from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Welcome, Washington Post readers 

I see that Jay Mathews hot-linked to this blog in his mention about me in the piece he did about Eleanor Roosevelt, the terrific school at which I am honored to teach.

What Jay does not realize is that this blog is basically moribund. Even some of the links on the right hand side, such as that for My Left Wing, are now obsolete.

I do still blog. You can read my work at my user page at Daily Kos I also bog elsewhere, including educational sites, human rights blogs, Virginia blogs, etc. In the interim since I last posted here (before this evening), I have also had occasion to blog at the New York Times and Teacher Magazine, and also been paid for some writing for the print edition of The Washington Post.

I simply did not have enough time to cross-post everything I wrote here, or at a later blog that I maintained for a while. I was being well-read at Daily Kos and elsewhere, and it took what time I had to monitor comments there.

So thanks for coming over. If you choose to follow me at Daily Kos, only about 1/3 - 1/4 of what I write is about education. I also write about human rights, economics, the environment, music, historic events of the day, etc.

I tweet when I post. You can follow me at Twitter as @teacherken the same screen name I use for blogging.


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

For twentytwo years . . . and more 

cross-posted from Daily Kos

December 29, 1985. It was a Sunday. For December it was crisp, but not too cold. It began with attendance at church, although we arrived for the morning services separately. It was a day full of family and friends. It was our wedding day. Kenneth Bernstein was not yet teacherken, but that marriage to the woman who posts here (too infrequently) as Leaves on the Current is the major reason that I became a teacher, and also a strong influence on my attempting to write.

I have written before about what the marriage upon which we embarked that day has meant to me, most notably two years ago in How does one measure a life?. I choose this anniversary to repost that in its entirely below the fold, and then add only a few additional words.

How does one measure a life?

I will not try to make that determination for anyone else. But today, I have no doubt how I will measure mine. For twenty years ago, more than a third of my life, I was blessed to be joined in marriage with my eternal partner, known here as Leaves on the Current. That I participate here is due in no small part to our relationship, so please indulge me as I make this small verbal offering in her honor.

Our relationship is much older. I first noticed her when as a teenager she visited one of my music classes at Haverford with the wife of one of my professors. She finds this hard to believe, but when I described what she wore and how she looked she acknowledged it was possible. But our first conversation was an an early Easter morning at the Episcopal church where I had just been baptized. She did not know that I had been watching her, a senior at an elite (then all-girls) prep school. My very first words to here were "so when are you going to discover boys" and her response was "Why, when I go to Harvard, of course."
Others noticed my watching her, but our relationship did not begin until the following fall, when I encountered her at a suburban train station. We we going in to the city, where she was going to catch another train out to her home. But our train was late, and she missed her connection, so I took her out for a piece of pie and cup of coffee. It was not our first date, that would be six days later when I took her out for dinner, but we mark the beginning of our relationship as of that day, September 21, 1974. She was 17, and taking a year off before Harvard to seriously study ballet, I was 28 and working in data processing and living in a rented room.

Within a few weeks it was clear that we were in love with one another. If I may steal some lines from the wonderful Sally Fields - James Garner movie, "Murphy's Romance", she was in love for the first time in her life, me for the last.

We had that year before she went off to Harvard. Then there were 4 years of my commuting to Cambridge Mass once or twice a month, followed by 3 years of greater separation while she attended Oxford with a Marshall Scholarship. We became each others closest friend and trusted confidant, but because our time together was so precious and limited we postponed some of the hard work at making a relationship work. Finally in 1982 we were in the same city and we really had to work on the relationship.

We moved to Arlington Virginia, and finally on December 29, 1985, several hundred people came to watch us get married, and then joined us at our reception at historic Oatlands Plantation near Leesburg, still decorated for the holidays.

We are both difficult people, but I am much more so. I do not really believe in myself. I am actually fairly shy, although an extravert, and easily get depressed. I worry that I am not making a difference. And here I am married to this very attractive, and brilliant and charming, young lady. In Myers-Briggs terms we probably should clash -- she is an INFJ, me an ENFP, with both the extraversion and perceptor qualities to the extreme. She is a neatnik, I am not, she is more oriented towards cats, me towards dogs, she late night me very early morning (probably a product in my case both of rising at 5 to practice piano before school as a teen and far too many days spent in monasteries as an adult).

And yet - as in any relationship there is commonality. We both love music, although our tastes do not always overlap (I draw the line at New Age, and except for Mary Chapin Carpenter and Willie Nelson she has little tolerance for Country). I was a music major in college yet discovered early in our relationship that she probably knew more abut Beethoven than did I. When she shared her high school yearbook picture with the accompanying quote she was surprised that I could recognize the passage and name the T S Eliot poem from which it came.

It may seem strange that I would take the time to write and post something like this on a blog that is devoted mainly to political issues. Bear with me. There is a reason for this.

It was Leaves who encouraged me to take the chance and get involved in the (abortive) campaign of Fritz Hollings for president in 1983, and who has always been supportive of my subsequent volunteering for campaigns, local, state and (Howard Dean) national. She encouraged me to write my thoughts, and I would not have begun blogging except that she insisted that my ideas and insights were worth sharing with others.

We do not always agree. For example, when I began to pursue the idea of doctoral studies in education she did not understand why I would want to do it. When I got a free ride for 3 years from Catholic, she became very supportive. When I decided to withdraw with a dissertation proposal almost complete, she - who had taken more than a decade to do her doctorate on a part-time basis - could not understand why I went so far and did not complete it. But as she has seen my writing on education in other fora she has accepted and supported the decision I made (even though she will periodically remind me that the university would probably love to have me back). She was very supportive last year when I took on the extra burden of work for my national board certification as a teacher, and bought me a bottle of champagne to celebrate when I found out I had passed.

Leaves is a superb editor -- often I wish that she were available to review what I write before I post it. I assure you there would be far fewer typos...and even fewer infelicities of expression! But it is not that which I value most. Not her skill as writer, which I greatly envy, not her superb intellect, which she has applied in many different arenas -- as a writer on dance, the environment, politics, religion.

No -- what I want to pay tribute to on this day is her soul, her heart in the old sense of that word. She is incredibly caring. I am an exceedingly difficult person, and yet as the years have passed she has made it absolutely clear that nothing I could say or do would ever cause her to stop loving me. In my moments of deep depression and despair (of which over the past 30+ years there have been far too many) she has always been there.

As I struggle to find balance in my life, she may not always understand where I am going, but she will try to help, to accompany me as far as I will allow her, and even then keep going.

I was able to become a teacher, to take the better part of a year off to get my training, because she increased how much she worked, taking time away from her own interests, in order to make it possible for me to explore an idea that was not completely formed.

Her caring shows in the time she makes for her nieces and nephews. particular one nephew having a difficult time whom yesterday she took to see Nutcracker. It is evident in the love she showed toward our Sheltie when Espeth was getting elderly - not a dog person, she warmed and her heart melted. It is obvious when a cat curls on her lap and she will give that priority over anything else she had planned.

Her heart and soul come out in her passion for preserving the environment, and her willingness to work against the death penalty, even standing in silent vigil as an execution took place in Jarratt, Virginia at the Greenville Correctional center. Her depth of feeling is in her poetry (which she does not often share). Some have even seen it in her few posts at dailykos.

Ours is a partnership -- I provide some structure in day to day things at which she is not so skilled (such as changing light bulbs -- she is not always the most practical -- and I do most of the shopping and almost all of what cooking occurs), and I have been able to serve as a sounding board for some of her ideas, and review some of her writing to help her. I have encouraged her intellectual pursuits as she has encouraged mine, to the point where it is not clear where we will put any more books in this house.

We often talk about political and social issues. This has been true for our entire relationship. We both see that we have a responsibility for a larger world. It was as a result of the comments I would make in these discussions, or when we would watch various talking heads shows, that led Leaves to encourage me to write down my thoughts and insights for a larger audience. So if you do not like what I post here, she is at least partly to blame.

Tonight I will take her to our favorite restaurant, reserved nowadays for truly special occasions. We will drive more than an hour into Rappahannock County for a late dinner at the superb Inn at Little Washington. It has been several years since our last visit. We both appreciate good food, and the ambiance is truly superb and appropriate for a reflective evening like this.

I am posting this very early in the morning, because I want the rest of this day free to be with Leaves on the Current, my partner for all eternity. I will not be online that much today. People may ignore this, or may comment as they see fit. I offer this to honor Leaves, to be sure. But I also offer it in another spirit -- many here are able to participate in this electronic community because of the support of other people. We may have spouses, parents, children, friends, significant others with two up to four feet, who tolerate or even actively encourage our participation. In our passionate involvement here, I hope we all take time to give them the thanks for the support they give us, both in our endeavors here and in all else we share in life.

I am having a very happy 20th wedding anniversary.

