Sunday, January 28, 2007

What if we weren't so tolerant?

A few weeks ago I did a post on why so many high school kids are so lazy. Between the commentators and me, we talked about parents, we talked about our culture, we talked about poor teaching, and we talked about other things. But I really think the bottom line is that some kids do so little simply because they can.

The semester just ended at our school, and I ended up with eleven kids failing my regular American History class. That means they don't get credit, so they'll have to make it up by going to our alternative learning center or by coming back and spending another semester with gool ol' me again next year. Of the eleven, ten weren't even close. Sixty-seven percent is the bottom passing score in my class, and a couple of these kids were in the fifties, others were in the forties, and there were even a couple in the thirties. One of the students who failed was taking the class for the second time. She's a nice girl, but she just can't seem to get to class and do assignments consistently enough to earn a passing grade. She failed both semesters last year, and she is now three for three.

I talked to our counselor, and together we asked some of these kids if they'd like to move to my basic class (everyone in that class passed), and the others we asked if they'd like to try our ALC. I don't have the authority to tell any of these kids that they can't be in my class, but I tried to make it clear that it wasn't in their interest to do so unless they were willing to make a big turnaround from the first semester. Three kids opted for my basic class, but the rest all elected to stay in my regular class. After only one week of the new semester, there is no evidence that there has been any change in any of them. It's just the same old song--frivolous absences, missed assignments, and a total lack of effort. I have to ask, what good does this do anybody? But yet, they continue to do nothing because they can.

On the other hand, I have three winter-sport athletes who failed the first marking, but they all ended up passing the semester. Along with their coaches, and in one case with the parents, I got together with the kids and made it clear that I had no desire to put them on our ineligibility list week after week, but if they didn't do the work, that was exactly what would happen. If they didn't make a reasonable effort in the classroom, they wouldn't be able to play their sports. It was amazing how the effort and scores for all three of these kids skyrocketed. The only problem was that one of them went into the tank as soon as he raised his grade enough to be safe. He never did badly enough to become ineligible again, but his grade ended up being a lot lower than it could have been. Once again, he did poorly because he could.

Speaking of sports, although I retired from coaching our hockey team last year, I still go and work with the high school goalies a couple of times a week. Every time I go to those practices I am struck by how hard the kids work. Their effort is nothing less than fantastic, and everyone wins because of it. The players get better, the team gets better, and everyone feels good about what they're doing and accomplishing. There are definite differences between athletics and academics, but there is no question in my mind that part of the reason for that fantastic effort is that a poor effort won't be tolerated. In my eighteen years at Warroad, only two players have managed to get themselves kicked off the hockey team, but everyone knows the situation--coaches don't have to tolerate kids who make a poor effort, and any player would have to be a fool to put that to the test. I can't help but wonder what would happen if classroom teachers didn't have to either.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"If I don't try, you're the failure!"

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about an article by Mark Prensky that dealt with teachers' responsibility to engage their students (Come on teachers, we've got to make it fun!). The post generated a lot of discussion, including a couple of posts by other bloggers. Some people thought the article was a good one, and some, like me, didn't. You might be shocked to learn that I tend to like comments that agree with me more than those that don't, but there was something that really bothered me about the comments by those who liked the Prensky article. They seemed to think that those of us who didn't like the article don't believe we have a responsibility to try to engage all of our students. For example, one commentator said this:

"I sympathize with Fermoyle's resentment, I do. I just don't find the It's-not-in-my-job-description argument as compelling as I did last year. If it brings about higher student achievement, and especially if It takes place during my contractual hours, then the burden is on me to explain why It isn't in my job description."

I want to make it absolutely clear that I DO believe that trying to engage as many kids as I possibly can IS a part of my job, and I hope my record proves it. For example, with the encouragement of our special education teachers, I developed a Basic American History class for kids who have a difficult time in social studies. As part of that process, I wrote my own textbook for those kids. That was so successful that I ended up writing another one for my regular American History classes. Believe me, that took some time and effort, but I did it because I wanted to get my students to actually read the assignments that I gave them. Despite initial reservations, I learned all I could about cooperative learning, and I now use that once or twice a week. I'm constantly trying to create new assignments that I hope will grab more kids. I've even handed out questionnaires to my students which gave them the chance to tell me which class activities they found most and least enjoyable, and which ones helped them learn the most. Those are things that I do, and most teachers are doing things comparable to that. I mean who wants to stand up there in front of classes and feel like you're boring 150 people to tears every day? Any teacher who is willing to put up with that without trying to do something about it doesn't belong in this business. And if they aren't willing to leave voluntarily, they should be out the door with bootprints on their backsides.

