Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Why I'll vote for Obama

I love following politics, so I've been following this presidential election process for the last year-and-a-half. Although politicians aren't held in the highest esteem in modern day America, I like both Obama and McCain, so deciding who to vote for hasn't been easy for me. In the last few weeks, however, I've pretty well made up my mind that I'll vote for Obama. I'm afraid that might be the kiss of death for him, though, because he's been dropping in the polls ever since.

Since I'm a teacher, education is important to me, and that is one of the reasons I've moved into the Obama camp, but the way that fits in is more complicated than you'd think. Although the Democratic party line on education doesn't really inspire me, I have been very impressed by what Obama has said to parents about their responsibilities. It is something I'd never thought I'd hear a politician say. I also think the guy is very intelligent.

McCain on the other hand simply parrots the Republican party line on education. "We have failing schools, and so we need vouchers to save the day." I'm no fan of vouchers, but what really bothers me is that when I've heard McCain recite the party line, I've gotten the same feeling I have when I've given an essay test and read answers from a student who seemed to have something memorized without really understanding it. I just don't think McCain really cares about education. In fact, the only things I think McCain really cares about are foreign policy, the federal budget deficit, and earmarks. (For pro-lifers who vote for McCain based on abortion, I suspect they might end up very disappointed if he gets a chance to appoint Supreme Court justices, because I don't think he really cares that much about that issue.)

The things that McCain cares deeply about are important things, and I've agreed with most of his positions on those things over the past several year. I agreed when we went into Iraq in 2003. (Yup, I admit it! I completely bought into the WMD argument.) I listened to him when he said we needed more troops for the occupation, (Joe Biden was saying the same thing for quite a while) and I think the results of the surge have shown him to have been right. The problem is that events have also caused me to conclude that we need a different direction in our foreign policy. Our military can beat up anyone in the world, but it seems to me that our aggressive foreign policy is just gaining us more and more enemies. What we are doing isn't working. Right now I think we need a very intelligent guy more than we need a very experienced guy.

Believe me, I do have my reservations. Obama's lack of experience does bother me, and I have no confidence that he will reach across party lines. But the bottom lines for me are these: I think Obama does care about and will be engaged in a wider range of issues than McCain would be, I think he's smarter than McCain, and I think our foreign policy needs to move in a different direction.

1. Politically, I think Obama should have picked Hillary as his running mate. But when it comes to governing, I think he made the right choice in by-passing her and turning to Biden. The president needs to run the show, and although I think Hillary would be okay, nobody can control Bill.

2. I think McCain will pick Romney as his V. P. candidate. One theme McCain is pushing is that he is strong, and Obama is weak. Picking Romney helps McCain to portray himself as "the grown-up" in this race. With Obama having passed over his top competitor, McCain can say he was man enough to pick his.

3. I think McCain will win the election. As of today, McCain is 2 points ahead in the Gallop Poll, and he has been gaining steadily as we've gotten closer to the election. I expect Obama to get a bounce from his speech, because that is his strength, but that bounce won't last for two months. I think the concern about Obama's lack of experience is taking its toll, and we really are a center-right nation. McCain is a lot closer to that than Obama is. As people pay more attention to the campaign and become more aware of the candidate's positions, more people will turn to McCain. The one thing that could turn the election to Obama would be a huge turnout by African-Americans and young people. And that is a definite possibility.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Some things our critics don't get

Rather than writing posts the last few days, I've been spending more time reading other blogs and leaving comments on them. As usual, there have been a number of posts involving "choice" and charter schools. I ended up spending a fair amount of time going back and forth with people on a post by Joanne Jacobs saying that blacks do better in charter schools. Anyone who has read a few of my posts knows that I am very big on the idea of giving teachers in public schools the authority to set reasonable standards for effort and behavior and then being able to enforce those standards. I responded to Joanne's post along those lines, and I also expressed my lack of enthusiasm for choice. As usual, I wasn't very popular. It's a little frustrating to me, because I really believe that there are some things that people who are critical of public education don't understand if they aren't teachers who spend much of their lives in classrooms. (And I know how popular saying that is!) This is not meant at all as an insult to those people. I'm not implying that they have no right to express their opinions on education issues, and I'm not implying being a teacher automatically makes my opinions more valid than theirs. Nivertheless, there are just things that I think it's impossible to completely get unless you actually live it. In any case, here are some of those things I think many who are critical of public schools don't completely understand.

1. Whenever the performance of the students in a school is poor, it is assumed that the teachers and administration in that school must be doing a lousy job. In some cases this might be completely true, in others it might be partially true, but it some other cases it might not be true at all. What people, who don't spend their time in classrooms, don't understand is how important the make-up of the students in a classroom is. I have posted about the positive effect that good students can have on each other, but obviously there are some other students who can have a very negative effect.

