Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Wreck Of The American Education Train

Madame:

Your paragraph

There isn't any perfect curriculum. The next program with the catchy name isn't going to fix anything. The problem is one of freedom and time. No one has enough of either. Teachers don't for all the reasons you've listed in your post. Parents don't because they are struggling to make ends meet and families are stressed to the breaking point. And children don't. They are herded from class to class and then after school their schedules keep them from processing the day's events and careful reflection. Imagine someone in charge trying to suggest that we actually do less, or have more recess and time outdoors. Imagine parents having time to engage their children in conversation instead of just being the nightly homework police.”

is one of the best encapsulations of the American elementary/secondary education situation I’ve ever seen.  Of course, the American penchant for filling whatever time there is with diversions and entertainment, along with spectacle-fixation and busybody concern over peripheral matters, rather than true reflection and meaningful work for meaningful change, means we also have to address that flaw before the quite necessary other adjustments you so astutely outline can have good effect.

The question you ask about how education “jumped off the track” is in some respects a direct one, and in others, a complex one.    For true understanding, it requires “deep history,” going back far into the 20th and even 19th centuries, but in many respects, American education has been caught up in anti-progressive strategies of the upper-upper class for many decades now.  In their transformation of society, they have sometimes transformed education directly, often because of finances, but even more so done it indirectly, again, because of finances.  It has often been disguised as “reform,” and as they are accomplished masters of long-term strategy, deception, deflection, mis/disinformation, and emotional manipulation, they enlisted many witting and unwitting assistants along the way.

It is not to say the ground was infertile for their methods.  A Nation At Risk, a document I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about, came out of a time when a fair amount of what I term unmoored, fuzzy liberal foolishness, along with initial bureaucratic growth and the results of the beginning of student catering, helped to focus a backlash.  In typical fashion, pieces of the report were concentrated on and the rest ignored.  The conservative rising tide found ready ears in calls for increasing the number of school days in a year, longer school days, etc.  All in the name of more “rigorous academic standards,” a mantra that would culminate of course in No Child Left Behind, with its standardized tests to quantify and measure “achievement”—and punish school systems (and teachers) who did not meet those “standards.”

The sagging fortunes of the middle class coincided with slashing of state budgets for education, leaving the property tax emphasized even more as the discriminator between abled and disabled school districts. Federal aid became more and more needed, but came with more and more “strings,” leading to increase in directly and indirectly associated bureaucracy.  As schools struggled to respond to the unceasing chorus of criticism from a society unable to truly look at itself, they got more administration, more “counselors,” more special assistants, etc. to try to meet the impossible demands and “standards.” 

More and more requirements were made on students’ time outside of the teacher-directed classroom.  Less and less latitude was permitted the teacher on the how, what, and how much of that what the teacher taught.  As society became The Nation of Strangers that Vance Packard tried to warn us so eloquently about, schools became less and less a student body and more and more a collection of individuals (and their parents who emphasized that individual separatism).  Sometimes they were coddled individuals; at other times they were excessively structured (stifled) ones.  The increasing stress factor on nearly all helped to make school less a shared experience of community (and perhaps wonder), and more a required feat of endurance.

Visionless legislators teamed up with visionless administrators to find visionless education “reformers” that inflicted continual rounds of “reform” and “initiatives” to address the symptoms of the above, but of course, they only made most everything worse (a few things got a bit better, at least statistically, but the exceptions only proved the pattern).


Today’s result: More well-off school districts fare better, of course, but, with only a few exceptions, to find great performing schools and great performing students of the kind your memory remembers, you’ll have to look to those that are generally private—and not all private schools, but primarily only those of the upper-upper class. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Who Has Time to Learn?

Professor J,

Thanks for clearing up the idea of tenure and its benefits. I certainly agree that there isn't much that could be done to make the current system any worse. What we have seems so fractured and dysfunctional as to be beyond saving in form. But we are a people who are intent on throwing good money after bad and who lack imagination for how different something could be. We tweak and tailor ideas that have proved not to work. We try the next new thing that ends up being a rehash of some other bad idea and never consider that the entire thing might be flawed.

I agree with you that teachers should not be told how to teach and should be given much more leeway than they have now about what to teach. I cringe when I think how many teachable moments are lost because a teacher has that ever looming standardized test in the back of her mind and can't risk (or doesn't feel she can) answering thoughtful questions from students or asking them what they might want to learn. I've never met a child that didn't have some interesting questions and ideas that could spark lots of learning if given a chance. More freedom (and free time) all the way around would benefit everyone.

