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, November 30, 2005

Ivins on John Henry Faulk & Edward R. Murrow 

Yesterday Alternet featured a piece by Mollie Ivins entitled Standing Tall Against McCarthy in which she uses the occasion of viewing George Clooney's film on Edward R. Murrow, "Good Night, and Good Luck" as the occasion to inform those who did not know about John Henry Faulk. She also tells a story about Murrow's commitment to freedom of the Press. Since I cannot write about what is most on my mind (not yet - and I will explain when I can) today I thought I would draw attention to hois wonderful piece by Ivins. I will offer an introduction, a number of snippets, plus some equally brief remarks of my own. I do urge all to visit the link for Alternet to give them the traffic, and to consider supporting them for the wonderful work that they do.

John Henry Faulk was a very popular radio figure  who got caught up in the anticommunist rages of the mid 1950's.Part of his problem came about because he was explicitly against the blacklisting that was used to silence anyone who was seen as not pro-American or to por-communist  -  in otherwords, anyone who disagreed with the point of view of certain self-appointed guardians of what was right for America (if it sounds familiar, that is because it is absolutely relevant to our time and age, which is of course part of the point and power of Colleny's film).

Enough intro.  Now some Ivins.

The intro to the piece

Watching the new film "Good Night and Good Luck" about Edward R. Murrow reminded me of John Henry Faulk and his own heroic struggle against McCarthyism. Well, okay, Johnny did actually wage a gallant and valiant fight, but since it was John Henry, it was also weird and funny and full of improbable characters -- what is it about Texans that we can't even be heroic without being comical?

In the insanity of the times, blacklisting had become an institutionalized protection racket. An outfit of professional commie-hunters called AWARE, Inc., run by a guy named Vincent Hartnett, was kept on retainer by the networks, major ad agencies, and big sponsors to vet performers for commie sympathies. The more "commies" they found doing anything from soap operas to soup commercials, the more money they made. This gave them quite a financial incentive to find "communist sympathizers." Should a network or agency refuse to play along, Hartnett's friend Laurence Johnson, a grocery magnate from upstate New York, would pull the sponsor's products from his grocery shelves until they caved in. The American Legion would chip in with a boycott of the product, accusing Proctor and Gamble or whoever of being part of the plot to undermine America.

After Faulk and others took an explicitly anti-blacklisting position during a campaign for union office

Johnny was cited in AWARE's bulletin "Red Channels" on seven counts that were either completely false or distorted crap. Johnson came to New York and went up and down Madison Avenue pressuring Johnny's sponsors to drop his show. Some did and CBS eventually fired him even though his ratings were excellent.  

Faulk decided to sue.   The case is what eventually roke the blacklisting system, but it took 6 years to get heard, and financially and professionally ruined Faulk.  Ivins does not think he regretted it one bit.

Fualk hired Louis Nizer, perhaps the greatest trial lawyer of his day, but also very expensive.  Nizer agreed to take what was for him a nominal fee of onloy $10,000, far more than Faulk had.  He could only raise about $2,500.

Here's what happened next, as told by Faulk:

"As I was sitting at my desk at CBS, racing my mind for someone to call and borrow money from," he later recalled, "Edward R. Murrow called me from his office upstairs. He said he was terribly glad that I had filed the suit and that Carl Sandburg had sent word, 'Whatever's wrong with America, Johnny ain't.'"

Johnny chugged upstairs and laid the financial problem before Murrow who said, "Tell Lou Nizer, Johnny, that he will have his money tomorrow." And then Johnny protested:

        Look, Ed, I can't borrow $7,500 from you. Hell, I might lose my job.

       And even if I win the suit, there may be no money to repay such a

       sum as that.

Ed looked at me evenly and said, "Let's get this straight, Johnny. I am not making a personal loan to you of this money. I am investing in America. Louis Nizer must try this case. These people must be brought into court. This blacklisting must be exposed."

Faulk later learned Murrow had mortgaged his house in order to pay Nizer.

Ivins notes that Faulk remained uncomfortable about ahving borrowed the money, which he was never able to repay.

Let me close with Ivins final two paragraphs, as she writes so well that it would be criminal for me to try to summarize her thoughts or her words:

The Iranian journalist Shahla Sherkat, editor of the impossibly brave magazine Zanan (Women) in Tehran, says journalism in her country is like walking a tight rope -- you have to be very careful where you set your feet or you will fall (be disciplined by the state). Sherkat and other third world journalists face torture, prison, or death if they venture too far, but continue to press the limits anyway. Johnny Faulk felt that those who caved into or even played along with blacklisting and McCarthyism risked nothing more than their status -- prestige, access, country clubs. He thought if people had shown more courage, McCarthy never could have gotten started in the first place.

It does not seem to me that Faulk's rawer, truer courage lessens Edward R. Murrow's. Murrow took a lesser risk, but had more at stake. Only those who were close to Johnny knew how wistfully he regarded that lost career. And how toward the end of his life he was simply thrilled to be back on television -- on a show called "Hee-Haw!"

In a time when those with dissenting views have again been attacked, when there are again organizations (Brent Bozell or Reed Irvine, anyone?) dedicated to eradicating such contrary expressions, or when we see commercial interests  (Clear Channel or Sinclair broadcasting companies) acting in fashions similar to Aware, or when far too many business interests seem unwilling to be supportive of free and open public discourse, I found this story a bracing reinforcement in my strong support of free expression.   Thus I wanted to be sure that more people were aware of it, and of the valiant efforts of John Henry Faulk on behalf of us all

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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Relevant in light of Cunningham 

but worth reading under any circumstances is the annual lecture for the John Woolman Memorial Association of Mount Holly NJ given by Dan Seeger.  Entitled Commerce, Community, and the Regulations of Universal Love, it is a pdf file with pictures.   Since this would take over 5 minutes to download on a dialup line, youu can choose instead the stripped down version without the 17 photographs and illustrations.  

Let me give the opening paragraph to illustrate

Ruin is the destination to which the United States is rushing headlong.  We look at our political leadership and see that everything is for sale, that all political decisions are reduced to economic decisions, that indeed we are on the verge of having no political system, only an economic system.

Seeger's lecture is an appropriate offering in memory of John Woolman (1720-1772), a Quaker tailor who lived in Burlington.  As you can read in Wikipedia he was a major influence in persuading Quakers that they should not keep slaves, and himself refused to do any work that might be involved with slavery.   He followed the Quaker teachings on simplicity in his own life, and he abided by the Frfiends Peace Testimony by opposing the French and Indian War.

Here is a snippet from the Wikipedia article

In 1754 Woolman wrote Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes. He refused to draw up wills transferring slaves. Working on a nonconfrontational, personal level, he individually convinced many Quaker slaveholders to free their slaves. He attempted personally to avoid using the products of slavery; for example, he wore undyed clothing because slaves were used in the making of dyes. Whenever he received hospitality from a slaveholder, he insisted on paying the slaves for their work in attending him.

Woolman worked within the Friends traditions of seeking the guidance of the Spirit of Christ and patiently waiting to achieve consensus. He went from one Friends meeting to another and expressed his concern about slaveholding. One by one the various meetings began to see the evils of slavery and wrote minutes condemning it.

In his lifetime, Woolman did not succeed in eradicating slavery even within the Society of Friends in the United States; however, his personal efforts changed Quaker viewpoints. In 1790 the Society of Friends petitioned the United States Congress for the abolition of slavery. The fair treatment of people of all races is now part of the Friends Testimony of Equality.

Most relevant to the Seeger lecture is Wooman's famous essay A Plea for the Poor or A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich, which if you have never read you should.  I will offer only one selection from this relatively brief and yet quite powerful piece of writing:

If a wealthy man, on serious reflection, finds a witness in his own conscience that there are some expenses which he indulgeth himself in that are in conformity to custom, which might be omitted consistent with the true design of living, and which was he to change places with those who occupy his estate he would desire to be discontinued by them--whoever are thus awakened to their feeling will necessarily find the injunction binding on them: "Do thou even so to them."

Enough of introduction.  Let me offer a few selections from Dan Seeger.  I regret lacking sufficient time to make this a throroughly organized diary.  I do want to make people aware of the work, and to encourage them to read Seeger's piece.  Thus I will offer selected passages with little commentary.

Relevant given what has just happened with Duke C:

Politicians, lobbyists and economic operators have become interchangeable. Businesses pay to play.  They kick back contributions to the political parties, give key political hacks lucrative jobs in their firms, and support the party program.  In return they receive tax breaks, the loosening of regulations, helpful treatment from government professionals, access to the nation's common resources which they then sell at enormous profits, and permission to use a repertoire of tricks to suppress the market and limit competitive pressure.  

