that has not been the case in Warroad. We have a school where students can get a good education, because we still have enough kids from families with parents who care about education and who still trust us enough to send us their kids. But if a school like ours loses enough of those kids--as the media, many experts, and politicians seem to be encouraging--it won't matter how good the teachers are, or how good the principal is, or what new and nifty teaching techniques are being used, or how much high tech equipment is brought in. It’s simply not going to be a very good place to learn. The scary thing is that we have lost a lot of kids to homeschooling over the last few years, and we aren't as good a school as we were when I wrote my book.

There are homeschooling parents for whom I have a great deal of respect. Obviously I respect the parents of that economics and sociology student that I had. I also have a great deal of respect for Mark Roulo, a homeschooling parent, who is kind enough to privately tell me via email when I've made a mistake on one of my posts, rather than letting everyone know in the comments section. But anyone who has read a few of my posts probably knows that I believe the effect that kids have on other kids in our schools is incredibly important. The most critical need in our public schools today is for good parents who really think education is important to have enough confidence in us to trust us with their children. Good parents who send their kids to public schools may not know it, but they are performing a service to their communities and to our nation. If we have enough kids from those families, our public schools are going to be just fine. But if more and more of those good parents become convinced that public schools are too inadequate for their kids, then that perception will increasingly become reality. And that would be a national tragedy.

Any appeal I make in this respect may well fall on a lot of deaf ears, because I'm not sure many of the homeschooling parents--at least in my community--care about this. Obviously, as a public school teacher, I don't have much contact with them, but I did when I ran our Little League baseball program in which some of them would enroll their kids. I realize that this is anecdotal, but in my dealings with them, I found the homeschooling parents that I dealt with, by their actions and requests, to be very concerned about their own children, but not about anyone else's. They didn't care about their kids' teammates, they didn't care about kids on the other teams, and they didn't care about what we were trying to do with our program. It's natural for parents to care the most about their own children, and there's nothing wrong with that. But I think we have better communities and a better nation when parents who are concerned about their own kids' education and activities also have concern for other kids. I see that in the best parents of kids in our school. I have seen very little of it in homeschooling parents in Warroad.

Monday, March 10, 2008

What should a high school graduate look like?

In my post about whether or not education should be compulsory, Charley suggested a post about what a high school graduate would look like. That ain't easy, and I've been thinking about how to approach that ever since. A couple of days ago I got some help when I finished Left Back by Diane Ravitch. I'm going to use some of the things she said at the end of her book as a template, and then take off from there. I'd love to hear what other people think about this.

1. Students should learn the importance of honesty, personal responsibility, intellectual curiosity, industry, kindness, empathy, and courage. I would say that this category includes things like behavior and respect for other people--fellow students and teachers.

Ravitch does not list this group of attributes first, but I do. I do that because I think how effective we are at helping students to acquire the other attributes Ravitch talks about is all based on this. If students are irresponsible, if they believe that cheating is normal, and if they don't care about anything or anyone other than themselves, we are not going to get very far in educating them. And the big problem is that we are not allowed to teach kids the importance of these things nearly as effectively as we should be able to because it is so difficult for us to set meaningful limits.

Graduates from high school who do see the importance of things like honesty, personal responsibility, kindness and empathy do so primarily because they have good parents. Our schools are trying to reinforce those attributes as much as we can, but we can't reinforce them as much as we should, and it is nearly impossible for us to turn around kids who are not learning those things at home.

2. Nearly all students should gain literacy and numeracy. They should have an understanding of history, the sciences, and literature. They should learn "about the culture in which they live and about cultures that existed long ago." (Ravitch also says the each student should learn a foreign language, but I'm not sold on that.)

It is very difficult to say exactly where a high school graduate should be in this area, because it is so dependent on the abilities and desires of the student. We would expect a student planning on going to college to be stronger here than a student who plans on going to work or a tech school after high school.

Since I teach American history, I will say that students should at least know basic things like which war was which, they should know something about why presidents like Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt were important and when they were in office, they should know something about the history of Indians and African-Americans in our country, and they should be able to form reasonably intelligent opinions and ask reasonably intelligent questions about those things.

