Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lincoln-Douglas Debate Applied To The Internet, Sort Of

This brief article by Alan Jacobs illustrates why I love teaching Lincoln Douglas debate.  His take on the justice, allusion to Hobbes, and reference to other "values" traditionally used in LD and their application to internet civility is a great read.  The key quotation:
I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.
Late modernity’s sense of itself is built upon achievements in justice. This is especially true of Americans. When we look back over the past century, what do we take pride in? Suffrage for women, the defeat of fascism, Brown vs. Board of Education, civil rights and especially voting rights for African-Americans. If you’re on one side of the political spectrum, you might add the demise of the Soviet empire; if you’re on the other side, you might add the expansion of rights for gays and lesbians. (Or you might add both.) The key point is that all of these are achievements in justice.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Minor Musings That May Never Become Modest Proposals

The beginning of the school year has given me a sound beating.  I feel overwhelmed and totally unable to develop a coherent post.  Of course, one could argue that none of the posts here have been coherent , but that's a different discussion.  I decided that I would do a post with just the bullet points of stuff I've been thinking about and haven't had time to develop.  Maybe I'll come back to them.  Maybe I'll make this a weekly post.

1. I just watched Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten ABC's This Week.  I was underwhelmed.  It seems as if both believe that business model or some sort of data driven factory model will serve education.  Weingarten contends that teachers need to learn who to make teaching a science.  Since NCLB began, schools have been inundated with demands to become more scientific.  Education has not improved under the scientific regime.  Maybe it's time to stop looking at education as a science and to start treating it like a craft.  If policymakers changed their view, education might be able to adapt some guild model instead of a factory model.

2. I had a good blogging routine going, but I really had trouble making regular posts when I couldn't maintain the routine for whatever reason.  It got me thinking about how much of my life is based on routine.  That musing got me thinking about how much of my life might be a rut.  I stopped before I got too depressed.

3. I've been trying to cut back on the spending lately.  Walmart had Diet Dew, my version of Olympian gods nectar, on sale for a dollar for a 2-liter.  As I walked around the store, I noticed the local store featuring more generic versions of popular products.  That non-scientific observation got me wondering whether the corporation's economists are anticipating another economic downturn or if the local economy is far worse than I thought.

4. It's getting more and more difficult to try to find common ground with students.  I played "The Cave" from Mumford and Sons Sigh No More album because it has allusions to The Odyssey.   The band has a video on VH1's Top 20 Video Countdown, so I thought students might at least be a tad bit interested, but the class seemed underwhelmed.  It seems as if students find a comfortable niche and refuse to look beyond it.  That fact would be fine if confined to music, food choices, or which sports of follow, but it seems to apply to any form of civic engagement or cultural literacy.

5. In a similar vein, I had seven sophomores read this CNN opinion piece about a comic book featuring Islamic superheroes.  At least five of them asked me to define mosque.  Every mainstream news outlet, Channel 1, and late night talk show have covered the ongoing controversy about the mosque near the World Trade Center, but they seem oblivious.  Not only is no place like home; apparently, there's no place but home.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Big Sunday Geek Gear Post

Lifehacker recently requested that their readers let them know what they carry in their backpacks.  They then published some of the more clever collections.  Last year, Lifehacker editiors revealed what they carried in laptop bags. Three years ago readers revealed the contents of their "go bags."

I would like to think of myself as a minimalist, but I have a bit of survivalist streak that I think comes from reading The Road and The Odyssey.  Of course, I could be an inveterate pack rat.

Last summer I rewarded myself with a Saddleback Leather briefcase.  (Anyone who has not taught a foreign language in the past 15 years and then tries to teach a full year class in four weeks over the summer deserves a huge reward.)

The bag has four small inner pockets. I put assorted pens in one, assorted small tools like a tape measure in the second.  Another has 3x5 cards and a packet of Starbucks instant coffee; the final pocket holds my cell phone.  I usually have a timer clipped to one these pockets.  The bag has two small outer pockets.  I stick a glasses case in one of them.  The case holds some clip-on sunglasses and a lens cloth.  Bifocals are a bitch.