That diary was posted 40 some odd minutes after Midnight, two years ago. Then, like now, Leaves was not with me for the start of our anniversary. Each year on December 28 she takes her sisters' children for an outing to Cape May. That year she was driving down in the very early hours, as she had also planned to do this morning. This year she got caught in traffic because of an accident, and it was so late that she decided to stay over and come down around midday. We will have to decide then how we are going to spend the day together. When I was younger than my current 61+ and even more insecure, I would have been at least annoyed. But in our now 33+ years together I know that the love she shares with nieces and nephews, and with her mother now in assisted living or the hospital depending upon her condition, in no way diminishes her love for me. I have seen how loving more people deepens her ability to love me, and that has served as a meaningful for example for my own opening up. I have always been deeply caring, but in some ways my heart was like a clenched fist, expecting to be hurt. How much more gracious and enjoyable life is when the fingers unfurl, open up to stroke and be stroked by the emotional touch of others.

My words are insufficient to express how I feel. Even after more than three decades together, I am still not as gracious as I would like be, as affirming directly to her as I should be. Like all of us I carry baggage from previous parts of my life - growing up in a dysfunctional family which had trouble verbalizing expressions of love and affection are still a major problem for me. And I am shy, especially about things that matter. Sometimes I can only express the depths of what I feel indirectly.

All I can add to that diary of two years ago is that I am still searching for words to express how appreciative I am of the sustaining love Leaves still gives me. If in any way I have grown as a person, it would not have been possible absent the irrevocable love she has given me.

It is appropriate for me to post this in politically oriented fora (plural) because absent a love that assures me I have something of value to offer others it is unlikely that I would be willing to participate in the activities I do - our ongoing relationship reminds me that as I have been enriched, encouraged to explore and take risks to help improve the world in which I live, I should offer whatever it is I have for the benefit of others.

Please consider this reposting of an earlier diary as one part of the gift I offer Leaves on the Current on this the 22nd anniversary of our wedding. Often the best gift we can give others is to give of ourself to some third party in their honor. Leaves has taught me that through how she lives her life. I am still learning that.

At some point later today Leaves will read this. And maybe then I will be able to say more directly what this diary intents.

I am eternally grateful that you came into my life. I am even more appreciative that you have committed to me for all eternity.

So I say publicly what I so often have trouble saying privately.

I love you.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Some musings and reflections for myself 

I have not been posting much here recently. I have had much to consider in my life, and even those things I have written for other sites it did not seem all that worthwhile to put them over here. After all, they are far more likely to be read at dailykos, raisingkaine, streetprophets, and so on, than on an obscure blog to which few link and even fewer read.

But I have a few thoughts I want to record, and they seem inappropriate to post elsewhere, so that gives me an excuse for posting here.

In the next few days I will be dealing with side aspects of my near future. Having withdrawn from consideration for New Leaders for New Schools, through which I could have become a principal in the DC school system with about 1 year's training, I now turn my eyes to two other things. I have put myself back into consideration for the Sorensen Institute's Political Leaders Program. Had I not temporarily pulled myself out of consideration I almost certainly would have been selected this year. I expect some fairly serious questioning on my withdrawal and reapplication, and I may not be able to satisfy them. The two issues had been financial concerns and whether I could give a proper focus to Virginia. The latter is easily addressable, because of the pending refinancing. The latter was an issue with which I was challenged last year. I think I can say that there is enough going on in Virginia that I expect to be political active, including in my writing: there is a primary for the 11th, there is Judy Feder's race in the 10th (and I should probably mention that we will be getting together next month to talk about educational policy among other things), there is the work I do with Bobby Scott's staff, there is Mark Warner's Senate race, a possible serious challenge in the 5th, and depending what Phil Forgit does in the special possibly a contested race in the 1st. No one yet knows about the 2nd. That is a fair amount of stuff federally within the Commonwealth, and the jockeying for the state-wide races for 2090 is already beginning.

The other thing is something that has already been decided, the results of which I do not know. That will be whether Markos has selected me as a contributing editor (I think highly unlikely) or as a featured writer for education (possible, but I think not probable). I would be incredibly honored to be picked for either one, mildly disappointed not to even be picked as a featured writer, and angry or upset only if someone I really think inferior to me is picked for one of the slots - there are many worthies whom I think would be better choices.

My ego would love the affirmation of being picked, and I think I could manage the responsibilities. Realistically I do not think my writing style is such that Markos wants me on the front page, but who knows.

Meantime, I am NOT planning on organizing any panels for Netroots Nation, the newest incarnation of what was called Yearlykos. Perhaps if people beseech me I might reconsider, and if I am a featured writer on education I may realistically have no choice. I have signed up to attend, and I am going to have to see if those dates make it possible for me to do an NEH or Gilder Lerhman workshop this summer. I would think the latter is more probable, as they are only 1 week. But let's go stepwise, and first see what happens with the other two.

I am feeling a bit stale as a teacher, and I need to liven up my classes. I am thinking that after the test on Monday I may try something really radical with my comprehensive kids, although I am not sure as yet what.

I find myself tiring much more easily. And I am falling behind on book reviewing - I will write the one tomorrow afternoon.

And for now, that's all he wrote.


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

The importance of teachers 

crossposted from dailykos where it was on the recommended list

I have just finished reading a book I have to review entitled Be a Teacher. One of the editors is Phil Bigler, who has won all three of the big national teaching awards: Disney, Milken and National Teacher of the Year. It is a book aimed at those considering teaching or near the start of their teaching careers, and is subtitled with "You Can Make A Difference" and is listed as "by America's Finest teachers." It contains reflections by Bigler and his coauthor, herself an award winner, and 12 others who have been greatly honored for their own teaching. It is an interesting book, and when I do write my review I promise to cross-post it or summarize it here.

Today I am going to crib from one appendix, and then offer a few additional remarks of my own. This won't be long. I encourage you to keep reading.

Appendix B contains "Twenty-Five Inspirational Quotations about Teachers and Teaching." I want to offer a few of these, and then offer some comments of my own.

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where is influence stops. - Henry Adams

Teaching is a timeless profession. It is the basis of all other professions. Good teachers plant seed that make good doctors, good accountants, good public servants, good statesmen, good taxi drivers, and good astronauts. When former students return to see me over the years, my heart fills up in the knowledge that I have been part of a wonderful accumulation of experiences that followed them through life. - Mary Bicouvaris

If your plan is for a year, plant rice. If your plan is for a decade,plant trees. If our plan is for a lifetime, educate children. - Confucius

I am a teacher because of teachers. They showed me that someone other than my mother could love me. - Guy Doud

In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else. - Lee Iacocca

What else is needed is something that teachers themselves are reluctant to talk about openly and it's our respect for them. It's what is missing in America, and it's what has been too long withheld from a profession so important to our national well being, as important as doctors or captains of industry or TV commentators. From sunup to sundown, the school teachers you have seen tonight work harder than you do - no matter what you do. No calling in our society is more demanding than teaching. No calling in our society is more selfless than teaching. No calling in our society is more central to the vitality of a democracy than teaching. - Roger Mudd

To me the sole hope of human salvation lies in teaching. - George Bernard Shaw

Each of these quotes speaks to me, not merely because I am a teacher, although that is part of it. Like Guy Doud, I am in part a teacher because of other teachers, and love - directly expressed or not - was certainly part of it. It was my AP American History teacher Thomas Rock who challenged me to live up to what I could do, and it was Music Professor John Davison who demonstrated the deep love for every student who passed through his care, including me. I hope that I return both lessons with my own students.

I know the importance of respect. I cannot demand it from my students but must earn it, in large part by acting with respect towards them. It might be helpful were the media and many politicians and far too many parents not reinforcing a different attitude. In part it is because we do not pay teachers, and if they make so little, they cannot be that important, right? Except, as I might note, in one 45 minute period I spend more quality time with some of my students than they get from their parents, which is a different tragedy. Our society needs to reexamine how we value people, and not have such an emphasis on money and overt power.

The Henry Adams quote is one I have long cherished. The affects of my own teachers continue on me today. And I have now taught long enough to be no longer be surprised at some of the students who come back to thank me. It worries me that some of my longterm affects upon students might not be so salutary, which is one reason I try to be aware of how my words and actions can have impact far beyond their immediate purpose. I am only in my 13th year of teaching, but am already experiencing some of what Mary Bicouvaris writes about.

IF you are a parent, you have every right to demand that your children's teachers see them as individuals, but please remember yours may be one of almost 200 children that teacher deals with every day. If you want more personal attention for your child, demand smaller classrooms, lower student loads per teacher so that they are capable of giving that attention.

If you are a policy maker, remember that the decisions you make can support or prevent the kind of teaching environment that makes a difference in the life of a child. Teaching is about much more than cramming information into heads so that it can be given back on high stakes tests which really do not tell us all that much useful information.