How well are we doing? Not nearly as well as I would like. I'm confident that most of my students can do these things when a test is given, but a year or two later? I just don't know.

3. They should learn to use "symbolic language and abstract ideas."

I've separated this from the one above because of my experience with Basic American History classes. When it comes to dealing with abstract ideas, there are some kids who just can't get it. They can be taught that Adolf Hitler was from Germany, and they can be taught to associate him with the Nazi party, but introduce ideas like fascism, communism, totalitarianism, democracy, federalism, and separation of powers, and it just doesn't click.

4. Students should be prepared to have "versatile intelligence," which is the intelligence "that allows individuals to learn new tasks and take charge of their lives."

I think we're actually doing pretty well here. Every class that I've had has included a number of people who ended up doing much better than I ever thought they would once they got out into the "real world." Those who do worse are rare. I don't know how much of this they are getting from their classes. I hope some. But our kids might well be learning "versatile intelligence" in athletics, other extra-curricular activities and, although it makes me cringe to say this, their after-school jobs.

I have said this before, and I'll say it again: In the schools in which I've taught, students who wanted a good education have been able to get one. I would guess that that is the situation in most public schools across the nation. The problem is that there are too many young people who don't really care.

Public schools need the ability to turn a significant number of those kids around. At the middle and high school levels, that can only be done by allowing schools to demand a reasonable level of effort and reasonable behavior. And demand doesn't mean encourage, it doesn't mean persuade, and it doesn't mean coming up with another program. It means demand.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Three Roadblocks on the Path to Common Sense

In many of my posts and comments, I have argued that the best thing we could do to improve public education would be to give teachers the power to remove disruptive and unmotivated kids from their classrooms. When I've had conversations with other teachers, and even parents that I know, about this, they almost always agree. But if most teachers and a lot of good parents agree that this would be a good thing, why can't we do it? Here are three major roadblocks that are in the way.


If you suggest to a teacher who wants to do his job well, or a parent of well-behaved kids that some kids in school should be kicked out of their classes, most of them will know exactly what you mean. But can you imagine a politician, a talking head on TV, or any member of the educational elite taking that position today? The name of our national educational reform plan, No Child Left Behind, speaks volumes. The political rhetoric of the late 20th and early 21st century has consistently proclaimed that every child must be given a quality education. If only we could get those in power to recognize that it is possible to give the opportunity for an education to every child, but it is impossible to give an education to anyone. Then, perhaps, we could get them to change what they are saying and the policies they are making.


In rulings it made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Supreme Court declared that education is a student's property right, and it cannot be taken away without due process of law. They also determined that if any school official denies a student his or her rights, and that official knew it or should have known it, that official can be sued.

There are libertarians, as we know from comments on this blog, who believe that education should not be provided by the government. I don't agree with them on that, but I do agree that education should not be considered a right. A right is something that government should not be able to take away from you--freedom to express yourself, freedom to be whatever religion you want, your property; it is not something that the government is obligated to provide for you. In his book, The Death of Common Sense, Philip K. Howard said that education is not a right, but a benefit that is provided by a democratic society. He also said that the Supreme Court's turning education into a property right has done more damage to public education than anything else that has happened in the last 40 years. He is right.

The hopeful note on this is that the Supreme Court does change its mind. In fact, it has changed its mind over 260 times. In 1992 Sandra Day O'Connor listed the criteria that should be used by the Court for overturning precedent. She said the Court must determine whether the rule established by the earlier Court was workable. When you look around at was is happening in some public schools around the nation, it seems clear that this rule is backfiring. Instead of guaranteeing the right to an education, it is taking away the opportunity for a decent education for many kids.

If I am right that the great majority of teachers believe we need more power to remove disruptive kids from our classrooms, it seems natural that the battle to do that should be joined by our unions. But let's face it, that isn't going to happen.

There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, our unions are controlled by people who buy into the political rhetoric of the times that says we must save every kid. Most regular classroom teachers have some common sense, so they know that many of the educational platitudes we hear sound wonderful but are completely unrealistic. They understand that saving every kid isn't possible and that we are ruining education for a lot of young people who could be saved by following that route.