I use a small portable hard drive case to hold my mp3 player, head phones, and any SD cards or spare thumb/USB drives I might have.  I modified a usb case into a small survival case.  It holds a Leatherman Micra, a Leatherman P4, duct tape, matches, a small flashlight, needles, thread, and safety pins.  I bought a corduroy pencil pouch with 3 zippered compartments.  I put aspirin, Advil, antacid, gum, lip balm, and other incidentals in one.  I put pencils, highlighters, and a pencil sharpener in another.  The third compartment holds assorted cables and chargers.  Finally, I have small surge protecter with three regular outlets and two USB ports.

All of this gear goes in the bag's front partition along with a book or graphic novel.  I also carry a Levenger Circa Junior notebook.  The back inner partition holds work related material.  The back outer pocket holds assorted files or magazines or another graphic novel.  I clip an umbrella to one of the extra D rings.

I don't carry a laptop.  I use the phone to surf the web and keep track of tweets.  I have a computer and work and home,and I can't type well enough to flow a debate round, so the laptop seems to be extra weight.

I feel as if I have too much stuff, although I can honestly say that I've used nearly every item during the past year.  What is essential in a teacher's laptop bag/briefcase/satchel/backpack?  Am I missing any cool geek gear?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Of Teaching And Testing

Today is the first day with students.  It’s a ritual; there’s a little dog and pony show, a few laughs, a few reminders, and the hope for a fresh start.  

Yesterday, the 2010 ACT data were released. It’s a ritual; there’s a big dog and pony show, several sorrowful condemnations of the nation’s secondary education system, and demands for wholesale change.  

According to the Wall Street Journal article “Scores Stagnate At High Schools,”  “fewer than 25% of 2010 graduates who took the ACT college-entrance exam possessed the academic skills necessary to pass entry-level courses.”  Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, asserts that these scores indicate "High schools are the downfall of American school reform. . . ."  

First, without access to the actual data, one has to assume that ACT released the scores of only students who graduated in 2010 not students who took the test in 2010.  Large numbers of juniors take the test every spring.  Juniors have completed only 75% of their high school education; they probably shouldn’t be college ready.  Second, many seniors take the tests offered in September or October.  Once again, they have over half of their senior year to develop the requisite skills.  

ACT may have some formula to take these factors into account. Outside of Delphi, prophecy is a tricky business. I’d like to know how a testing company can determine whether a given student will or will not learn enough to prepare them for college when meteorologists have trouble accurately predicting tomorrow’s weather.  
Let’s assume that ACT has correctly ascertained that graduates are not prepared for the future, and let’s take at face value that this fact “suggests that the core courses they are taking are not sufficient to prepare them for what they will face in college or the work force."  What should the education establishment do?  I want to do my job.  I don’t want to send students out to fail.  

I’ll offer a few modest proposals.  I would guess that they will be ignored.  

First, colleges and universities should end their practice of accepting students in October or November.  No student should be accepted until April 15.  Students who have been accepted don’t need to work with the same rigor as those who are still trying to impress admission committees.  

Second, colleges and universities need to reject more applicants.  If more students saw that poor high school performance meant not being able to attend college, more students would work.  Listening to lectures is preferable to asking “Do you want fries with that?” 

Third, scrap NCLB.  Under NCLB, high schools are applying a version of the Pareto principle; 80% of the effort and resources are going to the 20% who must be brought up the proficient so that America can say 100% of its students are proficient in reading and math.  The rest of the students are given the other 20% of a school’s resources.  Moving away from NCLB will allow schools to allocate more resources to prepare students for college.  

Fourth, lengthen or alter the school year.  The WSJ article quotes Joseph Harris, director of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research, who says, "We have a conflict where we are trying to increase the rigor and push kids to learn more, yet we try to do all of this in the same 180 days, 40-50 minute classes we've always had.  High schools are still very traditional institutions."  

There’s no doubt in my mind that teachers and schools can and should do more.  The problem is that most solutions forced upon secondary education have worsened the situation.  This round of hand-wringing is unlikely to change that trend.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Why Didn't We Think Of This?

Germany had its best economic performance since reunification during the past quarter.  If the country's growth rate continues over the entire year, Germany's economy will grow nearly 9 percent according to the New York Times.

The NYT reports that German officials believe that "they handled the financial crisis and the painful recession that followed it far better than the United States. . . ."  I'll leave that claim for pundits to sort out in the short term and for historians to sort out in the long term.