All of us have had teachers. And even if we were too shy, or too stubborn, to express our thanks at the time, we can always drop a note or make a call, or if possible stop by and say hello, and thank those who made a difference for us. Sometimes we worry about the students who pass through our care, that we did not do enough, care enough, and it can help a teacher who is wondering whether to continue the struggle to hear of the differences s/he made. Sometimes that can be the one thing that keeps a teacher going for one more year.

I know I can make a difference. And I am not making these requests on my own behalf. But while I claim to speak for no one except myself, I also acknowledge that I have a voice - and a keyboard - that seems to be able to express in ways others may not be able to, to reach eyes and ears and minds to which many do not have access.

So this is my offering today. It is about the importance of teachers. You probably already know about that importance, but I figured a gentle reminder might not hurt.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

A very good Education Plan from John Edwards 

(this is being posted at a variety of sites, including dailykos, raisingkaine, and the education policy blog)

While is Iowa this week Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards unveiled an extensive and fairly comprehensive approach to the educational issues facing America’s schools. It is entitled Restoring the Promise of America's Schools. It is by far the best overall approach to education I have seen in the last few presidential cycles. While I have some concerns, which I will address, I want to begin by acknowledging how good it is.

I strongly urge people to go to the link above and read the plan and accompanying materials in their entirety. I cannot hope to fully explore every dimension and implication. My intent is to focus on some things that caught the attention of one person who is a high school teacher, who reads seriously about educational policy issues, and who attempts in his online and other writings to help non-experts understand how policy proposals play out in the real world of schools and classrooms, teachers and parents and students.

Far too many politicians have been limiting their comments on education within the framework of No Child Left Behind, as if that were the only possible paradigm through which we can talk about education through high school. Edwards goes well beyond that, even as he acknowledges the necessity to make what improvements are immediately possible in the short term. Of greater importance, he frames his discussion on three basic principles, and ties most of his proposals to those principles, which are
* Every child should be prepared to succeed when they show up in the classroom.
* Every classroom should be led by an excellent teacher.
* Every teacher should work in an outstanding school.
Having such organizing principles is a positive, and in general the plan follows the outline of the three key principles - there are few occasions where an issue is not easily classifiable, and thus it may appear not quite where one might expect to encounter it. Since the overall plan is only a few pages long in its website version, this is not a major issue - one can quickly determine that an issue is addressed, either by the overall structure or the use of different size and colored headings and the bolding and bulleting of key points. For example, under the first key heading of “Preparing Every Child to Succeed” we find in just the first subarea, “Offer Universal “Great Promise” Preschool to Four-Year-Olds” the following subtropics (bulleted and bolded in the original:
- teach academic skills
- Start in needy communities
- Be led by excellent teachers
- Involve parents and their families
- Be voluntary and universally affordable

It is thus fairly easy for the reader to follow the flow of the ideas without becoming buried in either jargon or overwhelmed by extraneous detail.

One key issue outside the frame of No Child Left Behind is the failure of the Federal government to fulfill its original commitment in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the primary law for special education. This legislatively creates a set of federal civil rights in education, and recognizing the cost the Federal commitment was supposed to be 40% of the average additional costs. The highest the federal commitment has ever been was 19% in FY2005, and in FY2007 it has slipped to 17%. In 2005 that meant my own state of Virginia had to absorb about $350 million in additional expenses that should have been federally funded, either by raising local taxes, transferring funds from other educational programs, or both. I note from the Edwards plan the following, under the heading of “Meet the Promise of Special Education”:
More than thirty years ago, Congress committed to fund 40 percent of the excess cost of educating children with disabilities, but it provides less than half that amount. George Bush has proposed a $300 million cut. Edwards opposes the Bush cuts and supports getting on a path toward meeting the federal promise.

Edwards recognizes that
Half of the achievement gap between children from poor families and their more fortunate peers exists before they start school. Quality preschools compensate for the learning opportunities some children miss at home, reducing remedial education, welfare, and crime.
His plan proposes that all lead teachers in such pre-school programs have a 4-year degree, and receive appropriate compensation. The Federal commitment should begin with low-income neighborhoods, and should also include
- parental involvement
- be voluntary
- be universally affordable.
He combines this with a commitment to things like child care services and family support services. And as part of his “Smart Start” program I note especially the idea of making it
easier for young children to get screening for health problems related to hearing, speech, vision, dental, and learning disabilities.
Here I offer a caution, but one I assume will be addressed in other parts of the overall agenda that is part of Edwards’ vision - identification of such problems is insufficient if there is no ability to address them, due to lack of providers or an inability to pay. I know Edwards has a commitment on these issues, and it would be nice to see in the education plan a mention of the connection: education does not occur in a vacuum, and addressing the health and learning disability issues as early as possible is a key to greater long-term success in school for these children.

Edwards does address a number of deficiencies in No Child Left Behind, and one of his key points appears under the category of excellent teachers. He rightly notes that NCLB requires that a school failing to make AYP for 3 years has to set aside up to 20% of Title I funds for :supplemental educational services” with no formal requirement for the quality of the providers. Edwards insists that any tutors under this provision be “highly qualified teachers” as is required under the law for in-class teachers. While I think this is an improvement, it still maintains the idea of Adequate Yearly Progress towards the unmeetable goal of 100% proficiency in 2014. If there is a clear deficiency in the material it is the unwillingness to confront this issue directly.

We see this further in the material grouped under “Overhaul No Child Left Behind.” Good points under this heading include broadening the methods of measurement to include
assessments that measure higher-order thinking skills, including open-ended essays, oral examinations, and projects and experiments
and allow states to use additional measures of academic performance, including using the growth of individual students and allowing states greater flexibility in how they respond to schools that are underperforming. These ideas are consistent with his overall approach to schools and teaching, but leave a number of areas of concern, which I think I must point out:

1) If growth is measured June to June the results are often distorted by non-school effects. The professional literature is clear that students from lower economic classes, often minority, lose knowledge during the summer while students economically better off often increase learning through enrichment opportunities. Measuring Fall to Spring usually shows more equitably the learning actually occurring in the schools. To date I have not seen any proposal for using growth models that specifically addresses this. At a time when the funding for the testing for accountability is still not even at the authorized level, I worry that a growth model Spring to Spring will wrongly give a picture that schools serving students in poor communities are doing worse than they actually are. Here I note that the recent Feingold-Leahy proposal is that punitive sanctions currently in place with once a year testing be suspended until that portion of the original proposal is fully funded, which has not yet happened.

2) There is no discussion of how such alternative measures would be funded. The work done by the Forum on Educational Accountability strongly suggests that performance assessment, when imbedded in instruction, can be done in a fashion that is no more expensive than the approach currently being widely used to respond to NCLB. It would be nice to see an explicit recognition of the costs of some of the proposals made by Edwards, with an explanation of how he plans to pay for his ideas.

Edwards explicitly recognizes that the needs of rural schools are often quite different. Thus we find in his allowing “Broader measures of school success” that he offers a plan that would “give more flexibility to small rural schools.” In his proposal to have all high schools have access to challenging Advanced Placement courses he notes “even those in small, isolated, and high-poverty areas” should be included in such an approach. He also has a separate section on “More Resources for Poor and Rural Schools” where he notes that
Four out of five urban school districts studied nationally spend more on low-poverty schools than on high-poverty schools. Rural schools enroll 40 percent of American children – including most children in Iowa, New Hampshire, and North Carolina – but receive only 22 percent of federal education funding.
Edwards not only promises to increase Title I funding with the additional moneys directed towards low-income schools, but also commits to using technology and distance-learning to assist more rural areas that are in danger of being left behind.

Edwards bases a lot of his proposals on things he has seen work in North Carolina, which given it is his home state is understandable. He does however cite a number of examples from other states, such as smaller classes in Tennessee and universal pre-K in Georgia and Oklahoma, but it would have been nice to see a similar broad look at the secondary level. For example, Nebraska has a successful approach to using school based assessments. Wyoming and Rhode Island have experience with using school based measurement as a basis for meeting statewide graduation requirements. As good as the proposals Edwards offers may be, I cannot help but wonder how much better they might have been had there been some more consideration of successful models from other states included.

It is clear that unlike some who attempt to mold educational policy, Edwards has listened to the voices of teachers. Thus we find clear ideas about mentorship, about providing a transition into teaching in the first year, about paying highly skilled teachers for taking on the challenge of teaching in high-poverty schools (an idea that he might consider extending to teaching in more rural schools as well). He argues for allowing time for more teacher collaboration and joint planning, a key part of improving working conditions. And he directly addresses an issue that is key - making it easier for teachers to move from one state to another both by encouraging reciprocity of credentialing and by trying to find a way to make pension plans compatible (although the latter is certainly going to be a more difficult task). At one point I maintained separate credentials in Maryland, DC and Virginia, and I have taught in the the last as well as in my current district in Maryland. As one holding my state’s highest credential (Advanced Professional Certificate II) as well as being National Board certified, I have reasonable portability of my credentials, but the money from my one year in Virginia is not directly transferable to my Maryland pension (although I could withdraw it and deposit it in a 403B plan without paying taxes). I have some personal understanding of the importance of an issue like this to many teachers who perhaps need to relocate because of family concerns, but who face unnecessary stumbling blocks in being certified in the state to which they wish to move.