After going through a number of troubling economic statistics from others, Seeger offers the following:

A very troubling aspect of the situation is that even the measure of economic wellbeing which remains in the United States seems to depend upon our continuing aggression against the earth itself, the ultimate provider of our survival, and on an ever more desperate need to go to any lengths to ensure a flow of natural resources like oil and minerals to ourselves from the poverty-stricken political communities which sit on top of these resources in foreign countries.  

Most of the lecture is derived from reflecting on the Woolman essay about the poor, and Seeger will focus on 3 key points.  I will try to give a sense by offering Dan's words, without overburdening you with too much text.

W oolman unequivocally states that our possessions and our prosperity are gifts from God, and that the resources we find at our disposal ought to be treated as a trusteeship which we must employ to further God's purposes in human society. It is, of course, common in Christian worship, and when asking the Lord's blessing before a meal, to give thanks for what we have, and to credit God as the source of everything.  These are, after all, commonplace sentiments of Christian piety to which Woolman is giving voice.  But to what extent do Christians actually believe these sentiments? Once grace is over and the dinner table conversation about worldly affairs begins, are not we more apt to regard our assets as just deserts for our own hard efforts, and do we not ascribe to ourselves an absolute right to dispose of these resources as we see fit?  This sentiment which so contradicts the professions we made when saying grace is apt to be most starkly expressed when the subject of taxes arises.

 So let us consider the nature and origins of wealth.  

Remember that Woolman had seen how much of the wealth upon which many depended in the US was dependent upon the labor of slaves, and had been troubled by it.  I will note that many of us today often do not stop and think how much of our olwn spending goes for products and services that are produced in conditions that are the modern equivalent of slavery.  And even when we attempt to shop wisely perhaps patronizing outlets that sell the goods produced in 3rd world cooperatives, the conditions for those overseas do not seem to change.  After all, many people overseas work long and hard hours.  Why are they not able to "succeed" and build fortunes?

The problem is that economic transactions in these Third World settings are limited to what are called self-enforcing transactions - transactions the gains from which are realized by each party at the moment and in the place that the transaction is made.  and order and currency, even by millions and millions of such transactions.  Selfenforcing transactions are ubiquitous in societies which remain impoverished.  How does a poor market economy of peddlers in bazaars become a rich market economy like that of Western Europe?  

Here the role of the government will become increasingly important, according to Seeger.   I will not quote his entire analysis, which you should read on your own.   But I will offer this:

All private wealth is a creation of the community; without the government and the community individuals may have possessions only in the way a dog possesses a bone, but that is all.

Economists, in their turn, are naive in their tendency to deal with economic questions as if government were some sort of outside force, instead of understanding that government and economics are intrinsic to each other.   They are naive in their tendency to over-emphasize the "privateness" of property, without duly recognizing its inherently social character.  They are naive in their assumption that there can be sensible conversation about economics which is value-neutral, which does not in some final sense allude to the proper use of things, as John Woolman repeatedly does in his writings.  

I am beginning to run out of time to work on this.  Therefore I will conclude this very disorganized diary by simply offering several more quotes from Seeger, and again urging you to go and read the entire piece.

Economists like to present the free market system as a meritocracy - it rewards those among us who are brighter and who use their superior talents to make a greater contribution to community well-being.  This supposition contains the germs of two very difficult questions: how does a value-neutral discipline such as economics pretends to be test this hypothesis "scientifically" without a concept of community wellbeing or social good; and even if it is shown that rewards are allocated according to social contribution, how can it be shown that the rewards are commensurate in some way with the resulting good?  But leaving these questions aside, the meritocracy idea, while it has some measure of validity, simply ignores the degree to which factors of merit are outbalanced and overwhelmed by the degree to which a modern market economy is a kind of lottery.  

I said earlier that the discipline of economics, imagining itself to be a kind of science, seeks to function without reference to ethical values.  There is however, one respect in which values do enter conventional economic theory, in that it does value efficiency, and without declaring efficiency to be an "ethical" value, does nevertheless act as if it is the highest good.  Whatever will increase wealth most efficiently is deemed the best course.  For a nation considered as an aggregate, this measure of wealth production is known as the Gross Domestic Product.

There are a number of problems with this commonly used measurement often employed to lull citizens into complacency with assurances that everything is getting better.  For one thing, the index will measure as positive economic production all the rebuilding which will occur as a result of hurricane Katrina, but it will not take account as a deficit of all that the hurricane destroyed. The GDP would also count as a positive value the overexploitation in the present of a limited resource, which upon exhaustion will leave people impoverished in the future.  

But the most telling shortcoming of this often bandied about number is that it takes absolutely no account of inequality.  It uses wealth creation as an index of the success of an economy without giving any attention to distributive justice.  More and more wealth going to fewer and fewer people, even to such an extent that the living standards of a majority were falling, would show as a positive GDP.    

There are three observations that must be made about the phenomenon of the tragedy of the commons.

One is that although the problem is framed in terms of pastures and livestock, it is by no means a problem confined the segment of society which deals with farms and animals.  Fisheries, forests, oil and mineral deposits, public highways, and national parks are all commons.  The air in the atmosphere and the water in lakes, streams, rivers and the ocean are treated as commons.  Some of these commons are used for their extractable resources, some are used as waste dumps.  Some are used for both purposes.  In the cases of some commons, what is extracted is renewable provided it is not over-exploited; in other cases the resource is strictly finite - once used it is gone forever.

The second observation which should be made is that we have been habituated to thinking of the commons as infinite in comparison to human need.  In many historical circumstances this was true.  It hardly mattered how a lonely frontiersman in North America disposed of his wastes.  But even in the past the natural world was not as infinite and inexhaustible as an idealized view of the golden olden days might lead us to imagine. There have been many times in history when populations have collapsed and civilizations have vanished due to the overexploitation of the natural resources upon which they depended. . . .

The third thing that should be observed about the problem of the commons is that one of capitalism's most dangerous flaws is that it has absolutely no inherent method of dealing with it.  No all-wise invisible hand of the marketplace steps forward to tell us when to refrain from over-exploiting the environment.  

A verting the calamity towards which our nation and world are heading due to a dysfunctional political economy will depend upon a reform program which expresses the following seven perspectives, at least:

  1. Wealth must be understood as the product of the political and social arrangements which made its accumulation possible, and not be viewed solely as the creation of the individual or small group which may claim it as a private possession.

  2. Government and economic activity are intrinsic to each other.  Government both makes economic activity possible, and provides the necessary means for guiding such activity in directions which serve the common good.

  3. Every economic transaction, every economic arrangement, every economic policy has an ethical dimension which must be made explicit and which must be evaluated in the process of determining the reasonableness of the exchange. The idea that economic study can be carried out as a morally neutral science is a myth.  John Woolman puts it succinctly: We cannot discuss property rights without a concern for what is righteous.

  4. Given the essential role of government, taxation is a good thing, and paying taxes may be one of the best uses we can make of our money.  While citizens need to be engaged to be sure that government resources are used wisely and effectively, there is no evidence that, in general, government is less efficient than the private sector, where the costs of numerous extravagances and dishonest practices are routinely passed on to consumers.

  5. Markets are a useful component of the economic order, but there are profound economic issues and problems which markets are incapable of addressing and which must be resolved by other means.  Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon (democratic government regulation) is a key item in the armamentarium of additional coping mechanisms.

 6) The earth is the ultimate source of all wealth.  It is finite, and is in imminent danger of being irretrievably over-exploited.  All economic activities must be pursued in a way which guards the longer term sustainability of the planet's resources.

7) Maintaining regimens of government regulation which are effective requires constant vigilance.  Rules governing the regulation of an industry should be simple and equitable.  Complexity is the enemy of honesty.  A firewall needs to be established to prevent staff rotation between the regulator and the regulated.

Finally, here is Seeger's conclusion:

To quote John Woolman: "The Creator of the earth is the owner of it. . . His tender mercies are over all his works; and so far as his love influences our minds, so far we become interested in his workmanship and feel a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and to increase the happiness of the creation. . .Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings contrary to universal righteousness are supported; and here oppression, carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soil."

Devising a just economic order for the future will be an exercise in social ethics and spiritual vision.  It is a work which will bring joy and fulfillment, but it will involve effort. God, the creator and owner of the earth, both enables us and requires things of us. The economic system of the future cannot be rooted in greed and self-centeredness, but must acknowledge the divinely ordained interdependence of all parts of the earth. Let us, then, strive to ensure that human laws and arrangements become consistent with the fundamental truth of things, so that they express what John Woolman calls "the regulations of universal love."  

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 27, 2005

Are Children Savages? 

I want to devote my diary today to a posting that is not directly on education, albeit intimately involved with it. After all, between DevilsTower and myself the Dailykos Recommended list saw two fairly significant education diaries yesterday.

