Saturday, June 14, 2008

Michelle Obama: Unpatriotic?

I'm getting into politics on this one, so the first thing I should say is that right now, I'm leaning toward voting for John McCain, but I am nowhere near committed to him.

I'm posting this one as a history teacher, because this has very little to do with supporting public education. As I said, I'm leaning toward John McCain right now, but people like E. D. Hill, idiot anchorwoman extraordinaire for Fox News, could push me over to Obama. Ms. Hill referred to the fist bump that Barack Obama did with his wife as a possible "terrorist fist jab," after he had sewed up the Democratic nomination. I have been doing fist bumps with my hockey teams as they came out of locker rooms to hit the ice for the last several years. Silly me! I didn't know we were supporting terrorism when we did that.

Much has been made of Michelle Obama's statement in February that her husband's success in the primaries made her proud of her country for the first time. For the first time? Oh my goodness, that must mean that she isn't sufficiently patriotic! But then I began to think about that.

I am an Irish-American, and I think the United States is the best nation in the world. My ancestors came to America because their situation in Ireland was desperate, and they saw America as a land of opportunity. There is no question that the Irish faced discrimination for a time, but I never saw my father face any; he never told me about facing any (although he did go to a Ku Klux Klan march in Minneapolis to throw tomatoes at the Kluckers when he was a teenager), and I definitely never faced any.

Now let's look at America from Michelle Obama's perspective. Her ancestors were brought over here on slave ships, and they were slaves for over 200 years. Then, after slavery was ended, they faced discrimination of the worst kind for the next 100 years. Then, in the 1960s, laws were passed that for the first time made it possible for African-Americans to seek the American dream on equal terms with whites. That's great, but the man who led the movement that caused those laws to be passed was harassed for years by our FBI, and he ended up being murdered. Besides that, the Democratic party was responsible for those civil rights laws being passed and, in large part as a result of that, the Republican party, which opposed those laws, has won seven out of the last ten presidential elections. So just maybe, if Michelle Obama has not felt as proud of America as I have, I should be somewhat forgiving.

With all that being said, perhaps I should explain why I'm leaning toward John McCain. First of all, I've always liked McCain. I've liked him because he hasn't automatically spouted the party line like so many politicians. Barack Obama has talked about working bi-partisanly, but McCain has actually done it. Regarding the war in Iraq, McCain said from the beginning that we needed more troops. When the surge was proposed, and it was so politically correct to oppose it, McCain supported it, and it sounds to me like he turned out to be correct.

Barack Obama is a fantastic speaker, but I am very concerned about his lack of experience. He inspires me, but I'm just not sure that he has the substance to back up what he is saying. If you are upset that I'm leaning toward McCain, take heart. Media idiots like E. D. Hill still have more than four months to work on me. By the time they're done with me, there's at least a fifty-fifty chance I'll end up voting for Obama.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Longer school days? Longer school years?

I have a great deal of respect for Joanne Jacobs, but she said something in a recent post about improving education for disadvantaged kids that I completely disagree with. Near the end of her post, Not By School Alone, Joanne says this:

I think providing quality K-12 schools for poor kids is job one; this includes a longer school day and year, making after-school programs and summer school less important.

The ideas of lengthening the school day and lengthening the school year have often been suggested as reforms for our K-12 education system. They were especially popular in the early 1990s when we were suffering through a recession, and Japan seemed to be kicking our economic backsides. Many talking heads on TV blamed our education system and pointed to the longer school year of the Japanese.

If our interest is in trying to get kids who are already learning to learn more, longer school days and years makes sense. But I don't think that's what we're talking about here. We are talking about kids whose achievement in school is miserable.

During the years that I've taught at the junior and senior high school levels, the basic reason for low achievement by students has been consistent: they don't try very hard. For the last decade I've been teaching a basic class, and I've seen another problem there. Kids who fall behind--and some of these kids are willing to try--end up being placed in classrooms with a large number of kids who won't try and won't behave. This makes it impossible for anyone to learn. Although I've never taught in an inner-city high school, I think it's a safe bet that there are a lot of classes with a lot of kids who don't try very hard. And I think it's a safe bet that the learning environment in many of those classes is hopeless.

If education for disadvantaged students is ever going to improve, those are the two issues that have to be addressed. Somehow we have to convince them to try, and we have to put them into classrooms with reasonably good learning enviroments. Having longer school days or years won't do either of those two things.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

In praise of teachers?!?!

Chester Finn, Jr. has a piece in Education Gadfly about teachers, and for me it brings about an unusual experience. Any time an "expert" writes something about education, especially about teachers, there will be something I think is completely off base. Finn's piece is different. While I might quibble with a couple of things, I can't argue that he's too far off the mark.

Finn's article is titled "In Praise of (and sympathy for) Teachers." Now, I don't think too many of us are looking for sympathy, but we are looking for respect, and Finn certainly gives us that in his piece.

June has come, the school year is ending, and it's time for a word in appreciation of teachers. Observing a focus group the other evening that pulled together a dozen AP teachers from a strong suburban school system, I was struck anew by their intelligence, their selflessness, their energy, their patience, the depth of their commitment to their work and their genuine concern for the well being and advancement of their youthful charges. Bravo for them and the many thousands of others like them without whom our schools could not function and would not produce even today's mixed results.

Finn is praising what he believes are good teachers, but he certainly doesn't argue that all teachers are good. While Finn shows no sympathy for teacher complaints about "tight-fisted legislators, mindless administrators, mean-spirited federal programs, incompetent, uncooperative parents, and unmotivated pupils," he at least concedes that there is a basis for "some of them." He then goes on to discuss what he sees as the six real problems that afflict good teachers today.