There are issues in the plan about which I have some additional concerns. Edwards offers a proposal to reduce class sizes. While he argues that poor and African-American children gain the most, and promises to direct resources especially to reducing class sizes in lower grades for children below grade level, there is an implication that any reduction of class size is a positive. I’m not sure that the research supports that. Some studies have found that until there is a significant reduction, say to 17 or less, the gains in learning are prohibitive in expense, assuming that (a) there are sufficient high quality teachers (not currently the situation) and (b) that there are sufficient classrooms to increase the number of classes (often not the case in overcrowded urban schools). I acknowledge that Edwards is committed to increasing the availability of highly qualified teachers through a variety of methods, not all of of which have I addressed here. I do think we need to acknowledge that we have an issue about classrooms that must also be considered.

On some issue I find myself quibbling around the margins. Edwards wants to pay teams of experienced teachers to go into struggling schools for a year to help turn them around. I like the idea in principle, but my sense is that such “helicoptering in” for one year will ultimately not succeed. Here I note that even Teach for America wants a commitment of their young people for more than one year. I would think we should try to get commitments of at least two if not three years, in order to be able to establish a positive school culture that will survive the departure of those brought in - and I hope that at least some after several years might be encouraged to stay longer?

I have raised some cautions and concerns. I feel it my responsibility to do so. But do not let that mislead. I think the plan presented by Edwards represents something remarkable. It is of a piece with many of his other ideas about America, upon which I lack the competence and confidence to comment in the same detail as I can on education. It has an overall vision, a commitment to goals that are almost radical in there simplicity - revisit those three main principles again. It contains elements to address current needs - second chance high schools, leveraging the knowledge and skill of our best teachers to where they are most needed, directing federal resources to those schools and students most in need of extra assistance - at the same time as it attempts to lay down a foundation that will prevent the conditions requiring such interventions from going one without respite: here the focus on early childhood, on parent-school partnerships, on screening for vision and hearing and learning disabilities (assuming the resources to address the needs thereby identified) - all of this demonstrates a vision and a commitment that is heartening. John Edwards is committed to PUBLIC EDUCATION at a time when many in this nation are prepared to walk away. While I wish he would be explicit on things like the impossibility of 100% proficiency by 2014, he shows a clear understanding of what has been happening. We read in the plan
Children need to master both basic skills in reading, writing and math and advanced thinking skills like creativity, analytic thinking and using technology. We cannot tolerate the benign neglect of our schools. No Child Left Behind has lost its way by imposing cheap standardized tests, narrowing the curriculum at the expense of science, history, and the arts and mandating unproven cookie-cutter reforms on schools. As a result, it has lost the support of teachers, principals, and parents, whose support is needed for any reform to succeed.
That puts it fairly succinctly, and makes clear that under an Edwards administration we would see an attempt at a very different Federal role in pre K-12 public education than has been the case during the Bush administration.

Education is of critical importance to John Edwards, both because of his personal experience, that of his family (all four of his children attend(ed) public schools) and his vision for the nation.

At the beginning of the webpage from which I am obtaining the information about the Edwards plan, there are two paragraphs from a press release about the speech he gave in Iowa on the plan that are worth reproducing in their entirety:
"Education is an issue that's very personal for me," said Edwards. "I grew up in a small, rural town and my parents didn't have a lot of money. But I was lucky to have public school teachers who taught me to believe that somebody from a little town in North Carolina could do just about anything if he worked hard and played by the rules."

"Every child deserves to have the same chances I had," Edwards continued. "But today, millions of young people don't get these opportunities. More than a half-century after Brown v. Board of Education, we still have two school systems, separate and unequal. George Bush's No Child Left Behind law is not working, and Washington is simply not doing its part to invest in early childhood education, teachers, or support for struggling schools."

At this point I am neutral in the presidential contest. As a Virginian, my focus between now and November 6 will remain the contest for Democrats to gain control of our General Assembly. People I know and respect in Virginia are about equally split in their support for the top three Democratic candidates. I am a professional educator, and for me education is as important as any other issue with the possible exception of protecting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I am not, in writing this piece, endorsing a candidate. But I can say without hesitation that I view this plan as a remarkable document, a very good start at laying out the guidelines for making serious and positive changes that will sustain and improve public education in this country. I have never met the candidate, although I was fortunate enough to be able to speak about education with his closest adviser, his wife, whom I found well informed and willing to listen. I think the proposals in this plan are a wonderful starting point for a serious discussion on education beyond merely talking about how we keep NCLB from destroying public education. I will be interested in what other professionals in education have to say about this in the various sites in which I will post and/or distribute this piece.

Again, I have my points of contention, but they are more than outweighed by the overall excellence of what Edwards has put forth. I hope this in an indication that serious discussion about education will continue to play a major role in the forthcoming federal election cycle.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

The idea of pilgrimage 

On the Op-Ed page of today's Washington Post is a provocatively entitled piece, An American Hajj written by Charles Crohn, deputy director of the American Battle Monuments Commission. He uses the Muslim obligation of Hajj, the mandatory one-time visit to Mecca as a metaphor and asks
What if every American who is able to do so made an effort to visit at least one American military cemetery overseas during his or her lifetime?

Reading that paragraph got me thinking, not merely about the idea of visiting military cemeteries, whether here (I do live in Arlington VA) or overseas. Rather I began to reflect on the idea of the journey, the process. This diary is a product of that reflection, on the idea of pilgrimage.

There are of course several possible meanings of the "pilgrimage." One is a journey, especially of distance, to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion. Another is any long journey, especially if undertaken as a quest or for a votive purposse. In this latter sense traveling to visit the grave of someone you admire would qualify as a pilgrimage.

Such journeys have played important roles in our history and our culture. Think for example of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales which use as a frame people journeying to the site of the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett, an action later honored in the poetic drama Murder in the Cathedral by American-born Nobel Laureate T. S. Eliot. On a far more mundane level, the city of Memphis has benefited immeasurably from the tourist trade generated by its having the location of the home of the "King" of Rock and Roll: Elvis Preslyes' Graceland Mansion may be a commercial site, but it is clearly a destinate of pilgrimage for many.

Even a superficial examination of the behavior of most Americans, whether or not they consider themselves "religious," will demonstrate an inclination to make pilgrimages. Some are personal, perhaps taking the spouse and kids to places important in one's youth, or along on a college reunion, as many of my original college classmates have done at our various gatherings including this year's 40th. It may be visiting the graves of relatives or of dear friends, or of people not known personally but whose prior lives played a major role in one's own: all of these motivations can be seen merely by observing those visiting Arlington National Cemetery, a few short miles from where I write this, and for me a place in which I have participated in funerals both for people I know and for the unmet father of a dear friend.

It may seem somewhat ironic that pilgrimage has played a major role in my life, given that I have chosen to wander through various religions. One destination in Greece clearly carried the religious motivations, but many others were for me equally profound. I will briefly share about my own experience of pilgrimage, perhaps nudging you to reflect on your own.

I have been Jewish, Episcopalian, Orthodox Christian and Quaker. Of these the only one which has for me a pilgrimage association is the Orthodox. The Orthodox Church in America, in which I was for 14 years and in which for some odd reason I held a variety of positions from local to national levels, has several recurring events. These probably qualify as minor pilgrimage events. The annual gathering at St. Vladimir's Seminary in Crestwood NY is probably more of a fraternal gathering and a means of raising money for the seminary than it is strictly speaking a pilgrimage: while eminent men have taught there, one finds no graves at which one honors them. But at St. Tikhon's Monastery and Seminary in S. Canaan, PA, there is a graveyard containing the remains of many of the eminent leaders of the church. Orthodox have a tradition of an annual visit - pilgrimage - to burial sites (although many monasteries dig up the bodies after a year and all that one will find in a charnal house is the bones, sometimes wih the skulls labeled, sometimes not). Locally one will visit and decorate the graves on Thomas Sunday, named for "Doubting Thomas," which on the liturgical calendar falls the Sunday after Pascha (Easter). St. Tikhon's has a Divine Liturgy, food and fellowship, but a key part of the anual event is a procession to the cemetery for a memorial service for the honored department, bishops, monks, honored priests from around the country, their families, and others. This kind of pilgrimage, which I made at least 6 times, is a means of honoring the continuity of the faith tradition. It connects one with those that went before.