The German response differed from the rest of Europe's and the United States' response in several ways,  One major difference is that during the crisis Germany vastly expanded "a program paying to keep workers employed, rather than dealing with them once they lost their jobs . . . ." 

So, instead of paying money for people to have a job that consists of looking for work, spend the money to help people remain productive.  The idea of keeping people working instead of paying them to look for work makes a lot of sense especially with the pernicious effects of long term unemployment.

The March 2010 Atlantic Monthly asserts "[a]ll available evidence suggests that long bouts of unemployment—particularly male unemployment—. . . enfeeble the jobless and warp their families . . . ."  More disturbingly, the same article reports that "among teenagers, . . ., even the narrowest measure of unemployment stood at roughly 27 percent."  The article concludes that if unemployment continues at its current rates, "it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years."

Further, CNNMoney.com reports "worker productivity fell 0.9% in the second quarter."  That drop is "the first decline in eighteen months." The article contends that the drop "may be a sign that employees have finally gotten to the point where they are simply stretched too thin."

So far government stimulus money seems to have helped executives get big bonuses; it has produces frazzled workers who are happy to have jobs and fearful of losing them, and put a generation of young workers at risk. Given the political climate, it seems unlikely that additional stimulus money will be appropriated.

American leaders had one chance to respond to the economic disaster properly.  It seems they preferred to look backward and take care of their corporate paymasters instead of using common sense.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Of Myths and Men

The weather is hot and muggy.  I hate hot and muggy weather.  The cat woke me up earlier than I wanted to wake up.  The household's main computer seems to be dying.  In the midst of the morning fog caused by heat, rude awakenings, and fear of impending financial failure caused by tech failure, I came across the following tweet:
Madville Times: Daugaard Perpetuates SD Teacher-Pay/Cost-of-Living Myth: Myth, Dennis. Myth, myth, myth.
My enthusiasm rose.  The word myth is repeated 5 times.  I love myths.  I teach mythology.    I use this handout for my class; it asserts "in general, myths are metaphorically and symbolically true, but factually and literally false."  Myths are great adventure stories with symbolic meaning.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to read an analysis of a modern Heracles destroying a symbolic hydra.  I didn't even get to read an analysis of Thor kicking the dwarf Lit into the fire of Baldur's funeral pyre.  Instead, the article is about Dennis Daugaard justifying teachers' low salaries by claiming that South Dakota's cost of living is low, so it all balances out.  The Madville Times debunks the claim here.

I want to cling to the idea that myths have symbolic truth.  In this situation, there's little symbolism to examine.  Either low coast of living makes up for low pay or it doesn't.  The stats say it doesn't.  Therefore, this claim isn't really a myth.

Daugaard's claim is propaganda.  According to Merriam-Webster.com, propaganda "is the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person."

Daugaard is obviously spreading the information or in this case misinformation to help his cause of being elected.  He's been part of the current administration and it serves his cause to have people believe that South Dakota has a low cost of living and, therefore, wage earners need less to have a comfortable existence.  If voters are comfortable or believe they are comfortable, the incumbents have a far better chance of holding power.

Less charitably, Daugaard may intend to injure teachers.  Teachers as a group probably lean Democrat.  They constantly remind the Republicans that South Dakota is last in teacher pay, but the idea that a low cost of living makes up for the low pay allows workers in other occupations to view teachers as whiners and complainers who have three months off with pay.

The great myths showed flawed people doing awesome deeds and experiencing heart-wrenching failures.  The deeds and failures reveal a little truth about the human condition.  Daugaard's claim doesn't fulfill those criteria; it's merely self-serving propaganda

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Of Dogs And Students

I own copies of First Break All The Rules:  What The World's Great Managers Do Differently, Now Discover Your Strengths, Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance, Teach with Your Strengths:  How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students, and Strengths Finder 2.0.  Each of these books assert that people have different aptitudes and they should find ways to maximize their strengths instead of always working overcome weaknesses.  To use a sports analogy, these books assert Ichiro Suzuki shouldn't try to hit 40 home runs in a season and Jim Thome shouldn't try to steal 40 bases.  Ichiro is a great singles hitter and base stealer and Thome is a great power hitter.  Both men will be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame because they stick to their strengths.