My daughter, who is one project away from graduating with her masters in education, asked me once how I knew how to teach. The truth is, I didn't, but I managed to send them off to high school fairly well prepared and they both loved college and excelled there. I had to tell my daughter that I loosely used a scope and sequence to make sure we didn't have gaping voids. Every other year they took the state achievement test just to make sure I wasn't ruining them. But my overall goal wasn't for them to know everything. My daily mission was not to prepare them for the state issued standardized test. My passionate vision for their education was to spark in them a love of learning and to be curious thinkers.

There isn't any perfect curriculum. The next program with the catchy name isn't going to fix anything. The problem is one of freedom and time. No one has enough of either. Teachers don't for all the reasons you've listed in your post. Parents don't because they are struggling to make ends meet and families are stressed to the breaking point. And children don't. They are herded from class to class and then after school their schedules keep them from processing the day's events and careful reflection. Imagine someone in charge trying to suggest that we actually do less, or have more recess and time outdoors. Imagine parents having time to engage their children in conversation instead of just being the nightly homework police.

We desperately need the paradigm shift Sir Ken outlines. I suspect that standardized testing has now become big business and that we are going to keep going down the wrong road.

Question: When we were growing up, the education we got was less stressed and achieved better results.  I'm assuming it's a string of events and policies, but what caused the education train to jump so far off track in the first place?


Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Profession Is Calling


Madame:

First, let’s make sure everyone knows what tenure is:  it is a legal contract that a non-probationary teacher can only be let go for certain specified reasons and by due process.   Tenured teachers are public employees whose generally meager economic remuneration is not supposed to be in yearly danger, barring certain things, as those teachers try to balance many competing priorities and demands from the public and the system.  

Like judges, particularly federal ones who have the judicial equivalent of tenure, public teachers are supposed to be shielded from the insistent, parochial demands of multitudes who would not only attempt to be their masters, but tear them in a hundred directions.  In theory, this allows the knowledgeable teacher to balance and cool those demands in favor of what is best.  In practice, this does not always work out well, but the alternative can be worse.  Teachers may not do WELL under tenure (for all the reasons and more of what I listed last week), but they would likely do worse without it.  Meager pay, high pressure, few benefits, and no job security?  Fast food education would loom.

The firing process for bad teachers has become embroiled in the defensiveness that constantly being under attack has made a lot of teachers’ unions, clouding discernment in a number of cases.  Attempts at getting teachers unions to properly police their own ranks have become stillborn because of the generalized attacks on the unions and teachers themselves. There’s also the contributing atmosphere of the general litigiousness of a disconnected society (and one with a large number of lawyers). 

A student in a public system with no tenure runs the risk of the teacher being bullied or cowed by the meddling and the overbearing, not to mention the truly economically or politically powerful, and all that would mean for a skewed “education.”  Teachers are also supposed to be not just a profession, but a calling.  That calling could get completely impossible if respect sank even further than it has now—and the lack of tenure would signal that.

Do we want our teachers to live in yearly fear of their jobs in addition to all the other things?  Do we want our childrens’ instructors to be nervous wrecks, anxious to please and not knowing which faction, which week, needs pleased the most urgently?

Well, stop-gap measures probably aren’t going to change much, but perhaps they can arrest some of the deterioration.  One of the prime ones is for us to quit telling teachers HOW they should teach, and give them some flexibility on WHAT to teach.  Guidelines (references can be often useful), not requirements, should replace much of the strictures now in place.  The standards , if such are necessary, should be measures of success much less crude than “test scores.” Measures such as the following might be better: community satisfaction, employers’ satisfaction, civic leaders’ satisfaction, higher institutions’ satisfaction, and, perhaps most importantly, the “5/10/20 year” satisfaction marks of the student.  That is, how well the student rates his or her education 5/10/20 years after each milestone (4th grade, 8th grade, 12th grade).  This latter piece would not only increase constructive engagement of the society into the system, but provide reflection that is too often missing from this culture.

Another measure would be to present success stories—both domestic and international—to teachers and schools, and let them tailor to their own local situations (or justify why they disagree).  One of the readiest is to get teachers in front of some of the best teachers (and most innovative thinkers and practitioners), and let them be inspired—especially if a broad range of styles and personalities are presented so that each teacher can find a model they can learn from.   

