Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Are Elementary Schools Doing It Wrong?

No, this is not meant to be a loaded question. Usually when there is a question in a title like this, it is done in an accusatory manner, but this one is not meant that way. As should be obvious from the name of my blog, I am a proponent of public education, but I was involved in the blogging equivalent of a fist-fight the last few days with a couple of people who did not have a very high opinion of it. I came out of it feeling a little like Apollo Creed must have felt after his two fights with Rocky Balboa.

When Rocky took on Apollo Creeed, he went after his area of weakness. His manager, Mick, kept screaming, "The body, the body, the body!" The two bloggers who I was battling with both landed a few shots to my ribs by focusing on the teaching methods of our elementary schools, especially elementary math programs. Since I am a high school social studies guy, that is not exactly my area of expertise. It's tough to make a convincing argument when you're put into that situation, so this was quite frustrating for me.

SteveH said this: I see most of the problems of low expectations, bad curricula, and poor teaching methods in the lower grades. Unfortunately, this means that many students are not properly prepared for the better high school tracks. ...

Is this a matter of personal educational opinion? Not when one can clearly define that schools are using bad curricula. This is perhaps easiest to see in lower school math. Lower schools (K-8) seem to live in a separate reality with no ounce of outside (like AP courses or even high school) influence.

He later complains about mainstreaming: Many lower schools are centered around full-inclusion and no separation by ability, not even in 7th and 8th grades. Kids who are autistic are mixed in with the best students in a child-centered, thematic approach to education. This is usually handled with enrichment for the better students, rather than acceleration of material. The best students will overcome this (in spite of what the school does) and get into the honors tracks in high school. It's the average kids who are hurt the most.

Although Rory would not describe himself as a public education critic, in one of his recent posts, it was apparent that he was not very happy with the math program at his children's school:

When I was a child, the multiplication tables were drilled into me... commited to memory. (My daughter's) 3rd grade teacher taught the multiplication facts by teaching children to skip count, to use some finger trick with the 9's, and all kinds of other tricks, everything except to just memorize them. Unfortunately, learning long division and factoring requires that you know the tables by heart. Luckily were able to take advantage of NCLB provisions and get her extra tutoring in math where her multiplication tables were redrilled into her. We take part of the blame for not realizing how the schools were shortchanging her, but we learned our lesson.

KDerosa blasted our teaching methods in general:

I contend that underachievers are caused by bad teaching. Studies like Project Follow Through clearly support my contention. When teaching improves, we get a lot less underachievers. It's like magic, I tell you.And, believe it or not, it also works without all the problems in society being cured.

I assume by KDerosa's reference to Project Follow Through means that he believes public school teachers should be using Direct Instruction, and I'm also assuming that he means that this is most important at the elementary levels.

Over the last month I read two E. D. Hirsch books. Hirsch is a college professor and the father of the idea of "cultural literacy." He is a critic of public education, but he is not one of those accusing us of laziness and incompetence, so I find myself more open to what he has to say. His criticisms center on theory, and although they are directed at all of us, they focus most on elementary school education.

Hirsch's most important point is that reading ability is based on general content-based knowledge, and he says that we are teaching too little content (history, science, language, etc.) too late. He believes we need to be teaching more content earlier through story telling and our reading programs. He argues that we have focused almost entirely on the de-coding aspects of reading, and kids spend a great deal of time reading stories and answering questions about generic, content-free junk that is actually boring to the kids. As a result, our kids do fine on tests internationally in the early grades, but they start to fall behind after about fourth grade when background knowledge becomes a factor in the reading tests.

Hirsch also argues that our early elementary teaching methods result in disadvantaged kids falling farther and farther behind. Lower class kids get less general knowledge from their families, especially in the area of language, so when schools start focusing more on content in the later elementary grades, they are hopelessly behind, and failure leads to frustration, which leads to more failure. The knowledge gap that disadvantaged kids face gets wider and wider and wider. He says that in nations where they focus on content in the early grades, the gap actually narrows.

I would love to hear from anyone on any of the complaints I've recorded here, and I would especially like to hear from elementary teachers. I am a believer in public education, but when our critics start focusing on what our elementary schools are doing, I am out of my element. Hirsch's ideas make sense to me, but I'm not about to jump on his bandwagon before I hear from elementary school teachers, because they are the ones who are actually in those trenches.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Overcoming the Culture of Failure: Not Just a Message for Blacks

I read this article in the Washington Post by Juan Williams: "Banish the Bling: A Culture of Failure Taints Black America." I thought it was excellent, but I know that's easy to say for a middle class white guy. One reason I liked this article so much, though, was that I think much about this message is relevant for people of every race throughout our nation.

Williams says this about black kids living in the inner-cities:
Their search for identity and a sense of direction is undermined by a twisted
popular culture that focuses on the "bling-bling" of fast money associated with
famous basketball players, rap artists, drug dealers and the idea that women are
at their best when flaunting their sexuality and having babies.
I have spent my entire career in small towns in northern Minnesota, and I've only had two African-American students. Nevertheless, I have seen mind-sets similar to that described by Williams in too many of our Indian, Asian, and Caucasian children. It doesn't matter what race kids are or where they live; this mind-set is a recipe for failure.

Williams praises comedian Bill Cosby and echoes the message he has been spreading to blacks across the nation:

Cosby said that the quarter of black Americans still living in poverty are
failing to hold up their end of a deal with history when they don't take
advantage of the opportunities created by the Supreme Court's Brown decision and the sacrifices of civil rights leaders from Martin Luther King Jr. to Thurgood
Marshall and Malcolm X. ....

Cosby asked the chilling question: "What good is Brown " and all the
victories of the civil rights era if nobody wants them? A generation after those
major civil rights victories, black America is experiencing alarming dropout
rates, shocking numbers of children born to single mothers and a frightening
acceptance of criminal behavior that has too many black people filling up the
jails. Where is the focus on taking advantage of new opportunities to advance
and to close the racial gap in educational and economic achievement?
The failure to take advantage of opportunities is one of the biggest problems we have in public education today. Cosby sees this in the young blacks he talks to in the inner-cities, but I also see it in the low-performers that I've seen in the small towns where I've taught.

Williams also blasts the mainstream civil rights leaders who have been critical of Cosby for failing to address the problems within black communities that need to be overcome:
Where is the civil rights groundswell on behalf of stronger marriages that will
allow more children to grow up in two-parent families and have a better chance
of staying out of poverty? Where are the marches demanding good schools for
those children -- and the strong cultural reinforcement for high academic
achievement (instead of the charge that minority students who get good grades
are "acting white")? Where are the exhortations for children to reject the
self-defeating stereotypes that reduce black people to violent, oversexed
"gangstas," minstrel show comedians and mindless athletes?
It is true that prejudice and discrimination haven't been eliminated in the United States. It is also true that our country's history of discrimination is the reason that blacks are disproportionately poor. But it is also true that for people to overcome poverty, they must be willing to work very hard and to make sacrifices in order to make that happen. In other words, poor people must be willing to help themselves rather than being their own worst enemies. Cosby and Williams are doing a great service by spreading this message to African-Americans, but teachers around the nation see other kids and parents everyday who also need to take that message to heart.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The State of Public Education=New Orleans?

