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.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Real Battleground - a Teacher's View 

(note -- this will also appear on dailykos)

Perhaps the thoughts not a high school teacher do not matter all that much, particularly one feeling overwhelmed by all that is on his plate right now:
- the normal planning for the week
- having a lesson that will work when I am out one day next week
- having to complete my portfolio for National Board Certification by March 31
- doing an evaluation of a proposed article for a new educational journal
- doing my taxes
- cleaning the house

Okay, the last two are not directly related to being a teacher -- all the others are.

So why I am I blogging, and what on earth do I have to offer anyone else by my words?

Let me provide a context. The high school in which I teach is quite diverse -- while about 1/3 of our students are admitted by competitive exam, most from outside out attendance area, and we get others for things like our sign language, foreign language, and string music programs, we are also a geographic. We are in the poorest performing of the suburban counties around Washington DC, although our school does quite well. Our 2,800+ students are majority Black (that group truly including students who are African as well as Caribbean, beyond those normally described as African-American), but also includes many students of South and East Asian background, others from the Middle East, and every imaginable background of European orientation. We are located in a political jurisdiction that is fairly liberal, although we have our share of those who are more conservative. And we have every religion imaginable -- we are not far from the International Headquarters of the 7th Day Adventists, we have Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers, Santeria, more than a few of the Unification Church [Rev. Moon), Mormons, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, one Jain, E. Orthodox, and every imaginable branch of Protestant Christianity, as well as the self-described Wiccans and Pagans. [Trust me -- all of this will be relevant].

Now I will explain how this belongs on a blog devoted to political topics. Let’s begin with Social Security. This is an age group which polling data says is strongly in favor of Bush’s (not yet defined plan). My Social Issues Class just explored the subject. I will tell you that the students, juniors and seniors, are more conservative than the school as a whole -- in that sense they are probably a fairly accurate sample of their age cohort nationally, with the exception for those communities totally dominated by one religiously conservative church. And this is where it is interesting -- the more they learned the less they accepted the basic premises of Bush’s plan.

I gave them around 20 pieces from newspapers. These range politically from Ivins and Krugman on the “left” to Walter Williams, Jeff Jacoby and the editorial pages of the Washington Times and Wall Street Journal on the right. The more they learned, the more hostile they became to Bush’s approach. When given an opportunity to design something to address the problem on their own, they came up with three proposals -

1) leave Social Security alone, because there is no problem.

2) Raise the ceiling from 90,000 to 125,00, but increase slightly the benefits for those who pay in the 90,000 to 125,000 range [not as much as their additional contributions, but something to get them to buy in to the additional burden on them).

3) Make benefits strictly needs-based -- everyone pays in as they do now, but then people when they apply submit a financial statement showing all assets, with the more they have, the less they get. As one student put it, “why should Bill Gates be receiving ANY Social Security?

Again, let’s note the following -- the more they learned, the less they were inclined to support the outlines of the Bush proposal. And it is not as if I was presenting them with a one-sided point of view on the subject. They read, they argued among themselves, and then they went in a different direction.

I would guess that the vast majority of those polled have received little detailed information about the issue than have my students. I would also guess that those people who take the trouble to explore the issue the way these teenagers did would in general come down very much in agreement -- that the crisis is overblown, and that the proposals being floated by the President and other Republicans do not make sense. The only student who strongly disagreed is philosophically opposed to government involvement in Social Welfare programs of any kinds, although even she admits that for those people who have no family to support them in their old age the government bears some responsibility, although she would make it far more limited than current programs.

This is an example of an issue where in many cases students in our school are better able to discuss many of the issues than are adults, including far too often adults in positions of determining policy. But then, these students are regularly challenged to think, to organize arguments, to try to persuade others. This occurs not just in my classes, not just in Social Studies, but across the curriculum -- one English class just had a very heated discussion about the death penalty after the recent decision barring the execution of those who commit crimes below the age of 18.

These students are becoming prepared to be citizens, to participate in the political processes. They understand that such participation requires an investment of one’s time and energy if one is going to be able to participate with personal knowledge, and not merely depend on what others present in slick ads, and sound bites extracted by the media, in the artificial environment where for the sake of political advantage truth and evidence become fungible -- again, those who who are in our science and tech magnet are quite used to dealing with evidence with brutal honesty, recognizing that one’s assumptions are often not borne out by the data, which does not give one the right to use dat selectively, ignoring that which undercuts one’s prior beliefs or theses.

If our public schools are to truly fulfill their most important role, that of preparing our students to be fully participative citizens, far more of our education needs to allow this kind of exploration. All of life cannot be reduced to selecting the ‘best” answer out of four or five preselected[by others] choices. And while our students need to be able to support themselves, the agenda of many corporations that they want schools to produced a trained and compliant workforce [one that does not question authority, for example] does not necessarily match this important social need of our society.

We hear people say that we are ‘falling behind” our competitors. Far from it. Still far more scientific and technological advances are made here than in any other nation. There are many independent measures of this -- Nobel Prizes in the Sciences, patents issued, and so on. Our universities have long been the preferred location for students from other nations to gain scientific and technological training.

But if the desire for maximum profits even in the short term is allowed to outweigh every other consideration, and if we continue to shape our schooling based on the false paradigm that hs been pushed for several decades by the corporate sector, and by those who really oppose the idea of public schools, then in the long term several things will happen. One is that we will lose our advantage in very science and technology that our corporate leaders claim is in jeopardy. The second is that we will produce students less able to do the independent thinking -- divergent instead of convergent -- that is so essential in a truly free market environment and is absolutely the sine qua non for scientific advancement.