Instead I want to explore the question of whether the behavior of children today is significantly worse than in previous years. The impetus for writing this is an piece in today’s NY Times entitled Kids Gone Wild by Judith Warner, an author and radio host. The title of my diary is derived from the 7th graf in which we read
Whether children are actually any worse behaved now than they ever have been before is, of course, debatable. Children have always been considered, basically, savages. The question, from the late 17th century onwards, has been whether they come by it naturally or are shaped by the brutality of society.
So if children’s behavior is worse, does that mean our current society has made them so?

As is my normal practice, I will focus on particular passages in the article and offer my own observations and commentary. Readers are of course encouraged to use the link in the intro to read the entire piece, which is not that long, if it might be of interest to them (and to ensure if they must that I am not “cherrypicking” a la the Bush administration only those parts that support a predetermined position).

I caution readers that I have a strong opinion on this subject, derived from my 11 years as a public school teacher, having taught grades 7 through 12. I also caution them that it might be a mistake to assume what that opinion is before you read further.

After stating at the beginning that the idea “kids should be seen and not heard” might be due for a comeback, the author notes in the first graf
American society seems to have reached some kind of tipping point, as far as tolerance for wild and woolly kid behavior is concerned.

She quotes polling behavior that says 70% of Americans consider children’s behavior significantly worse over the past few decades, and as an equal annoyance with “obnoxious” cell phone users. She then offers the following example:
The conservative child psychologist John Rosemond recently denounced in his syndicated column the increasing presence of "disruptive urchins" who "obviously have yet to have been taught the basic rudiments of public behavior," as he related the wretched experience of dining in a four-star restaurant in the company of one child roller skating around his table and another watching a movie on a portable DVD player.

Here I might note that I have seen adults in high class restaurants who talk far too loudly as if everyone else were interested in what they say, have heard people listening to portable radios and watching portable tvs (without earphones), and seen others reading books and magazines (only the latter not adding to the noise level). When that behavior was annoying to others, usually a request to the restaurant was sufficient to get the behavior modified. I might also note that I have seen relatively few children at the high class restaurants at which I dine. But I acknowledge that behavior such as that cited by Rosemond does occur, although I might question how widespread it is, or if it is significantly more disruptive than that I have seen from adults in similar settings. Please remember this last point.

The article cites surveys from Public Agenda, in which in 2002 only 9% thought children were publicly respectful towards adults and in 2004 one in 3 teachers considered leaving the profession or knew colleagues who had left because of the behavior of children. My immediate reaction is that I have seen a significant number of adults who have no memories of what it is to be a child, who act disrespectfully towards children and then are shocked when the behavior is emulated and redirected at them. I also note a significant albeit relatively small minority of those I have seen entering teaching who really do not know how to work with young children or adolescents (depending on grade level) and who blame the children for their inability to maintain a positive learning environment - their sole management style is to threaten, scream, and complain. They make get conformity to their demands, but it will be sullen at best, and undercut as soon as they turn their backs. I don’t care how well they know their subjects or how well they score on teacher tests, these people do not belong in classrooms, and I really don’t care for their opinions about the behavior of children. But for now, I will grant that there are disruptive and rude children, and let’s move on.

After citing of all people Madonna, the article moves through the paragraph I first cited, where the question is whether the behavior is natural or shaped by society. The very next graf may provide a clue, and please note what I have placed in bold:
But what seems to have changed recently, according to childrearing experts, is parental behavior - particularly among the most status-conscious and ambitious - along with the kinds of behavior parents expect from their kids. The pressure to do well is up. The demand to do good is down, way down, particularly if it's the kind of do-gooding that doesn't show up on a college application.

The article goes on to cite how the expectations of children’s behavior has changed. That is,
parenting was largely about training children to take their proper place in their community, which, in large measure, meant learning to play by the rules and cooperate

Conduct was a window into one’s character, and there were certain fairly universal expectations.
Rude behavior, particularly toward adults, was something for which children had to be chastised, even punished.

parents might still
like their children to be polite, considerate and well behaved. But they're too tired, worn down by work and personally needy to take up the task of teaching them proper behavior at home.
Here a direct quote from the Harvard child psychologist who offered the last observation might be pertinent:
"We use kids like Prozac," he said. "People don't necessarily feel great about their spouse or their job but the kids are the bright spot in their day. They don't want to muck up that one moment by getting yelled at. They don't want to hurt. They don't want to feel bad. They want to get satisfaction from their kids. They're so precious to us - maybe more than to any generation previously. What gets thrown out the window is limits. It's a lot easier to pick their towel up off the floor than to get them away from the PlayStation to do it."

But the real issue is that parenting today focuses on training kids to be competitive - in the classroom and on the athletic fields,
and the kinds of attributes they need to be competitive are precisely those that help break down society's civility.

Warner continues with a number of observations from Kindlon, including that the emphasis of success values achievement over people, kids doing so much additional schoolwork that they don’t do chores, and other adults not getting involved:
"Nobody feels entitled to discipline other people's kids anymore," Dr. Kindlon said. "They don't feel they have the right if they see a kid doing something wrong to step in."

Here Warner again cites the data from Public Agenda in 2004, that
Nearly 8 in 10 teachers . . . said their students were quick to remind them that they had rights or that their parents could sue if they were too harshly disciplined. More than half said they ended up being soft on discipline "because they can't count on parents or schools to support them."

I have to interject at that this point that my own experience does not support this. I have never been undercut on discipline by my school administrators, even in the one case that went all the way to the superintendent. I have encountered what we call “red flag parents” but I have never allowed that to undercut the application of appropriate discipline. I do, however, have to keep scrupulous records, and I make sure to be proactive, both in communicating with parents and in informing administrators of possible difficult situations. But I acknowledge that I am in a far more fortunate situation than are many teachers around the country, and I make no pretense at generalizing from my own anecdotal experience.

The piece I am citing raises some real questions. I will just offer several of what I think are the most appropriate points:

"We always want to blame the kids, but if there's something wrong with their incivility, it's the way their parents model for them."

There's also the chance . . . that when children are rude, obnoxious and outrageously behaved, they're trying to tell parents something - something they've got to shout in order for them to hear.

”These kids are so extremely stressed from the academic load they're carrying “

"They have no kid space."

... parental over-involvement in their children's lives today often hides a very basic kind of indifference to their children's real need, simply to be kids.

Let me also offer the final two grafs:
If stress and strain, self-centeredness and competition are the pathogens underlying the rash of rudeness perceived to be endemic among children in America today, then the cure, some experts said, has to be systemic and not topical. Stop blaming the children, they said. Stop focusing on the surface level of behavior and start curing instead the social, educational and parental ills that feed it.

This may mean less "quality" time with children and more time getting them to do things they don't want to do, like sitting for meals, making polite conversation and - Madonna was right - picking their clothes up off the floor.

In the various threads on education, we always see people talking about behavior. Some commentors will complain about the kids, some will complain about the parents. There is, from my perspective, some validity to both sets of complaints.

I am not a parent (except of 5 rescued cats, one of whom is a real behavior problem, but we have no intention of giving him up, any more than most parents would give up a misbehaving child). Thus you may choose to discount the words I have to offer about parenting. I do think parents are a major part of the problem, but that is because I think the pressures they experience from today’s society contribute greatly to the kinds family structures and pressures that lead to what I consider aberrant behavior on the part of their children -- that is aberrant, because it is not ultimately productive for society. And here I focus most of all on the loss of kid time.

I am by choice a professional educator. I am also by choice one who has jumped into the fray of educational policy debate. I read extensively, I think about it a great deal, and I impose my viewpoints through postings in the blogosphere. And I am increasingly coming to the viewpoint that our focus on what is “wrong” with schools, teachers, etc., entirely misses the point.

I have often said that we need a serious debate about the purposes of schools and education. I till believe that is true.

But that debate can be meaningful only if it occurs within the framework of a larger debate, about the shape and nature of American society.

And perhaps this is why I et so upset at the rhetoric on why our schools are failing, because America is not “competitive” with other nations, or our test scores are lower, or our test scores are decreasing, or we don’t produce as many engineers as China or India (countries with many times our population, but never mind). It is the entire framing of the discussion in competitive terms.

Now don’t misunderstand. I coach soccer. I am very proud of the fact that in my years as a junior varsity coach I have never had a losing season. This year we were 8-1-1, outscoring our opponents 21-7. It is not the winning record per se that please me, but the improvement in skill and teamwork that my guys develop over the several months we were together. I started with a group of small, relatively inexperienced players, and we defeated several teams larger, faster, and individually more skilled than we were, because we learned how to work together. And I think at least part of the reason we were able to do that is because I gave them the opportunity to organize part of how we practiced, chances to do free scrimmages (where i said nothing).

I remember growing up how much of what I learned about sports and about teamwork came from informal games, not from the organized leagues.

I also remember how much of my passion for certain kinds of learning came because I was allowed to explore on my own.

And I see very little opportunity for most of the children I now teach to have similar experiences, and that scares me on their behalf.

