Monday, August 13, 2007

Education: Radio or TV?

Every morning, I watch a Mike and Mike in the Morning on ESPN 2. For those unfamiliar with the goodness that is Mike and Mike, it's a simulcast of an ESPN Radio morning drive talk show. In other words I watch the radio for a couple of hours every day.

The other day, I happened to see the end of the program where the hosts, Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg, schmooze with the hosts of the First Take, the interview and sports analysis show that follows the Mike and Mike show on ESPN 2. Golic was wearing a polo shirt and jeans; Greenberg was wearing an unbuttoned dress shirt over a t-shirt and business casual slacks, but the First Take hosts were wearing suits. The image got me thinking about what the concerns that people seem to have with "professional dress."

I really don't think that anyone can claim Golic and Greenberg are unprofessional. (At some point I probably should switch to Greenberg and Golic so Greenberg doesn't feel slighted. Of course, that thought implies that Greenberg has time to read a blog written by a nobody in SD.) Both men do a wonderful job interviewing guests and they play off each other well. I'm entertained and informed when I watch/listen. Obviously the fact that they're not wearing suits and ties doesn't lessen the quality of their work. When Greenberg does Sports Center and Golic does NFL Live, they wear suits, but the suits don't make them any more entertaining or informative. It's just that TV anchors are expected to wear suits and no one seems to care what morning drive radio hosts wear. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that suits are supposed to project power, but I really don't know.

Next week I'll be sitting in a teacher meeting and someone will ask about blue jean Fridays. One of the administrators will grouse and grumble and exhort teachers to dress professionally before giving the appropriate blessing. The whole performance seems to be premised on the idea that without these exhortations from serious determined leaders, teachers will show up wearing clothes that were stolen from the homeless. I've never seen anyone show up for work dressed poorly, but apparently, teachers need to be reminded they are in a profession. No one, however, seems to want to discuss what kind of profession. If professional dress is based upon the situation, then educators need to decide if education is a radio profession or a TV profession.

I'm leaning radio. Teachers are in a room with 20-30 students who are sitting in uncomfortable desks doing tasks that most of them don't want to do. They want to be entertained, and if they learn something while being entertained, they can consider it a good day. A suit or a power tie doesn't matter to them. The classroom is not about projecting power; it's about cajoling and tricking students into learning and then creating a desire to learn. Besides, a polo and jeans probably project power over sweats and t-shirt.

At another level, teaching is like morning drive radio. I don't know what the audience is going to react to. I have a plan, begin to work the plan, and then student questions or other reactions determine how I proceed. If I can react with some wit and detail, they listen and hopefully learn.

Finally, this little issue is worth a blog post because it is emblematic of education as a whole. We waste time on superficial issues and never get to the big picture. At the pre-school meetings, we're going to waste time on the dress code, but we're not going to talk about how to teach better.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Listening to Students and Other Stuff

This LA Times article about students who evaluated some LA schools makes some thought provoking points.

First, schools should listen to students. Of course 16-year-old students are going to want glitz and glamour, probably more than is good for them. Of course adults need to act like adults and make decisions that produce the good not just the fun. The solutions these students recommended seem to go beyond glitz and "make it fun." They want to "[h]ire more teachers who care. Slash overcrowded classrooms. Stop sending failing students to the next grade."

On a positive note, I haven't met many South Dakota teachers who don't care. The vast majority sincerely try to perform to the best of their ability each day. Some may not be warm and fuzzy, but they are concerned about the welfare of their students.

On the other hand, South Dakota's largest districts seem to be trying to do more with less and classrooms are getting more crowded. We're certainly not at LA levels, but it's getting worse.

The comment about passing failing students really hits home. I don't know if it's the self-esteem tidal wave or the fact that South Dakota borders Minnesota and South Dakotans think that we have to compete with Lake Woebegone. The practical people that we are, we forget that Lake Woebegone isn't a real place. After all, we hear about it on the radio every week and no one who works for a living has time to have their heads in the clouds so often that they could make up that stuff!! It's gotta be real. Whatever the reasons, I see failing students get promoted/passed more often than they should, and other grades are inflated as well.