This is my second post in a row that I'm piggybacking on a Education Wonks post. This Wonks post was about the public schools in New Orleans a year after Katrina, but it wasn't the post itself that got me. It was a couple of the comments. I found them infuriating because they are so typical of attacks made on public education by our critics.

Ed Wonk closed his post by saying this:
In pre-Katrina New Orleans, few of the affluent or upper middle-class sent their children to public schools, which were notorious for their crime, violence, and underachievement.

After speaking with relatives of ours who live in the New Orleans area, I don't think that's likely to change in the foreseeable future as those who have the financial means continue to re-enroll their offspring in private and parochial institutions.

And as long those folks with plenty of cash continue to "opt-out" of their own school system, I'm not optimistic that positive systemic change will occur in New Orleans' public schools.
KDeRosa responded with this comment:
When an informed customer evaluates the product from one provider, determines that they are inferior, and then selects the product of another provider, presumably because they are superior, you would not typically blame the consumer for selecting the better product. You blame the service provider for offering an inferior product that the consumer doesn't want.
It is especially noteworthy when the consumer picks the alternate product even though he has to pay for the inferior product whether he uses the product or not. Such is the woeful satte (his spelling) in education.
It is the last sentence of this comment that really gets me: "Such is the woeful state (I assume that's the word that he meant to use) in education." This distortion is typical of people who are critical of public education. To take a place like New Orleans, with all of its problems, and to portray that as "the state in education" is either stupid or dishonest. There are thousands of public schools with millions of students around the nation where any student who wants a good education can get one. Critics of public education completely ignore them when they talk about public schools, however, and focus totally on schools like those in New Orleans, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington D.C..

Do we have problems in some urban areas? You bet! And those problems have to be addressed. If someone wants to argue for vouchers in places like those, people like me have to listen. (Notice, however, that those who want vouchers for "competition" never, ever suggest that public schools be given the same powers private schools have in dealing with their violent, disruptive, and apathetic students.) But declaring the problems in our worst schools to be "the state of public education" is like declaring the frustrations of the 2006 Kansas City Royals to be representative of the state of major league baseball.

And that wasn't the end. Henry Cate made this comment:

Thousands and tens of thousands of people have been trying to improve the public school system for decades. I think it has only gotten worse since the 1983 report. I am afraid the system can not be fixed by working within the system. We need a major change, something like vouchers, to really shake up the system.

First of all, there is no evidence to back up Cate's guess that things have gotten worse since 1983. Even Jay Greene, who is no defender of public education, concedes that. Cate is probably confused because the critics of public education have become louder and louder. And once again, according to Cate, it's not just certain places that have problems, it's the whole system.

I'm sure that people like Cate and KDeRosa love the term failing schools--another concept that infuriates me. They probably picture teachers and administrators just sitting around with their feet up drinking coffee, making no effort whatsoever, and just waiting to collect their paychecks. They have no idea how hard some of the people in those "failing schools" work, and how competent many of them are. I believe that people like Cate and KDerosa are clueless about what actually goes on in public schools and what the problems really are.

What makes all this even more frustrating is that NCLB is designed to declare more and more public schools to be "failing" until they've gotten nearly all of us by 2014--the year when 100 percent of our students are supposed to be "proficient." I'm sure that some of our critics will have a wonderful time running around saying "I told you so," as more and more of us are labeled failing.

I can't blame concerned parents for sending their kids to private schools if they believe that's necessary for their kids to get a good education. As the number schools labeled as "failing" increases, I'm sure more and more parents will do that, even though the term will be inappropriate for many of those schools . And as public schools lose many of our best students--students we need to have a good learning environment in our classrooms, it's entirely possible that some of our critics will get their wish. Public schools around the nation might just become as bad as they say.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Right to Burn the Flag and Shoot Ourselves in the Foot

On Monday, Education Wonks did a post on the Kentucky teacher who burned two American flags in his classroom. In the comment section, a number of people supported what this guy did. Although I'm repeating some of my own comments, I've decided to piggyback and do my own post on it.

Those who supported what this teacher did argued that it is his constitutional right to burn the flag, and that it was done in order to make the kids think. I want to make it clear that I am no right-wing conservative, and I do not favor a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning. I also have no desire to see this teacher get fired, because I understand that he had a fairly good record before this incident. Nevertheless, I do think what he did showed incredibly bad judgement. We have the right to do all kinds of things, but there is such a thing as using those rights in a responsible manner. A teacher doing things that are outrageous and offensive to a significant number of people in order "to get them to think" might be appropriate in a college classroom, but doing this in a K-12 classroom shows a complete lack of common sense. If I can't get my kids fired up about an issue as controversial as flag-burning without actually burning a flag, then I'd better find another line of work.

I was surprised by how many teachers defended this man's actions. Would they have thought it was okay if this teacher decided to burn a Koran in a classroom made up largely of Muslims? Would they have thought it was okay if he wore a Ku Klux Klan robe into a classroom made up largely of African-Americans? There are times when it is appropriate for teachers to question values and beliefs of students, but the action this teacher took was way over the top.

Public school teachers don't have to be concerned that their actions reflect on all of the rest of us, but I wish more would be. Public education is under attack. If you don't believe that, just look at our national educational reform plan, No Child Left Behind. It is totally punitive, and it is designed to declare more and more schools to be "failing," until they've got just about every school in the nation into that category by 2014. And, of course, when public schools are designated as failing, parents who care about education are encouraged to pull their kids out of them.

There are people who can't wait to use something like this incident to condemn us all. I had heard about the flag-burning teacher before I read the Ed Wonks blog because I watched good ol' John Gibson on Fox News earlier in the day. He and another "journalist" that he had with him had a field day with this. How about all those swell folks in the "Exodus Mandate" whose goal it is to get a million parents to take their kids out of public schools? Does anyone think they won't use this for everything it's worth? They already preach that public schools are part of a plot to indoctrinate kids into communism. This ought to help them convince a few fence straddlers.

I think public education is important, and I think most public school teachers do. But we need more to really care about that, and to act like it. I think public education has served as "the great equalizer" in our country and it still does today for kids who are willing to work hard enough to take advantage of the opportunities we give them. We sure aren't perfect. There's probably room for improvement in every public school in America, and there are some places where the schools are horrible. Nevertheless, this is a system worth saving. But when teachers show a blatant disregard for the values of any portion of our population because they have a right to do so, they sure don't help the cause.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Foreign Employees: Better Math and Science Scores or Third World Wages

There was an article about ACT scores in the Minneapolis Star/Tribune yesterday. There was one statement in the article that raised a question in my mind. Minnesota led the nation on the ACT, but Susan Heegard, the director of the state's Office of Higher Education, said this:

"Once again, this is great news, but we have some work to do if we want to compete in this global environment. If you talk to employers, they say they are increasingly recruiting students from around the world."