Back in the early 1990s, I incorporated outcome-based education into my classes, which I think is incredibly demanding on teachers. It was one day during that period when I had an epiphany. (You can go ahead and shout "Hallelujah!" if you'd like.) I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to make sure that kids who had passed a test had enrichment activities to do, and also trying to make sure that kids who had failed the test (they needed to earn at least a C) understood the corrective assignment they were supposed to do, so they could pass the test when they re-took it. When I paused to look around the room, I realized that while I was working my backside off, most of my non-performers--the very kids who had the most to gain from this system of learning--were doing almost nothing to help themselves. It occurred to me that this was backwards. The wrong person was doing all the work.

I think it's reasonable to say that when teachers are making a real effort to engage their students, the responsibility for trying to learn should lie with the students. But we have been brainwashed. We have been taught to blame ourselves when students refuse to try. It sounds so noble for a teacher to say, "If any of my students fail, then I have failed," but I'm convinced that this is actually harmful. An example I used in the book I wrote illustrates just where this "nobility" is getting us.

I attended a workshop in which the presenter, a teacher-turned-college-professor, told the story of a sixth grade girl with whom he had worked. The girl had refused to do a required assignment. The presenter said he tried everything he could to encourage her, but she wouldn't do it. Finally, he asked her why she wouldn't just give it a try. She told him, "Because if I try, it won't be very good,and I'll be a failure; but if I don't try, then you're the failure."

Now, where could this young girl have learned this? She learned it from our society, but she also learned it from us. I know that I have been hearing that message for thirty or forty years, and we have bought into it. The presenter, who was a fine man and a good teacher, closed this story by saying, "And you know, she was right." As I looked around that room, many of the teachers were nodding their heads. How in the world could we come to that ridiculous conclusion?

If that same young girl brought her math assignment home, and her mother, rather than just helping her, actually did the assignment for her, would we call that good parenting? I think most of us would say that doing the math assignment was the girl's responsibility, and we would even say that the mother had served her poorly by assuming the responsibility for her. She would have taught her daughter that whenever something gets a little bit difficult, someone else will take care of it for her. Then why do we view it as "noble" when we, as teachers, constantly send the message that it is our failure when students refuse to try? When we do that we are teaching them that if something gets a little bit difficult, and they don't want to make the effort, it will always be somebody else's fault.

When we, as teachers, do things to engage more kids we will reach some, but we need to face the fact that we won't reach them all. Generally speaking, no matter what we do, performers work and non-performers don't. Over the years I have found that the students who want to lay their heads on their desks when I show a video are the same ones who don't take notes when I conduct a lecture-discussion. The students who become albatrosses around the necks of their group-mates when we do cooperative learning, are the same students who do nothing when we work individually. When I give kids a chance to do something artistic for extra credit, it is the the workers--the kids who do all the other assignments--who most often take advantage of that. I know there are exceptions, but I simply do not buy the idea that most non-performers make such a miserable effort because teachers haven't tried hard enough to reach them. So when Marc Prensky sympathetically portrays some kid sitting in the back row with headphones and a T-shirt that says "It's not ADD, I'm just not listening!" challenging the teacher to engage him or he'll be enraged, you'll have to forgive me if I find that a little nauseating.

There is no question about it--teachers have an obligation to work hard and to try to engage their students. But there is also no question that students have the obligation to try to learn, even if they aren't inspired by every assignment in every class. When we take that responsibility from them, we aren't being noble; we are being foolish and doing a disservice to our communities, our students, and ourselves.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Politicians haven't got a clue!

Tim Pawlenty is the governor of Minnesota, and I kind of like him. That might not sound stunning, but Pawlenty is a Republican, and let's face it--Republicans do not tend to be very friendly to public education. But Pawlenty is a talented politician. He has an easy-going manner, and this year he managed to be re-elected in a Democratic state in a Democratic year--no small feat. He has even been mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate in 2008. In the elections last year, I voted a straight Democratic ticket except for governor. I voted for Pawlenty partially because I find him likeable, but also because I had heard very bad things about his opponent from someone who worked for him.