Marion Brady, guest blogging at the Washington Post's Answer Sheet, puts a canine spin on using strengths.  Brady observes that "among the people for whom herding sheep is serious business, there is general agreement that Border Collies are better at doing what needs to be done than any other dog. They have ‘the knack.’"  Lest he be accused of being a "breedist" or whatever the PC term would be for unjustly favoring one breed over the other, Brady points out "[i]f you’re lost in a snowstorm in the Alps, you don’t need a Border Collie. You need a big, strong dog with a really good nose, lots of fur, wide feet that don’t sink too deeply into snow, and an unerring sense of direction for returning with help. You need a Saint Bernard."  He also points out that the Fox Terrier is great at protecting chicken coops. 

Brady concludes, "It isn’t that many different breeds can’t be taught to herd, lead high-altitude rescue efforts, or kill foxes. They can. It’s just that teaching all dogs to do things which one particular breed can do better than any other doesn’t make much sense."

Brady continues the analogy to condemn NCLB.
. . . . If that fact makes you optimistic about the future of education in America, think again about dogs.
There are all kinds of things they can do besides herd, rescue, and engage foxes. They can sniff luggage for bombs. Chase felons. Stand guard duty. Retrieve downed game birds. Guide the blind. Detect certain diseases. Locate earthquake survivors. Entertain audiences. Play nice with little kids. Go for help if Little Nell falls down a well.
So, with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top as models, let’s set performance standards for these and all other canine capabilities and train all dogs to meet them. All 400 breeds. All skills. Leave No Dog Behind!
Two-hundred-pound Mastiffs may have a little trouble with the chase-the-fox-down-the-hole standard, and Chihuahuas will probably have difficulty with the tackle-the-felon-and-pin-him-to-the-ground standard. But, hey, no excuses! Standards are standards! Leave No Dog Behind
Brady is preaching to a choir of at least one when he illustrates that people's strengths differ, and that NCLB is idiocy.  He does, however, ignore the fact that schools failed to teach students to emphasize their strengths and focused instead on fixing weaknesses long before NCLB.  The number of remedial classes has always exceeded the number of advanced classes.  Students with no aptitude for algebra were forced to take Algebra II or another advanced math class to get a diploma.  Students who can't see symbolic stars when hit with the symbolic hammer were forced to take four literature classes in order to graduate.

Let me offer a caveat here.  Public education should provide students with the basics necessary to function in the contemporary world.  Our increasingly fragmented society might be better served if more people shared knowledge of the same literature.  Some required classes are necessary.

Even with that caveat, the students who excel at finding out what's wrong with a car engine probably should be encouraged to develop that skill.  Students with a great personality but an below average intellect should be taught how use those people skills to their advantage.  Both types of students probably should be allowed to skip an fourth literature class or a third science class.  Instead, they should be taught how to prevent an employer from taking advantage of them.  They should be taught how to make themselves so valuable as a mechanic or waitress or salesperson that no one will even think about firing them even if they are in a low level job.

Brady will probably be excoriated for comparing students for dogs.  Some PC folk will probably be upset because I'm saying that some students have a better intellect than others.  It's not in vogue to make such assertions.  Apparently, people are all interchangeable parts that can learn everything and be proficient in everything.  If that's true, Ichiro should swing for the fences tonight,  and Chihuahuas should be used as seeing eye dogs.

South Dakota and School Money: Newspeak Edition

Yesterday Governor Mike Rounds announced that South Dakota would take $21 million in federal funding but may not accept an additional $26 million for K-12 education. KELO has a summary here.  The Rapid City Journal has a report here.

However, the story that caught my attention is Chet Brokaw's piece on Bloomberg Businessweek.  Brokaw begins, "South Dakota may not be able to use more than half of the federal aid it's due to get from a jobs bill passed Tuesday by Congress because of state rules on spending for schools, Gov. Mike Rounds said." [bold mine] (I suppose I should use a journalistic term like "lead" or "lede," but that would dignify Brokaw's paragraph as objective journalism.)