I accept that we see a great deal of rude and/or inappropriate behavior among our young people. I do not think it is any worse than the behavior they see modeled by adults, and I do not mean just their parents. I remember Conservatives screaming about how Clinton’s behavior with respect to Monica Lewinsky set a horrible role model for our children. I was teaching 9th graders then, and their overwhelming reaction was that the response of most adults was hypocritical, hat none of them particularly modeled their behavior, sexually or otherwise, on what any politician did. They did, however, often raise concerns about the lack of comity they saw displayed in political exchanges, how people were willing to do anything for the sake of a political victory. Our children were watching, but as often happens, the lessons they learned may not have those in the official curriculum.

If we place so much emphasis on achievement and ranking and success and do not also include emphasis on things like sportsmanship, civility, common courtesy, then we should not be surprised at the behavior we encounter in our young people. And I do not think we should blame them.

And if it is ourselves and our society that bares the greater responsibility, why then are the only correctives we take punitive to our children? What will be the lessons they learn from that?

For myself, even as I am a demanding teacher, the most important thing I can give my students is that we must live in a world in which respect and courtesy matter. I have no rules posted in my class, none of this “break this rule and here’s the consequence.” I do have three questions, applicable to all including me, that we need to ask. The first, and most important, is to ask if my words and actions demonstrate respect for myself and towards others.

I would argue that if we expect our children to act respectfully towards each other and towards adults, then we adults - both those of us who regularly interact with the young people and those in leadership positions in society - need to tart modeling such behavior by acting with respect towards them, and towards each other.

The behavior of our children could use improvement. But that will not occur in an environment where our political and civil discourse is anything but civil, full of invective, denigration, and attack. it that is what we value, that and “success” over anything else, then it is foolish to waste any time wondering why we encounter the behavior of young people about which we complain.

By the way, it has been my experience that those adults who treat students with respect, who take the time to explain the reasons for the actions they make, who are willing to acknowledge to students when they (the adults) are wrong and apologize for their own shortcoming, these adults have far fewer behavior problems among their students. And unless and until the shape of our schools is changed so that it demonstrates a greater degree of respect towards our students, we are likely to continue to have concerns about the behavior there, or that our children demonstrate in society as a whole.

Are children savages? They are clearly not little adults, except in one way. They are absolutely accurate mirrors on our society, their behavior being a right-on reflection of those values we adults choose to hold most dear, as we inevitably demonstrate in our own words and actions. So if our children’s behavior is unacceptable, the answer is not to blame them, or to seek punitive corrective action aimed at them. The real answer is to look at ourselves, at the increasing coarseness of much of our society, and to attempt rectification at that level. If we continue with a “do as I say not as a I do” approach we are ot only kidding ourselves about how effective that can be, we do our children - and hence the future of this nation -- a grave disservice.

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, November 26, 2005

BLUEBERRIES: our wrong national education policy 

I hope the diary title at least intrigued you enough to come this far. Much of national education policy has been driven by the idea of making our schools more businesslike. This is in fact not a new phenomenon, as Larry Cuban notes in a book I am reading, which is entitled The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses. Since I am not finished with the book, I won’t use this posting to give a long analysis, although I will point out that Cuban is one of the most respected historians of education we have ever produced.

Today I offer a story well-known in educational circle from the beginning of his book. It expresses a key point often misunderstood by educational policy makers and those - especially but not exclusively from the business world -- who think our schools should be run more like businesses. I will offer the entire story, and then a relatively few other snips from the book. That will be the bulk of the posting.

Offered by Jamie Vollmer, a former CEO, the story is known simply as “The Blueberry Story”

The teacher gives the businessman a lesson.
"If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn't be in business very long!"

I stood before an auditorium filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute. My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of inservice. Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation. You could cut the hostility with a knife.

I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools. I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the middle 1980s when People Magazine chose our blueberry as the "Best Ice Cream in America."

I was convinced of two things. First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the industrial age and out of step with the needs of our emerging "knowledge society". Second, educators were a major part of the problem: they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly. They needed to look to business. We knew how to produce quality. Zero defects! TQM! Continuous improvement!

In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced - equal parts ignorance and arrogance. As soon as I finished, a woman's hand shot up. She appeared polite, pleasant. She was, in fact, a razor-edged, veteran, high school English teacher who had been waiting to unload.

She began quietly. "We are told, sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream."

I smugly replied, "Best ice cream in America, Ma'am."

"How nice," she said. "Is it rich and smooth?"

"Sixteen percent butterfat," I crowed.

"Premium ingredients?" she inquired.

"Super-premium! Nothing but Triple A." I was on a roll. I never saw the next line coming.

"Mr. Vollmer," she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, "when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?"

In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap. I knew I was dead meat, but I wasn't going to lie.

"I send them back."

"That's right!" she barked, "and we can never send back our blueberries. We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant. We take them with ADHD, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language. We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it's not a business. It's school!"

In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aides, custodians and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, "Yeah! Blueberries! Blueberries!"

And so began my long transformation.

Since then, I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.

None of this negates the need for change. We must change what, when, and how we teach to give all children maximum opportunity to thrive in a post-industrial society. But educators cannot do this alone; these changes can occur only with the understanding, trust, permission and active support of the surrounding community. I know this because the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and, therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.

(the story above is Copyright 2002, by Jamie Robert Vollmer and is online at his website, on which one find the quote
”Public education’s most precious resource is public trust. We must regain that trust, and in so doing, gain community permission to change our schools.”
. Vollmer is dedicated to improving schools, but he no longer takes the arrogant position of most business leaders. As you can see by going to his website, he starts by urging teachers and other educators to promote their successes.)

Cuban points out that business leaders have been involved in several generations of educational reform, even when the periods of reform have sought seemingly contrary goals (earlier reforms included insistence on tracking, on development of vocational education, for example, not exactly the high level college preparation insisted on by many today). Be he also, immediately after sharing the Blueberry Story, offers an important caution, one which I as a teacher strongly endorse:

Policymakers and others who set out to overhaul schools encounter a fundamental paradox: teachers and principals who block changes sought by reformers are supposedly the problem, yet these very same educators -- almost three million strong -- are the people who connect with more than fifty million children daily and do the essential work of schooling, Inescapably, therefore, they also have to be the solution.
(p. 5).

Far too much of the rhetoric surrounding the arguments about educational policy seems premised on the idea that those of us working in the schools do not have the best interests of children at heart. It often has a tinge to it that leads one to believe its advocates think that by using punitive measures and relying on rhetoric that denigrates those already committed to our children that somehow magically the schools can become a place that solves all the national problems of the day. This pattern of considering that more and better public education is the solution to all such problems is not knew. As Cuban notes
Generations of reformers have delegated public schools to solve such problems as racial segregation, poverty, lack of patriotism, and even alcohol and tobacco abuse; they have pushed changes in schooling that, they believed, would prepare students to handle these social issues better than their parents did. . . . reformers also looked to schools to solve the problem of lagging global economic competitiveness in the 1890s and the 1970s. This pattern of expecting education to solve the national problems is deeply embedded in the nation’s social and economic structures.
(p. 11)

I acknowledge that I am a pest when it comes to the issue of education. In many ways I am a contrarian, as I have discovered during my forays into educational policy here in the blogosphere. Today I will not explore what I think should be done. That would take far too long for one posting.

But I ask people to remember this: we have a shortage of qualified teachers currently in our classrooms, we want to improve our public education, and if we are going to attempt to do so, we must acknowledge that reality. We must also recognize, as the first Cuban quote I offered makes evident, that we cannot successfully change our schools without the cooperation of the millions of us already dedicated to the future of our children. That suggests that the voices of educators needs to have more predominant places in our public dialog, and that our role should not merely to be the punching bags for politicians and others looking to score points. We have a responsibility to work cooperatively, but it is unrealistic to expect enthusiasm from those who receive the bulk of the criticism and yet have little opportunity to offer our experience.

And when you listen to our voices, your attitude may well change. Vollmer went from being a typical business critic of public schools, wanting them to be more like businesses, to one of the most passionate advocates of schools and teachers. All because of blueberries.

What do you think?

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, November 23, 2005

Swords into School Desks 

s the title of a new piece by the irreplaceable Mollie Ivins, the entirety of which you can read here. As you neighborhood educational blogger pest, I thought I would devote a diary to exploring what she offers. As usual, I will offer some selected quotes, and probably far too much of my own commentary.

WARNINGS BEFORE YOU START: (1) I consider Ivins essential reading, and am surprised that her work is not feature by other bloggers far more often than it is. After al, anyone who survived attending San Jacinto Junior High with the President needs to be given every benefit of the doubt. (2) I have o students until next Monday, as we broke yesterday afternoon. That makes me depressed (as I always am when I am not teaching - see this story at MyLeftWing that addresses it. (3) As always, I insist that we not take our eyes off the issue of education, not only because it is important in itself and because I am a teacher, but because it represents the very future of our democracy. Finally, (4) it will not end as you might expect.