This week Pawlenty gave his State of the State address, and education--specifically high school education--was a centerpiece of his speech. I am beginning to wonder if I made a big mistake. When you hear politicians talk about public education, the are two things you can usually count on:

1. The politician speaking will present himself or herself as an expert.

2. The politician doesn't actually have a clue.

When you hear a Republican politician talking about public education, you can add a third:

3. The politician will bash the job that public schools are doing.

Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota lived up to all three of these qualities in his State of the State address. Pawlenty is proposing reform for the state's high schools (Yippee! Another reform program!), and he calls his program the "3Rs".

Calling Minnesota high schools "obsolete," Gov Tim Pawlenty Wednesday laid out a plan to transform some high schools into rigorous academies.

Students in such schools -- called "3Rs" for "rigor, relevance and results" -- would have to complete the equivalent of a full year of college before getting their high school diplomas.

First of all, if there is going to be any reform program, it seems like it would be a good idea to get the people who will actually have to carry out that program--the people who actually work in high schools--on your side. As one of those people, I can say that being called "obsolete" doesn't exactly win me over. I have argued in a number of posts that American public schools are doing a much better job than we are given credit for, so I'm not going to rehash that here, but I will point out that Minnesota has graduation and college entrance rates that are among the highest in the nation. I understand that it is expedient for politicians, especially Republicans, to bemoan the state of public education, but I am sick and tired of listening to them come up with the most insulting terms they can think of to describe the job we are doing.

I have to admit that as soon as I read the first sentence of that article it was almost impossible for me to be open-minded about Pawlenty's proposals. But if that wasn't enough to convince me that our governor has no idea what working with public high school students is like, Pawlenty finished the job with his proposal that all the students in a high school should have to complete one full year of college before getting their high school diplomas.

I think kids having a desire to go to college is a wonderful thing, and I have to admit that I'd have been disappointed if any of my own kids hadn't wanted to do that. But that's my kids and my family. As a teacher, especially, I would have to be an idiot to think that college is for everyone. I know a lot of people who never went to college but developed skills in various trades, and I have nothing but admiration and envy for the skills they possess. Completing a year of college courses before graduating from high school is a reasonable idea for many high school students, but for all of them??? I only wish Pawlenty could spend a day or two with my Basic American History class.

Pawlenty did say something that I agree with:

Too many of our high school students today are engaged in academic loitering for much of their high-school career," Pawlenty told a joint House-Senate assembly. "In too many cases our high school students are bored, checked-out, coasting, not even vaguely aware of their post-high school plans, if they have any, and are just marking time."

But then rather than asking the students themselves or their parents to take some responsibility for this, he puts the blame squarely on the schools. Let's face it, it's a lot easier for a politician to blame schools and teachers than to say that we have too many lazy students or--perish the thought!--too many parents who aren't doing their jobs.

Pawlenty does have ideas that many educators are going to like. For example, he says he wants to put more money into schools. Heck, even I like that. I mean money helps; there's no question about it. I'd sure rather see schools have more of it than less. But money is definitely not the only answer to our desire to improve public schools. In fact, there are things we could do that could improve public schools more than anything Pawlenty proposes that would cost little if any money at all. But how could we possibly expect a politician to be aware of those things? After all, when it comes to what actually happens in public schools, they haven't got a clue.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Come on teachers, we've got to make it fun!

This morning when I got to school, I found that copies of a "motivational" article had been placed in all of the teachers' mailboxes. The name of the article was Engage Me or Enrage Me, and when I read it, I didn't know whether to laugh, cry, or vomit. I hope you'll excuse me for putting it so crudely, but the article really was sickening. I talked to another teacher who said he went and banged his head against a locker a few times after he read it. The point of the article is that we need to make school more fun for the students. The implied message was that if kids aren't performing, it's the schools' and teachers' fault because we haven't engaged them.

The big difference from today is this: the kids back then didn’t expect to be engaged by everything they did. There were no video games, no CDs, no MP3s—none of today’s special effects. Those kids’ lives were a lot less rich—and not just in money: less rich in media, less rich in communication, much less rich in creative opportunities for students outside of school. Many if not most of them never even knew what real engagement feels like.

