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, December 27, 2006

Coming to Our Senses 

It may be when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.

Wendell Berry

That is the Epigram with which Jon Kabat-Zinn opens his latest book: Coming to Our Senses: Healing ourselves and the world through mindfulness

I have just begun the book. There are a few passages I’d like to share. But before I do, let me share a quote he offers from Albert Einstein:
The problems that exist in the word today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.

I don ‘t propose to preach. And I will offer little commentary of my own. I have chosen several passages near the beginning of the book that I think are worth pondering, whether you encounter this in a political context, a more spiritual context, or elsewhere. Make of it what you will.

We know that the twentieth century saw more organized killing in the name of peace and tranquility and the end of war than all the centuries past combined, the vast majority of it erupting, ironically perhaps, in the great centers of learning and magnificent culture at are Europe and the Far East. And the twenty-first century is following on apace, if in a different bu equally, if not more, disturbing mode. Whoever the protagonists, and whatever the rhetoric and the particular issues of contention, wars, including covert wars and wars against terror, are always put forth in the name of the highest and most compelling of purposes and principle by all sides. They always lead to murderous bloodletting that in the end, even when apparently unavoidable, harms both victims and perpetrators. And they are always cause by disturbances in the human mind. Engaging in harming others to resolve disputes that could be better resolved in other, more imaginative ways, also blinds us to the ways in which war and violence are themselves symptoms of the auto-immune disease from which our species seems to uniquely and collectively suffer. It blinds us as well to other ways available to us to restore harmony and balance when they are disrupted by the very real, very dangerous,even virulent forces that we may unwittingly be helping to feed and expand, even as we abhor them and vigorously resist and combat them.

Here my comment is that these remarks can also be seen as a cautionary on how we approach politics.

An auto-immune disease is really the body’s own self-sensing, surveillance, and security system, the immune system, gone amok, attacking its own cells and tissues, attacking itself. No body and no body politic can thrive for long under such conditions, with one part of itself warring on another, no matter how healthy and vibrant it may be in other ways. Nor can any country thrive for long in the world with a foreign policy define to a large extent by allergic reaction, one manifestation of a disregulated immune system, nor on the excuse, true as it may be, that we are collectively suffering from severe post-traumatic stress, a condition that may only make it easier for either well-meaning or cynical leaders to exploit for purposes that have little or nothing to do with healing or with true security.

I think the foregoing speaks rather clearly, don’t you?

The next passage caught my attention as a teacher who believes in individualizing how we educate each child, but it applies more widely as well:
The world needs all its flowers, just as they are, and even though they bloom for only the briefest of moments, which we call a lifetime. It is our job to find out one by one and collectively what kind of flowers we are, and to share our unique beauty with the world in the precious time that we have, and to leave the children and grandchildren a legacy of wisdom and compassion embodied in the way we live, in our institutions, and in our honoring of our interconnectedness, at home and around the world. Why not risk standing firmly for sanity in our lives and in our world, the inner and the outer a reflection of each other and of our genius as a species?
The creative and imaginative efforts and actions of every one of us count, and nothing less than the health of the world hangs in the balance. We could say that the world is literally and metaphorically dying for us as a species to come to our senses, and now is the time. Now is the time for us to wake up to the fullness of our beauty, to get on with and amplify the work of healing ourselves, our societies, and then planet, building on everything worthy that has come before and that is flowering now. No intention is too small and no effort insignificant. Every step along the way counts. And, as you will see, every single one of us counts.

I found the next spoke directly to me, as so often I overburdened myself with too many things to accomplish:
We have made absorption in the future and in the past such an overriding habit that, much of the time, we have no awareness of the present moment at all. As a consequence, we may feel we have very little, if any, control over the ups and downs of own lives and of our own minds.

Let me offer one more passage, one that builds on what I posted about yesterday. Rather than my explaining why I see a connection, I will let the words speak for themselves:
No one culture and no one art form has a monopoly on either truth or beauty, writ either large or small. . . .I find it is both useful and illuminating to draw upon the work of those special people on our planet who devote themselves to the language of the mind and heart that we call poetry. Our greatest poets engage in deep interior explorations of the mind and of words and of the intimate relationship between inner and outer landscapes, just as do the greatest yogi and teachers in the meditative traditions. In fact, it is not uncommon in the meditative traditions for moments of illumination and insight to be expressed through poetry. Both yogis and poets are intrepid explorers of what is so, and articulate guardians of the possible.

Perhaps what I have offered above will speak to you, perhaps not. If you have read this far I can at least hope that part of at least one of the foregoing passages will be of value.

Now excuse me, because I wish to go and ponder on these thoughts.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

This diary may be pointless 

I have had several thoughts rattling around in my head for the past hour or so. So I sat down and started writing. Since I had no other topic on which I wished to write today, I decided that I would post this as my daily offering.

I am hoping that this will have value for at least one person. If not, I apologize in advance for the electrons I have consumed. Feel free to read or not as suits you, to respond or not likewise. I am home, alone except for five cats, and this is my perhaps futile attempt to connect in some meaningful way with others. I apologize in advance if it strikes you as other.

Peace. And I invite you to continue reading.

I have 6 more days of vacation. Tasks for school are behind, but not much, as I corrected the last of my papers today, and should finish planning sometime tomorrow. After several nights of 9-10 hours of sleep, albeit interrupted by a sinus condition, my body has almost recuperated. And the hard work of planning for Yearlykos remains on holiday hiatus, giving me a chance to reflect and think in broader terms.