Continue reading at your own risk.

After calling things such as nominations to the Supreme Court and indictments at the White House “mundane” and declaring her desire to focus less on what is wrong and more on possible fixes, Ivins offers the following:
Here's a starter: I would like America to be a country where we spend more money on educating people than we do on the military.

Now, for someone like me that is guaranteed to grab my attention, even if I think it is highly unlikely we could ever come close to reversing the current ratio. If memory serves, not including the supplementals for Iraq, the Federal expenditures on Defense are in excess of 400 billion, while those for education (not including food stamps, which come from the Agriculture budget) are less than 400 million. Since that represents between 7 and 8 % of the total expenditure on K-12 PUBLIC education, that means the total expenditure for public education is less than 6 billion per annum.

Ivins notes that the occasion for her writing this particular column was hearing Ray Suarez on PBS suggest that we make education our top national priority:
He suggests that this would have so many unexpected side effects -- ranging from science to race relations -- that it would effectively be a revolution.

She then attempts to calculate the cost of our military, and uses a figure, including Iraq, substantially higher than the one I did,one in excess of 50-00 billion, describing it as 52% of the discretionary budget, and offers (which I will not repeat - go read the article) an explanation of what she means by discretionary.

Her next brief paragraph also got my attention:
The group Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, whose purpose is to educate the public on how the federal government spends our money and what priorities are, suggests cutting 15 percent from the military budget and redirecting it.

I had two immediate reactions. First, these business leaders clearly are not from companies in what Eisenhower described as the millitary-industrial complex: there will be no execs from Halliburton or General Dynamics to be sure. Second, using her figure of 500 billion, that would represent a poll of 75 billion per year, which is more than the Federal government currently spends on all social related programs that are not entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.

I immediately decided I needed to take a look at this group, whose webpage is here. My first reaction is that they probably would not carry much weight in the broader business community or in the MSM as important business leaders: the first names I encountered were Ben Cohen and Stansfield Turner. But when I looked further I thought Maybe, just maybe, they cold represent the start of a process, since their description of key people included
Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities was formed in 1998 because top American businesspeople believe that the federal government's spending priorities are undermining our national security. Advised by retired admirals and generals, Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities' 650 members include the present or former CEOs of Bell Industries, Black Entertainment Television, Goldman Sachs, Men's Warehouse, and Phillips Van Heusen - as well as Ted Turner and Paul Newman.
and their military advisory committee was listed as having
decades of experience analyzing defense requirements.  They have concluded that this shift can take place while still maintaining the world's strongest military, sufficient to meet America's vital interests. The MAC includes: Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan (USN, ret) former commander of the North Atlantic Fleet; former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb (under President Reagan); Admiral Stansfield Turner (USM, ret.) who served as CIA Director, and others.

I decided this was worth a further look. So let’s return to Ivins. She is going to rely heavily upon their research, especially that of Larry Kolb. But her own words as usual carry great impact.

After noting that we are so strong that even with some cuts it is impossible to believe that anyone could conceivably represent a military threat to this country, she offers some specific examples. Let’s give a snippet of the text:
Anyone who has watched the poor National Guard getting called back to Iraq again and again can figure out that quite a bit of this money is not being well spent.

Just for starters, is there anyone -- anyone -- who thinks we need more than 1,000 nuclear warheads in order to have a credible nuclear deterrent at this time? By cutting back to 1,000, we can save $13 billion right there.

Another $26 billion would be saved by scaling back or stopping the research, development and construction of weapons that are useless in dealing with modern threats. Many of these, such as the F/A-22 fighter jet and the Virginia-class submarine, were designed to fight the defunct Soviet Union. All of this is according to Lawrence Korb, whose credentials are endless -- senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, former vice president of Raytheon, etc.

The $26 billion does not include the old Star Wars program, now called missile defense, which could be cut back to basic research for a savings of $7 billion.

Ivins uses a figure of only 60 billion for sake of discussion (which would be 12% of the total she previously cited). She says Korb says that much could be cut without damaging military readiness. She argues that any think tank - right or left - cut come up with similar amounts with very little effort.

Let me offer the conclusion of her article before I embark on my own reflections.
OK, so we could shift $60 billion into education without even breathing hard. How would we continue toward a goal of putting more into education than into stuff to kill people? For starters, we could try having fewer enemies in the world. Then we wouldn't need so many ways to kill them, eh? And how do we get there?

Nothing simple about this effort -- anyone who thinks international relations and diplomacy are simple, straightforward subjects has not been paying attention. This how-do-we-fix-it series is a conversation, not a lecture, and all suggestions are welcome. You can send suggestions to me at ideasformolly@creators.com.

It is interesting that Ivins is encouraging readers to offer her suggestions. This would provide yet another opportunity to expand our conversations about education. Regular readers know that I have participated in such a discussion with Tom Vilsack, Governor of Iowa, both at his blog and at dailykos. There is a similar opportunity to offer suggestions offered by SEIU (one that covers all of the progressive agenda) at their site Since Sliced Bread, to which Vilsack provides a link. And at which you could win big bucks -- so far as I post 11,724 ideas have been posted in an attempt to win $100,000.

It is now time for the thoughts of teacherken. You man, if you wish, stop reading now and either go on to something else, or offer your comments only with respect to what Ivins wrote. I hope you will continue reading for another few minutes, because I think my words may be of some value.

In most of the discussions about education and what can be done to improve it we have been far too limited in our discussions because of cost. Remember that most education is funded by property taxes and some degree of state aid. That has a tendency to favor wealthier jurisdictions, and in general we have seen more effective schools in places like wealthier suburbs. I will not here recapitulate all the arguments about how money is spent or whether spending more does or dos not make a difference (although far too often the only way that is measured is by test scores). The issue of funding is always a limitation of what can be done about our schools. This has, for example, been an ongoing issue in Texas, where the State Supreme Court just ordered replacement of the state’s unconstitutional funding scheme before the start of the next school year, although it still did not require the lege (as ivins calls it) to come up with the tax increases necessary to truly fund education -- you can read about this here in the Dallas Morning News. Those who have followed the issue of school funding nationally may remember that one of the battles Howard Dean fought was to equalize school funding in Vermont -- it was that which first focused my attention on him.

When Bush first proposed NCLB, I participated in a study where several grad students in a course at George Washington interviewed key educational leaders around the country about the proposal. One point we heard repetitively is that one of the most significant things the Federal government could do to improve public education is fully fund its promised share (40%) of the costs imposed by the legislation on Special Education. This would remove major burdens from local districts and free up those funds for other purposes. The Federal government has never even met HALF of its promised share, even as the mandates have stayed in place, mandates that - unlike those of testing - are considered binding even if the state or district receives no other Federal funds, because these are considered issues of civil rights. I do not immediately know what the cost of doing this is, but I do know where the burden lifted would have the greatest effect, and that is in inner city districts with high percentages of students identified as special education, precisely those districts about which we have the greatest concern, and at whose test scores critics of public education most often point.

I also immediately think of all the wonderful programs funding for which this administration has wanted to eliminate. Back on July 19th I wrote bout how the Feds wanted to slash funding for gifted education.

Since people became aware of Lakoff, we have seen many discussion on the subject of framing. In a sense, this piece by Ivins falls in that category - how do we frame the issue of education. But actually it is something far more fundamental. And it represents a challenge to me.

I often argue that before we can truly address educational issues in this country, we need to have a serious discussion about educational philosophy -- unless we can agree on the purpose of school, we cannot seriously decide on priorities and structure. I still think that’s true.

But Ivins made me realize that there is a question that first must be addressed. It is so basic, and yet we so often ignore it in our political discourse.

What kind of nation and society do we want? Attempting to address ANY issue without first addressing this is in a sense worrying about a dripping faucet in the 9th Ward of New Orleans while ignoring the failure of the levees on the Industrial anal (so it is not a great comparison, sorry).

I believe that a serious discussion of the kind of nation we should be inevitably favors the liberal / progressive point of view. But that is not why I would like to see such a discussion.

Those in business and non-profit institutions know the importance of a mission statement. It is what should guide all of our decisions. It should be how we assign priorities.

We have a mission statement, actually several, as a political entity. These are the Declaration and the Preamble. We may argue about how they should be interpreted (which is why who sits on the Supreme Court is so critical, and why it is valid to seriously question how a person nominated as a Justice might interpret and rule).

We cannot make meaningful decisions about how we allocate resources unless we can see them in a far greater context than that which we usually apply.