According to the Madville Times, South Dakota is 50th in state revenue spent per student on K-12 education and 48th  in per pupil spending on school administration [bold in orginal].  Given those stats, it seems odd that the state would not be able to "use" the money.  There are some definitions that Brokaw can use to show that he used the word properly.  In this situation, however, "to use" connotes a word like "utilize."  Surely the South Dakota can find ways to utilize the funds.  The other connotation here is that the federal government has made it impossible to accept the money.  That's not really the case either.

The reasons Rounds may not accept the money are given two paragraphs down.
But it might not take an extra $26 million in education aid because acceptance of the money could trigger an increase in local school districts' property taxes under the language of South Dakota's school funding law, the governor said. The federal money also would boost public education spending for one year but provide no way to maintain that level of spending in future years, he said.
South Dakota's refusal to accept federal largess seem to have little to do with the ability to "use" the money.  Rather, South Dakota will resist any efforts to raise taxes.  Further, South Dakota has no plans to increase its level of K-12 funding in the future.

By the way, the Rapid City Journal quotes Governor Rounds as saying “We’d like to use the $26 million. But if it means we need to raise local property taxes to go along with it, I don’t think we’d go along with that,”  he said." [bold mine] (I think I just buried the lede, but I'm not trying to be objective here.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Reason For My Political Displacement

I've never been willing to be a Republican because most Republicans I know seem to believe that corporations can do no wrong and common laborers are all well paid and have it easy so they should just shut up.  Democrats give lip service to the plight of the common man, but they've always seemed to have equal amounts of guilt and noblesse oblige.  The combination is a bit off putting, so I watch politics as a spectator in the same way I watch football or baseball.  I try to avoid Beck's and Limbaugh's pro wrestling histrionics.

Today, I'm moving from seeing politics as a sports fan and beginning to view the situation in a more Shakespearean light:  to paraphrase Mercutio, a pox on both your houses.

The Cato Institute may not be part of the pro wrestling contingent of my analogies, but they may well be MMA.  I'm not a fan of Cato or MMA.  One must appreciate skill, however, and this Glen Greenwald essay expertly illustrates that corporate and government power is dangerously limiting Americans' liberty.

Greenwald begins by saying something that I've long believed.  Both political parties have used 9/11 to increase surveillance power.
It is unsurprising that the 9/11 attack fostered a massive expansion of America’s already sprawling Surveillance State. But what is surprising, or at least far less understandable, is that this growth shows no signs of abating even as we approach almost a full decade of emotional and temporal distance from that event. The spate of knee-jerk legislative expansions in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 trauma — the USA-PATRIOT Act — has actually been exceeded by the expansions of the last several years — first secretly and lawlessly by the Bush administration, and then legislatively and out in the open once Democrats took over control of the Congress in 2006. Simply put, there is no surveillance power too intrusive or unaccountable for our political class provided the word “terrorism” is invoked to “justify” those powers.
The situation seems to be getting worse.  Greenwald points out,
And yet, the more surveillance abuse and even lawbreaking is revealed, the more emphatic is Executive Branch opposition to additional safeguards and oversights, let alone to scaling back some of those powers.
Thus, even when our National Security State gets caught red-handed breaking the law or blatantly abusing its powers, the reaction is to legalize their behavior and thus further increase their domestic spying authority. Apparently, eight years of the Bush assault on basic liberties was insufficient; there are still many remaining rights in need of severe abridgment in the name of terrorism. It never moves in the other direction: toward a reeling in of those post 9/11 surveillance authorities or at least the imposition of greater checks and transparency. The Surveillance State not only grows inexorably, but so does the secrecy and unaccountability behind which it functions.
Presidents have always jealously guarded  their power.  So have the courts and the Congress, although Congress seems to be ceding much of it constitutional authority to the executive.  My bigger concern is the mix of corporate and government power.  Greenwald writes,
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of our mammoth Surveillance State is that the bulk of its actions are carried out not by shadowy government agencies, but by large private corporations which are beyond the reach of democratic accountability. At this point, perhaps it’s more accurate to view the U.S. Government and these huge industry interests as one gigantic, amalgamated, inseparable entity — with a public division and a private one. In every way that matters, the separation between government and corporations is nonexistent, especially (though not only) when it comes to the Surveillance State.
 I had always naively believed that government could check corporate overstretch and citizens could use the ballot to check government excess,  In this situation, it seems that average citizens are being assaulted by two behemoths.   Given that disturbing fact, I must share Greenwald's conclusion,
And as we acquiesce to more and more sacrifices of our privacy to the omnipotent Surveillance State, it builds the wall of secrecy behind which it operates higher and more impenetrable, which means it constantly knows more about the actions of citizens, while citizens constantly know less about it. We chirp endlessly about the Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Democrats and Republicans, but this is the Real U.S. Government: a massive Surveillance State functioning in darkness, beyond elections and parties, so secret, vast and powerful that it evades the control or knowledge of any one person or even any organization.
 It's been easy being displaced; I could always head back to the plains and have a bit of safety and anonymity.  Now, I'm not sure the plains are big enough to hide in.  That fact both disconcerts and angers.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Policy Debate Irony