During my Orthodox years I also three times went to Mount Athos. This northernmost finger from the Chalkidiki peninsula has had monks on it for more than a thousand years, it is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Center as perhaps the greatest collection of Byzantine art, documents, religious objects and architecture. It is also a functioning center of worship, and a destination for male Orthodox (no females allowed) from all over the world. For a decade my spiritual home was the monastery of Simonas Petras, who spectacular setting gives one little idea of the vibrancy of the spiritual life within. I would go there for up to a month at a time, but at the direction of my spiritual father, the Abbot, also walk all over the peninsula visiting other monastic establishments, large and small. I learned to walk along the wooded paths rather than catching a ride with a logging truck or a bus or 4-wheeled vehicle along the logging roads. The great theologian and writer Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who as lay convert Timothy Ware wrote the most important introductory volume about the eastern church, entitled simply The Orthodox Church once explained why he walked rather than ride by noting that in a pilgrimage the journey is as important as the destination, something we Americans in our haste to arrive often forget. If, as my experience taught me, I am on a trip for the sacred, how I journey is as important as where I am going. Perhaps one can consider it an illustration of a secular understanding that is contrary to the insight of Machiavelli: at least in this context a noble end cannot justify an inappropriate means.

There are other places to which I have gone on pilgrimage. Oh, to be sure, those destinations may not have been the sole reason for the travel I had undertaken, but they were important enough that I ensured I set aside time to visit. That includes Westminster Abbey in London, itself the final resting place of so many of importance. It includes, since I am a musician by background, training and inclination, Mozart's Gerburtshaus in Salzburg.

In his short piece on the idea of an American Hajj to overseas military cemetaries, Krohn offers the following:
Americans visiting our overseas military cemeteries will find themselves enriched in ways I can only partially explain. At a minimum, the visit will prompt a renewed, and awesome, appreciation of those who sleep in the dust below.

Such experiences help put into perspective how our nation benefits from the sacrifice of those willing to put their lives on the line. Without such devotion to dangerous duty, the United States has little to hold itself together. Prosperity is not enough. Our history is based on service, costly service.
This insight is cogent, and clearly indicates that one purpose of pilgrimage can be to remember the sacrifices made on our behalf in a way that connects more directly perhaps because we have traveled, perhaps because we see visible - and physical - evidence. Our willingness to engage in such a pilgrimage is one expression of what we value, how we are willing to be shaped and directed.

People have sometimes noted that one could determine a person's values by at her passing examining her checkbook - where she spent her money as an indication of her values. One can certainly make a similar analysis by an examination of how one's time was spent. And I would argue that the act of pilgrimage provides a similar insight. This is true of the kinds of physical journeys I have described, my own and those more traditional. It is equally applicable to the mental and emotional and spiritual travels within one's own life. In my case the most important pilgrimage I have undertaken has been an exploration of who I am "spiritually." My journey through multiple faith expressions, something which may not yet have reached its final destination in my current spiritual abode in the Religious Society of Friends, is the most important single thread on my journey through life.

And here I realize that life itself is perhaps the most important pilgrimage we undertake. The final destination of our physical life will be our passing, our departing from this life, our death. Ware's words now carry greater cogency, for if that were the only purpose of our life it might seem somewhat pointless, the journey without as much value. But because it is also HOW we travel to that final destination the journey takes on greater importance. The pilgrimage of the journey through life enables us to grow, to take into ourselves the accumulation not only of our own direct experiences, but also experiences and insights of those we encounter, and those to whose present physical abodes we travel, be they cemetaries of the deceased or residences of those still physically in this life.

How we journey is as important as where we are going. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, with whom I overlapped at Haverford, wrote a book entitled Wherever You Go, There You Are. This is a Buddhist expression (Jon moved in this direction many years ago), and deals with issues like being centered. I mention in this diary not because I think readers need to become Buddhists (I am not) nor even practice any of the forms of meditation associated with that tradition. Reflect on the title as it applies to the idea of this diary. And see it also as Ware describes the process of pilgrimage. We are always on a journey, even if we do not recognize it, nor as yet know our destination. And even a physical journey to a place of pligrimage, religious or secular, will the first time we embark upon it take us to a place we do not yet know. Our arrival at that place will make it different merely by our presence, and how we experience it will be shaped by how we travel. If I were to "helicopter in" because I am in a hurry to "get it done" I am unlikely to truly experience as I could: my impatience will mean I come unprepared, and unwilling to accept what the place has to speak to me.

I think this is also true of life in general, of our political and social endeavors, of our human interactions. I will be changed by any journey I undertake, and the direction I choose to travel, as well as the means by which I make that journey, are both indications of what really matters to me.

So that is my reflection on pilgrimage. I will be interested both in your reactions to what I have offered, and in your own reflections, about some of the destinations to which you have journeyed, and why.

And I thank you for having taken the time to travel through these words along with me. I have enjoyed your company.


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The US is no longer the greatest nation - what will we do? 

crossposted from dailykos

Hubert H. Humphrey told us
It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.
I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we live in a nation whose government fails all three criteria of that moral test. As a teacher I have wrestled with aspects of how we deal with our children. Last night, belatedly, my wife and I saw “Sicko.” I have no choice but to conclude that we also fail our elderly and those in the shadows. Shall we say that the implications of that conclusion are shattering, requiring radical reorientation of my thinking?

I will not recapitulate nor review the movie. I was sitting with my spouse, Leaves on the Current, who had recently spent several days in Prince Edward Island for an extended family reunion. Her Canadian relatives are in large part politically and personally conservative. Yet without dissent they all were strongly supportive of the Canadian national healthcare system. She has also live in England both as a child when her father had a Fulbright to Cambridge and again as an adult when she attended Oxford on a Marshall, and thus has experience with the National Health System which some American politicians and others who profit from our system have denigrated: she knows how wrong those aspersions are. On our honeymoon when one of us developed a medical condition while in French Polynesia, we were able in a small town to go in to a pharmacy and obtain relatively cheaply the non-prescription materials necessary to address the condition. I remember noting the lack of non-medical material sold in the store, which was far smaller than even the average independent drugstore here.

During the student riots that spread across much of Europe in 1968, I had been surprised to read that Frenchmen had the right to free university education: no need for Pell grants because of one’s low income, nor Stafford or other loans to encumber those who attended with massive amounts of debt.

We sometimes have great inequities within our school systems due to race and economic status, and clearly our perverse financing system, based on the value of the real estate within the municipality or county in which the schools are located merely exacerbates and extends the preexisting economic – and hence often social –- disparities with which our nation seems permanently infected.

We are unwilling to move towards a livable wage floor because our business interests do not want to lessen their profits.

We allow dumping of pensions through the bankruptcy process, thus impoverishing some elderly – and that is only if there were a defined benefit pension in the first place.

Our solution to many social problems is to criminalize behavior on an inequitable basis. Thus we have a 100-1 disparity in sentencing between crack and powdered cocaine although we have known for years that they are pharmacologically equivalent, and the person most likely to become our next – and first female – president does not seem inclined to challenge us to move to parity in sentencing, but merely to lower the disparity to 10-1. And the consequence of our criminalization of social problems gives us the highest incarceration rate in the Western world. In many cases we use that as an excuse to further push people into the shadows of life by lifetime sanctions even after those convicted under such a approach have completed their terms: they permanently lose voting rights in many states, and for a single juvenile drug offense one can potentially be permanently barred from Federal benefits such as the ability to obtain the aid so many need in order to better themselves by a post-secondary education.

On ancient maps, when people did not fully understand the world around them, we might encounter a text and illustrations of that lack of understanding: “This way be dragons.” Mariners were supposed to fear going into that “unknown” although sometimes a few did, and others might have maps that showed lands and currents that belied the scary words on the more commonly used maps. For too long Americans have been told – by their government, by their media, by those who profit from the madness and inhumanity of much of our current system – that to go beyond the boundaries they are willing to place on our maps is not to be risked. We were told “this way be dragons.” Those dragons had scary names: socialism, communism, and the like. Our schools are mandated to teach that the capitalist free-market system of economics is the only acceptable way. Except we have never fully had a capitalist free-market system. Our Constitution recognizes protection of patents and copyrights, we require government-issued licenses to enter many businesses and professions, and in some cases we set quotas – on how many cabs a city will license, or how many acres of hops can be planted – that guarantee a profit for those lucky enough to benefit by those quotas while passing on the costs for those profits to the rest of us, who have no choice, who are limited in the competitors from which we can select.

In the movie Moore muses about those things that are “socialized” like police, and fire, and libraries, and public schools. We have not always considered these as public goods to be provided for from the general revenue – there are many historical examples of how such services were provided through private, subscription only (and sometimes for-profit) exemplars. Increasingly in the past few decades we have seen an effort to privatize many of these functions. Even in some cases where things are nominally public, we have the disparity of wealthy communities with well-equipped schools and public libraries, and police and fire with the latest equipment adjacent to those whose tax base has shrunk so that the schools are decrepit, the fire equipment obsolete, the police insufficiently trained, and the libraries closed and shuttered.