But today, all kids do. All the students we teach have something in their lives that’s really engaging—something that they do and that they are good at, something that has an engaging, creative component to it. Some may download songs; some may rap, lipsync, or sing karaoke; some may play video games; some may mix songs; some may make movies; and some may do the extreme sports that are possible with twenty-first-century equipment and materials. But they all do something engaging.

A kid interviewed for Yahoo’s 2003 “Born to Be Wired” conference said: “I could have nothing to do, and I’ll find something on the Internet.” Another commented: “Every day after school, I go home and download music—it’s all I do.” Yet another added: “On the Internet, you can play games, you can check your mail, you can talk to your friends, you can buy things, and you can look up things you really like.” Many of today’s third-graders have multiple e-mail addresses. Today’s kids with computers in their homes sit there with scores of windows open, IMing all their friends. Today’s kids without computers typically have a video game console or a GameBoy. Life for today’s kids may be a lot of things—including stressful—but it’s certainly not unengaging.

Except in school.

And there it is so boring that the kids, used to this other life, just can’t stand it.

The article closes on this rather ominous note:

And if we educators don’t start coming up with some damned good curricular gameplay for our students—and soon—they’ll all come to school wearing (at least virtually in their minds) the T-shirt I recently saw a kid wearing in New York City: “It’s Not ADD—I’m Just Not Listening!”

So hi there, I’m the tuned-out kid in the back row with the headphones. Are you going to engage me today or enrage me? The choice is yours.

It would be bad enough if an article like this was simply misguided, but it actually goes beyond that--it's harmful. When people with common sense hear this type of thinking coming from our schools, it makes us all look like a bunch of crackpots. What's worse is that it reinforces a counter-productive message that has been prevalent in our society for too long: non-performers are victims. It isn't their jobs to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and start working; it is the job of the school to try harder to reach them.

This article had me shaking my head and grinding my teeth every time I thought of it during the morning, but then in the afternoon, I got this email from a colleague that had me laughing so hard I had tears running down my face. Here it is:

Dennis, thanks for putting the article in my box this morning. You are right, that article nailed it; we do need to really try and make learning fun. I was delusional to expect my students to pay attention to me and the material I am presenting when they have so many other entertainment options like I-pods and Game Boys. Just because time-management, politeness and responsibility are important to me and employers doesn't mean we should sacrifice fun. I'm sure that even though it sounds a little humiliating to have to dance like a trained monkey in order to keep an impolite kid who has been ignoring me "tuned in" rather than in a rage (threatening sounding) it probably is better to sacrifice quality and quantity. Let's face it, thinking and learning is awfully difficult, and how on earth do we plan do keep all of these kids happy and alive with the delusion that the real world works like this if they have to read, think and be responsible for part of the day?
Maybe we could talk this over at a staff meeting, where we could discuss some ways to incorporate video games into our classes. I put in your name for the "Let's Put the F in Fun in the Classroom Committee". Other ideas that may be entertaining for the kids.

* Teaching through puppets day
* Stuffed animals for hugging if a student is having a bad day
*Pink Floyd and pot day ( if we're letting them have I-pods on, we might as well let them do other things they aren't supposed to do)
* Teaching through "Ole and Lena joke" day

I'm not sure what the educational value is of any of these days, but dog gone it, they might keep the kids "tuned in".

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Not teaching kids to think?

I began this blog, in large part, because I have heard so many negative things said about public education that don't fit with my experience. Public education has taken such a beating by the media, blue-ribbon commissions, and so-called experts that whenever anyone says something bad about it, there's a good chance that many people will simply accept it as true. On my last post, Anonymous (not to be confused with Anonymous Teacher) made this comment:

Our challenge today is our schools, public in particular, as a general rule, do NOT teach our kids to think. The goal of most public schools -- stated in their mission statements - is to produce good citizens. This is measured by getting kids registered to vote. Geez this is pitiful. This is nothing but mediocrity. Where are the future leaders, entrepreneurs, inventors, etc. coming from? Yep, you guessed. The high end academic specialty public schools and private schools. Just my two cents worth. Public education needs major competition. The weak teachers need to be ousted. The strong teachers and administrators (principals) need to be able to run their schools without the top down dictatorships of weak superintendents too scared to let their people be creative and do the things that will produce incredible results in our students. This testing mentality takes the fun out of learning. It eliminates to ability to have time to be creative, to have dialogue with students so they can think through challenges, talk them out and come to their own conclusion. Nope. As a rule this is not happening in today's average public school.