The world will be destroyed by nuclear war on November 6, 2010.  That may be hyperbole; I have no inside info nor am I Nostradamus reincarnate, but that date marks the opening of the South Dakota debate season.  On that Saturday, dozens of young policy debaters will claim that the policies advocated by their opponents will lead to nuclear war and the ultimate extinction of the human race.  Policy debate judges across South Dakota and the nation hear those assertions every weekend, so it's easy to take the risk of nuclear war a bit cavalierly.

Tom Friedenbach, a former South Dakota policy debater, has studied the threat and decided that it is much more serious than a calculation to help win a debate round.  He's begun a campaign "to encourage South Dakotans to voice their support for ratification to the Honorable John Thune who currently stands in opposition to the ratification."

Tom and other intelligent, energetic young people have started SD for START. The home page has links to excellent material about START.  A letter to Senator Thune is here.  All you need to do is replace Tom's name with yours and forward it to Senator Thune.  His contact info is here.

This site tries to stay away from politics, but I'm making an exception in this case because the ballot box won't be available in November.  Senator Thune is running unopposed.  The only approach left is networking and direct contact. Visit the site, put your name on the letter, and send it to Senator Thune.  Finally, let Tom and the others know that you've sent the letter.  Senator Thune needs to be reminded that lack of Democratic opponent doesn't mean lack of opposition to his views especially on serious issues like START.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Weird Idea That I Don't Like

Twitterland denizens include LitCritHulk, GRAMMARHULK, FilmCritHULK, and feminsthulk.  In addition to being academically diverse, Twitterland also ecumenically hosts JESUSHULK and  BuddhistHulk.  Would that they would all unite to smash, smite, and, thereby, enlighten Dr. Richard Vedder who uses The Chronicle of Higher Education to suggest that the ivory tower should emulate Walmart and McDonald's.

Let's begin with the the requisite disclosures, I am a high school teacher who has been described as a "frustrated academician"; I am not a college professor nor do I portray one on television.  I make purchases at Walmart and occasionally consume McDonald's fare.

On to the crux of Professor Vedder's argument; Vedder contends,
To keep costs down, both McDonald's and the University of Phoenix offer a relatively modest number of products and produce them efficiently in a highly standardized way. The traditional universities teach thousands upon thousands of courses, most of them unimportant either to learning skills or understanding and advancing Western civilization, but are taught because the employees want to teach them. They are not standardized because that would be a violation of academic freedom, allegedly.
Maybe it is time traditional universities learn something from both McDonald's and the University of Phoenix (and Bridgepoint, Kaplan Higher Education, Corinithian Colleges, etc.). Why not do what Vance Fried proposes, and offer an $8,000 or $10,000 full cost per student university, offering a limited but adequate number of courses to give a solid education and even some vocational skills, but cut out all the rest?
Far be it from me to dispute the necessity of an inexpensive college education.  I'm helping put two younguns through college now.  I am channeling my inner Hulk at the idea that the university should emulate a big box store that increases the idea that everything must be disposable.  No one goes to Walmart to buy something that ought to last a lifetime.  I hope that education has such permanence. People shop at Walmart to buy inexpensive products so that the consumers will not feel guilty when they they throw away the gegaw, doodad, trinket, or widget.  I shudder at the fact that an allegedly learned individual would consider education a disposable product akin to bulk paper plates.  The comparison between the spiritual and intellectual nourishment from a good education and the nourishment provided by a Big Mac and fries shouldn't need any detail beyond a mere mention.