I noted at the beginning that I have been shattered. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that my illusions have been shattered. I wrote that I needed a radical reorientation of my thinking. The etymology of the word “radical” are from the Latin, radix, for root. We need to get to the roots. And that takes me back to one famous tale from the Classical period. Alexander the Great encountered a famous challenge, one of which it was said if he solved it he would rule the world. It was the massive Gordian knot, which many had tried to unravel but failed. Alexander took his sword and cleaved it asunder. One might argue that he took a radical approach.

I have no sword, no instrument except my thought, which is far from perfect and limited in the experience from which I can draw. And as I write this it is less than 12 hours since I departed the movie theater – I have not yet finished the cogitation and reflection which is within my power to offer. I will nevertheless offer my as yet far from complete and most assuredly incomplete thinking, in the hopes that other may be able to build upon what I share. And I will do so within the frame of quote from Humphrey with which I began.

THE DAWN OF LIFE – it is simply unacceptable for a nation with the wealth, nutritional knowledge, and medical expertise available within its borders to have an infant mortality rate higher than those of many countries much poorer than ours. Those who survive infancy are often permanently damaged, and thus forever disadvantaged in a society in which we overemphasize competitiveness. For years we have recognized the fundamental inequity of his. That is why we have had programs such as WIC to address the needs of women, infants and children. But like so many other programs, we have rationed the amount of assistance offered on the grounds that full coverage would be exorbitant. And since it is a program for “those people” – the poor, often minorities – we comfort ourselves in the belief that it probably won’t make that much of a difference anyhow. We ignore the long-term cost of not caring for all of our people, a cost which is greatly increased because of our reluctance to expend the necessary funds up front. And then we decrease the effectiveness of the funds we do provide with layers upon layers of bureaucracy and paperwork, all required because of the attitude that people might otherwise get something to which they are not entitled. We try to make a distinction between worthy and unworthy poor, and are prepared to ignore and even punish those we classify as the latter. I know of no great religious tradition that allows for such a distinction in discussing the moral obligations we have to our fellow man, and I see no Constitutional basis for such a distinction in the providing of governmental services. We must as a nation and a society recognize that if we do not fully ensure the necessities for future development of all of our young we belie that founding notion that all men are created equal. We certainly do not fully believe that fetal life is equivalent to those already born if we deny the mothers carrying them complete access to the medical and nutritional care that can ensure healthy development and healthy birth.

THE TWILIGHT OF LIFE – here we encounter issues both of health care and of income security. Social Security and its accompanying program of Medicare are often insufficient to provide the full needs of many of our elderly. They were designed in a context of private pensions through employment, in a time where extended life beyond the employable years was not as extensive as it is today. It is one of the wonders of our health care that we have been able to have so many elderly, an ever increasing proportion of our population. But we have not rethought how we ensure that they are cared for. And again, and as we will see with so many of our service programs, the levels of bureaucracy and the amount of paperwork required because we start with the presumption that people might be unworthy for the services means even the insufficient funds we apportion to these services are not fully expended on services to the elderly, but instead are consumed in the screening, the recording, the reporting. Reduce the bureaucratic aspects and the same funds could provide far greater services. We do not use the power of government to help as effectively as we could. The new prescription “benefit” is an atrocity. Having the government provide for all seniors, and/or using bulk buying to keep down costs could enable complete prescription coverage for all seniors with no donut hole, conceivably for far less than we now spend for incomplete coverage. Of course we would have to address two issues. First, we would not be paying for the excessive profits of PhARMA. And we would not be indirectly repaying the member corporations for the expenses they incurred in lobbying Congress and the public, for the advertising that constantly tells us to ask your doctor,” for the “contributions” to political candidates and parties, and so on.

THE SHADOWS OF LIFE - on this America is immoral, and we cannot justify our inaction, our neglect that is far from benign. We dump poor people out of hospitals and onto the street because they lack medical insurance, because we export jobs, or because they never receive care for treatable medical conditions, physical or mental. They are unemployable because the school available to them are horrid, often in buildings falling apart, thereby telling them even as children that we do not care about them (test scores not withstanding). Their mothers get little or no assistance when they are in utero, or when they are nursing. And our corporations urge those mothers to buy formula rather than rely upon their own milk, which may be insufficient because the mothers receive insufficient nutrition, and whatever problems it may create for them are increased for their unborn children and for those young enough to be nursed. If you have mental or emotional problems and you are poor, if you are lucky you are warehoused – but not treated – in a state hospital. If you are unable to fully function on your own, you are on the streets and the steam grates, unless there is shelter which can take you in. Those who have traveled in Europe with medical systems that we dismiss as socialist, think how often you encounter street people and then compare it to what you might see in major and many smaller American cities. The results of such a comparison will not be flattering to our nation.

There is nothing I have written in this essay that is not fully accessible to every thinking American. And yet we continue with social and economic policies that perpetuate inequality, that waste our human capital, that misuses what limited funds we do apply to fix problems that would be far less were we to take a preventative approach instead of the insufficiently ameliorations we do assay.

We need to recognize that if we are going to be a fully moral society we can longer continue privatize basic social functions. We must assert that every person in this country is entitled as a matter of basic rights to sufficient nutrition to meet basic needs, to the medical care necessary to prevent illness where possible and to care for those illnesses and conditions which cannot be avoided. Each American should have access to free and quality education at least through the equivalent of an Associates diploma from a junior college or its equivalent in technical training and apprenticeships. All American should be guaranteed the income necessary to sustain them when they are too young, too old, too sick, or too disabled to work.

My favorite passage in the New Testament is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. But I think most people misunderstand it. It is framed as two sets of four statements. In each set the lawyer asks a question, Jesus being the good Jew he is answers with a question back to the lawyer. The lawyer gives an answer which shows his complete understanding and Jesus affirms that answer. The first set is straightforward – question, question, answer, affirmation. The lawyer then initiates the second set by inquiring “But who is my neighbor?” Jesus then tell the parable, a teaching story, an illustration, not a recounting of an historical event. Jesus then asks the lawyer who was neighbor unto him set upon by the robbers. The lawyer’s answer, which points at the Samaritan, is of course what Jesus is expecting. And his response of “Go thou and do likewise” should be the point understood in the larger context. It is that we already know what is the right thing to do, the course of action we should take. That parable is for us the sword in Alexander’s hand. The problems before us assume Gordian proportions only if we attempt to unravel them in a piecemeal fashion. If we are willing to think radically, we already know the only possible approach we can take.

This is my response to “Sicko.” It is as yet incomplete, not fully formed, and in need of the insights of others. I hope at least a few of you found reading this far too prolix and inchoate set of ramblings derived some value therefrom. I look forward to being challenged by your responses.

And I wish in the broadest sense possible what I always wish:


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Civil Rights groups call for NCLB changes 

this is crossposted from dailykos

No Child Left Behind, the title for which was stolen from the motto "Leave No Child Behind" of the Children's Defense Fund, has as a primary purpose to ensure that minority children and special education recipients receive full attention and opportunity to succeed - this is one reason the law requires the disaggregation of test scores by groups including race, Hispanic identity, and special education education classification. Thus when a common statement is issued by most of the important civil rights and disability organizations, it behooves to pay attention to their concerns. Yesterday a letter was sent to the House and Senate Education committees signed by more than 20 of such organizations.

The letter calls for the use of multiple measures both in assessing student learning and in evaluating school performance.

I hope that the Members and Senators will give this letter the deference it deserves. To facilitate that process I am attempting to make its contents as widely known as possible, hence this diary. Please keep reading to learn more.

The letter, whose complete text can be read at the website of the Forum on Educational Accountability, was signed by the following groups, the list of which I offer first to make clear the widespread agreement on this issue:

Advancement Project
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund
Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance
Civil Rights Project
Council for Exceptional Children
Japanese American Citizens League
Justice Matters
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
Learning Disabilities Association of America
National Alliance of Black School Educators (NABSE)
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.
National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE)
National Association for the Education and Advancement of Cambodian,Laotian, and
Vietnamese Americans (NAFEA)
National Coalition of ESEA Title I Parents
National Council on Educating Black Children
National Federation of Filipino American Associations National Indian Education Association
National Indian School Board Association
National Pacific Islander Educator Network (NPIEN)
National Urban Alliance for Effective Education (NUA)
(and I note that ASPIRA is the education and leadership development of Puerto Rican and other Latino youth and ACORN is a community organization of low- and moderate-income families, working together for social justice and stronger communities).