In short, the kids" analysis squares with what I see every year.

The second thing that struck me was how easy I have it compared to urban teachers. I really don't think that any of my students have to worry "about the rival gangs surrounding [the school.]" I doubt that any of them live in a situation where they're "taking a risk just to walk to school" as Earl Moutra, one of the students covered in the article, does.

Finally, I really think that the article points to a key reform. Sofia Freire, one of the few LA administrators to respond to the students, "said her campus of 5,200 students has been carved into 12 academies of 350 to 400 students so that teachers can get to know their students better." Freire claims "small learning communities . . . personalize education for our students and make sure they don't fall through the cracks."

South Dakota doesn't have any 5,200-student high school campuses. Nonetheless, this idea makes perfect sense for any school over 600 students. For one thing, teachers would probably get to teach students during three or four semesters instead of just one or two. It takes me up to two or three months to get to know some little personal tidbit about every kid who comes through my door in a semester so that I can interact with them on something resembling a personal level. Two months later the students move on and I have to start the process again. The academies that Friere is championing would by necessity mean more contact with students throughout their high school career and increase teachers' ability to treat students as persons instead of commodities to be produced.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Something Education Should Borrow from Pop Culture

Maybe it's just a local phenomenon, but it seems like many of my students are fascinated with personality quizzes.

Both guys and girls take and discuss the Cosmo "What Kind of Sexual Partner Are You?" They take Harry Potter quizzes or try to determine which House character they are. Although the true slackers make study hall meaningful by reading the police report published in the daily paper, the nerds and geeks make study hall worthwhile by discovering which sci-fi character they'd be. The more sophisticated determine if they are or are not feminists.

On a more serious level, one can take the Keirsey-Bates Sorter or the the IPIP-NEO. If one wants to combine books with on-line tests, one can read First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, Now, Discover Your Strengths, and Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance. And if one wants to show that one is truly a member of the digital age, one can read StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup's Now, Discover Your Strengths. Ya gotta love those hipsters who can adapt that wacky hi-tech terminology.

Teachers can read Teach with Your Strengths: How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students, a book endorsed by South Dakota Secretary of Education Rick Melmer. According to Melmer's blurb, the book "challenges all educators to recognize and reward the best in our profession. The book describes in detail what great teachers do or say each day."

Obviously, there are a great number of resources that determine a person's comfort zones and general tendencies. I'm sure that dozens of learning style inventories exist, BUT I don't have access to any of it for the students that I will be teaching. I don't have any research on how different students will interact with 5 dominant strengths that I allegedly have available to inspire my students.

Let's review:

  1. Teachers are supposed to insure that every student meets minimum standards.
  2. I have anecdotal evidence that students like taking personality surveys.
  3. Some surveys about learning and teaching styles exist.
  4. Some surveys seem to have research behind them that demonstrates that the survey has some degree of accuracy.
  5. Schools don't use those tools to pair students and teachers to insure the best possible learning outcomes.
I hate the touchy-feely stuff more than most, and I admit that some teachers and kids would hate the surveys and view them the same way that I view horoscopes. I am also aware that these surveys could be one more way to type/track/limit students although I doubt that they would be used any more maliciously than current student information is.

Anyway, it seems that the hit and miss approach isn't really working, so why not try something new?

Dairy Queen Miracle Treat Day

Buy a blizzard. Diet tomorrow.

The Madville Times has promised to live blog from the Madison, SD DQ.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Some Quotations To Get Me Through The Day

From Roberto Rivera

"When Bonds tied the record in San Diego on Saturday, MLB commissioner Bud Selig looked like a man who was severely constipated and passing a kidney stone at the same time."

From CNN via Crunchy Con

"All future incarnations of living Buddhas related to Tibetan Buddhism "must get government approval," the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing the State Administration for Religious Affairs."