I appreciate Anonymous's comments on my blog, and there are statements in this one that I at least partially agree with. However, I strongly take issue with the statement that public schools are not teaching kids to think. It just so happened that I read this comment immediately after compiling a representation of excerpts from comments my students submitted as part of a simple current events assignment. The assignment was this: Using a minimum of three sentences, comment on any current event we've talked about in class for the last three weeks. I then take excerpts from their comments, and post them on our bulletin board for the kids to read. Here is a sample: (I hope you'll read at least some of them, but don't feel like you've got to read them all.)

MADD & ALCOHOL SENSORS IN CARS (This article dealt with a proposal by Mothers Against Drunk Driving to eventually have sensors in all cars that would keep the car from starting if it sensed alcohol.)

This would stop a lot of accidents all over the United States. A lot of people die because of drunk driving. People would be smarter about their drinking, and our roads would be much safer to drive on.

I do not agree with this. I’ve been in a situation where my sister needed a ride home from the bar. How am I supposed to accomplish that if the sensor senses the alcohol on my sister’s breath? Also, how would we get home if you had only had one beer at a bar, and your car wouldn’t start? You certainly can’t sleep at the bar. A definite NO to alcohol sensors!

Having these devices for first time drunk driving offenders is a good idea. It could really cut down on the deaths from drunk driving. It might affect the rights of the drunk driver, but what about the rights of their victims? If the device prevents more drunk driving, it will save more lives, more charges and arrests, which would save court costs. If there were less charges, it would save on jail costs. While an inmate is in prison, it costs for their medical and housing. If drunk driving is prevented, that person is working, paying for their own expenses, plus paying taxes.

I am mad at MADD. Who are they to get mad at lawbreakers? They are just lawbreakers themselves. The MADD organization is made up of the same people who go to bars and smash out cars’ headlights. They do this so the intoxicated driver will get pulled over by the police for his headlight violation. MADD is simply too radical. I am so angry that I am thinking of starting my own organization: SAMM (Students Against Mad Mothers).

I think MADD is an excellent organization. I also think that putting sensors in our cars is taking it too far. Somehow, people will find a way around it, so it won’t end up doing any good.

It is completely crazy what MADD is trying to do. That would be like an environmental group telling people to take a two-minute shower or use bio-degradable toilet paper. If every extremist group got its way, we wouldn’t be able to do anything.

This is an awesome idea. Anything to eliminate the risk of drunk drivers is wonderful. I would, however, worry about the device malfunctioning and an innocent driver being stuck. They need to make sure it’s foolproof before it’s required.

This is a ridiculous idea. There would be no way that I can see for the alcohol detector to see how heavy you are, what your alcohol tolerance is, or your muscle to fat ratio. Having one or two drinks isn’t dangerous. Besides, when most people go to a bar to drink, they are not alone, they’re with friends. They could just take turns being the designated driver. You couldn’t even use a designated driver with this proposal.

I think this could be a good idea, because it would decrease the number of people killed by drunk drivers. It also could be annoying to have to take a test to drive even just down the street. I do think that first-time offenders should have to have the device, because if they’ve done it once, there’s nothing stopping them from doing it again.

I agree with Representative Charles Rangel wanting to end the war in Iraq, but reinstating the draft is absurd. I understand that he’s trying to show that lower income families suffer, but a draft would take it to a whole new extreme.

I support the idea of the draft being reinstated, but I don’t agree with Rangel’s reasons. He says that the draft would have prevented Congressmen from letting our country go to war. I think if your name is called for the draft, it is your duty as a citizen to fulfill your obligation. If your country is in need of protection, you should serve with pride.

I agree that if they reinstate the draft that Congress would think twice about whether or not we should go to war. The draft ages should stay at 18-26 instead of 18-42, because that’s like having my old father go to war. And he is not in the best of shape!

I disagree with this proposal. They’re saying that only minorities and lower income people are going into the armed forces. They are not forced to, but it does offer them opportunities. The United States is not desperate for people or they would have reinstated it a long time ago.