The problem is that the people who run our unions do not fit that mold. Some of them have never run a classroom, some of them have not done so for a number of years, and others are educational ideologues. Ideologues of any kind tend to forfeit their common sense. They buy into their party line and platitudes even when that goes against everything they've seen in real life.

Even more important, I suspect, is that if we start questioning "due process rights" for crummy students, it is only natural that someone will say, "Well, what about those due process rights for crummy teachers?" That will call into question tenure and seniority, and there is no way that our unions want to go down that road.

And finally, although I hate to be so cynical, I would guess that there might be another very practical reason why our unions have never suggested that there are some kids who don't belong in school. Giving blatantly disruptive and hopelessly apathetic kids the boot would mean fewer kids in school. Fewer kids in school, might mean fewer teachers (although I don't think that would have to be the case). Fewer teachers means less union dues and less money for staff.

I want to point out that I do believe in teachers' unions. I think they have made a very positive difference in my own life. But on this particular issue, they have been, and I'm afraid will continue to be, useless. When it comes to defending teachers' rights against administrators, our unions have been completely fearless. When it comes to teachers' rights to do their jobs effectively by removing kids from their classrooms who make that impossible, they have been completely gutless.

These roadblocks are enormous. How can they be overcome? I wish I had an answer, but I don't. But then, you never know. Barack Obama made a speech in which he told parents that they need to start doing a better job, and I never thought that would happen. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could find some politician, or even a popular TV talking head, with the common sense and guts to grab this issue? Wouldn't saying, "Teachers should be given the power to remove disruptive kids from their classrooms!" fit right in with John McCain's crusty, no-nonsense, straight-talk image? Well, I can always dream.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A speech I never thought I'd hear from a politician !

Joanne Jacobs ran a post last week featuring the following portion of a speech by Barack Obama: (If you go to Joanne's post, she has a YouTube video of the speech.)

“It’s not good enough for you to say to your child, ‘Do good in school,’ and then when that child comes home, you’ve got the TV set on,” Obama lectured. “You’ve got the radio on. You don’t check their homework. There’s not a book in the house. You’ve got the video game playing.”

Each line was punctuated by a roar, and Obama began to shout, falling into a preacher’s rhythm. “Am I right?”

“So turn off the TV set. Put the video game away. Buy a little desk. Or put that child at the kitchen table. Watch them do their homework. If they don’t know how to do it, give ‘em help. If you don’t know how to do it, call the teacher.”

By now, the crowd of nearly 2,000 was lifted from the red velveteen seats of the Julie Rogers Theatre, hands raised to the gilded ceiling. “Make ‘em go to bed at a reasonable time! Keep ‘em off the streets! Give ‘em some breakfast! Come on! Can I get an amen here?”

Whooooooooooooooooo, went the crowd. “You know I’m right,” Obama laughed. “And, since I’m on a roll, if your child misbehaves in school, don’t cuss out the teacher! You know I’m right about that! Don’t cuss out the teacher! Do something with your child!”

Now, I have been following the presidential primary and caucus contests closely, but I still haven't made up my mind who I think should be the next president. Barack Obama has inspired many people, and I think that's terrific, but I've got my concerns about him. I'm concerned about his Iraq policy. I'm concerned about his inexperience. I'm concerned because I know that someone can run a terrific campaign to become president, but then that same person might not be able to govern effectively, like Jimmy Carter. I think about John Kennedy being unable to get things through a Congress controlled by his own party, and I have to wonder how Obama would do with a Congress that is divided much more sharply along partisan lines than it was in the 60s, and with a Senate that has decided filibusters should be thrown around like candy. I am concerned because Kennedy was also able to inspire people, but mistakes he made in dealing Cuba and the Soviet Union early in his presidency almost led to World War III. I am concerned because while Obama talks about bipartisanship, he is the most liberal Democrat that we have in the Senate, and he has never really reached across the aisle like John McCain and Hillary Clinton have.

I won't say, yet, that I will vote for Obama, but I am thrilled by this speech. It is a speech that I never thought I would hear a presidential candidate give. It is so much easier to blame teachers, schools, or government for the poor performance of kids in school. Never did I think I would hear a presidential candidate tell parents that they've got to do their jobs better.

