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.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Some Thoughts on Education 

Although I have not diairied much recently about education, I have been thinking quite about about the subject. There are several stimuli that have been responsible. I will be leading a panel on education at Yearlykos in a few weeks. I have been working on education policy for Jim Webb. And of course our school year is coming to an end, with our seniors now done with classes, graduation on May 30, and the students finishing while I am at Yearlykos.

This diary will examine several issues about which I have been thinking. Please do not assume that anything here necessarily matches the advice I have offered Jim Webb or any other candidate - here I claim on their behalf the equivalent of executive privilege, that they are entitled to my unvarnished advice, but that will be advice of what ina appropriate way for them to frame an issue. What is below are my thoughts, and should be attributed to no one else.

I want to address several issues that are part of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that greatly trouble me. These are the providing of supplemental educational services (SES) and the access of military recruiters to the schools.

Schools that are found deficient are, in the earlier stages of that insufficiency, have some of their Federal funds removed and applied to the provision of SES, largely tutoring. The determination that there is a need for such services is almost completely a function of test scores. And the teachers responsible for preparing students for the tests in question are supposed to meet high standards of qualification. And yet there are almost no standards for those who provide SES, largely tutoring, except that they CANNOT be the school systems or their personnel, not even from successful districts or from schools that might be successful within a district. So far service providers are being approved at a Federal level, and most are for-profit entities. While a teacher to be highly qualified is to have at least an equivalent of a major in the subject s/he teaches, there is nothing equivalent for a tutor. And as far as I can tell vendors of SES are not restricted from using the internet to deliver the services, which also means that the tutors could legally be overseas. Think about that for a moment. Our current national educational policy is prepared to take funds from struggling schools and apply them to paying people across the ocean to tutor our struggling students. Somehow it seems to me that there need to be some restrictions on this, that no taxpayer funds should be allowed to pay for personnel not in the United States.

I am willing to grant that no teacher should be paid extra for tutoring his or her own students -- I think there is an inherent conflict of interest, one that I am willing to extend to cover all students and teachers in the same school. But what if one school is struggling but another school in the district is doing quite well. Why cannot the teachers from the successful school be allowed to provide paid tutoring to the students in the struggling school? Would not this be cheaper than bringing in for-profit entities? If the argument is that the school system has a conflict of interest, take them out of it by not allowing any administrative costs to be paid, apply all the funds to teachers qualified by the performance of their students, and apply the savings on the administrative costs to successful teachers to help train the teachers from the struggling school. If you wish to argue that the difference in scores between the two schools might be related to something other than the quality of the instruction, then you would be undercutting (as in fact I think you should) the entire rationale of using the tests to declare the struggling schools as less than successful in the first place.

Let me switch to military recruiting. One can argue that the military has a legitimate right to enter public schools to attempt to fill the needs to staff an all-volunteer force. And politically attempting to ban the military from schools is a non-starter. But parents also have the right to keep the military from contacting their children at home if those children are under 18, and this is recognized in NCLB. Yet the mechanism for parents to exercise those rights are awkward and ineffective, the law does not guarantee parents the same right to bar the military from attempting to recruit the minor children within the schools, many schools do not abide by legal provisions that allow counter recruiting (about which more later), and recruiters have no restrictions on contacts made as a result of obtaining names and phone numbers through the purchase of commercial data bases, often of students not yet in high school. Many families are legitimately upset at the continuing contact from recruiters, which once it begins is hard to turn off. Many do not understand what rights they have. There are far too many tales of military recruiters being less than honest with potential recruits, and the money spent on then purchase of commercial information has proven to be an inefficient way to effectively recruit qualified personnel.

I would like to see the law changed. The military access is NOT mandatory to private or religious schools, nor is the information required to be passed on for those students formally listed as being in home school situations. That places an unfair burden on public schools and their parents. If we truly wanted full access to students we could require parents and guardians of all students to provide a central registry of the name, address and phone number of each child reaching his or her 14th birthday, while simultaneously giving or denying permission for the military to contact their children. The military would be barred from contacting any student for which there was no permission on file. Schools would have the responsibility for ensuring that they have received the information for their students -- currently they are merely required to notify parents of their right to opt out their children, and that goes home in a blizzard of paperwork, and as a result far too many parents never actually make a decision, which therefore is assumed to be that they have granted permission. One superintendent near Rochester NY was able for several years to turn this around, as his school board backed his decision to tell parents that if they did not notify the school system it would assume they did not want him to release the information to the military. Eventually the military applied pressure and he was forced to back down.

I realize that some will say that such registration is wrong, and would be opposed by many people. Without addressing either issue, let me note that all I am doing is leveling the playing field. Right now the military does not have equal access to students in all schooling situations. Yet if we say that military service is potentially a requirement of being a citizen (or perhaps a legal resident) such registration is no more of a burden than is the current requirement to register for selective service required today for all males on their 18th birthday. And because parents could object on behalf of their minor children to contact by the military it could serve as the basis of establishing an objection to military service should a mandatory induction procedure ever been reinstituted. And given how many military specialties are now open to women and the reasoned opinion that as a result any future draft wold have to include women, it would represent equal treatment for the two sexes.