Not to brag (ahem, ahem), but...I have a good reputation as a teacher in my community. I have received a teacher of the year award and coach of the year awards, so I think I do a pretty good job at handling groups of young people. But I have six classes every year, and some years the differences in learning that is taking place in those different classes is enormous. How can that be when the same person is teaching all of them? The answer is in the make-up of the students in those different classes. Give me a classroom of kids with a reasonable amount of motivation, and kids--who are not a bunch of little angels--but show a reasonable amount of respect for authority, and I can be an impressive teacher. But throw me into a classroom with a few kids whose sole purpose in coming to school each day is to disrupt and see how much attention they can draw to themselves, and some others who couldn't care less about learning anything, and I doubt that I'll impress anyone. Although I've never taught in one of those "failing" inner-city schools, I suspect that they have more than their share of classrooms that are like that. When that's the case, I don't care who the teachers are or who the principal is, not much learning is going to take place.

This is why I am so concerned about charter schools and vouchers. Parents who don't care about their kids' education are not very likely to take advantage of those options. Parents who do care about education are, and their kids are the ones who are the most likely to be positive influences in their classrooms. Take a number of them out of a public school, and leave all the negative influences and pretty soon a decent school might become a bad one.

When there is a truly bad school, however, I can't argue against choice. I don't want to leave any child who really wants an education to be stuck in an impossible situation while we wait for my dream-reforms to happen.

2. I don't think non-teachers realize how few disruptive kids it takes to ruin a class. Having one truly disruptive kid in a class is a major headache, but if you just have three or four it can completely ruin a class. In his book, The Death of Common Sense, Philip K. Howard talked to teachers and was surprised to learn that in even those so-called "bad" schools most kids behaved pretty well. It is a small minority of kids who were ruining education for everyone.

3. Since the 1960s, a number of factors have made it much more difficult for public school teachers and principals to deal with unruly kids. The first move came when the Supreme Court ruled that education is a "property right" that can't be taken away from a student without due process of law. Shortly after that, the Court ruled that any school official can be sued if he or she is determined--by the courts, of course--to have violated a student's "property right." After that, laws were passed saying that students couldn't be punished for their disabilities, and this was followed by the number of kids in schools labeled EBD and ADHD skyrocketing. So if a school official wants to suspend or expel a student, or even kick him out of class; watch out! I'm not saying it's impossible to discipline public school students, but it definitely ain't easy.

Going along with 2 & 3 is the fact that disruptive kids tend to be those who have grown up testing limits, and many of them are definitely not stupid. They are constantly pushing to see how far they can go, so by the time they're in high school, they are experts at playing the system. To make matters worse, when some other students, who would normally be okay, see what disruptive kids get away with, they can also become major problems.

The bottom line to all this is that when teachers and principals are faced with disruptive kids, all the pressure is to put up with them. The damage that is done to the education of the students who are stuck in those classes becomes a secondary concern, if it is a concern at all.

4. This last one involves what I suspect is a misunderstanding about my motives. When I go back and forth with other bloggers on this subject, I always get the feeling that they think I'm an educational Neanderthal who wants to throw a bunch of kids out of school. Believe it or not, that is not the case.

I honestly believe that if teachers had the power to remove disruptive and apathetic kids from our classes, we wouldn't have to use it very often. I have great faith in students' ability to adapt and to live up to expectations. As I said earlier about disruptive students, they are expert at knowing how far they can go. Make it clear that in order to remain in a class or in a school that certain behavior standards must be met and certain effort standards must be met, and nearly every student would meet those standards.

I have been a teacher, but I have also been a coach. In high school athletics, coaches have the power that I believe teachers should have in their classrooms. If kids don't do what is expected, they will be shown the door. During my twenty years in Warroad, there has been a grand total of two kids who have been dismissed from our hockey teams because of attitude and discipline problems. I know that there are big differences between sports and academics, but there is no doubt in my mind that a major reason for that low number is that the kids in sports clearly understand that there are certain things that won't be tolerated.

I also don't want to give the impression that public school classrooms all around America are loaded with disruptive and apathetic kids. Jay Matthews wrote an article earlier this year in which he complained about the public schools that are poor in America, but he also said this:

Our best public schools are first-rate, producing more intense, involved, and creative ­A-­plus students than our most prestigious colleges have room for. That is why less-known institutions such as Claremont McKenna, Rhodes, and Hampshire are drawing many freshmen just as smart as the ones at Princeton. The top 70 percent of U.S. public high schools are pretty good, certainly better than they have ever been...

Despite my harping about unruly students, most of my own classes are actually pretty good, but I definitely have had classes that were awful because of a few disruptive students. When that happens, it's frustrating because I feel like I should be able to do so much more about those kids than I can. There have been times when I have actually been embarrassed when I've seen kids in the hallway who wanted to learn something but were stuck in one of those classes. I have no doubt that in many of those so-called "failing" schools across the country, teachers are feeling the same frustrations I do, only a lot more often.