The letter (whose authors have sought my help in publicizing it and given me permission to quote as much as necessary) expresses "strong support for a comprehensive model of accountability" which it seeks through "multiple measures which can focus schools both on developing high quality teaching and learning and on educating all students to graduation." They believe the law can be improved "to better foster genuine educational progress and to hold schools and school systems accountable for a broader array of
important educational outcomes" through the use of "a relatively simple and feasible system of multiple indicators" and they write:
We believe that the accountability provisions must include a system of multiple assessments of learning, which can help schools focus on assessing the full range of standards and skills appropriately, and multiple indicators of school performance, which emphasize the importance of keeping students in school and educating them to graduation.

Ideally, schools should be held accountable for student growth along all parts of the achievement continuum. They should demonstrate continuous progress on an index of indicators comprised of multiple academic assessments, plus measures of student progress through school, such as graduation and grade promotion rates. Together, these components can support a comprehensive and educationally beneficial accountability system.

They note that
A number of studies have found that an exclusive emphasis on (primarily multiple-choice) standardized test
scores has narrowed the curriculum
and which indicated narrowing of curriculum both in increasing limiting of instruction to the subjects tested, reading and math, at the expense of other subject, and even within those subjects narrowing instruction to the limited format (usually only multiple choice) and content of state tests which often over-emphasize low-level learning. The letter goes on to say
As reporter Thomas Toch recently stated, "The problem is that these dumbed-down tests encourage teachers to make the same low-level skills the priority in their classrooms, at the expense of the higher standards that the federal law has sought to promote." To succeed in college, employment and life in general, students need critical thinking and problem solving skills that the tests fail to measure, and they need a complete curriculum.

The letter notes that the every-year testing requirement of the law discourages the use of instruments that test higher-order thinking skills - such instruments are more expensive and time consuming, even as they tend to motivate stronger teaching and learning. While I am not personally a fan of international comparisons, since such comparisons have been used to denigrate American public education, it is interesting that the letter notes
These kinds of assessments – which include written essays, oral examinations, research papers, open-ended problems, and other performance assessments – are routinely used in high-achieving European and Asian systems that emphasize higher-order knowledge and skills. Some of our nation’s highest performing districts and states have given up the high-quality assessments they created in the 1990s, because the law currently acts as a disincentive to encourage their continued use.
Here it is worth noting that Connecticut, When Betty Sternberg was in charge of the state's schools, wanted to maintain its high quality alternative year testing method. The cost of expanding that testing to every year was prohibitive. The response of the US Department of Education was to use cheaper (and hence lower quality) tests to fulfill the mandate of testing every year.

Let me quote a key part of one paragraph that may help explain why these groups are so concerned
Perhaps the most troubling unintended consequence of NCLB has been that the law creates incentives for schools to boost scores by pushing low-scoring students out of school. The very important goal of graduating more of our students has simply not been implemented, and the accountability provisions actually reward schools with high dropout rates. Push-out incentives and the narrowed curriculum are especially severe for students with disabilities, English language learners, students of color and economically disadvantaged students.

Those of us who were critical of the law when first proposed by the White House noted the push-out phenomenon was well-documented in the system in Texas which was serving as a model for the proposal. The authors mention studies which indicate the perverse effects of the law as written that the raising of "standards"is resulting in fewer students, especially of color, receiving an education.

Here in its entirety is the letter's justification for multiple measures of students and schools:
A central part of a solution to these problems is to employ multiple forms of assessment and multiple indicators, while retaining the powerful tools of publicly available assessment information and the critically important focus on equity. A multiple measures approach can help schools and districts improve student outcomes more effectively because:

1. The use of multiple measures ensures that attention will be given to a comprehensive academic program and a more complete array of important learning outcomes;

2. A multiple measures approach can incorporate assessments that evaluate the full range of standards, including those addressing higher-order thinking and performance skills;

3. Multiple measures provide accountability checks and balances so that emphasizing one measure does not come at the expense of others (e.g. boosting test scores by excluding students from school), but they can give greater emphasis to priority areas; and

4. A multiple measures index can provide schools and districts with incentives to attend to the progress of students at every point on the achievement spectrum, including those who initially score far below or above the test score cut point labeled “proficient.” It can encourage schools to focus on the needs of low-scoring students, students with disabilities, and ELL students, using assessments that measure gains from wherever students begin and helping them achieve growth.

The letter goes on to note use of multiple measures in making economic and business decisions, the possible negative consequences of relying upon single measures, and the professional standards of the measurement community which mandate the use of multiple measures for making major decisions. The current version of NCLB in theory calls for multiple measures of student performance, but the law has failed to promote their use for measuring school progress.

Those Yearlykos attendees who came to the Saturday morning roundtable entitled "Rethinking Educational Accountability" heard Doug Christensen, Commissioner of Education in Nebraska, describe a different way of doing assessment, and Sherman Dorn (who offered this diary with a link to the audio of the session) provide a broader context for assessment and accountability. I mention this because those who did attend or have listened to the audio are quite likely to grasp the basis for the arguments made in the final 4 paragraphs of, which I now quote in their entirety before making a few comments of my own:
Multiple indicators can counter the problems caused by over-reliance on single measures. Multiple forms of assessment include traditional statewide tests as well as other assessments, developed and used locally or statewide, that include a broader range of formats, such as writing samples, research projects, and science investigations, as well as collections of student work over time. These can be scored reliably according to common standards and can inform instruction in order to improve teaching and learning. Such assessments would only be used for accountability purposes when they meet the appropriate technical criteria, reflect state-approved standards, and apply equitably to all students, as is already the case in Connecticut, Nebraska, Oregon, Vermont, and other states successfully using multiple forms of assessment.

To counter the narrowing of the curriculum and exclusion of important subjects that has been extensively documented as a consequence of NCLB, the new law should also allow states to include other subjects, using multiple forms of assessment, in an index of school indicators. To ensure strong attention is given to reading and math, these subjects can be weighted more heavily. Graduation rates and grade promotion rates should be given substantial weight in any accountability system. Other relevant indicators of school progress, such as attendance and college admission rates, could be included.

Because evidence is clear that multiple assessments are beneficial to student learning and accountability decisions, we hope that the committee will take the step of providing significant funds to assist states and districts to implement systems that include multiple forms of evidence about student learning, including state and local performance assessments. Congress should also require an evaluation of state multiple measures programs to enable sharing of knowledge and improvement of state assessment and accountability systems.

A multiple measures approach that incorporates a well-balanced set of indicators would support a shift toward holding states and localities accountable for making the systemic changes that improve student achievement. This is a necessary foundation for genuine accountability.

It is not clear to me that NCLB will be reauthorized this year. Rep. George Miller is determined to get the House version passed, presumably by the end of September. While some of the issues raised in this letter have been discussed within the committee, the Ranking Member (Republican Howard "Buck McKeon)is visibly balking at the idea of multiple measures. And at a recent forum on NCLB sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus a representative of The Education Trust, an organization which claims it is dedicated to closing the "achievement gap" and which carries some weight among centrist members of the House and Senate, strongly opposed the idea of multiple measures. From discussions with staff I have come to believe that when reported to the floor the House version will have a relatively closed rule, making further changes to the committee version exceedingly difficult. That could cause a backlash. While it is not clear when the Senate version will come out of committee, and how different it might be from the House version, all indicators are that it will be at least several weeks later and have some significant differences. And in the Senate, the process of moving a committee measure to acceptance by the full Senate is, of course, far more subject to amending and dilatory tactics.

The danger is that if no reauthorization is sent to the President, we will instead get a continuing resolution, which would maintain funding at the current insufficient levels and allow the clock to continue running on the punitive sanctions. That could have a devastating effect on our schools.

Even with all of the changes suggested in this letter, NCLB will still be a badly flawed piece of legislation. And yet as the current incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act it is the primary mechanism through which the Federal government provides funds for public schools. IF there is no extension the school that will be most harmed are those with high numbers of minority and poor children. I have noted the impact of a continuing resolution. Thus I see no choice but attempting to make the most significant changes possible in the law.

This letter should carry great weight. It should be widely distributed - to the press, to Members and Senators not on the committees, to anyone with a concern about public education. There is a press release which covers the key issues, which is available at the Forum website in both HTML and PDF formats.

I hope you will consider passing this information on to whomever you think can help with the process. If your Members or Senators are on the Committee in her body, perhaps you can contact them with your support for this initiative: the list of House Committee members can be found here and that for the Senate here.

Please, if you care about public schools, do whatever you can in this effort. I thank you in advance for your cooperation.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Testing: an examination of its effects on one school 

crossposted from dailykos

Let me start by noting that I am no fan of No Child Left Behind, and have opposed it since before it became law in 2002. I am actively involved in lobbying for major changes in the current efforts to reauthorize the law. As a high school social studies teacher I am not directly impacted by the law, because social studies does not count for Adequate Yearly Progress. I do have to prepare students for tests required for graduation, and I see the impact of NCLB in the lack of preparation in many of the students arriving at our high school. While I can write about my observations and describe what the literature is saying about the effects of NCLB, that probably does not give the full negative impact of the law, which is felt most fully in elementary and middle schools full of lower-income and minority students.