Further, "limited" and "standardized" seem to be the goal of NCLB.  Once again, I'll leave it to big boy blogger Rod Dreher to explain the pernicious effects of NCLB:  "intellectually capable public school students are stagnating in the era of NCLB."  So high schools are now allowing smart kids to languish; soon colleges and universities will be doing the same.

Finally, the terms "limited," "standardized," and "vocational" indicate that education is not good for its own sake; instead, it must have a practical use.  Based on my experience as a high school teacher, people who want education to serve at practical purpose usually seem to believe that the most practical thing in the world is training young people to make money for CEOs and other upper level management.  Given that "[t]he overall CEO-to-worker pay gap is exceptionally high; S&P 500 CEOs in 2008 earned 319 times more than the average worker," I suppose the McDonald's and WalMart examples or, at least, the companies' pay structures make sense if further entrenching a class system is one's ultimate goal.  Vedder was writing his modest proposal "on a boat on the Rhone River in France," sardonically observing "the life of a college professor is tough."

Ideas have consequences; the film Inception observes that ideas are "resilient parasites."  I'm afraid of the side effects of Vedder's parasite will have far reaching and sickening consequences.

What I'm Doing Wrong

The Displaced Plainsman has published over 100 posts since March, so it seems a good time to take a step back and see how things are going.

This blog has a daily readership that's akin to an average family: three adults representing parents and a step-parent, two and one-half children, a cat and a dog.  Actually, the two cats who allow me to live in the house that they own frequently peruse entries before I post them.  I'm not sure if any dogs or rodents read the blog.

If the goal is to get readers, I must be doing something wrong.  In the spirit of Socrates I'll do a bit of self examination.

Problem 1:  I am a lousy typist and I don't proof the drafts well enough; therefore, typos get published.  As an English teacher, I lose credibility when obvious errors appear in posts.

Problem 2:  I'm not really satisfied with my writing style.  Some posts seem a bit terse; I also need to work to create more vibrant, active phrasing.

Problem 3:  I don't post every day.  I think I'm regular enough unless I'm out of town, but I should try to have a daily posting schedule.

Problem 4: I am still looking for the right niche.  South Dakota educators are small target audience; South Dakota English teachers and debate coaches are an extremely small subset of that small pool.  Further, I can charitably be called a non-conformist, skeptic, or maverick.  Those less charitable may contend I'm a cynical cavalier iconoclast.  Cherishing the role of a voice crying in the wilderness and making every effort possible to stay far from the maddening crowd doesn't help build readership.  Obscure biblical and literary references probably don't help either.

Problem 5: Bloggers with larger readerships seem to nurture a sense of place.  Big boy bloggers at The Front Porch Republic have "Place. Liberty. Limits." on their masthead.  Bigger boy blogger Andrew Sullivan encourages place with his View From Your Window series and book.  Closer to home, The Madville Times celebrates "Lake Herman, Madison, and all of the great state of South Dakota."  I'm "displaced" so the local thing just doesn't work for me.

Problem 6:  I may be too stubborn to care about problem 5.

Even though blogging has a large element of readership recruitment and retention, it also allows one to do what this ayjay tweet suggests:  "Sometimes I write blog posts not because I have anything original or even distinctive to say, but just to find out what I think."

Herein endth today's introspection.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The End Of The World As We Know It

The "we" in question is the American middle class.  Offered without comment because the content is self explanatory and too depressing: a Financial Times article, big boy blogger Rod Dreher's comments about the FT article, and this income inequality graph.

Ignoring Orwell and Madison

Via big boy blogger Andrew Sullivan, this post provides more proof that English teachers have failed when they teach Orwell.  The Obama administration and the FBI want to avoid the messy court system and just force ISPs to turn over customer records without a court order.

The original Washington Post article states that the FBI wants to use "national security letters . . . which can be issued by an FBI field office on its own authority, [and] require the recipient to provide the requested information and to keep the request secret."  The article quotes Stewart A. Baker, a former senior Bush administration Homeland Security official,  who says "the proposed change would broaden the bureau's authority. "It'll be faster and easier to get the data," said Baker, who practices national security and surveillance law"

Well let's do it then! Who can question the idea that the government should have things easier?  After all isn't the problem that government is too bloated and inefficient?  The most logical solution is to make it easier for government to invade privacy.