I would love to see far less devoted to defense and weapons systems, and far more to the development of our national and our culture. My mind explodes at the possibilities of what could be done with just a fraction of the 60 billion about which Ivins and Korb talk - spend 10% of that on education, including post-secondary education, and the possibilities blow my mind -- interest-free loans for post-secondary education, or basic wireless computers for every student, or fully (not just the 40% share) funding of mandated special education needs (with a requirement that freed up funds be spent on classroom needs) .. I could go on and on.

But now i realize that as important as education is as an issue in my political decision making process, I now want something more. I want a serious discussion, NOW, about what kind of nation we will be. I want to hear a sweeping vision of where we as a nation and a society can go. And I want the discussion to include our relationships with the rest of the world.

Education will be a key component of that discussion. Thus I do not worry that my key issue will be lost in the broader discussion, anymore than I think my wife’s key issue of the environment would be ignored.

We cannot survive as a society and a democratic republic if we continue to address things only on a piecemeal basis. Madison may heave felt (in Federalist 10) that the multiplicity of faction would serve to prevent any one faction from becoming too powerful and thus hostile to the interest of the nation at large. Whether the current influence of certain groups disproves his thesis is arguable. What is not arguable is that we are a nation and a society at grave risk. We need to address education, we need to fund it more completely and more equitably. But unless we address the larger issue of the kind of society we wish to be, we could win the battle on education and still lose the larger - and more important - war.

I have written enough for one diary. I will continue to focus on education when I blog. But i now realize that I must place my arguments and pleadings in a far broader context. And now, besides looking for political leaders who understand education, I desperately seek those willing to lead this nation in the broader discussion so necessary to our future.

What do you think?

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.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

42 years ago 

I was the last one out of the locker room for the JV soccer game against Swarthmore, our arch-rival, because I was getting my ankles taped. As I was about to leave, I heard our (legendary) varsity coach Jimmy Mills talking about the president getting shot in Dallas. When I got out to the field,I started to tell the other guys about it, but since I was known as something of a joker at first my teammates refused to belief me. But the guys from Swarthmore came over and said they heard it on the bus. We only knew he had been shot, there were rumors the Johnson had been shot. Our coaches huddled and since they knew no more, decided to start the game.

This diary is my looking back. It will include my memories, burned into my mind at age 17, of a day crucial in the lives of those that experienced it and equally crucial to our nation. It will include some reflection and analysis. It will be uniquely mine.

The game was scoreless at halftime. Haverford’s coach, Jack Lester, told us at halftime the president was dead. Swarthmore’s coach stayed focused on the game. We went into shock. Swarthmore had the kickoff, and scored in the first 13 seconds. It was to be the game’s only score. I missed one goal I absolutely should have had. As the game wound down I stood alone at midfield as Swarthmore was taking corner kick, desperately hoping that our goalie Dave Kane could snag the ball and get it out to me for one more attempt on goal. I had heard the cheering of our star center back Oye Oyelaren during the game - he had encouraged me by name, and I wanted to live up to that. As the game ended I was angry and upset as I walked off the field.

The crowd tried to console us, but it was strange. Charlotte Austin, my girl friend, was trying to cheer me up, but she held a radio to her ear and was clearly in a state of shock . Others also had radios, and then I remembered - the president was dead.

The main athletic competition scheduled for Saturday the 23rd was almost canceled, then postponed to the following Wednesday after people would already have left for the Holiday. I would remember that later we could not understand why the NFL had been so insensitive and played its games on Sunday the 24th. But for some reason they decided the students needed to be encouraged, and we still had the dance that Saturday. It was weird -- people came because we wanted to be together, but not too many people went out on the dance floor - we were all too somber.

over the weekend I heard the Philadelphia broadcast of the Boston Symphony that Friday. It was a day concert. The conductor, Erich Leinsdorf, had lived in our town (Larchmont NY) while conducting at the Metropolitan Opera and I had known two of his boys, Greg a year ahead of me and Josh my classmate. During the concert they announced the shooting of the president, and then that the orchestra would play the funeral march from Beethoven's Third (Eroica) symphony. You could hear everyone in Symphony Hall Boston stand. To this day, hearing that movement invokes memories of 1963.

Like many, I was watching tv when Jack Ruby shot Oswald. That was a further shock. And like all on campus except those who went to Washington as did my roommate Doug Neal, I watch the various events of the mourning -- the body lying in state, the memorial service with Barber’s Adagio for Strings being played (another piece irrevocably tied in my mind to the events of that weekend), the funeral, the famous dignitaries in the procession to the cemetery. And most of all, the black horse with the reversed boots and John-John’s salute.

I am a teacher. Today, as I do each time this event falls on a school day, will revisit that day with my students. Many of those I now teach are children whose parents were not yet born. They have little sense of the impact it had on our generation and our nation. Yes, it was but one of many deaths by violence of public figures, including Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy (whose 80th birthday would have been on Sunday and whose words at Indianapolis upon hearing of the death of King probably kept that city from rioting as did so many across the nation in April of 1968). One did not have to be a fan of Kennedy to have been shocked in 1963, in fact, even many who disliked Kennedy were nevertheless shocked and dismayed, something that many who did not live through it find it hard to grasp.

As a teacher I tell my students there are very few exact dates in American history one needs to know. Clearly July 4, 1776 is key. One might argue for the July 1-3 1863 of Gettysburg, and/or the 11th hour 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. The next absolutely critical day was Dec 7 1941. And then the day we remember today. And then 9/11/2001.

I tell my students that in some ways November 22, 1963 was more shocking to the nation than was 9-11, perhaps because we were far more innocent. Yes we had 3 previous presidents who had been assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley), but it had been more than half a century, and the attempts on Teddy Roosevelt when he was campaigning in 1912, on FDR when he was President-elect and on Truman in Blair House did not have the same impact, not only because they were not successful, but because we did not have the impact of widespread television coverage. Sept. 11 was shocking, even for those of us who lived through Kennedy’s assassination, but Pearl Harbor had shown us we were not invulnerable to foreign attack, American targets had been successfully attacked overseas, and we had had terrorism at home, including the bombing of the Capital well before either the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center or McVeigh’s attack in Oklahoma City.

The death of Kennedy in a sense represent a lost of innocence. It may have been a false sense of innocence, but it served as a rude awakening to many. The series of deaths that followed through 1968 served to move many from shock to disillusionment to cynicism. I cannot predict with any accuracy how Vietnam might have been different had Kennedy lived. I can wonder if, absent the violence against leaders who inspired, the anti-war reaction would have been as bitter and divisive as it became.

I will be 60 before this anniversary again comes upon us. I look back now on more than 2/3 of my life. There are few events that hit me as hard, perhaps because I was 17 at the time -- old enough to realize the impact of what had happened, and young enough that it was that event that caused me to become really focused on public discourse and its consequences.

November 22, 1963. 42 years ago. I cannot forget. And as I reflect, I hope that I am able to use my memories of that time to help move my country forward, to a time and place where violence - physical or verbal - is not seen as an acceptable way of settling our disputes. I hope that my service as a teacher can help my students learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.

But most of all, I hope that we never again have to go through such a shock. No matter how much I may dislike our current political leadership, I wish no violence upon them. No matter how wrong I think our actions towards other nations may be, I wish for no more 9-11’s. And I hope that I can model how to remember, to grieve for a time now lost where we were full of the optimism of what this nation could be, and inspire others to strive once again for such a time.

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, November 21, 2005

Is it Woodward? Or us? 

That is the thrust of an op ed in today’s Boston Globe by James Carroll. Entitled The fall of Bob Woodward it is as much about our naiveté and gullibility as it is about the famous “reporter” (something I think he ceased being at least several books ago). And while I will offer snippets with my commentary below, I strong recommend reading the entire piece, as well as the editorial Stonewalling Guantanamo in which the editors argue that the decision to deny Geneva Convention rights ta Gitmo
laid the groundwork for all the abuse of detainees, including the 31 deaths that the military has found were confirmed or suspected homicides. Now the administration has compounded the shame by denying access to prisoners by investigators from the UN Human Rights Commission. The decision will only strengthen the view of US critics that this country has placed itself above international law.

And now to Carroll.

Carroll begins with a rather blunt question:
AT WHAT point does naiveté become something to be ashamed of?

And if that first sentence is not enough, the rest of the opening paragraph should absolutely slap you across the face:
The revelation last week that Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward abetted the Bush administration's program of lies and character assassination left you feeling as if you, too, have been a coconspirator in the sleaze. Not that you were under any illusion about the turn Woodward's career took when he became a justifying megaphone for ''Washington insiders." Nor is it a surprise to find the dean of investigative journalism acting like every other self-protecting member of the establishment, since journalism itself has become a pillar of the governing power structure. But Woodward represented something more than all of this, and his quite American fall from grace (''The bigger they come") presents a challenge to your conscience.