Linda Perlstein has written a book that gives as good a portrayal as I have seen of those negative impacts. In Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade, Perlstein follows one elementary school in Annapolis for a full year as a means of showing us how school life and learning are changed by the need to meet AYP.

Perlstein is a former Washington Post education reporter, whose previous book, Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers enabled readers to understand the perceptions and experiences of middle school students. In that work she closely followed 5 students at Wilde Lake Middle School in Howard County Md. For the current work she was given full access to Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis. She was able to sit in on classes, talk with students, teachers, and administrators, observe faculty meetings and conferences. All of the school and district staff agreed to allow the use of their names, while pseudonyms are used for the students and their families.

The school was an interesting choice. Tyler Heights is the kind of school testing advocates and supporters of NCLB like to cite. The principal, Ernestine (Tina) McKnight had arrived in 2000 to a school in which only 17 per cent of the student performed satisfactorily on the state tests. By 2004-2005, the year before Perlstein spent in the school, the percentage of students scoring at least "proficient" (the euphemism for passing) was up to 85.7 in reading and 79.6 in math. On the surface, this was the kind of school that would seem to demonstrate the effectiveness of a high stakes approach. After all, it was not exactly full of white, middle class kids from stable families:

When Tina arrived at Tyler Heights, three in five of its students were under the poverty level or not far above it - a number that would increase within five years to 70 percent. - p. 34
Nearly one-fifth were children of immigrants, with the Hispanic population having grown from 85 to one-third, with many of these either not speaking English at home or before arriving at Tyler Heights at all. The overwhelming percentage of students were black, but of the classroom teachers one was half black and the ESOL teacher was Hispanic, while the rest were white. There were other blacks on staff, including McKnight.

Maryland has changed its testing program since I first began teaching in a middle school in 1995-96. In those days there was a program called MSPAP, for Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. The testing, which was in selected elementary and middle school grades, did not give individual student scores, and required integration of the four core subjects of English, Math, Science and Social Studies. NCLB required testing in Reading and Math only, but in all grades, 3-8 (and once in high school, for which the High School Assessments in English and Algebra required for graduation also serve as the tests to measure AYP). Schools in which students arrive at school with strong language skills, from upper middle class backgrounds, do not have to worry so much about their scores. In fact, unless they are designated as a Title I school (with a significant number of economically poor students) they have little to fear from the sanctions of failing to make AYP. Title I schools like Tyler Heights face significant sanctions should their students not continue on the eventually impossible task towards all student proficient by 2014. Yet describing the nature of the problem in general does not have the same impact as telling the story of one school and its students and staff: perhaps this is an ironic illustration of Stalin's famous statement that the death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of millions is just a statistic. And in the context of Tyler Heights, by the standards of NCLB the school is a success. What Perlstein is able to show us is that below the surface and behind the test scores, the cost of achieving that "success" is at least disturbing if not horrific.

The school system required the use of certain packaged curricula, Saxon Math and Open Court Reading. The latter has highly scripted lessons that the teachers are supposed to follow. Perlstein succinctly addresses this at the beginning of a chapter entitled "A Bank Teller Could Pick Up the Lesson"
Think about your favorite teachers from your youth: the ones who changed your life. The ones who taught you lessons you carry with you years later. Chances are, these were the teachers with a gift for improvisation, artists of the classroom who brought a spark of life to the most mundane subjects. Chances are, they didn't teach from a script. - p. 50)
This is illustrative of how Perlstein presents the reality of what she saw. She will weave in observations, extracts from research, and combine these with the detailed recording of the experience of those in the school, the staff and students. In the process she brings life to the issue in a way missing in many of the debates over educational policy. Thus in a discussion about how companies are profiting from No Child Left Behind, Perlstein recounts McKnight's experience at attending a presentation at a principals' conference of a vendor who had been brought into her school during the 2005-2006 year using the success of Tyler Heights in its promotion. She was furious because they were implying they were responsible for the success in 2004-2005:
Like these guys had anything to do with third-grade math proficiency jumping 24 points? Fourth-grade reading jumping 49? p. 195
She was too polite to make a public scene, even when the vendors pointed her out to the audience. This anecdote is presented at the end of a section where Perlstein has explored the costs of NCLB in transfers of funds to the private sector, starting with the gross costs in the billions, tracing through the connections of individuals like Neil Bush and people who had helped promote in implement NCLB in the government like Sandy Kress and Gene Hickok to the individual consultants and firms McKnight had had to hire under pressure from the school system. Thus the elements of distortion and possible corruption are placed in a context beyond that of the mere numbers of dollars.

Perlstein is a gifted writer. She also does a solid job of weaving the relevant professional literature into her story. My copy of the book is heavily annotated. Often we find examples of one sentence placing everything in context, and I can offer two examples from one page, 68. After a discussion of a guidance counselor attempting to help a child deal with his stress, Perlstein writes
But it's expecting heroics to ask a child who feels he doesn't matter - who leaks hope even at age seven - to derive enough solace from a tightly gripped tennis ball to change his world
Perlstein immediately follows this by beginning to analyze why some expectations of the reformers who insist on "no excuses" are unrealistic. Before getting to the specifics of the situation at Tyler Heights she notes
To deny what happens outside of school affects what happens inside is to deny reality
The reality is that the students at Tyler Heights do not come from middle class families, with all the support associated with such a setting. Parents may themselves lack literacy and organizing skills. They may not speak or read English, and thus be unable to assist with school work, or to check a school website for assignments. They may have a history of conflict with authority, or be unable to get to school because of work or lack of transportation to meet with teaches. And they may also lack parenting skills, so that their children arrive at school not only without sharpened pencils, but also without control of emotions and impulses, thereby severely complicating the the process of educating them and the other students in the classrooms they disrupt.

When you read this book, you cannot help but begin to grasp how narrow the education has become for the children at Tyler Heights. Until the MSAs are completed in March, their education has been restricted to little more than test prep. When reading instruction (including preparation to write the formulaic brief constructed responses required for the MSA) is expanded to 3+ hours of each school day, all McKnight (herself a former social studies teacher) can do is suggest that some of the reading passages be on science or social studies, since those subjects basically disappear from the school day - after all, they are not part of the testing for AYP. And the approach required in the mandated curriculum makes it even worse. Students learn key phrases and "hundred dollar words" that they are supposed to remember to include in their BCRS (brief constructed responses - about a paragraph). Perlstein is focused on the 3rd graders, the youngest children tested on NCLB. One teacher has them write 5 times "I know this is a poem because it has rhyme, rhythm and stanzas" but only write 3 poems. Again Perlstein is able to place all in the proper context (p. 128):
Even if the students were going to write a paragraph instead of a poem, why couldn't they have been given anything interesting to write, to stretch their minds. One week the Open Court reading passage told the story of a hallucinating cat who burst into verse upon sleeping in catnip and took a strange medicine from a witch - the tale was so kooky Miss Johnson could barely keep a straight face - and all the BCR asked was, "How do you know this is a poem?"
The Open Court Unit was Imagination.

I received the book unsolicited in the mail, accompanied by a note from the director of marketing. When I checked, I was informed although I have never met nor corresponded with Perlstein, she had placed my name on a list of people to whom she wanted the book sent in the hopes that I might write about it. The book is officially published this week. Tyler Heights would be considered a success by proponents of the high stakes testing approach of No Child Left Behind. Certainly under the leadership of Tina McKnight the school has produced test scores that are notable. What Perlstein is able to do is provide the reader with the reality of the cost of those scores. Most parents would probably recoil from having their students in such a restricted learning environment. And for many students they are able to succeed on the tests because of intense focus on test preparation without necessarily learning the underlying skills those tests are supposedly assessing. Given the pressures placed on educators this should not be surprising.

I have been involved with the issues around NCLB since before it became law, having even at the beginning of my career had to deal with earlier testing mandates. I found the time spent reading the book worthwhile, which is why I decided to write about it, although there was no obligation for me to do so. Because the book is new this may be your first encounter with it, and you may question how much reliance you wish to place upon my analysis and judgment. Perhaps the best way I can assure of the effectiveness and utility of the book is to quote the only blurb on the dustcover. It is written by someone with whose writings on educational matters I often have strong disagreements, E. D. Hirsch: that the two of us find ourselves concurring on something should by itself be worthy of note. So let me end by quoting his words:
If you want to know what is going on in our schools in the age of No Child Left Behind, this is the book o read. To the heroism of our overly-blamed teachers and to the cluelessness of our administrators and policymakers, especially those who have imposed unwise test regimens in response to the new law, Linda Perlstein's gripping story is an indispensable guide.


Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.

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