From Bruce Bartlett, (italics mine)

"My point is that it is very easy to get cynical about politics and think it is all a game. That was the mistake I made in 2000, along with lots of other people. If we don't want to make the same mistake again, all of us who comment on politics need to pay closer attention to what these guys are saying and make some allowance for the possibility that they actually believe it."

From Paul Graham via Lifehacker

"I first realized the worthlessness of stuff when I lived in Italy for a year. All I took with me was one large backpack of stuff. The rest of my stuff I left in my landlady's attic back in the US. And you know what? All I missed were some of the books. By the end of the year I couldn't even remember what else I had stored in that attic.And yet when I got back I didn't discard so much as a box of it. Throw away a perfectly good rotary telephone? I might need that one day.

The really painful thing to recall is not just that I accumulated all this useless stuff, but that I often spent money I desperately needed on stuff that I didn't."

Finally, this whole post on caffeine is worth reading, but the highlight is

"I'm fairly certain, in fact, that roughly 75% of my productivity can be attributed to coffee, and the rest is just blind luck."

Preach It Brother!

This post sums up what I believe about President Bush. All I can say is Amen!!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Wealth Confuses Me

I wish I knew how to think about economics.

A NYT review of Robert H. Frank's Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class contains two interesting stats that make me want to be a Marxist and rant against the rich.

First, "[b]etween 1949 and 1979, the rising tide of the American economy lifted all boats more or less equally. In fact, the incomes of the bottom 80 percent grew more rapidly than the incomes of the top 1 percent, and those of the bottom 20 percent grew most rapidly of all."

Second, "the richest 1 percent have seen their share of national income rise from 8.2 percent in 1980 to 17.4 percent in 2005."

The super rich are soaking up 17% of the national income which, I guess, is $13 trillion. Using a labor force of 151.4 million, that means that 1.5 million people earn $2.2 trillion. No one can claim that distribution is anyway near just.

Later, I began to think that the fault lies not in our rich stars but in ourselves. A second NYT article recounts the dilemma faced by silicon valley millionaires who don’t feel rich. ". . . [M]any . . . accomplished and ambitious members of the digital elite still do not think of themselves as particularly fortunate, in part because they are surrounded by people with more wealth — often a lot more."

I really want to laugh at these people but I can't. I don't have a million dollars, and I'm not sure if I know a millionaire, but I can identify with Tony Barbagallo.

“You look around,” Mr. Barbagallo said, “and the pressures to spend more are everywhere.” Children want the latest fashions their peers are wearing and the most popular high-ticket toys. Furniture does not seem up to snuff once you move into a multimillion-dollar home. Spouses talk, and now that resort in Mexico the family enjoyed so much last winter is not good enough when looking ahead to next year. Summer camp, a full-time housekeeper, vintage wines, country clubs: the cost of living bloats."

I can't think of a parent who doesn't fact Barbagallo's problem with his children. Even parents who don't send out kids to the Hamptons send kids to dance camps, football camps, debate camps, or music camps. These camps obliterate checkbook balances Right now, I'm looking at getting another laptop for family use.

I don't know much about vintage wines or country clubs, but gourmet coffees and dozens of other little luxuries take bigger chunks of the checkbook than Folgers regular grind.

I guess I really don't know what to think. The US's income distribution is not just and probably dangerous. Yet, most, if not all Americans, spend more than they should on luxery items.

Comments welcome, but remember bromides won't work. "Stop Spending" or "Don't Flaunt It If You Ain't Got It" isn't going to be any more effective than "Just Say No." Telling the poor not to get computers or cable TV really isn't practical, especially for those who have kids in school. "The Rich Suck" isn't an answer either.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Another Reason to Love America

If it's good enough for Ross Douthat and the Atlantic Online, it's good enough for me. From strange maps, The United Countries of Baseball. I fear Twins Country will shrink is they lose both Torii Hunter and Johan Santana to free agency.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Educational Reform

This morning, I began to dread the upcoming school year. There are some local problems that have given me pause, and I have been enjoying the summer. I've gotten some reading in and recharged the batteries so that I actually feel as if I have some energy. I know I won't have that energy by November. Of course the summer hasn't been perfect, I've had more car problems that I want to remember and my wife has been on a cleaning kick that is going to send a pack rat like me into convulsions.