I know that her point is that American students don't do well enough in science in math, but is that really the most important reason that these employers are "increasingly recruiting students from around the world"?

I say that because I remember in the late 1990s when we were hearing that there weren't enough computer programmers. Young people were told that if they earned college degrees in that field that they would be set for life. Two of my sons went into computer programming, and both of them did get jobs shortly after graduating from college. But within just a couple of years computer programmers were being laid off from their jobs all around the United States. Both of my sons managed to survive layoffs at their firms, but many of their friends did not. What happened? U.S. firms have begun outsourcing computer programming jobs to foreign countries, not because of low American math and science scores, but because they can pay someone else third world wages to do these "set for life" jobs.

So my question is this: How much of the "recruitment of students around the world" happens because they can't find Americans to do the jobs, and how much of it takes place because of the incredibly low wages American businesses can get away with paying some people from foreign countries?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

In defense of high school sports

In the last week, there have been a couple of incidents involving high school athletes that might make one believe that there can be nothing good about high school sports. EdWonks reported on a disgusting situation at Beaumont High School in Texas involving a tradition of sexual favors being provided for athletes at the school by young high school girls. Then Conservative Teacher had a post about a judge who decided to allow a couple of football players to complete their season before serving a sentence for a crime that resulted in serious injuries to two completely innocent people. Neither of the bloggers involved said anything negative about high school sports or athletes. The damage was all done by the athletes, the coach, and the judge involved in the stories.

Last March I retired from my hockey coaching position which ended my 32 year career in high school athletics. I understand that there are many things that high school sports can be criticized for. I know that there are some people who put too much emphasis on it. I know that there are some athletes who think they are God's gifts to the world, there are some who think they deserve special treatment, and there are some people in authority who are stupid enough to give them exactly that. Believe me when I say, however, that those people are in the minority.

There is no doubt in my mind that, overall, high school athletics is a good thing, and the great majority of the people involved in them--coaches and players--are good people. Like most coaches, I have tried to make it clear to all of my players that once they have become a part of our team, they are representing more than just themselves. Like most coaches, whenever any of my players have gotten into trouble in school or the community, I have been embarrassed. And like most other coaches, when that has happened, I've never asked anyone to give them special treatment. I would have to be very naive not to realize that there are coaches out there who lack integrity and operate out of a "winning is everything" philosophy, but they are in the minority.

In Minnesota statistics show that students involved in sports get better grades and are much less likely to drop out than students who aren't. I assume that that is probably true across the nation. I think the best thing about high school sports--especially team sports--is that it gives young people something to really care about.

I thoroughly enjoy my teaching job, but one thing I find frustrating about it is the lack of effort demonstrated by too many students. That is one reason I loved coaching hockey so much--lack of effort was definitely not a problem. The last game I coached was a section championship loss in four overtimes, and the other games in the tournament leading up to that were a 2-1 game, two 4-3 battles in which the winning goals were scored in the last two minutes, and a 1-0 double overtime game. Watching high school kids put every bit of their hearts and souls into something the way the kids on all six of the teams involved in these games did is nothing less than inspirational. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen players do things I never thought they’d be capable of, and they seemingly do it through sheer force of will, and they do it because they care so much about their team and their teammates. These kids want to play through injuries they have no business trying to play through--cuts, bruises, strains, and sprains--while some of their classmates take a day off from school anytime they sneeze or get a runny nose. You never have to hear an "I don’t care" from a player who hasn’t performed well.

One of the unfortunate results of a playoff system like we have in Minnesota is that nearly every team finishes its season with a loss. It is not unusual to see a 16, 17, or 18 year old male, who would never want to be caught dead shedding a tear in public, crying openly after a loss that has put an end to his team’s season. Even when our team has been on the winning side of those games, I couldn't help but feel for the kids on the other squad who had given every ounce of effort, and come up just a little short.

There has to be tremendous value in the life lessons our kids are learning by playing high school athletics and being involved in something that they come to care so much about. I've said this in an earlier post, but I will say it again: we keep hearing that students in our schools have lower math and science scores than their European counterparts, and that is something to be concerned about. But I have trouble believing that many European kids have the guts and character to match the student-athletes I’ve coached and coached against.

Being involved in high school athletics has been the frosting on the cake of my career, and I know I'm going to miss it. I have always loved high school sports, and it saddens and angers me when clowns like the ones in those two stories represent themselves, their teams, their communities, and everyone involved in high school sports so badly.

Friday, August 18, 2006

A Defense of Public Education to the MSBA

Deb Sistrunk wanted to know how my presentation to the Minnesota School Board Association went, and what Deb wants, Deb gets! Especially since it went pretty well.

I don't know how many of you have given Power Point presentations to groups other than students, but using that little piece of technology scared the devil out of me. My biggest fear was that I'd have everything hooked up and ready to go, and then I would look up and see the dreaded "No Signal" on the screen. That happened to me once last spring in one of my American history classes, and it happened once when I was rehearsing for this presentation. I thought I had the problem figured out, but I am no computer wizard, so for the past several days I kept picturing myself fumbling and stumbling with a computer and Power Point projector in front of about a hundred impatient superintendents and school board members from around the state. Mercifully, the high tech equipment cooperated nicely on Thursday.

I had prepared a presentation last April for Delta Kappa Gamma, which is an organization of women educators. It went quite well, so I had planned to go basically with that again, but I ended up making a lot of changes. The more I went over it, the more I realized that there were things I had in the presentation that would strike a chord with teachers, but would probably go flat with non-teachers. I spent a lot of time tinkering with it and memorizing it over the last month, and then almost all of my focus was on it for the last week. They say the most frightening thing for most people to do is public speaking, and even though I've essentially been doing that in front of my students for all these years, going in front of a group like this created a lot of anxiety for me. If I screwed it up, it wasn't going to be due to lack of preparation.

The presentation took about an hour and was received better than I ever could have hoped for. This was only the second time I've done a presentation like this, but I think I was able to make up for my inexperience with the belief that I had in what I was talking about. With all of the negative information that we are swamped with about public schools, I think a lot of people are receptive to hearing something positive about them. This group sure was. One superintendent told me it was one of the top five motivational presentations he'd ever seen, and obviously that made me feel good. One board member said that he was pleasantly surprised because he was expecting a talk on "poor me, the teacher." He didn't expect the presentation to be so positive.

The blogging I've done this summer definitely helped me. Anyone who has taught as long as I have should have a reasonable amount of confidence when talking about education issues, but I've never felt as confident as I do now, after reading your blogs and going back and forth with some of you on comments. My PESPD's Ten Myth series that I ran earlier this summer inspired the structure of the presentation, which I called "Four Misconceptions About Public Education." Peter Campbell's Life Magazine cover from March, 1958, which he used in a post, was a great addition to my presentation, and all of the discussion on No Child Left Behind that I've been reading on blogs was helpful. I used the stories about T. J. Oshie and Nick Moyer which I posted in June, and I finished with "God is not allowed in public school," featuring pictures of Ann Graham, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Jim Bakker. (I'll bet you're trying to figure out how Bill and Hillary Clinton fit into that one!)