Many of the commenters on Joanne's post reacted to the speech by questioning his policies, and I guess that's fair. One commenter said that Obama's speech was just a warmed over version of what Bill Cosby has said. That may be true, but Bill Cosby wasn't running for president, and if he offended anyone by saying it, he really didn't have anything to lose. Regardless of what policies he has supported in the past, and what policies he's proposing for the future, I believe that a presidential candidate saying the things that Obama said is a huge step forward.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Magic of Limits

If I ever wrote a post on all the ideas I've had and things I've tried that failed miserably, it would probably be the world's longest post. Since I don't like long posts, I'm not going to do that. And besides, if I did that, no one would ever tell me again, like Daniel Simms did in a comment on an earlier post, that I am at least as smart as they are. (I still get a lump in my throat when I go back and look at that one!) Instead of that, I'm going to write about something I did that actually worked. Amazing, but true! And I'm going to write about that because I think there's a lesson in it.

When it comes to doing the things students are supposed to do in school, there are different types of kids. One type sees education as important. They do the things that are necessary to be successful in school, and they behave well because they believe that is what they are supposed to do. If all kids were like this, there would be no teacher shortage; people would be knocking down the doors to get into the profession. But not all kids are like that.

At the other end of the spectrum are kids who I would call "the limit-pushers." They don't like authority, no matter how reasonable the people with that authority try to be. For whatever psychological reasons, these kids are interested in seeing what they can get away with, and they will constantly be pushing the limits to see how far they can go. Some of them realize that they need an education, and they might even want to get decent grades; others don't really care about the education, but they want to stay in school for the social aspect; and still others don't even care about that. Finally, there is a large group of kids who are in-between. They are not limit-pushers themselves, but they are constantly paying attention to how much the limit-pushers are able to get away with, and they behave accordingly.

One of the biggest problems we have in public education is that the limit-pushers inevitably find out that there aren't very many limits, and of course, the in-betweeners see that, too. Behavior in classes can be outrageous, and nothing particularly bad will happen. Kids might get scolded, they might get detention, or they might get suspended for a couple of days. Big deal! Kids who don't care very much about getting an education find out that if they don't do their schoolwork, they will get a low grade, and they might even fail a class or two. Once again, big deal!

There are so few limits in public schools because the courts have ruled that education is a property right that can't be taken away without due process of law, and teachers and school officials can be sued if a judge--who has never been in a classroom--decides that somebody's rights have been violated. As a result of this, in too many public school classrooms across our nation, behavior is horrible and effort is minimal.

If only we could establish meaningful limits, we could do so much better. Over the last year, I've had an experience that, I believe, demonstrates this. Our school has a tardy policy that has basically become a joke. Beginning with the third tardy for a class during a marking period, kids are assigned a half-hour of detention. So once a kid hits that third tardy, the teacher has to fill out a discipline slip for that tardy and every subsequent one, turn them into the office, and then the principal will assign the detention.

Most students want to avoid detention, but as I said earlier, many of the limit-pushers couldn't care less about that. Up until last year, I would always have a few kids with tardies in the double-digits for each quarter--ten tardies, twelve tardies, seventeen tardies. There is no question that filling out the discipline slips was a lot more hassle for me than the detention was for those students. If some of those students decided not to serve the detention, and enough detentions piled up, they would be suspended. Hey, vacation!

Finally, a year ago, I had enough. At the beginning of the third marking period, I told my classes that from that point on, beginning with a student's fifth tardy, I would not allow that student into class. The student would be sent to the office, and would receive a zero for everything we did in class that day.

Since I began operating under that policy, the most tardies any of my students have had is six, and that was just one student. No other students have had more than five tardies, and the number with that many has dropped dramatically. I was able to set a very clear limit for my students, and man, did that solve the problem.

I have argued that teachers should be given the authority to remove disruptive and apathetic students from their classrooms. I have also argued that if we had that authority, we wouldn't end up having to remove very many students. I think my experience with my tardy policy lends credence to that.