Carroll goes on to describe Watergate as the most familiar word in the political lexicon. He describes the horrors of the Nixon administration we so associate with that word, but adds a second meaning for the term
But Watergate also became code for the most dramatic reiteration of national redemption, when diligent truth-seekers brought to light the methods and purposes of Nixon's band. The myth of American goodness depends on the conviction that, when the truth is finally apparent, the nation will act upon it. Watergate was the morality tale that made it so, and Bob Woodward, with his partner Carl Bernstein, was the moral hero. It is not too much to say that Woodward rescued your ability to believe in your country again.

He then devotes a paragraph to the expectations we should have of the press. The last sentence of that paragraph is worth noting as a summation of why he has written the paragraph, and also of why he has written this op ed:
The news media do for democracy what liturgy does for religion; what poetry does for experience; what gesture does for feeling. With words out of silence, the press tells you who you are.

He describes the Plame affair as parallel to Watergate, this about war in Iraq as much as that was about war in Vietnam. He goes on to describe the press as paralyzed by fear since 9-11, with the fear exacerbated when the press itself became a(n anthrax) target.

Carroll describes the news media as unable to write critically about those protecting them, with the result being that
the news media, with rare exceptions, simply embraced and passed along Bush's purposes and justifications, not matter how palpably dishonest. Judith Miller was the public captain of this enterprise, but Woodward was her secret co-captain. This time, he was his own Deep Throat.

Carroll is not the first to make that “Deep Throat” reference, to be sure. The context in which he places it was to me quite interesting. That the press failed to do its job, and that Woodward did little real reporting in his work (primarily the book) on the buildup to the war is now beyond doubt. The reference can be read as sarcastic, or as representing disappointment about how far he has fallen. That to me is not clear.

I am going to push the limits of fair use by quoting in their entirety the final two paragraphs, and then offering a few comments of my own.
Your naiveté consisted in the belief that, after Vietnam, your nation would never again embark on a criminal and unnecessary war. After a popular movement, inspired by tribunes of the free press, stopped the Vietnam War, you believed that the government would be responsive to the will of the people, forgetting that the people can surrender that will.

The finger-pointing in Washington now -- who voted for what, when and why -- is truly pointless. The merest glance back at the prewar debates shows that the justifications for war were all made of tissue. If the press treated them as substantial, that is because the nation itself, which still includes you, needed the tissue to cover its shame. The tissue of lies is yours.

In the first of these two final paragraphs, Carroll makes an argument that I wish were true, but to my mind have not been true since the election of Reagan. We saw then the beginning of a concerted effort by many on the Right to overcome what they called the Vietnam Syndrome. By then we saw things in popular culture like the rise of Chuck Norris and lines like Stallone’s to Richard Crenna asking if this time the military would be allowed to win. We saw and heard people in the Bush 41 administration bragging after the first Gulf War that they had finally overcome the Vietnam syndrome. Remember the big parade here in DC after Desert Storm. Where I live in Arlington was at the end of the flyover of all the aircraft used in the conflict - it was loud, and very nation-glorifying. Perhaps here at least Carroll would have been better off saying that many of us who had opposed the Vietnam adventure hoped that we would not have to go through such things again, but such felling was to my mind was clearly not universally held.

The final paragraph is, however, right on. Far too many were willing to accept the jingoism of our press, its unwillingness to raise hard questions. To be fair, many who will read this in the places I will post it did raise questions. If nothing else, those of us who supported Howard Dean questioned the direction by that alone. But the Dean phenomenon did not take off until after the decision to go to war had already been made, and to a large degree only after the actual fighting had begun.

There are many reasons which can be posited for this administration’s rush to war. One clearly is to deny the inspectors opportunity to disprove any claims about WMD - I think that is now evident. Another was the real fear that major fighting might last into the Iraqi summer, which can be brutal on both personnel and equipment. But clearly one motivation was to deny any opportunity for the development of a political significant opposition in the country. That opposition could only come about with the help of a press willing to serve its function to question authority and to serve as eyes and ears of the nation. Instead we got far too many in the media willing to serve as the mouthpiece of this administration, which would plant things with friendly people like Judy Miller (and apparently Bob Woodward) and then quote what they had written as proof that the nation agreed with them.

This brings me to the real reason why I am posting this piece. Many here have been very active at digging far more than did the press originally. Many also have consistently taken the so-called MSM to task for the poor performance in the buildup to the war, and during its unfortunate continuation. If we wish to save what is left of our democratic republic, we must intensify our efforts. While it is somewhat gratifying to see that the critical mass in the press is now willing to be somewhat critical, there are still far too many willing to continue with such false verbiage as repeating the administration’s claims that the Congress had the same intelligence as did the administration. The Goebbels ( and I am sorry Godwin, the Nazi reference is deliberate) of repetition to implant a big lie in the consciousness of the nation is still ongoing, as are the obvious character assassinations of anyone who would dare question.

We must challenge press and politicians not to again give this criminal administration the benefit of the doubt. It has forfeited that right unless and until it admits its patent dishonesty in the buildup to the war, and its incompetence in prosecuting the war and its aftermath (that is, if we are in aftermath and not still in the war).

If we who understand do not continue with all of our intellect and strength to oppose, then truly we will become responsible. We have the power, as Howard Dean used to tell us, to make a difference in this ongoing struggle. We can force press and politicians to act responsibly. If we do not use that power, then Carroll will be right, and “the tissue of lies” that has been destroying our democratic republic will be ours.

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, November 19, 2005

Education - a personal offering 

have nothing to offer this Saturday about education on the broad scale. It is not that there are no stories and reports about which I could write, because I could always find something about which it would be worth notifying readers. The political news is so overwhelming and will be so much of the focus that any posting on other subjects is likely to quickly disappear. Thus I choose instead to take a more personal focus. To discover what that means, I apologize, but you will have to continue reading, even if that means scrolling down.

As long-time readers know, I have been participating in the process known as National Board for Professional Teacher Standards certification. I previously diaried about it here back on March 31st, shortly after I had completed the process of submitting my portfolio.

Yesterday was the day the scores of applicants for the 2004-2005 cycle were posted online. We had been informed late last week that Friday would be our judgment day. Shortly before 9 AM I was finally able to get my scores.

To my surprise - and my great relief -- I had passed on my first go-around. I did not exceed the cut score by a particularly large margin, but it did not matter - a pass, is a pass is a pass.

Of far greater importance, at least two other teachers in my building also passed (about one we do not know because she was out of town and might not have had access to the internet where she was). Since only about 1/3 of applicants pass on the first attempt to complete this grueling process, we were all excited, and as word began to spread around the building we also began to get congratulations from our colleagues. When I first found out I was in my homeroom, 30 students (mainly 10th by also some juniors and seniors) in an Advanced Placement US Government class. I told them, and they immediately began applauding. Among the students in my other classes was the son of a science teacher who did not pass until his second try, and the son of one of the members of this cohort, who like me was relieved and excited to know that the process was complete.

For us this was a high stakes procedure. No, failure to meet the necessary level would not have cost us our jobs. And we could still have resubmitted those parts of the portfolio adjudged not to be of sufficient quality, but even that is no guarantee: yesterday I was contacted by someone from this site whose wife had resubmitted the part that had been scored at a 1.0 level (out of a 4.0 rubric) only to have the resubmission graded at a 1.25 level. She ws devastated and he wondered (not even knowing when he contacted me that I had passed) if I could be of any help to her.

So it is not of high stakes in the normal sense, but it can be devastating not to succeed, because all one gets is the scores on each part, with NO EXPLANATION of why that part was so graded. I know that as a teacher I really have to give my students feedback on work , not merely give them a score. We go over tests, land I write explanatory comments and suggestions on work. Sometimes if there is a pattern of incorrect responses, it serves as feedback to me what I need to re-teach, because a common misunderstanding is far more likely to be my responsibility in not being clear enough in its teaching.

We know that our portfolios are graded only by other teachers. Each part is graded by several teachers, and if there is significant disagreement on how to score that part it is further examined. This is a normal process in scoring via rubric - whether on AP examinations, state examinations or things like portfolios.

I have said that this is not high stakes in the conventional sense. The results, however, do have serious consequences, even beyond the emotional impact - who wants to be told that they don’t measure up when you have put your heart and soul into your submission? And even those of us who pass can still feel hurt - as I examined the scores I received on the individual parts of my submission, I really do not understand several, scored somewhat lower than I would have expected even in my conservative estimate of how my work would be scored. I was lucky that the one part that is not judged by how it actually relates to teaching -- the assessment center exercise, which tested my content knowledge - I got almost perfect scores, and that provided me with a margin sufficient to make up for what I believe were low scores elsewhere. I knew I had aced those essays, but that is the only part actually scored as I expected. One part of the other material was actually scored higher than I believe it should have been according to the guidelines I was supposed to follow.