Still, I was coping until this morning when I went from this post to this post which eventually got me to this post and finally this post.

I recognize a lot of myself in Jim V, the author of the third link for those of you keeping score at home. On the most superficial level, I too love Moneyball, and the book also caused me to ask how one can determine what constitutes teaching excellence. Like Jim V, I am a long term teaching vet who was warned not to be "the teacher who has not had twenty years of experience but one year of experience twenty times." I too believe that I have avoided that trap.

On a more substantive level, I also believe that I "have increased my ability to do many things that count in the classroom, but I have lost in some other areas, particularly my willingness to devote more than 50 hours a week to my students’ academic success." For me, that fact creates a problem because I have extra-curricular duties that automatically turn every week into a 60- hour week.

Finally, at the deepest level, I agree with his Jaimie Escalante quotation: “Any education reform that requires all teachers to be Jaimie Escalante isn’t really an education reform.”

At that point my cynicism started to show because it seems that every education reform seems to devise new ways to turn teachers into automatons. I can't be Escalante or Jim V or any of my colleagues. (I especially can't be Jim V if he spends time working on his bulletin boards. Heck, it doesn't take that long to pin up action figures.)

I think that I could have avoided the blue funk of depression if I had not read Jason Kamras and Andrew Rotherham's article. I don't really disagree with their analysis or suggestions. I just know that their comprehensive approach won't be adopted, nor will any other substantive change. Instead the political powers that be will take the easy way out. The current system will morph into some "merit" system that will be based on test scores. Math and science teachers will be given "scarcity bonuses" and literature and history teachers will be left with crumbs.

I have two other reasons for being frightened of merit pay. First, students don't really seem to care about the big standardized tests. Putting my future in the hands of students who don't care doesn't seem fair. Second, the evaluation process is woeful. Last year, my supervising principal watched me teach for less than 30 minutes. My jobs outside of education have been with organizations with fewer than 10 employees, and we did lots of work in open bullpen type areas, so it was fairly easy to see what work was being done. I freely admit don't know how businesses that have 5o or more employees at a site do evaluations. I can't believe that supervisors make staffing decisions based solely on 30 minutes of observation.

Like many of my posts, this one seems to be getting long and disjointed. It's probably a subject that I'll have to come back to frequently, but let me offer a few suggestions for school reform.
  • Change the calendar to a 6 or 7 week on and 2 week off pattern instead of 9 months on 3 months off monstrosity that probably never worked anyway. Yes, that means teachers will have to teach more days during the calendar year.
  • Create the "meaningful career ladders for educators," that Kamras and Rotherham suggest. Again, I don't know how other jobs work, but I really can't think of a job that has people doing the same thing and at the same spot on the organizational hierarchy on day one and on the retirement day thirty of forty years later.
  • Recognize that one size doesn't fit all. The problems NYC faces are far different than those the Upper Plains states face, and the solutions are going to different.
  • Districts should adopt some "how to learn" curricula that students can tailor to their individual situations. At the high school level, they should start incorporating something like Getting Things Done or some other program that helps students learn to set priorities and work effectively. I realize that GTD can become a cult, but students need something more than the agenda books that get handed out.
  • Revamp extra-curriculars. We probably shouldn't eliminate them from the schools, but extra-curriculars are too big of a factor in hiring and retention decisions. Maybe that's a localized phenomenon, but I don't think so.

Unless schools change their fundamental structures, none of the proposed reforms will have any effect.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

If Not Now, When?

A couple of weeks ago, a steam tunnel exploded in NYC. Everyone seemed relieved that the incident was not the result of a terrorist attack and, according to Michael Bloomberg, "[t]here is no reason to believe whatsoever that this is anything other than a failure of our infrastructure." In other words, "don't worry it's just old stuff breaking on its own.

Last night, the 35W bridge across the Mississippi collapsed. Once again, people were relieved that it wasn't terrorism. It's a false and misplaced relief.