1. An absurd and antiquated compensation system that pays bad teachers as much as good ones and phys. ed. teachers as much as physics teachers. (A recent survey reminds us that math and science teachers are the most apt to leave due to meager pay--compared to what they can earn elsewhere.) That system is controlled by large bureaucracies instead of individual schools; is skewed to favor time-servers at the expense of newcomers; and is coupled to archaic, non-portable pension plans.

2. A personnel system designed for the 1930's that ignores the tenets of modern management and the need to empower individuals--both principals and teachers--to reach agreement on their job assignments, placements, retention and such. Instead it entrusts such matters to rulebooks, rigid seniority systems and (again) large bureaucracies. The same HR system is blind to modern career trajectories and weeps whenever anyone exits the classroom even though the typical pattern of today's young college graduates is to try one thing for a few years, then another and then another.

3. A dysfunctional training-and-licensure regimen that, on the one hand, makes it slow, expensive and arduous for eager would-be teachers to enter the public school classroom and, on the other hand, burdens them with useless courses while failing to impart core knowledge of their subjects and the most effective methods of conveying those subjects to children. Superimposed on this is so-called "professional development" that much of the time isn't worth the paper it's printed on, much less the money that's spent on it.

4. Schools that, despite much blather about "professional" educators, give teachers surprisingly little control over fundamental decisions about their work. Yes, it's still partly true that once the classroom door is closed, the teacher is queen of her domain. Yet that teacher often has little or no say about who is in her class; what textbooks will be used; the curricular scope and sequence; the quantity of homework (if any); the grading scale; how to communicate with parents and much more. At the same time, that "professional" may not even have her own classroom and desk and almost surely lacks her own work phone number and email address. (Okay, she has summers off, but not working isn't a mark of professionalism either.)

5. A host of forces (including, let's face it, teachers' own desire for smaller classes) have conspired to swell America's teaching workforce to three times its 1955 size even as student enrollments have risen by just 50 percent. Hence even though we're spending tons more money per pupil, teachers' pay has barely kept pace with inflation. We've rashly opted for more teachers rather than better-or better-compensated-teachers. Then we wonder why we're not getting platoons of the best and brightest to work in our public-school classrooms. Teachers--great ones, especially--should earn more, but that's destined not to happen, at least not to any appreciable degree, so long as most "new money" goes into hiring more people.

6. Finally, we've devised such narrow "accountability" systems for schools, and built those atop such shoddy standards and simple minded tests, that teachers may legitimately be forgiven for not wanting to "teach to" those tests and for feeling shackled and blocked from teaching things they love and yearn for their pupils to love, too. Mindless accountability arrangements foster mindless instruction and, in time, mindless, robotic instructors.

Although Finn talks about both, I think he overemphasizes the issue of teacher compensation and underemphasizes the issue of retention. It's possible that I look at it this way because of my experience. For most of my first fifteen years, I faced the very real possibility of being cut because of financial problems in the school district I was in. In fact, that's why I ended up moving to Warroad. I think most people who have ever faced the chopping block would agree that how high your salary is definitely drops on your list of priorities when you're never sure from year to year whether or not you're going to have a job. Young teachers having to face being cut, no matter how good they are, happens all the time, and it is a much bigger problem than who gets paid how much.

While we would all like to earn more money, I think good teachers tend to be less motivated by financial incentives than people who go into most other professions. Someone who becomes an insurance agent, for example, probably has making a lot of money as an important goal. People who want to be good teachers don't think that way. They go into teaching because they want to work with kids and do something worthwhile. Quite frankly, the teachers I've known who have been most interested in higher salaries usually haven't been very good teachers. Some of them end up going into administration. While raising salaries for the best teachers might bring a few talented people into the field, I don't think it would have the great effect that Finn and many others believe.

One thing that I think very few non-teachers understand is that there is great incentive in teaching to perform well because of the very nature of the job. There are few things more humiliating than to stand up in front of twenty-five to thirty adolescents and know you are bombing. That audience is not very forgiving. There are very few occupations I can think of that would be worse to be bad at than teaching. Maybe professional boxing.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Well, duh!

Jay Greene's blog has a piece telling us that students involved in Milwaukee's voucher program graduate at a higher rate than those not in the program. Well, as Gomer Pyle once said, "Surprise, surprise!"

I suppose studies have to be done to establish facts no matter how obvious they are, but is it possible that any one could possibly even raise an eyebrow at this conclusion? Of course voucher students in a city like Milwaukee graduate at a higher rate than kids in the public school system. How could they not?

In my last post, I listed a number of my basic beliefs about public education, but there was nothing particularly profound there. Most of those beliefs are based on common sense that anyone with much contact with public education would be able to figure out.

I don't think too many people would argue with the proposition that children of parents who care about education will generally do better than those who don't, and that includes graduating at higher rates. It also seems obvious that parents who go to the trouble of enrolling their kids in a voucher program probably do so because they care about their kids education. If we put all those kids together in a private school setting where kids who don't try and don't behave can be kicked out, how could they possibly do worse?

Jay Greene, Sol Stern, and others have written books giving the impression that non-public schools do a better job than public schools because the teachers in those schools are wonderful people and there are no unions, whereas in public schools the teachers are lazy, greedy people, and everything is controlled by the unions. Well, there are other factors at work. If critics of public schools really want them to improve, and if they really want public schools to operate more like private schools, they might want to take a look at factors other than unions and the teachers who work in those schools.