The draft should not be reinstated. I feel is should be your own choice. They have enough volunteers that want to go fight, and they do a very good job defending our country. Mentally, you have to be prepared when called upon. If you don’t want to go into the military, you won’t have that. Right now, our volunteer service men and women are doing a great job, and I look up to them with a lot of respect.

FIGHTING SIOUX (The University of North Dakota has been directed by the NCAA to get rid of its "Fighting Sioux" logo, but UND has challenged this in court.)

UND should be able to keep its name. Indians shouldn’t be offended by it. In my opinion, it is complimenting them, saying they were great warriors.

UND should be the ones being sued for having the Sioux logo and nickname. UND should get rid of the logo because it’s racist.

I don’t see anything wrong with the Sioux logo. It is catchy, depicts strength, and has not, in my opinion, been hostile to Native Americans. Besides, other colleges have been granted exemptions. UND also has the approval of the nearest Sioux tribe. If they aren’t insulted, why should anybody else be so upset about it.

UND should be able to keep their nickname and logo. They have had the name for a long time, so it’s part of the school now. The teams take pride in the name, and I don’t think it’s “hostile and abusive” at all. I am a Native American myself, and I don’t take offense to any sports teams’ names like that.

I don’t see how using the “Indian Head” as a logo could be hostile and abusive. I’ve been to about 7 or 8 Sioux hockey games, and every game I’ve gone to they have honored the Indians and thanked them for letting them wear the Sioux logo on their jerseys. If the Indian tribes don’t support them, then that’s the way it has to be, but in my opinion, UND hasn’t done anything to tarnish the Indian name or way of life.

I'm not usually for the death penalty, but in the case of Saddam Hussein, I am. For what he did to all those people, no penalty could be too harsh.

Saddam Hussein was given the death penalty by a court in his own country. They are the only ones who had the right to decide how to deal with him in the end. He deserved a severe penalty, and that's what he got.

The death penalty for Saddam Hussein was completely reasonable. There definitely was enough evidence for him to be hanged. A lot of people are against the death penalty because of the possibility for mistakes, but this problem was obviously not an issue.

If you're guilty of raping, killing, or other serious crimes like that, you should be punished. If you go out and kill someone, unless it's in self-defense, it would only be fair if you were punished in the same way. Besides, jails don't have enough room for all these idiots who commit these senseless crimes. If you're suffering from all the pain getting the lethal injection, chances are you probably deserve it. What goes around comes around. If you kill somebody, you'd better expect the same treatment.

Killing any person in any way should be considered cruel. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to ban any of the forms of capital punishment even though they cause a lot of pain. Killing a person is murder regardless of whether or not it is a punishment, and it should be ruled unconstitutional.

I have nothing against the death penalty. I don't agree with the electric chair, but anything else doesn't bother me. Some people deserve it. We have come far enough in medical research to know what works. They say a licensed medical professional should be there, but no one will do it. Then pay somebody at the prison to take the classes. Give them more money.

The death penalty should not be legal. Even though people deserve it sometimes, rotting away in jail for the rest of your life would probably be worse. If the constitution guarantees us our freedom of speech, why doesn't it guarantee freedom of life?

BETTY FORD (From an article on Betty Ford after Gerald Ford's death.)
Betty Ford was an unusual First Lady because she was open about things that no one else would talk about. If it wasn't for her, people that needed help for their problems would not have gone in for them. I think she is an amazing lady, and I'm glad she stood up for what she believed in.

Betty Ford showed our country that it is not bad to have problems, and if you do, help is the best solution.

Betty Ford was a First Lady who changed the nation in a phenominal way. I think that her setting such a great example in the face of adversity shows how our leaders should act. If all our leaders acted in a way similar to Betty Ford when faced with problems, our world would be filled with far more good role models. If Betty Ford had acted differently, there may be quite a few woman who would not be alive today. Her actions are those of a real hero, or in this case a heroine.

It is really sad that we have lost all of those soldiers and still not had much success in Iraq. We had good intentions when we went into Iraq, but now it is obvious that it isn't helping. We have to do something soon. Pulling our troops out would be a relief, but it would look like we were giving up. Sending more troops in might help a little, but this could also just lead to more soldiers getting killed. Until we figure this out, the most important thing to do is to keep these soldiers in our hearts.