On the other hand, a wise man once told me that following the course of least resistance is what makes rivers and men crooked.  James Madison, an even wiser man, asked a great question in Federalist 51:  "But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?"  Madison concludes, "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself"

Given that the legislation purpose is to make life "easier" for the government and given that looking for ease is a problem that may lead to corruption, wouldn't it be better to make it more difficult for "the greatest" and most powerful reflection of human nature to spy on its citizens?

However, if we Americans are going to forget  basic folk wisdom about men and rivers and Madison's more intellectual musings, we'll probably not raise a fuss about this assault on liberty.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Order of the Teaching Phoenix?

This John Spencer post using Harry Potter metaphors reminds me of one of my own Potter musings.

Spencer begins by comparing Diane Ravitch to Severus Snape.
In education reform, [Diane Ravitch] plays the role of Snape.  We need her.  We need the perspective of someone who converted from a Death Eater to the Order of Phoenix and we need to believe in the concept of Phoenix.  Out of the ashes of a broken system new life can grow.  Perhaps even Arne can get out of the dark arts of testing-based reform. Yes, I know about her past.  Yes, I realize that power is a corrupting force, but she is a reminder that even powerful people can find redemption.  [Spencer, Snape: A Perspective . . , 8/1/2010]
Spencer concludes,
Despite my penchant for using Harry Potter metaphors, the truth is that we don't need more magical wizards to tell us how to fix our system.  We need humble muggles who realize that the real magic is often seen on a very local level, within the mind of a student.  Everything else is an illusion. [Spencer, Snape: A Perspective . . , 8/1/2010]
I agree totally, but I think that one of the reasons teachers are turning to Ravitch as some sort of superstar leader is the fact that few elementary and secondary teachers seem to be respected for their intellect.  From that earlier post,
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.
One problem may be that many fictional teachers are romanticized versions of real teachers:  no one can live up to Matilda's Miss Honey or The Dead Poet's Society Mr. Keating.  That romanticism probably doesn't play well in the so-called real world.  I have a hunch that those who make policy would listen to House before they listen to Saved by the Bell's Mr. Belding.

I'm not going to blame Hollywood, however; the fault is ours.  Spencer has it right; "real magic is at the local level."  As Larry Cuban points out, most people accept as absolute fact the assertion that all K-12 schools fail.
Beginning in the late 1970s, followed by the Nation at Risk report and culminating in the No Child Left Behind law, the message that all U.S. schools are failing has become accepted truth among smart, well-intentioned policy elites including foundation officials. Even though it is clear that there are many schools in the U.S. that parents clamor to have their children attend, even though foreign students come in droves to U.S. universities often considered to be the best in the world where they attend undergraduate and graduate courses with U.S. students from supposedly failing high schools, the dominant belief remains that the entire K-12 system of schooling is broken. That belief is as commonplace as “smart” phones, television, and public utilities. It is a “truth” that goes largely unquestioned. [Cuban, Billionaires' Love Affair with School Refom, 7/28/2010]
Cuban goes on to illustrate that the truth is far more complicated.
Ignored is the fact that there is a three-tiered system of schooling in the U.S. (see June 20, 2010 post). The top two tiers (which over half of U.S. students attend) are considered by most parents to be either good or good enough for their children. In the third tier, however, big city and rural schools enrolling mostly poor and minority students have largely failed to educate children and youth. Surely, the three tiered system is obvious for anyone with 20/20 vision living in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and other metropolitan areas, particularly to parents who shop around for schools to send their children.
What is also plain to see but is seldom mentioned by policy elites and 24/7 media is the constant conflating of urban and rural failing schools with all U.S. schools. Such a mindless mistake propagates misinformation and sustains a “crisis” mentality that continually bashes teachers and undermines trust in public schools. [Cuban, Billionaires' Love Affair with School Refom, 7/28/2010]
Had all teachers, and I am chief among the sinners in this regard, worked more magic at the local level, NCLB might not have been possible.  To take Spencer a step further, teachers need to start local Orders of the Phoenix that don't rely on Ravitch or others to lead.  To do that, we will need to lead with our reason as well as the magic of romanticism.