Right now, I have about seven kids for whom the biggest favor I could do would be to tell them that they have about two weeks to pick up their performance or they will be gone. But I can't do that. So they will continue to do nothing, and the third quarter will end, and they will take their Fs. Until then, they will tell themselves that they will try next quarter. And then, when next quarter comes, they will tell themselves that they will try tomorrow...or next week...or next month.

If only those of us who teach in public schools were given the power to set more limits. The magic that we could work!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

We're goin' to the show!

As many of you know, this year I jumped back into hockey coaching after being out of it for one year. I became an assistant coach in our high school program, and I had a blast! I was responsible for our JV team, and I am also the goaltending guru for the varsity. Our JV team compiled a record of 20-4-1, and last week our varsity earned a birth in the state hockey tournament, which is known in Minnesota as "the big show." We did it with a 7-0 victory over Crookston, a 2-1 double-overtime thriller with Thief River Falls, and a 2-0 nail-biter over East Grand Forks. Our section tournament was held in Thief River Falls, which is about 100 miles from here, so I've been busy.

Tomorrow, I'm headed with the team for St. Paul, and I'll be gone for a week. I plan on bringing my laptop with, but along with the other coaches, I'll be responsible for twenty-plus teenagers twenty-four hours a day for about six days. So if I'm slow responding to comments, I hope you'll understand. But I do plan on trying to keep up on this. You're not getting rid of me that easily!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Should American education be nationalized?

In one on his comments on my last post, Daniel Simms expressed his concern about having a national curriculum. I have never had particularly strong feelings one way or another about that, but it’s an interesting topic. I’m interested in knowing Daniel’s reasons for being so strongly against it, and I hope by posting this, we’ll get that, as well as the views of some others on the subject.

I have read a couple of books by E. D. Hirsch, the cultural literacy guru, and he is a very strong proponent of a national curriculum. One reason he is so strongly in favor of a national curriculum is the mobility of the American population. A relatively large number of people with children move from one school district to another during a school year. Some of these people move frequently, and those that do usually don’t have very high incomes. Hirsch argues that different states and different school districts all being on their own programs makes it nearly impossible for those children to keep up in school. Hirsch also believes there needs to be a core base of knowledge that all Americans share so that people in our country can read and communicate intelligently.

Hirsch is not the only one for nationalizing education. About a week before Daniel asked me what I thought about a national curriculum, a friend of mine had given me an article by Matt Miller in Atlantic Monthly called "First, Kill All the School Boards."

In the article, Miller acknowledges that nationalizing education has never been a popular idea, but he argues that the time has come:

In (Horace Mann's) time, the challenge was to embrace a bigger role for the state; today, the challenge is to embrace a bigger role for the federal government in standards, funding, and other arenas.

The usual explanation for why national standards won’t fly is that the right hates “national” and the left hates “standards.” But that’s changing. Two Republican former secretaries of education, Rod Paige and William Bennett, now support national standards and tests, writing in The Washington Post: “In a world of fierce economic competition, we can’t afford to pretend that the current system (of state and local control) is getting us where we need to go.” On the Democratic side, John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Clinton and the current president of the Center for American Progress, told me that he believes the public is far ahead of the established political wisdom...

Recent polling suggests he’s right. Two surveys conducted for the education campaign Strong American Schools, which I advised in 2006, found that a majority of Americans think there should be uniform national standards. Most proponents suggest we start by establishing standards and tests in grades 3–12 in the core subjects—reading, math, and science—and leave more-controversial subjects, such as history, until we have gotten our feet wet...

Nationalizing our schools even a little goes against every cultural tradition we have, save the one that matters most: our capacity to renew ourselves to meet new challenges. Once upon a time a national role in retirement funding was anathema; then suddenly, after the Depression, we had Social Security. Once, a federal role in health care would have been rejected as socialism; now, federal money accounts for half of what we spend on health care. We started down this road on schooling a long time ago. Time now to finish the journey.

I can see some of the points of the nationalists, but I think there are things we could do to improve public schools that would be much more effective than what they want. I have also seen what happened when our state government got heavily involved in curriculum with the Minnesota Standards, and in the area of American History, I thought their finished product was horrible. I'm afraid if the federal government does it, it might even be worse. But then on the other hand, maybe it couldn't be worse. So on this one, consider me on the fence.