Public schools definitely have their problems, but I believe in them. I went to a public school, I've taught for 34 years in public schools, and my three sons went to public schools. They are all successful in their careers, and I've seen so many of our other graduates who have been as successful as they've wanted to be. My feelings are best summed up by one of the best quotes I've ever heard, and it comes from the late Albert Shanker, a teachers' union leader who was even admired by many conservatives:

We are about to create a system of choice and vouchers, so that ninety-eight percent of the kids who behave can go someplace and be safe. And we're going to leave the two percent who are violent and disruptive to take over the schools. Now, isn't it ridiculous to move ninety-eight percent of the kids, when all you have to do is move two or three percent of them and the other ninety-eight percent would be absolutely fine?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"It's all bullsh--!"

When I taught in Mt. Iron, Minnesota early in my career, we had a wonderful female English teacher named Judy. Judy was thoroughly competent,caring, witty, and consistently demonstrated great common sense. One thing I remember about her is that whenever the latest educational fad came along--one of those many "great" ideas that was going to make education great and save the world--this very feminine and articulate woman would almost always respond by saying, "It's all bullsh__!"

When I read Joanne Jacobs post on the Dallas superintendents new reforms, I couldn't help but think of Judy.

If you haven't already read Joanne's post on this, the Dallas superintendent issued an edict which will "require teachers to accept late homework without penalty, ignore homework grades that lower a student’s semester grade and give retests to students who fail."

The superintendent responsible for this stroke of brilliance, Dr. Michael Hinojosa, is understandably concerned about the failure rate in Dallas.

Dr. Hinojosa cited new research that determined ninth-graders who are flunking two or more classes in their first six weeks of high school are almost doomed to become dropouts.

“Our mission is not to fail kids,” he said. “Our mission is to make sure they get it, and we believe that effort creates ability.”

But why are they failing? My experience, and I am confident in saying the experience of most other teachers, is that the great majority of high school kids who fail do so because their effort is miserable.

Dr. Hinrosa citing his research is like sighting research that people who have their wounds cleaned after shooting themselves in the foot are almost doomed to limp.

We need to find ways to get kids to try harder in school and to take their education more seriously. Lowering standards so that anyone can pass with just a minimal effort isn't the answer to our education problems.

Right now, I am reading Restless Giant, James T. Patterson's history of America from 1974-2000. Patterson talks a lot about American education in the book, and especially about the disparities between whites and minorities. In one section that I read today, he says this:

The educational difficulties of black and (to a lesser extent) Latino pupils in America in the 1990s were profoundly demoralizing. Reformers called for a variety of changes: eliminating racially based questions from standardized tests, spending more money per pupil on classroom education and tutoring for minority children, strengthening the hand of principals and superintendents, (emphasis is mine) improving training of teachers, lowering class sizes, raising expectations about what students could accomplish, (obviously Hinrosa doens't buy into that one) and--above all--raising academic standards, as measured by rigorous testing.

There are an awful lot of reform ideas in that paragraph, but as for as I can tell, they haven't had much of an effect. There is one idea, however, that to me, is noticeable in its absence. You'll notice that no one seems to have tried strengthening the hand of teachers in the classrooms.

Maybe it's time we give that one a shot.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Minnesota: 933 Failing Schools

I have never been a No Child Left Behind hater--at least not to the extent that many others are. I'm not opposed to testing kids in our schools and allowing people to make comparisons based on the results. I think that can be motivating. Those comparisons have to be reasonable, however, and at this point that is definitely not the case with No Child Left Behind. That has to make one wonder about the motives of those who set the program up, and especially about anyone who isn't willing to change it.

Minnesota has one of the best academic records of any state in the nation, and Edina High School, just to the west of Minneapolis, was recently listed in Newsweek as one of the top 100 schools in the nation. But the Minneapolis Star/Tribune recently ran an article telling how Minnesota schools and Edina fared under the ridiculous standards set up by No Child Left Behind:

As predicted, dozens more Minnesota schools -- including nationally respected Edina High School -- failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) this year under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The state Department of Education reports that 933 schools are now on the watch list based on statewide test scores. So why does that list keep growing in a state with one of the best academic achievement records in America?

Although I think the article unfairly blasts schools with "lower-performing kids," it also draws the obvious conclusion that there is something wrong with No Child Left Behind.

A signature Bush program, NCLB calls for all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. It also requires states to identify schools that miss the test benchmark. That bar is a moving target that keeps rising. Although state test scores improved slightly in 2008, the gains were not enough keep additional schools off the list.

The numbers are no surprise. A 2004 state legislative auditor's report projected that under current criteria nearly all Minnesota schools would fail to meet federal expectations in the next few years...

In 2005, 247 Minnesota schools landed on the list. Last year, the number rose to 729, and this year nearly half of the state's 1,900 schools fell short.

There are many who believe that No Child Left Behind is a conspiracy to bring about a full-scale voucher program for the nation or to completely privatize education in America. I have always been skeptical of conpiracy theories, but when the deck is so obviously stacked against public schools as they are with NCLB, you've got to be pretty thick-headed not to become a believer in this one.