So far the Bush Administration has spent $610 billion on the war on terror, and there's no end in site. The misadventure in Iraq has eaten up $450 billion or 74% of that total. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the US needs to spend $1.6 trillion over five years "to bring the nation's infrastructure to a good condition." The Society's 2005 report card gave the US's infrastructure a grade of D. No part of the assessment earned anything higher than a C+.

To be fair, many dams and bridges and other key elements of our infrastructure are over 100 years old, so Bush inherited a 4o year old problem that Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton also ignored. None of them, however, produced this level of federal deficits or prosecuted a major war with such passionate and stubborn ineptitude.

Chris Matthews has said that losing the Iraq war means a loss in the war on terror and that the US will lose the century. If the infrastructure continues to crumble and no one acts, we'll lose it anyway.

I may be guilty of practicing history without a licence, but it seems that the US won the Cold War, in part, because it forced the USSR to spend itself into oblivion to keep up militarily while vital elements of the rest of society languished in neglect. It seems like al-Qaeda is doing the same thing to the US; there's massive spending to conduct the war on terror while vital infrastructure collapses. The major difference it seems is that al-Qaeda is getting better bang for the buck.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Teacher Pay

The Sioux Falls Argus Leader analyzes Sioux Falls teacher pay and the Madville Times adds to the analysis. The Argus quotes Kim Maass, a 16 year educator, who claims she is "usually optimistic each year that the Legislature will do something significant for teacher salaries," but "[s]ometimes, I'm disappointed."

Kim is a better human being than I am, but I'm never disappointed by the legislature. Of course, I'm never optimistic about getting a raise either.

In fact, I firmly believe that the legislature doesn't want to raise teacher pay at all. The most vocal of their constituents believe teachers work 8:15 to 3:30 Monday to Friday for only 9 months a year. These constituents will admit that teachers need a college education so they probably need to be paid more than minimum wage, but not too much. These views fit with the whole "we don't need no stinkin' taxes" outlook that goes with the "just the facts" and "we work hard and don't need no foo-fooey frillies around here, so why don't you just shut up" mind-set that permeates South Dakota.

A quick view of the Argus comments section gives several examples.

There's the direct statement with the implied "Shut up!": "Thats alot of money for someone that only works 9 months out of the year."

Then there's a basic analytic statement combined with the implied "Shut up!": "Compare the teacher's salary to the rest of the state. I wish I could make what they do."

Of course there's the more advanced analytical statement with the polite "Shut up!": "teacher turnover is also non-existent, meaning that teachers are paid good enough to stay at their job for a very long time. quit your complaining, you make much more than a "living wage."

Then there's the "I'm sick of you" with the implied "Shut up!": "I keep coming back to (1) if teachers think they're underpaid, then do something else,. . . ."

But I'm most impressed with the "It's you're fault" with a direct "Shut up!!" combined with I know you never will" and an implied "you greedy morons" classic: "When you go to college and choose a profession you generally know what you are getting into. Teachers have to know that their pay is going to be sub-par when they choose their profession. Do they magically think it is going to change once they are teaching? How much money is enough to shut you up? No matter what job you’re in you’re always going to demand more."

In the past, I've felt guilty about telling some of my best students not to teach. After looking at these comments, I am pretty sure that none of South Dakota's best and brightest need the scorn that comes with the teaching profession.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Of Harry Potter and Stereotypes

It's fairly obvious that Harry Potter, Ron. Hermione, Malfoy, Voldemort and the entirety of Hogwarts are open to interpretations that are in the eye of the beholder. Harry is or is not Jesus. Dolores Umbridge is an example of the worst elements of No Child Left Behind, and of course the whole series is emblematic of a racist society.

There is one stereotype that I wish Harry Potter would foster: the secondary school teacher as public intellectual. In Potterworld, Dumbledore is a leading public intellectual. He's taken seriously by a government ministry and has been asked to head a key department. I can't think of any teacher who would be treated like Dumbledore. (Rod Paige--the Harriet Meyers of education--doesn't count.) I don't know any teacher who will get a 900 page hit piece written about him/her. It's not just Dumbledore; Professor McGonegal also has earned a certain level of public acclaim.