In any case, the presentation went well, and I hope I get opportunities to do it again. If I do, I'll get nervous again, just like I did this time, but I seem to do my best work when I'm a little scared. I'm eligible for retirement in two years, and although I'm in no hurry to get out, I need to be looking for things to do once I end my career. Who knows, maybe this will be part of the answer.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Zero Tolerance, Suspensions, and Expulsions

USA Today has an article by Marian Elias titled "At schools, less tolerance for 'no tolerance'."
"Zero tolerance" discipline policies that are enforced widely in U.S. schools are backfiring: They may be promoting misbehavior and making students feel more anxious, the American Psychological Association (APA) said Wednesday.

The group called for more flexibility and common sense in applying the policies, reserving zero tolerance for the most serious threats to school safety.

Zero-tolerance policies spread in the 1990s as a tool to fight drug use and violence on campuses. Schools often suspend or expel students for having weapons or drugs, which can include over-the-counter medicine, says educational psychologist Cecil Reynolds of Texas A&M University. Verbal threats, fighting or sexual harassment also can get kids booted, he says. "There are cases such as the kindergarten boy who hugged two classmates. His teacher reported him for sexual harassment, and he was suspended."

"The 'one-size-fits-all' approach isn't working. Bringing aspirin to school is not the same as bringing cocaine. A plastic knife isn't the same as a handgun," Reynolds says.

Principals who want to be flexible "may be caught in a catch-22," says Richard Flanary of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. If school boards set rigid policies, principals who defy them risk losing their jobs. "Then they're bashed in the press for overreacting to kids' misbehavior."

I understand the purpose of "no tolerance," but anytime we try to handle situations by setting up hard and fast policies we get ourselves into trouble, as the examples given in this article point out. We have become so afraid that someone is going to make a decision that we don't like that we feel like we have to lock them into something. Although bad decisions will happen from time to time, I really think we can do a lot better by hiring good people (teachers and principals) and allowing them to use their common sense to make decisions.

The APA also had this to say about suspension and expulsion rates in schools.

Kids feel less safe and perform worse academically in schools with high suspension or expulsion rates, even taking into account students' income levels, the association's report says. Also, students' higher suspension rates predict higher rates of future misbehavior and school failure compared with classmates who weren't suspended for similar misdeeds, Reynolds says.

This paragraph implies that suspending or expelling misbehaving students is generally a bad thing. I think that is a ridiculous conclusion. Of course, kids feel less safe in schools with high suspension and expulsion rates. People who live in high-crime areas also feel less safe, but it's not because too many criminals are being sent to jail; it's because there's a lot of crime.

And regarding the differences between kids who were and were not suspended for similar misdeeds, the kids who were suspended had probably been more trouble before. Suspension is usually not the first action that a principal takes when dealing with a misbehaving student. The incident that draws the suspension is frequently the straw that broke the camel's back.

Although I thoroughly agree with this article's point that principals need to be given more discretion in dealing with student misbehavior, I can't swallow any argument that discipline in schools is too strict and that we need to be more tolerant. Puh-lease!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Cheating? Not me, honest!

Ms. Cornelius made me aware of an excellent post on cheating by Scott Elliott. There is no more important issue within the schools than this one. And on this one I think I'd have to agree with the critics of public education--we're not doing a very good job. But once again, we're not getting very much help from parents and the rest of society.

I hate everything about cheating. I hate suspecting that some students might be cheating, I hate thinking students have gotten away with it, and I even hate catching them. Confronting someone I've caught cheating is the most miserable thing I have to do in my role as a teacher. It amounts to saying, "You are a liar," and more often than not, the student to whom I'm saying this is someone with whom I've had a pretty good relationship up to that time.

I know that in many cases, as soon as I tell students that I've determined that they've been cheating, it's time to let the lying begin. Some kids will lie regardless of how incontrovertible the evidence (like the student in Scott's post), and then I have to go into my ace detective role, which is not a role I enjoy. Students who cheat, however, are not hardened criminals, so their stories usually fall apart rapidly. Here is an example from an interview conducted by our principal and me with a student who, after being accused of exchanging answers with another student on a number of quizzes, protested his innocence.

Principal: If you weren't cheating, how did you end up with the same answers on all the questions, and the exact same mistake on this question?

Student: I don't know.

Principal: Did he (the student's friend) give you a little help on this question?

Student: Well, actually on that one, I think I helped him.

Principal: So, in other words, you do communicate with him during quizzes.

Student: Well, he gives me hints once in a while.

Fermoyle: How did he know what questions you needed "hints" for?

Student: Well, I have a tendency to read the questions out loud.

In most cases, it's possible to get the student to own up to the cheating or simply drop the claim of innocence without too much trouble, but sometimes it isn't that easy. The worst situations occur when the student goes home and lies to the parent about the incident. When this happens, it becomes much more difficult to get an admission because the student doesn't want to admit to his parent that he lied. This can get very ugly when the parent is one of those who believes her role in dealing with the school is to be an advocate for her child. In this case, once again, it doesn't matter how incontrovertible the evidence is because, as so many parents claim, "My son wouldn't lie to me!"

Every time I confront a student with cheating, I am scared to death that I'm making a mistake. Even when the evidence seems crystal clear, I’m afraid I’m missing something. Maybe I’m ignorant of some set of circumstances or I'm misinterpreting what happened. Maybe I'm accusing someone who hasn't done anything wrong! This fear causes me to avoid making an accusation unless I'm dead sure about it, but even then, I still worry, and this just adds to the misery of dealing with cheating.

I said earlier that many of the students I accuse of cheating are students with whom I've had good relationships, and that is because cheating is definitely an equal opportunity character flaw. Males are just as likely to cheat as females, whites just as likely as minorities, athletes just as likely as non-athletes, and A and B students every bit as likely as C, D and F students.

As much as I hate cheating, I know that many of those who do it are not really bad people. Not every student cheats, but a lot of them do, and it is definitely part of student culture. Since I began teaching sociology a few years ago as an elective course offered to juniors and seniors, I've had open discussions in the class about cheating.

Students, in general, do not think cheating is terribly wrong. Let's face it, there's a lot going on in our society to lead kids to believe that dishonesty of any kind is not a big deal. Anyone watching TV for any amount of time is besieged by commercials that, though not out and out lies, certainly twist the truth. Truth-twisting has been turned into an art form by politicians and their handlers in political campaigns and advertising. It's not unusual to see someone who is running for or holding public office doing his best to explain why a lie he told is really not a lie at all. Democrats and Republicans are equally shameless when it comes to this, but the ultimate example has to be President Clinton's handling of his Monica Lewinsky mess, and just about all of the students that I've had in class the last few years remember that fiasco.