Related to this is counter-recruiting. As a matter of law, organizations which wish to present information to students about why they should not enter the military are to be given equal access to be in school as are the military. Practically speaking, there will never be as many visits by counter-recruiters as there are by military recruiters,because those opposing recruitment do not have either the personnel nor the financial resources to be in schools as frequently. Even so, there are schools and systems that make it difficult or sometimes impossible for counter recruiters to have equal access to students IN SCHOOLS (they currently have no rights to access student information that is provided to the military for at home contact). While some who do counter-recruiting are opposed to any kind of military service, that is an insufficient reason to bar them from schools, because there is a First Amendment issue if they are barred. Of basic importance, much of the information provided by military recruiters is shall we say selective. Students are not told that a commitment to a particular type of training - one reason relied upon by many students when they sign up -- is not an iron-clad contract, that their training and service can be altered based on determination by authorities of military necessity. They may still think that in signing up for the Guard or reserves, that their active duty service is limited. They may think that a 4-year enlistment for the Marines means only four years of active duty and know nothing about how stop-loss is being used to extend that service. And they may not realize that even though they have signed up before graduation that they have rights which allow them to abrogate that commitment up to the time they are actually sworn in.

For those who do not now plan to enlist but know they must register for the selective service at 18, the military helpfully suggests that they enroll online, while counter-recruiters are able to explain that if they think they might have a conscientious objection to service they need to begin to establish that at the time they first register, but taking certain actions impossible to do in online registration. Military recruiters are certainly not going to inform students about how to qualify as a conscientious objector, or even that it is possible to so qualify even after entering active service.

Please note, although I am a Quaker I am not opposed to military service for my students. If we are to have an all-volunteer military, which is what the commanders want, that it should truly be on a voluntary basis, with the recruits and their families fully informed as to the scope of their rights and the nature of the commitment they are making without an equivalent contractual guarantee of the commitments made by the recruiters.

There is one other issue of importance related to this, and that is future educational opportunities. Among the great attractions of military service are the benefits obtained under the Montgomery GI Bill and the opportunities for training for a future career while one is on active duty. We need to recognize that for many of high school age it is the only window they see for economic advancement. Remember, Jessica Lynch enlisted because she saw no other real opportunities growing up in Palestine WV, and this is far more common than many realize. Under the current administration, while the amount a student can receive under Pell grants has increased, the number of such grants has been severely diminished, and the cost of borrowing to pay educational expenses had been increased by steering far more of the federal guarantee program to for-profit lenders ad away from direct lenders. One could be cynical and wonder if parts of our approach to national educational policy are not deliberately designed to create a guaranteed pool of potential recruits who other post-secondary opportunities are limited. And while the military is currently requiring a high school diploma, there is no reason they could not take advantage of a pool capable of doing high school work and offering completion of a GED while in service as a means of filling their quotas. And wouldn’t it be interesting if our supposed increasing of educational rigor, including mandatory tests for graduation, just so happened to create a large number of people for whom the opportunity of a free GED would be appealing? And remember, so long as the military force is at least on paper all-volunteer, the ability of our national leadership to use such troops in reckless adventures such as Iraq remains fairly unrestricted, as does the ability of the military leadership to play around with the lives of their enlisted personnel - things such as changing the expected military specialization. After all, they volunteered.

I have strayed a bit. Perhaps. I think not. My increasing fear is that the purposes of our national educational policy have little to do with educating as many of our children to their highest aspirations, to help them become informed, productive and active citizens of what has been a liberal democracy. Rather education policy is being used as a means of social engineering to ensure an ongoing pool of willing recruits for the military, a compliant workforce for industry, and a means of shifting funds intended to benefit the education of our students into the the coffers of corporate entities -- testing companies, SES providers -- that often have personal, financial and political connections with those making or administering the educational policies that are supposed to benefit our children.

I think our entire approach to education is broken. And I think what is left is deliberately being manipulated in a attempt to make it impossible to have a meaningful and productive public education system as a public good. It is the American equivalent of the British Enclosure Acts which restricted access to the Commons. We have seen how in so many areas the policies of this administration and its corporate and congressional buddies has been to maximize their power and their profitability. For these we need look no further than the contracts that were awarded in Iraq. And remember, Michael Moore makes this clear with his filming of the conference in Fahrenheit 9-11. What is happening in education can perhaps be fully comprehended only as a part of this larger picture.

I don’t want people to think that I despair, that I have given up hope about changing the direction of our policy on education. I have not. There are radical changes that I would offer, but cannot because so much of our effort has to go to preserving what we have from final destruction. In a sense it is not dissimilar from the issue of global warming, the fear that we may rapidly be approaching what Gladwell calls a tipping point, a point beyond which the destruction is irreversible. I think that how we address the issues involved in education may well indicate our willingness to take the steps necessary to preserve our democracy and our planet. In the meantime, what I can do is try to educate people -- I am after all a teacher. And I hope that the verbosity and rambling nature of this post will serve some positive purpose.

These are things about which I have been thinking. What are your thoughts about these things, or other issues related to education and schools? As a society we need to talk, lest we stand by while the seed corn of our future is devoured.
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