Teachers are supposed to do many things and the list is getting longer, but apparently being an intellectual isn't one of the tasks. Maybe, it's teachers' fault. We allow people who claim that they work harder in the summer than they do during the school year to keep teaching. We allow people who confuse pushing play on a video player with actual teaching to keep their jobs. Still, it would be refreshing to see some of the bright talented people in the profession to be recognized for their intellectual gifts.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Why Being an English Teacher Is Scary: An Introductory Rough Draft

First, it's always scary to be an English teacher and blog. One always rushes and dozens of embarrassing errors will be made and caught.

More importantly, it's getting tougher to deal with the belligerence behind the question "When will I need this junk?"

In a round-about way, that's the question that some of the folks on The American Scene are dealing with when they hashing over a couple of David Brooks NYT column here and here and here. (This primer on the Pew Categories might be helpful.)

While Reihan Salam seems to support the Upbeats' notions, Daniel Larison and James Poulos are more skeptical. Larison proudly describes himself as a "Downbeat," and Poulos writes,

Money, of course, ties it all together, and if someone or some group of people is unwilling to turn some possession of theirs over to money, or strongly prejudiced against doing so, Upbeat Warning Signals flash. It isn't that Upbeats care nothing, as a matter of public record, for tradition or the beautiful or their own children. Some Upbeats are the fiercest protectors of these things, . . . . But Upbeats reject protectionism and parochialism as a rule, because they see unnatural and often irrational impediments to market meritocracy. Upbeats do not like the idea that money is not really what life is all about -- not so much because they believe that it is, but because they believe that a good person who works hard to make as much money as they are able is therefore able to acquire the ingredients of the good life. . . . But the most upbeat ideal of the Upbeat is that any uprooted individual, an enterprising social atom with the right attitude and a few ethics in his or her pocket, can earn, on the open market, the pride and the money that comes with the right kind of brains.

This description of the Upbeats dovetails nicely with Wendell Berry's description of higher education. Berry asserts,

. . . the great and the would-be-great “research universities”. . . . no longer make even the pretense of preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity. They have repudiated their old obligation to pass on to students at least something of their cultural inheritance. The ideal graduate no longer is to have a mind well-equipped to serve others, or to judge competently the purposes for which it may be used. Now, according to those institutions of the “cutting edge,” the purpose of education is unabashedly utilitarian. Their interest is almost exclusively centered in the technical courses called, with typical ostentation of corporate jargon, STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirely determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.

Berry's critique holds true for secondary education as well, and that fact brings about a few rather frightening thoughts. First, the humanities classes will soon become extinct. After all, knowing Shakespeare won't teach some high school grad to read a tech manual. Second, the Upbeat or materialistic mindset will continue prevail because Upbeats control the linguistic levers to extend their reach. Upbeats seem to be practitioners of framing that would do George Lakoff or even Frank Luntz proud. Poulos writes,

Opt out, and you are a protectionist, one of the fearful; opt out deliberately, as a matter of policy, and you are probably a fearmonger, too. Those with contempt for the trivial glory of worldly materialism, or disdain for consistent, hard work on behalf of not particularly desperate strangers, or an overpowering interest in their own families -- all have the onus of learning to live with, and finally live in, the world continually created and expanded and recreated by the Upbeats.

Somehow, it's tough to feel upbeat about the future if I'm supposed to turn every student into a tool that exists only to make others money.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Two Simple Questions

Michael Vick is rightly being vilified for his alleged role in dog fighting. If convicted, he deserves swift and full punishment. I wonder what the people who support torture at Guantanamo Bay or outsourcing torture to other countries think about Vick and dog fighting. They don't seem to care about cruelty to humans. Do they care about his alleged cruelty to dogs? If they are shocked and sickened by dog fighting, why do they condone aggressively mistreating another human being?