One of the most talked about events that has taken place on TV in the last ten years was the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show, during which pop star Janet Jackson bared her breast, revealing an interesting piece of artwork on her nipple. The first explanation we heard for that display was that it was a "wardrobe malfunction." Explanations of that explanation followed. Another hot topic has been the steroid investigation in baseball. Some of the athletes who are subjects of this looked like normal baseball players early in their careers, but suddenly became Arnold Schwarzenegger look-alikes. Their typical reaction to any accusations could best be summed up with, "What, me? Steroids? How could you think that?"

So students see ample evidence that cheating and lying are simply ways to get ahead in life, and if caught, the way to handle the situation is to lie some more. And while many students don't think cheating is a terrible thing to do, they do think that turning in a cheater is. They justify this by saying, "everybody cheats," or "it's none of their business," or that all-time popular favorite, "they're only hurting themselves when they cheat."

I know that this last line is one that young people hear frequently from adults, but I also know it's not true. Students who cheat do hurt others. Most obviously, it may allow the cheater to move ahead of other students in class rank, which is viewed as a crucial factor by most colleges in the admissions process. On a more basic level, if one student has worked hard studying for a test or writing a long paper, and another student who hasn't done the work cheats and gets a better grade, that's going to hurt the morale of the one who put in the effort.

Cheating also hurts everyone because it breaks down trust. I don't know how many times a student or students have done well on a test or some other assignment in my class, and instead of just feeling good about it, I’ve had lingering doubts in my mind. Why did they do so well? Did they study harder than usual? Did I do a good job teaching it? Or did they cheat? I hate having to think that, but I know from experience that I'm a fool if I don't. More than once I've found out that students for whom I had the utmost respect -- students who I thought were completely honest and would never cheat -- had, in fact, cheated on a test or an important assignment. This would have shocked me early in my career, but now that I am older I am only mildly surprised.

There are times when a student cannot cheat by himself; he needs help, someone to feed him the answers on a quiz or a test, or to give him a completed assignment to copy. There are students with enough character to tell the cheater to “buzz off” and do his own work, but a determined cheater can always find a willing helper. When this happens, I’m not sure who makes me angrier. I’ve always thought of cheating as parasitic, but I view helping cheaters as being somewhat like prostitution. The person who helps others cheat has something that no one else has a right to, and it shouldn’t be given away, namely, the work that has been done, or the knowledge gained from studying. A prostitute sells her or his body for money, and the student who helps cheaters sells what he has for friendship.

This sounds harsh because I really care about the learning that takes place in my classroom and, whether they know it or not, students who cheat, along with their helpers, take a wrecking ball to what I am trying to build when I teach. The foundation of all of my classes is student effort. There will be some students who are interested in the subject matter from the first day they walk into my class, but I don’t want them to be the only ones who do well and enjoy it. I try to hook the average students by making it clear that, if they make a good effort, they can also earn good grades. In trying to earn those good grades, students will learn something. My hope is that, as they learn and gain success, they’ll become interested in the subject and they'll be motivated to learn even more. Students who cheat and get away with it destroy that foundation. They may get the good grade, but they haven't done the work for it, and they haven't learned a thing -- at least nothing that I wanted them to learn. Their interest in the subject doesn't improve one bit, and they have no incentive to work harder. And when someone gets away with cheating, a lot of other students are going to be tempted to go the same route, especially if the cheater gets a better grade than the kids who were honest.

I know that I shouldn't, but I can't help taking cheating personally. I value my relationship with students, and there is nothing worse for any relationship than dishonesty. When students cheat, they are lying to me. They are telling me they did work that they never did, that they learned something they never learned, that they deserve a grade that they have no business getting. They are trying to pull the wool over my eyes and, in effect, I feel they are trying to make a fool out of me.

I think it's obvious from the amount of cheating that goes on in schools that the consequences of getting caught often aren't harsh enough. A zero on one quiz or one assignment or one test isn't that big a deal to a student if she has gotten away with cheating on enough other things. An obvious solution is for the penalty to be an F for the entire marking period or semester. I had that as a policy when I first came to Warroad, but the reaction from parents was so hostile that I was forced to back off. We had an excellent young teacher come to Warroad a couple years ago who followed that policy as well, and he was praised for his courage, at least as long as the kids who were getting caught were those C or D students who didn't seem to have the greatest attitudes anyway. When a couple of nice A and B students with concerned parents got nailed, however, a lot of the solid support he had enjoyed suddenly turned to Jell-O. Cheating is one of the biggest problems in our high schools today, and until teachers, administrators, honest students, and parents get serious about it, it will continue to be.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Transform Education: John Stossel Is a Liar

Interesting post by Peter Campbell about Ben Chavis and the Indian Charter School in Oakland, which will be featured on ABC's 20/20 again on September 1st. Peter has a 2-minute teaser on the program, and you can link to it here: Transform Education: John Stossel Is a Liar .

From the teaser and the title of the segment, one has to assume that it is another rip-job on public education in general, and I certainly don't appreciate that. However, I can't bring myself to be nearly as hard on the things Chavis is doing at his own school as Peter is. The guy does seem to be getting results. It sounds like Chavis is very demanding on his students with hours of homework and public humiliation if they fail to do it or if they misbehave. In July, Peter did a post on KIPP Schools where they have similar practices, and make great demands on parents. Although Peter questioned the statistics, it sounded like they were also getting results. My question is this: Can't we find a happy medium?

I have no desire to humiliate students for any act of misbehavior, but I would like to be able to refuse to tolerate students who will not follow reasonable rules unless I have my eye on them one-hundred percent of the time. I have no desire to force students to do "hours" of homework, but I would like to be able to refuse to tolerate having kids in my classroom who clearly are making no effort to pass.

Do kids have to be totally regimented in order to learn? I don't think so. I just think they need to come to school with a desire to learn and to be successful, a willingness to do a reasonable amount of work, and a willingness to follow reasonable rules. They need and deserve to be able to do those things in a healthy learning environment, free from other kids who won't do those things.

It irritates me that schools like the Indian Charter School and the KIPP schools can basically hound students into leaving, because where do they end up going? To their regular old public school, of course. Public schools should not have to be the junior varsity of education.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Families, Schools, and Student Achievement

There is an excellent article in the N.Y. Times today by Diana Jean Schemo titled It Takes More than Schools to Close the Achievement Gap. It says that schools matter, but as the title indicates, we can't do it alone.

WHEN the federal Education Department recently reported that children in private schools generally did no better than comparable students at public schools on national tests of math and reading, the findings were embraced by teachers’ unions and liberals, and dismissed by supporters of school voucher programs.

But for many educators and policy makers, the findings raised a haunting question: What if the impediments to learning run so deep that they cannot be addressed by any particular kind of school or any set of in-school reforms? What if schools are not the answer?

The question has come up before. In 1966, Prof. James S. Coleman published a Congressionally mandated study on why schoolchildren in minority neighborhoods performed at far lower levels than children in white areas.

To the surprise of many, his landmark study concluded that although the quality of schools in minority neighborhoods mattered, the main cause of the achievement gap was in the backgrounds and resources of families.