Of course, in all this, removing many requirements and other bureaucratic weight is a must.  Teachers simply cannot do a great job under that pile.  Getting the freedom to try to do what they think is best will re-awaken teacher energy that has long been suppressed or deadened by the present system.  For instance, what if a teacher, instead of having everyone read the same thing, had an hour every day where students brought whatever they liked to read to class and read to themselves some, read aloud to others some, or even just talked about THEIR material some? With no judgment since it is the love of reading and the enthusiasm of sharing that is being emphasized. 

Naysayers of the above paragraphs might be reminded that it is hard to imagine a WORSE system because of it.  Criticism is justified when a better set of ideas are proposed!


Obviously, from how much I’ve written this week, this is a subject of endless windbaggery from me! :) Keep us informed about how the split in your local school system results!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Reform School

Professor J,

Oh. summer's over, isn't it? My over-scheduled brain needed more time. 

Education seems an appropriate subject for fall. First, I have a question about tenure, which in the case of higher education I can see the benefit of, but not necessarily in K-12. Like lots of other people I have fond memories of beloved teachers, mostly mediocre ones, and two, that as an adult, I now realize should not have been in charge of any classroom anywhere. Do you think teachers do a better job if they know their job is secure forever (just to be clear: I think the trend of paying for success is flawed as well) ? The firing process for bad teachers seems laborious and fraught with the possibility of being sued. So what are the benefits of tenure for teachers in elementary and secondary education? And a follow up: how does tenure benefit a child's education?

Oh, the parents. A terrifying lot. (Insert helicopter sounds.)

Your description of what awaits teachers in the reality of the system is enough to give any education major pause. From what I hear from teacher friends and retired teachers that I work with at the museum, your description is accurate. And these are people who love teaching. On tours you can see their eyes light up when the kids have great questions or figure something out on their own. But their stories of how bad the system has gotten, how much is constantly dumped on them, the ridiculous amount of bureaucratic time wasting that goes on are astounding.

Aren't many of these problems are systemic and intertwined with other problems of our society? The family unit is under intense pressure in our hyperventilating-ly over-scheduled, get ahead (but not really) culture. And instead of working together to solve problems parents and teachers are often in an adversarial situation wherein everyone suffers, especially the child. And bless his heart, he likely hasn't been taught much personal responsibility by his over indulgent parents. I'm painting with a broad brush but the pattern seems fairly universal at this point. I feel like I always have to keep saying "I know there are exceptions!"

 Could you name a few things that you think would be at least stop gap measures that could be implemented without overhauling the entire system? I think that is precisely what needs to be done, but then when it comes to education, I'm a rebel. ;)

We could start with "Stop whining. Clean your room. Read a book." A new mantra for parents.

Our town voted to split from the monstrously huge city/county system and start it's own system. A vastly smaller animal that will allow more local control. We'll see how that goes.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Teacher, Teacher, I Declare

Madame M:

A wonderful tour, visual and otherwise, through the delights of your “turf.”

School has started back up.  This becomes the time of year for politicians, many of them running for election or re-election, to lay blame for America’s abysmal education system entirely at teachers’ feet.  In fact, Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former press secretary, and Campbell Brown, former CNN anchor, have teamed up to “declare war on teacher tenure” (and by inference, war on the teachers unions—and their teachers—that support it).

Leaving aside for the moment the general plutocratic campaign of annihilation against unions in general, of which this is a part, citizens should be aware of a few things:

War has been declared against a group of people that labor under:  high-pressure; constantly increasing demands (although sometimes they merely get shifted, mostly the priorities just get added on to); low pay; little respect (probably the lowest in the developed world—maybe the entire world); little appreciation; often disconnected students; frequently absent or coddling/meddlesome parents; administrators that are too commonly abusive, selfish, incompetent, or serving of outside interests; excessive sports or outside activities emphasis; school funding that is wildly erratic and utterly inconsistent; regularly hostile legislators; and increasingly ideological or outside interest school boards.  All this (and more), and yet with many of the society’s problems—that society can’t or won’t address—laid at the teachers’ feet with the insistent demand of  “fix it!” and oh, yeah, become entirely responsible for those kids’ outcomes, including the quality of those kids’ future jobs.  

And you, Mr. (but usually Ms.) Teacher, your continuance in your chosen profession—forget about reward—will be almost entirely dependent on student “performance” and even how the student feels about you.