The other real consequence is not one that affects all who complete the process. For the first year I will receive an additional stipend of $5,000, and for the nine following years $4,000. Since I am on an elevated pay scale because I have a Masters + 60 credits (and completion of my abandoned doctorate would only have increased that rate of pay by about $600), this is most the significant increase in pay I am likely to see in what is left of my teaching career. And given that I turn 60 in may, I am likely to have that additional remuneration for the est of my career, unless the state and county both go broke (which they could, given the executive and legislative leadership at both levels -- but that is a tale for a different time).

My wife took me out to celebrate late last night. It was late because at the end of my second period one of my students asked if I were coming to see the play. I made sure to go (it was The Miracle Worker and he was playing the son, quite well as it happens). I usually try to see my students in their endeavors outside my classroom. When I am specifically asked as happened yesterday, it becomes my top priority, even over my own celebration. Somehow that part of my approach to teaching, which I believe is a key ot my success, is something that cannot be accounted for in any evaluation of teaching. It is not part of my annual review, and while the administrators covering the events see me, it does not become a part of any official report. I am not “observed” on that as I am in my classroom. And there was no way to include it in my submissions for national board certification.

So what does all this mean, besides the additional pay? Well, most states will accept this certification in lieu of their own, so I could easily move to a district in Virginia or some other state, except that I have no desire to leave my school. It will garner those of us who succeeded recognition in school publications (the newsletter to the parents, on the school website, etc.) and recognition at a Board of Education Meeting, either in December or in January. It is an accomplishment we can put on our CVs and about which we can if we choose brag in our handouts to our next groups of students.

I am glad that I went through it. Knowing how I would have felt had I not made it (and I did not succeed by a particularly large margin) makes me all that more firmly opposed to the way we impose high stakes single shot tests upon our students. The frustration I feel about the lack of feedback or explanation for the scores exactly mirrors that of students who belatedly receive cores on tests imposed from the outside but rarely receive any specific guidance and certainly not in a manner or a fashion timely enough to provide any information from which they can benefit. It is far too often for them merely that they passed or they didn’t. I do not understand how that kind of approach is either pedagogically sound or even humane.

Enough. I am happy for myself. I am proud of how my school did. And I have imposed enough on those of you who have read this far.

Have a nice weekend.
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.

Friday, November 18, 2005

arts and education 

Stateline.org is a useful site for those who want to track public policy and related news state by state. It is also the source of the article, written by one of their staff writers, on how arts are struggling to maintain a place in the public school curriculum. Entitled Arts vying for a place in school day , I think it contributes an important piece to the picture of what is happening to education in this country. As you will see, either by reading the article, or the annotated selections I offer below, this is not a partisan issue.

The article focuses on the effort of Republican Mike Huckaby, Governor of Arkansas, describing him and other arts advocates as
on the offensive to try to keep the fine arts from getting squeezed out as the federal No Child Left Behind Act ratchets up pressure on schools to raise reading and math test scores.

Huckaby is the current chairman of the Education Commission of the States, which is not only an interstate compact on education, but also the primary sponsor of the National Teacher of the Year Award (a fact not mentioned in the article). He is clearly committed to the arts, as Arkansas
is emphasizing the arts as a regular part of schools’ curricula with a new law requiring 40 minutes of music and 40 minutes of visual art per week for every elementary school student.

This is not the pattern in all states: because of the increasing emphasis (due to NCLB) on math and language arts, which must be tested under NCLB
there’s a growing trend to relegate dance, music, theater and visual arts classes to lunch periods, after school or on weekends, said Nancy Carr, a visual and performing arts consultant for the California Department of Education.

California, which used to have the nation’s finest public education system before voter initiatives gutted the funding,over a 5-year period appropriated the massive sum of $1 / student per year for 5 years, until the funding was penciled out in 2003-2004. Further, funding from the California Arts Council which issued grants that enabled schools to bring painters and Shakespeare troups into classrooms has been cut from $36 million to only $4 million.
Huckaby understands that this is wrong:
“Some states are still making the huge mistake of eliminating arts programs, thinking that they’re doing the kids a favor academically, when in fact, they are hurting their children,” Huckaby, a guitarist since his teen years, told Stateline.org.

There is research showing that having arts “raises standardized test scores and ingrains students with essential creative and problem-solving skills necessary for tomorrow’s workplace. “ I would note that I personally object to defending arts on the basis of test score results - it is an example of accepting a false framing that distorts the real issue. It is, however, the path that - unfortunately to my mind - many arts advocates are taking in order to defend arts education. Thus we read in the article

“People want education to lead not only to a whole person but a person who can compete in the global, high-tech and creative economy. … This becomes something you would ignore at your peril,” said Dr. Jonathan Katz, executive director of the National Association of State Arts Agencies, the collective voice of all 50 state arts agencies, which partner with state departments of education to set arts achievement and assessment standards.

That arts are particularly helpful for at-risk groups, who both score at lower rates and drop out at higher rates, is another argument that is offered. The examples cited in the article, including Dallas ArtsPartners,  are justified at least in part that those who participate score higher on standardized tests than do those in a control group.
Dallas ArtsPartners, a partnership between the city’s school district, government and cultural organizations, reported students with a heavy arts involvement – especially special education pupils and English language learners — scored higher on Texas standardized tests than a control group.

I will offer the hyperlinks from the article for the three examples cited in case anyone would like to explore a bit more:

Dallas ArtsPartners

YouthReach Initiative

Arts Education Partnership
This last group released a study a few days ago which found
high levels of student development and teacher job satisfaction in 10 schools with high concentrations of low-income students but vibrant arts programs.

Despite all the evidence of the positive influence of arts programs, schools and systems are far more likely to hire a new math teacher than an arts teacher, because the fear of the punitive actions that can be taken if math (or reading) scores do not improve. This happens despite the recognition in NCLB of the arts as important:
In fact, NCLB recognizes the arts as a “core academic subject” and will require teachers of the arts – the same as reading, math and science – to be highly qualified in their subject matters. The arts aren’t tested like reading, math and, soon, science, yielding results on which funding, bonuses and penalties hinge.

Of course, there are many other ways of measuring success besides paper and pencil testing, but NCLB does not allow for them, and since the penalties and bonuses often depend on test scores, commitment of resources tends to be shaped by those financial carrots and sticks.

Let me offer the snippet of the worst cases in arts education as noted in the article:
In Illinois, one of seven states without an arts education mandate, only 63 percent of schools offer visual arts, according to an October study by the Illinois Arts Alliance. The report found Illinois lags behind the national average in every arts discipline.
The other six -- Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, South Carolina and South Dakota -- do not mandate arts education statewide, according to Arts Education Partnership data. However, local school districts can still elect to have an arts requirement in place.

The rest of this diary is my commentary, which I will attempt to keep relatively brief.

For those who do not know my work, I am a high school social studies teacher. But my undergraduate major was music. While I cannot draw or paint to save my life, I have a background that includes visual and plastic arts, literature, architecture and dance (my wife Leaves on the Current was trained as a ballet dancer and has done dance evaluation and dance criticism). In my own teaching I try to include - even in government - material that invokes the interest of those students with artistic and musical orientations as well as those whose orientations are those favored in the traditional classroom: verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical (the language is that of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences -- don’t get hung up on his theories). I have found it an effective approach of reaching a far broader range of students.

But to me there are far more important reasons for the inclusion of a vibrant arts (and music) curriculum in our public schools. First, I do not understand how we can consider our children to be educated if they do not learn about the arts. Here I think of the words of John Adams that are inscribed on the wall of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in our nation’s Capital:
I study war and politics, so my children can study business and commerce, so their children can study literature and the arts.

I note that far too often our education is limited to only the first two clauses, and when it is we are impoverished as a nation and as individuals. I would note that my high school classmate Tom Horne, who is now Superintendent of Public Instruction in Arizona and with whom I strongly disagree on the emphasis he places on tests, nevertheless included an emphasis on the arts (albeit largely because of how they improve test scores) in his first state of education speech on January 6, 2004. He quotes the words of Adams as one of his favorite quotes. (side note -- Tom grew up fascinated by politics but also as one who seriously played the piano, and his wife is/was a harpist).

Further, one cannot understand much of history without understanding culture, of which arts are an essential part. Here I note that one essential part of Western Civ when I studied it in the 1960’s was things like architecture, painting and sculpture.

Finally, not all of our students are going to be engineers and scientists, entrepreneurs and businessmen. Some will be lawyers and doctors, to be sure. But some will also be artists, or those working in the arts fields, and many will be interested (and hopefully knowledgeable) consumers / patrons of the arts.

I have recently posted about the importance of extracurricular activities, including sports. I believe in using all possible avenues to reach our young people, to give them the widest possible range of possibility of development. And as I believe that physical education should be an essential part of our schooling, and not restricted to extracurricular activities, I feel equally as strongly that our children should have the opportunity for organized learning - within the school day - to learn about the arts. Thus I view this posting as a logical followup to my last effort.

I hope this is of some use to someone.

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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