For years, education researchers have argued over his findings. Conservatives used them to say that the quality of schools did not matter, so why bother offering more than the bare necessities? Others, including some educators, used them essentially to write off children who were harder to educate.

The article says that under No Child Left Behind schools alone are held responsible for a child's progress, but factors outside the school often choke off the progress they are able to make.

At Johns Hopkins University, two sociologists, Doris Entwisle and Karl Alexander, collected a trove of data on Baltimore schoolchildren who began first grade in 1982. They found that contrary to expectations, children in poverty did largely make a year of progress for each year in school.

But poor children started out behind their peers, and the problems compounded when school ended for the summer. Then, middle-class children would read books, attend camp and return to school in September more advanced than when they left. But poorer children tended to stagnate. “The long summer break is especially hard for disadvantaged children,” Professor Alexander said. “Some school is good, and more is better.”

“Family really is important, and it’s very hard for schools to offset or compensate fully for family disadvantage,” he said.

The article also tells us that a court order in Chicago to disperse people from inner-city housing projects to the suburbs resulted in an increase in school achievement.

No one is arguing here that schools can't improve. We should constantly be looking for ways to get better, and nothing should excuse us from that. But right now, we have a national educational reform program that operates under the assumption that education is completely the responsibility of the schools, and nothing else--parents, poverty, the culture of the area and our society--matters. That assumption defies common sense as well as research, and you have to wonder what the motives are of people who take that position.

Ms. Schemo's article is excellent, and it's well worth being read in its entirety.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Is this racism?

Very interesting article in the Denver Post today about a couple of statements made by Colorado Republican Governor Bill Owens and former Democratic Governor Dick Lamm. The title of it is "Owens' stereotyping not positively received."

Republican Gov. Bill Owens on Thursday defended former Democratic Gov. Dick Lamm's remarks that Asians and Jews have more ambition than Hispanics and blacks, saying he wished his three children had more of a Jewish and Asian work ethic.

"There are many days ... when I wish they'd have more aspects of Jewish and Asian culture. I wish they'd get up earlier in the morning, I wish they would work harder and in many respects that's what we do see out of many of the Asian and the Jewish culture," Owens said on a talk-radio show.

Colorado Republican Party chairman Bob Martinez called the remarks by Lamm and Owens racist. He said he was "flabbergasted" by Owens' comments.

Owens also said that we need to have a discussion on what it is in certain cultural backgrounds that leads to success.

"My kids are all Anglo, they're Irish, English and they're wonderful kids and I wish they'd work a little harder sometimes. Sometimes, I wish that I had some more of those traits," Owens said of Asians and Jews. "So I don't think Dick Lamm was being in any way racist and I think some of the response to him has been knee-jerk. I think that we need to have a debate on what it is about certain backgrounds that leads to more success."
Lamm began the controversy with this statement:

"I believe Asian and Jewish culture sends signals that do lead to success, and Hispanic culture doesn't put the same emphasis on a whole list of things like frugality, risk, entrepreneurship, innovation."

Is this racism? Or is it a legitimate discussion about what it takes to be successful in school?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Another Myth: Public education does not prepare young people to become good citizens

I had a post about a week-and-a-half ago that defended the overall performance of public education. There were a number of concurring comments, but then a few days after the post, this comment came in from Elizabeth:

I think the place where you and I disagree, based on this post anyway, is that I don't believe the sole purpose or even the primary purpose of public primary and secondary education is to prepare people for future careers. I believe the primary purpose of public primary and secondary education is to prepare people to be good citizens. In that we have failed. We have a citizenry that does not participate in a meaningful way in the political process, that cannot read a newspaper critically, and that has little to no understanding of the cultures or languages of other countries that make up 95 percent of the world's population.

I decided to respond to this comment with another post instead of a comment because of the time that has passed since the original post, and also because I think Elizabeth raises an important point.

I agree with Elizabeth that preparing people for future careers should not be the sole or primary purpose of public education. I do think an important purpose should be to enable people to become happy and productive members of our society. That includes their lives in the working world, but it also includes citizenship. I disagree with Elizabeth's assertion that we have failed in preparing people to become good citizens.

It is a well known fact that the number of Americans who vote in elections is low compared to other democracies. Many people look at that and come to the conclusion that those darned public schools are failing again. However, there are a number of factors that help to explain our low voting turnout, and none of them have to do with what people have or haven't learned in school. First of all, it is more difficult to register in the United States than in just about any other democratic country, so our registration rate is one of the lowest in the world. In European countries the people don't have to do anything to register; the government does it for them. We also don't penalize people for not voting the way some other nations do. We also have a lot of elections. We have primary elections, and general elections, presidential and congressional elections, state office elections, county, city, and township elections, school board elections, and various referendums. There is an election going on somewhere in the United States almost every week of the year. Many European nations have one election every four or five years. When they do have elections, it's a much bigger deal than it is here. I also think more people would vote if the two major political parties weren't dominated by ideologues. The loony left of the Democratic party and the radical right of the Republican party turn many people off who don't share their extreme views.

Even though our voting turnouts are less than impressive, Americans are actually more politically active than people in Europe or anywhere else, for that matter, in other ways--joining civic organizations, writing congressmen, supporting social movements, fighting city hall, etc. Americans are also much more active in their churches than people in other nations. So the idea that Americans are woefully inactive politically is a myth. Public education enables people to participate in the political process if they choose to--and a lot of people do--but we don't indoctrinate them.

Elizabeth says Americans can't read a newspaper critically. I disagree with that, too. A lot of Americans don't read newspapers critically because they don't care, and schools can't force people to care. The other day I had a great discussion in our weight room with a 16-year-old about the situations in Iraq and Lebanon. He complained that most of his friends don't even care about what is going on in the Middle East. The only things they seem to care about is what boy likes what girl, who is going out with whom, and what's going on next weekend. This kid cared about what's going on in the world, and his friends didn't, but they all went to the same school. What's the difference between them?

The young man I talked to has parents who talk about current events in their home. They have magazines and books, and their television gets turned to the news once in awhile instead of being locked on ESPN, HBO, and MTV. The events he has heard about in school also get talked about at home. This kid will read newspapers critically for the rest of his life. Some of his friends will get concerned about public affairs as they get older, and they will join him, but some of his other friends will never care about anything beyond their next car and mortgage payments, who is going to make it to the Super Bowl, and which Hollywood couple's marriage is falling apart. And that's their right.

Finally, Elizabeth says that we aren't adequately teaching about other cultures, which I assume in an endorsement for multiculturalism. Those of us in public schools can't win on that one, because there are others who say we are teaching that too well. A group sponsoring a movement called the Exodus Mandate calls multiculturalism "cultural Marxism," and they say that we are using that to indoctrinate kids into communism. They are urging parents to remove their kids from public schools and enroll them in private religious schools or to homeschool them.