Nearly every year, you, teacher, will have to absorb another education “initiative” that is almost certainly fated to derail or be supplanted, with countless extra hours (that the public rarely sees) spent on it to comply or else. 

And after all of the above—plus a great deal more that isn’t listed—the public and their supposed representatives will hurl vitriol at any attempt to defend yourself, wail that the best and brightest don’t go into teaching, scream that you (not the factors above) are to blame for the poor teachers among you, say that schools are failing because of your union and what is needed is privatization (funded privately, of course, and that will markedly increase the already high inequality), and say that you, the little teacher, are entirely responsible for the whole mess.

A disconnected, un-communal society that will neither face reality nor hold itself responsible wants to hold the least powerful responsible.


I have said it before, but it bears repeating:  As David Byrne, Talking Heads lead singer, once remarked, “If this makes sense, STOP MAKING SENSE.”

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Home Town Tourists


Professor J,

Aside from literary adventures, this summer has kept me at home. The best has been made of it and now we are at the end. This includes spending lots of time with Mr. Snarky before he leaves on Saturday for six months in the southwest. I'm sure you'll be hearing more about that.

Yesterday we played tourists in our own city.

We broke down and visited Graceland a few years back. We eventually got tired of traveling and having people ask us where we were from and then this:

"Oh, so what is Graceland like?"

It was embarrassing when we had to admit we'd never been there.

We've remedied that and can not only say that we've been to Graceland and recommend the trip, but can recommend a tour of the Gibson Guitar Factory which is located on Beale Street. Yesterday we added another site, the most important site in rock and roll history--Sun Studios. We took along a lifelong friend and local musician who knows more music trivia than anyone I've ever met.



People in this tiny building while we were there were from England, Sweden, Japan, Germany and all across the US. It made us feel even sillier about waiting so long to tour the site which is accessible and centrally located. Graceland's a bit more work to get to.  

The tour was led by a girl who really knew her stuff and is interspersed with music clips and recordings that you don't even know exist. It's a great music history lesson. There's a lot of memorabilia in the museum section on the second floor, but the chills happen in the studio which you can tour in the daytime but is used for recording at night. Musicians still want to record where it all started. 

Of course I got a few photos...








The tape X on the floor is where Elvis stood to make his first recording.












Sunday, August 31, 2014

Summer Translations

Madame,

Quite the set of homeless experiences—and reactions—you have chronicled!  I am intrigued by each of them!

That video making the rounds could be the updated and abbreviated equivalent of Steinbeck’s Great Depression tale.

School in August is indeed a travesty, for many reasons.  Ever notice how many decisions we as a society make that are worse than decisions of previous years?  It’s not all rose-colored glasses and the selective memories of the experienced!

My favorite summer memory?  Oh my [why do I hear George Takei every time I see those two words? :)], there are so many, including some of those you had!  If I had to focus on just one favorite, I would say it was riding my bike FAR out on the country road that was close to our city housing edition, enjoying the sun and warmth, and then sitting with my pepsi bottle and comic book under a tree and leisurely reading.  Afterwards, I would sometimes even walk the bike back, because I enjoyed the time to think.

My reading of War and Peace goes at a leisurely pace, and an enjoyable one.  I am not immune to endless distractions and obligations!

The translation I started to read was from 2008 or so, from a husband and wife team—he a American specialist in Russian literature, she a Russian.  They included a great notes section and left a lot of the original French in (with notes at the bottom to translate that).  But it was a borrowed copy from the library, and its edges of the cover started to get very worn, so I knew it wasn’t going to make it.  I therefore bought the latest translation e-version, also by the same couple.  They have removed (well, translated and incorporated) most of the French in this 2014 version.  I do enjoy this translation of the book, as it is much better than the torturous one I read previously many years ago.  To read W&P too early in life, and especially an unrobust translation—folly.

Of course, a Russian friend of mine, with pity, said I would never fully understand Tolstoy or Tolstoy’s works, especially War and Peace, unless I read them in Russian, as some feeling especially is not translatable to English.  Wonder if that is what Isaac Rabel meant when he said “if the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”

I admire Tolstoy’s independent observance of the world and his saying that “My hero is truth.”

I’m thinking that were he an American today, he would comment on the bitter ironies of Labor Day: 1) That it is a merely a day off for most and they make no connection to its meaning, and 2) that we have a holiday ostensibly to celebrate Labor/The Worker, yet in all the times since Labor Day became a federal holiday, Labor/The Worker have rarely been so little valued.
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