Further, because businesses so often refuse to devote the resources necessary to making our schools fully productive -- they want rebates on the taxes they should pay for the services they require -- they will feel less vested in the workers and communities around them. And since the profit motive rules all, even those workers who have been trained will find that their jobs disappear overseas to lower wage markets.

We are in a race to the bottom, not educationally as some would have us believe, at least not yet. The vast majority of schools still contain teachers and administrators struggling to give their students the best education they can, often with too many in a class, a lack of up to date scientific equipment or even current texts and library books. We are in a race to the bottom economically -- more and more their is downward pressure on wages, which places greater pressure on workers to make every cent go further, which increases the desirability of shopping at the Walmarts whose low prices are sustained by low pay and benefits for their workers and the heavy use of low wage suppliers overseas.

What many in our business world fail to recognize is the one great insight Henry Ford had, that he had to pay his workers enough that they could afford to by the product he made. Far too many of our companies and their leaders do not act as if they any connection between the roles their employees play as consumers to those they play as components of creating the profits for that corporate entity.

My students are diverse. As of yet most have not given up on schooling. This is important -- far too many of our students in this nation arrive at school in Kindergarten and First Grade excited about school, wanting to learn. By high school many have given up on that excitement -- they go through the motions, they may be motivated to get a grade [which often leads to the distortion of first focusing only on that which might be tested, and then seems to justifying doing ‘whatever it takes” including plagiarism and other forms of cheating to obtain that grade]. Since my primary course is Government, the fact that MOST [we are not perfect] of our students are still excited about learning means that we faculty still have an opportunity to help them develop as active and participatory citizens, people capable of taking responsibility for their own learning and knowledge, capable of resisting the propaganda that far too many use to sway people to political positions not necessarily in their own best interests.

The current pressures on our schools make the kind of teaching that I, and the other faculty at our school, offer our students less and less frequent. This is the real ground zero in the battle for the future of this nation. If we cannot provide a free quality public education we will lose the ability to maintain a democratic political system. If the information our students are allowed to explore, and the means by which they explore it, are limited to meeting the demands of narrow corporate and political interests, then all else we do as political activists will be of little import.

I have not blogged -- either on dailykos or on teacherken.blogspot.com -- as much recently because I remain fully engaged in this most important battle. In my role as teacher I am fighting a warfare of insurgency -- I have my small area in which I can engage in what is effectively guerilla warfare against the weight of the economic and political elites. My warfare is not to indoctrinate, but to teach my students how to think on their own, to be able to resist indoctrination. That is a far greater threat to the entrenched interests - who depend on a situation of indoctrination where no alternative view or paradigm is allowed -- than would be counter indoctrination.

This is my rant for the week. Unlike a certain lady on dailykos, I have not resorted to expletives. I offer this rambling piece as an explanation for my absence from posting, but also as a challenge.

TEACHERKEN ‘S CHALLENGE -- what are YOU doing to preserve our public schools as a place of learning and exploration for the best benefit of our children? Are you lobbying your legislators, Federal and state, to get away from the destructive and narrowing aspects of excessive testing, the punitive measures of No Child Left Behind, the restrictions of honest academic exploration? Do you respond to inaccurate stories about educational issues the way you do about Social Security and Medicare? Do you challenge the misinterpretation of comparative test scores the way you challenged the misuse of intelligence about Al Qaeda connections to Iraq? When teachers are unfairly attacked and have their words and actions misrepresented, do you protest as loudly as you did when Dean’s words and actions were distorted and misrepresented by the press? Are you willing to do as thorough an exploration of the background, funding, interconnections and motivations of those attacking and distorting public education as you did with Gannon/Guckert?

If not, then you don’t accept the premise of this post -- that schools are the ground zero for all of our battles. If we lose this campaign, we cannot in the long term win the larger war.

I await responses.

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.
Thank you. I have two grandsons, one is in the International Baccalaureate Program in Rockville MD, and other was just accepted at his local Montgomery Cty magnet school. I live in NH, and am an elected official in a small town. We struggle with funding our schools, because NH will not let go of the need to feel "tax-free." No income or sales tax, but lots of property tax! However, our town chooses to fund its schools pretty well. Not as well as we should, but better than many of the neighboring towns.
I am continually appalled at the attitude toward children in this country. Yes, I am very lucky that things go well for my family, but I care about other families too. Children are the future and the future looks grim for them. I cannot really fathom why we have become this society that simply doesn't care. Not all of us, but enough to drown the rest of us, for sure.
Keep speaking up when you have the time, educate those who look more and more to the blogs for real news, especially those who do not have children. They need to see that we all need our children to be the best people they can be.
Thanks for your comment, "Anonymous"

I presume the IB program is Richard Montgomery and the magnet is Montgomery Blair?

Montgomery County Schools are in general quite good, so your grandchildren are lucky.

And I'm curious -- how did you encounter my blog? Since I don't have a counter, I never know how many are actually seeing what I post here.
Actually Ken, I never wondered why you would discuss these things on your blog. They are all relevant to what we have chosen to do, teach.

Education is under constant attack from the right and sometimes the left. We need to do everything we can to make our case, and not just to each other.

BTW, a link to your site came my way from Joe Thomas over at Shut Up and Teach. My blog can be found here: The Endless Faculty Meeting.
Thanks for this, Ken.
Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?