As I said in my earlier post, public education doesn't create doctors, lawyers, or mechanics. We also don't create active citizens. What we do is to give people the opportunity to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to become those things if they want to. Public education still also serves as the great equalizer in our society, but I have to admit it doesn't work for everyone. It only works for those young people who are willing to do the work necessary to take advantage of the opportunities we offer.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Education Experts vs. Reality

Education Wonks has done a great job keeping us up to date on statements made by Margaret Spellings, our Secretary of Education. A couple of week ago Wonks had a post that made it clear that she is very serious about the goal of having 100% of our students proficient in math and reading by 2014. She said:

"When I hear people say they don't think it's possible to have every student reading and doing math on grade level, I always wonder... does that mean they're volunteering their child to be left behind? I certainly don't want that for my daughters, and I'm pretty sure most parents agree. I know you do, too.

In public education, it used to be acceptable to let some kids fall through the cracks. If a school wasn't living up to its responsibilities, parents had no other options.

But with No Child Left Behind, President Bush and the Congress led our nation in a commitment to have every child learning on grade level by 2014."
Many of us might think that she certainly couldn't have been including learning disabled kids in that statement, but a Wonks post on Thursday tells us that we better think again:

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings today announced the new regulations for Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The final regulations further the president's goal that no child—including each and every one of America's many students with disabilities—is left behind. By aligning the regulations with the No Child Left Behind Act, there is a new focus on ensuring that students with disabilities are held to high expectations.

"Thirty years ago, America's students with disabilities were for the first time assured access to a free and appropriate public education thanks to a new law passed by Congress, now called IDEA," said Spellings. "Yet in those 30 years, too many students with disabilities have faced what President Bush calls 'the soft bigotry of low expectations.' Students with disabilities can meet high standards, as long as we adults have high expectations and hold them to these standards."
On Monday, I had a post about a column that contained so much common sense about what actually goes on in a classroom, that I said that teachers who read it would probably agree that it could only have been written by a teacher. Spellman's comments, on the other hand, could only have been made by someone who has never been one.

One frustrating thing about being in education is that most of the people who are considered experts have never actually done what we do. If someone is considered an expert in the field of medicine, that person has probably been a great doctor. If someone is considered an expert in the field of law, that person has probably been a great lawyer or a judge. Not so in education. If you ever see a panel discussion on TV dealing with education in America, they might have a journalist or two, a university professor, a corporate executive, a labor union leader, a civil rights activist, and possibly a superintendent of a gigantic school district who has rarely if ever been in a classroom during his adult life. And last, but not least, what list of education experts would be complete without a politician or two? No wonder we have so many dumb ideas and policies imposed upon us.

I looked up a bio on Margaret Spellings, and her credentials include being a political advisor to Bush and being a mother. That's all it takes to be the education guru in the United States, and I think it helps to explain the statements she makes. In defending No Child Left Behind, Jay P. Greene (no friend of public education) said this about the mandate that all children have proficient test scores by 2014: "It's a little like requiring states to reduce traffic fatalities to zero--no matter what policy is imposed to get people to drive carefully, there will always be some traffic accidents. However, it is wrong to focus on this long-term mandate simply because it is so outlandish. Policymakers at the state and federal level are all working on the unspoken assumption that when the time comes this requirement will quietly be revised."

Maybe we can get Ms. Spellings to listen to Greene on this one. After all, he's not a teacher, he's a researcher. That must mean he's an expert!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Why don't they just go back into the woods?

Coach Brown had an excellent post on parenting that began with a quiz from Marc Fisher of the Washington Post dealing with parents, teenagers, and alcohol. I agreed with almost everything that Coach Brown said, but I'm not sure I agree with what the quiz seemed to imply. I would never condone idiotic parents sponsoring booze parties for their kids and friends, but I am not at all comfortable with the status quo when it comes to the way society handles the combination of young people and alcohol.

In Minnesota the primary vehicle that schools have to deal with alcohol and drugs is the Minnesota State High School League through its eligibility rules. Students who are caught consuming or possessing "prohibited substances" face suspensions from extra-curricular activities anywhere from two weeks to a full year depending on whether it is a first offense, second or third.

An early turning point in my career took place when I had to suspend some hockey players at Mt. Iron in 1979 for bringing alcohol on the team bus as we traveled to play a game in a town sixty miles away. One of my assistant coaches smelled alcohol on the breath of one of the players, so we pulled him off the ice before the game even began. When we got back home, we asked some questions and it became apparent that he wasn't the only one. The next morning I began asking more players more questions, and by the end of that day the number involved had climbed to ten. At that time the penalty for a first offense was nine weeks, and since there would only have been a couple of weeks left in the season by the time they returned, I decided to suspend them for the entire season. We ended up finishing the season with one senior, one junior, and the rest sophomores and freshmen. Our junior varsity became our varsity.

Today, with the increased awareness that students and their parents have of their rights and due process, things would be done differently. The athletic director and principal would conduct the entire investigation and there would be hearings for kids who claimed they were innocent. One thing our society has taught in the last twenty-five years is that if you lie about something you've done, you can often avoid having to face the consequences, so there would probably have to be a lot of hearings.

Back then, I got no assistance from the school--I was totally on my own--and I suspended a player if two witnesses told me that he had been drinking. Only two of the suspended players denied that they had been drinking, and one of them was actually one of the ringleaders. I did have a couple of parents, who said that they were representing others, come to me and complain about the way I handled the situation. They thought the whole thing should have been swept under the rug.

To this day I am embarrassed about this incident. How can a bunch of players bring beer onto a bus, and have the coach, who is sitting in the front of the bus, not know that anything is going on until the bus ride is over? The fact that I could have been so naive is not something I’m proud of. I'm sitting there in the front of the bus with my assistant coaches thinking about the big game, while our players are in the back of the bus having the high school equivalent of a fraternity party.

I said before that this incident was an early turning point in my career, and the amazing thing is it became that because I ended up being turned into a hero. A reporter for the Duluth Tribune heard about the incident and wrote an article about it, and then a couple days later, the newspaper ran an editorial lauding me for suspending the players. All of a sudden, instead of an incompetent, tunnel-visioned, naive fool, I was a virtuous disciplinarian. No kidding!

We did not win a game that year, but after the Tribune's article and editorial, that seemed to make what I had done even more noble. Going 0 - 17 made me a heckuva coach! I got a great reputation throughout northeastern Minnesota, and I was looked upon with a new respect in our school and community. It even ended up helping our hockey program because it gave our younger players so much experience, and after that year, we managed to string together six winning seasons in a row.

I think this incident says a lot about the way we deal with alcohol and young people in our society. It's crazy! We make laws and rules based on the idea that alcohol is bad, and we expect the police and the schools to enforce them. In the meantime, we deluge young people with messages through movies, TV, advertising and the actions of many of their parents that booze equals gorgeous women, handsome men, sex, smiling faces, and good times in general.