The U.S. being in Iraq and losing 3,000 soldiers makes no sense. We have been there way too long. I'm hoping that Saddam's execution will help bring this war to an end. We should get out before more people get killed.

You might not like what some of these students have to say, and I'll admit that some of them are a little goofy. But it would be hard to say that none of these kids are being creative, or that none of them are thinking through challenges, or that they are being discouraged from coming up with their own conclusions. In fact the thinking demonstrated on least a couple of these is excellent.

There was nothing special about this assignment. In fact, it's probably typical of what goes on in public school classrooms day after day. In my experience, there have always been plenty of students who are willing to think and to draw their own conclusions. The problem has been that it's hard to convince kids that opinions based on facts and logic are more valuable than opinions based on mush. I don't know how many times I've heard at the beginning of a school year, "How can you grade my opinion? It's MY opinion!" The point is that if you think public schools are doing nothing to teach thinking, you'd better think again.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

NEA Today's "Can We Compete"

If you haven't already seen it, NEA Today's January cover story is called "Can We Compete?" and it is a wonderful defense of American education. Cindy Long wrote the article, and I think I'm in love! Now, I realize that a pro-education article by a teachers' union publication will probably be about as convincing to our critics as a statement by the Democratic National Committee would be to the Fox News Channel. Nevertheless, this article makes some great points.

We have been hearing a lot about the superior education of young people in China and India campared to kids in the United States, so I was surprised to read that the Chinese Ministry of Education has sent delegations to American classrooms as part of a reform movement to improve their own students ingenuity:

Bradley Jamison stood before a white board crammed with row after dizzying row of calculations. Her AP calculus classmates called out suggestions to help her puzzle through the problem. Once it was solved, teacher Carl Giesy, who has two math degrees and a master’s in education, led the class in a round of applause. The entire time, a delegation of teachers and officials from the Chinese Ministry of Education stood in the back of the room, marveling at the level of interaction between the students and their teacher.

“We think in the U.S. there is greater respect for the students, that they are viewed as people,” says Dinghua Wang, director of China’s Ministry of Education Policy Division for Basic Education. “We also admire how teachers are able to motivate students.”

The article also addresses the near-panic among the opinion-elite in our country about the performance by American students on international test scores:

“Global competitiveness depends on students’ abilities to innovate and invent, not on their test scores,” agrees Yong Zhao, professor and director of the U.S.-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence at Michigan State University. America has long embraced its students’ passion, ingenuity, dreams, and ideas—none of which can be measured by test scores, says Zhao. Asia, on the other hand, has traditionally valued test scores above all else. Even where scores are high and innovative educational approaches are valued, as in Singapore, it’s still felt that testing plays too much of a role.

“Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy,” Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Minister of Education of Singapore, said in a Newsweek interview. “There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well—like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition....America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America.” But the increased focus on standardized testing here threatens to push American education in the wrong direction, experts warn. “We’re reducing our ability to be competitive with measures like NCLB,” Zhao says. “We’re disadvantaging our students by celebrating points and test scores rather than what really matters.”

In a side article, the relationship of test scores to future performance of the people in a nation is discussed:

In an article due to be published later this year, [Keith Baker, a former U.S. Education Department analyst] looks at how well math scores predict the performance of a nation’s economy. The answer: They don’t. (Gee have you ever heard anyone else suggest that?)

Baker’s analysis begins with the scores of the 12-year-olds from 11 industrialized nations who took part in the First International Math Study (FIMS) in 1964. American students came in second to last, ahead of only Sweden. Baker looked at what happened decades later when those 12-year-olds were running the U.S. economy. America’s economy grew at a rate of 3.3 percent per year from 1992 to 2002. The countries that scored higher than the U.S. grew at a slower rate—2.5 percent—during the same period. All in all, countries that did better in the test competition did worse in the economic competition.

And so the article goes. American education needs to get better, and there isn't anything in the article to suggest otherwise. But those of us in education constantly hear in the media that we are doing such a poor job that we are putting our "nation at risk", so this article is a very pleasant rebuttal to that. I think it's a great article! It even brings up the Life Magazine's "Crisis in Education" cover story in March of 1958. Hey, maybe they've been reading my blog!