If asked whether they believe in our rules and laws dealing with alcohol, the vast majority of people will say that they do, but I'm not sure that's actually the case. It really is reminiscent of prohibition, when many people said they believed banning alcohol was a good idea, but they would simply wink whenever the laws were broken. We tend to be a lot like that with our teenagers today. During my years in northern Minnesota, there have been several social events from which teachers and coaches I've known have stayed away because they didn't want to be put into the position of having to "catch" a high school athlete drinking. When high school athletes have been caught at some sort of public function or a party at somebody's house in town, I don't know how many times I've heard adults say that if kids are going to drink, "they should just go back into the woods like we used to do." If that's the way we feel, then why the heck do we have the rules? Excuse me for speaking such heresy, but as a teacher and a coach, I don't appreciate being put into a position where I'm supposed to help enforce rules about which society really isn't serious.

There are many things that our society views as being responsibilities of parents, but teaching children how to handle alcohol isn't one of them. In fact, the rules and laws we have actually work against that. We tell ourselves that we care about our children by making these rules forbidding them from using alcohol, and the role of the parent is to make sure their "good kids" don't break those rules. But then we send them off to college, and it's as if we say, "Okay, go nuts!" Let's face it, no matter what the drinking age may be, there aren't many college students who are going to abstain until they're 21, and when they do begin drinking, it will be to get drunk. We all know the terrible things that can happen when people drink irresponsibly, so when we send our kids away to college, we hope and pray that booze doesn't kill them or hurt them, or cause them to get into serious legal trouble, or cause them to become alcoholics. There's got to be a better way, but I just don't know what it is.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

I'm glad I don't teach science!

When it comes to assembling a package of standards, social studies can certainly be a political football, but I'm glad I don't teach science. Kansas's battle over evolution and intelligent design is back in the news again.

Ed Zurga for The New York Times

KANSAS CITY, Kan., July 29 — God and Charles Darwin are not on the primary ballot in Kansas on Tuesday, but once again a contentious schools election has religion and science at odds in a state that has restaged a three-quarter-century battle over the teaching of evolution.

Less than a year after a conservative Republican majority on the State Board of Education adopted rules for teaching science containing one of the broadest challenges in the nation to Darwin’s theory of evolution, moderate Republicans and Democrats are mounting a fierce counterattack. They want to retake power and switch the standards back to what they call conventional science.

I just finished reading The Knowledge Deficit by E. D. Hirsch, who is probably the nation's foremost proponent of having a national core curriculum. He believes that teachers across the nation should all be teaching the same things at the same time in the same grades in things like history, math, and science. This way, as kids move from one grade to the next, from one school to the next, or from one state to the next, everyone should still be on the same page. I think that idea has merit, but even Hirsch concedes that it is very difficult to get agreement on what should be taught, and then when it should be taught. Obviously, just doing it within a state isn't that easy either.

In Minnesota we have the Minnesota Academic Standards. I've been told by teachers in other disciplines that their standards are reasonable, but the ones for high school American history are ridiculous, and we owe that to another battle between liberals and conservatives. In the first draft, the conservatives had their way, and I actually thought those standards weren't too bad. But, of course, liberals didn't like them, and they began to make a lot of noise. The end product of this battle was a compromise in which they put everything in that everybody wanted, so we are expected to teach an amount of material to our kids that can only be described as massive.

If I were to try to teach everything that my state government is now telling me to teach, I don't think anyone would learn very much, because there would be no time to cover anything in any depth. I would probably end up with a lot of kids not even knowing who we fought in the Revolutionary War, or which war had to do with slavery. Oh, we'd cover those things alright, but we wouldn't able to spend much time on them, because the state standards tell us that we also have to make sure to cover things like the differences between Aztec and Mayan architecture.

E. D. Hirsch advocates making sure that our kids are taught "taken for granted" knowledge. For example, if we make a reference to the Civil War, we take it for granted that people know that is the war that ended slavery. We assume that we don't have to explain that. I think what Hirsch is advocating here makes sense. It's too bad that ideologues on both the left and the right are so intent on pushing their agendas that deciding what "taken for granted" knowledge is becomes a political war. Something is wrong when the curriculum has to change everytime somebody new wins an election. I think the liberals go too far in some of the things they push to be taught in American history, and I suspect the conservatives are probably going too far in Kansas.

My own political views are somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. No one would ever have to worry about me pushing my views on my students, though, because I'm never very confident that I'm correct. I almost always see validity in the arguments of people who disagree with me. True liberals and true conservatives never seem to have that problem. That probably means that a lot of them are either very smart or very stupid. I know which way I'd vote on that one.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


A couple of weeks ago, I did a post on The Myth of Laziness by Dr. Mel Levine. I wrote the post while I was reading the first part of the book, and as I said in the post, I was not approaching it with an open mind. Although I said this would be a good book for teachers to read, overall I was very hard on it. I finished the book two or three days after that, and today I have to say, "Dr. Mel, I done you wrong!"

I meant to write this one early last week, but Education Wonks and Ms. Cornelius had posts that got me all fired up, and they sent me spinning off in a different direction. So the fact that it took me that long is all their fault! In any case, the title of the book, The Myth of Laziness, led me to take a very negative approach to the book. I thought, here we go again. Another expert who wants to take away any of the responsibility for poor performance from students and parents and lay it right in the lap of the school. As I read through the early part of the book, I thought my suspicions were being confirmed, but as I read on, I began to change my mind. Dr. Levine expressed real appreciation for teachers and schools who consistently were willing to cooperate with him and try different strategies, and he also showed that he recognized how difficult it is for schools to be able to diagnose and deal with every problem that every student has.

There was one statement I made in my original post that was flat-out wrong. I said, " I shudder at the thought of parents reading this book." I wanted to eat those words when I read Levine's section on family life in Chapter 9. He begins that section by saying, "It is my stubborn contention that schools are supposed to teach kids how to learn and parents are responsible for teaching them how to work." (My emphasis) He then supported that statement with wonderful success stories from families that had done just that.

I still can't buy his basic thesis that laziness is always a myth. Levine discusses internal factors that cause kids to be unwilling to work: lack of motivation, lack of initiative, giving up easily, being easily distracted, and low mental energy. I think it's fair to say that most people associate those things with being lazy. If a student told you that she didn't do the work because she wasn't motivated and had low mental energy, what would you call it?

I also think that Levine's contention that being called lazy is a major blow to a student's self-esteem is questionable. It sure makes him sound like he hasn't been in too many high school classrooms. High school kids see two reasons for not performing well: being dumb or being lazy. I have had very few students who wouldn't prefer being considered lazy, and many kids go out of their way to court that perception. I can't even begin to count the number of kids I've had who have announced before or after a test that "I never even studied!" I want to wring the neck of every student who says this, but they want to make sure that everyone knows that if they do poorly on the test, it's because they're lazy; not because they are dumb, or worse yet (gasp!), that they don't learn "normally."

Overall, though, my disagreements with Levine are minor. After reading the ENTIRE book, I would say without hesitation that it is a great book for teachers AND parents. At least I've learned a lesson from this experience. Never again will I review a book until I've read the whole thing. I promise!