This evening I caught part of a conversation on CSPAN with Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize winning writer about the Civil Rights Era. One question phoned in for him was about the influence of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh on King. Branch related how King had been shocked when Hanh defended the self-immolations of Vietnamese Buddhist monks to protest and try to stop the war (something imitated in the Pentagon parking lot by American Quaker Norman Morrison). King was horrified by the idea of suicide, but Hanh tried to explain how to a Buddhism it was not suicide, but transition to a different state, and that the willingness to undergo the pain, suffering and extinguishing of current life on behalf of something in which you strongly believed would in the Buddhist mind be seen as something noble. Branch pointed out that King and Hanh may have continued to disagree on this one point, but that King was so affected by his interchanges with the Vietnamese monk that he - given his privilege as a former winner himself - nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Part of King’s horror came from his lack of understanding of a different perspective, a different world view. I grasped this even as Branch was thinking - the act of self-immolation was totally alien to one steeped in a Christian environment. After all, Catholic cemeteries to this day will not bury within their confines those who have committed suicide (although here I remember both the phrase from some evangelical anticommunists of the 1950’s of “better dead than Red” and the long list of martyrs honored because they chose death rather than disavow their faith). I began to reflect.

We react in horror to suicide bombings in Iraq and in Israel and elsewhere. And yet, were an American soldier to rush an enemy machine gun nest with two armed grenades and blow up the enemy position while killing himself we would demand he be given the Medal of Honor. His action was suicidal, but because we perhaps approve of the end goal of his action we accept and even honor an action which in a different context we would condemn.

In my own small participation in the Civil Rights movement, we were trained in minimally protecting ourselves against blows, we practiced not responding to verbal or even physical assaults. For many Americans such an approach would be considered ridiculous, perhaps even cowardly. And yet there was a purpose, a belief that the use of violence to obtain rights that should be open to all by mere fact of being human somehow besmirched dishonored those rights, and that ultimately we would be far more successful in our willingness to absorb blows, perhaps be harmed or even killed, because it would witness to the depth of our commitment.

Many could not understand us, as they could not understand Gandhi (not that I equate my own minimal actions with the risks he endured).

There is an arrogance in all of this. We embark on paths because we assume the rightness of our goal. Others will criticize us on both tactics and strategy, and if we are not immediately effective in obtaining an ultimate goal that will also be thrown against us. We will be asked what we have accomplished by our “noble” actions, other than pain or even death.

And yet such charges can be arrayed against any human endeavor, so at least for me they are not discouraging.

Shortly after I had begun this reflection I read the article by Ryan Lizza that focuses on Rahm Emanuel. Here I should disclose that I used to know him slightly - we attended the same synagogue while he worked for Clinton, and he was kind enough to allow me to bring a group of 8th graders to meet with him in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. As I read the article, it was not the foulness of language that upset me. I was perhaps more concerned about the need to demean those who had other points of view. even if they may have shared similar ultimate goals. I wondered how far that willingness to ignore the humanity of the one who disagreed would go absent at least some shared goals?

I am no saint. I have a temper, and a far too easily bruised ego. My brilliant mother (graduating from hs at 14, Cornell at 18 and Columbia Law at 21) passed on to me one of my least admirable characteristics: I have a very quick mind and mouth, and am far too easily tempted to use it for the verbal (or in this environment electronic) attack on others.

I periodically catch my self, realizing that whatever short-term advantage or satisfaction I may gain from supposed verbal brilliance is more than offset by the damage to those long-term goals that matter far more to me. But the reason that the long-term goals matter more is because I can see myself as connected to others, even if they are now my opponents, even if they are very different in action, in world view.

I posit here no superior moral position. I have in myself far too much human fallibility to ever be able to sustain such a claim. I am merely offering some not very well developed thoughts electronically.

This is being written primarily for dailykos, a web site devoted to electing Democrats. It will be posted elsewhere - RaisingKaine, teacherken.blogspot.com, Notinournames, perhaps even at StreetProphets. The primary audience, the readers of dailykos, will be the main reason for how I express the ideas I now choose to offer.

If we aspire to have Democrats control our government, we must be clear what we want for them, and not in our efforts to achieve those ultimate goals do things that are contrary. If we believe that the level personal destructiveness and deviousness in political campaigns, in legislative processes, has been bad for this country, we have no right to use similar tactics whether in retribution, anger, or for any other justification. If it was wrong when it was done to us, it would be similarly wrong for us to resort to such actions.

Battles of ideas and concepts can and should be vigorous. Hypocrisy is fair game. But demeaning merely because one can is not, and I might add it is often counter productive. Using the legislative process to raise massive campaign sums in order to wage televised warfare is as much of an abomination as was Tom Delay’s K-Street Project. Further, it is not necessary, and it turns off those whose support we need if we are going to move this nation forward.

We will have strong disagreements on issues. If we cannot understand the mindset of others we will misinterpret what their actions mean. We do not have to agree with either their points of view or the actions that flow therefrom, but if we simply assume they have no rational basis then two things will happen. First we will misinterpret what they really mean, and second our actions in response will not be as effective, either against them, or in attempting to persuade those who are not advocates of either side of the particular dispute.

What is legitimate to say or do or believe? How are we entitled to reject another person because of disagreement on one or even multiple issue? How are we so certain that what we believe and how we act is always correct? Is not that an unforgivable arrogance? Does it not lead to the mindset that does not allow one to make corrections, because recognition of previously wrong beliefs or actions implies weakness, so is never considered? Is not that part of why we are so critical of the current president, who is unwilling to ever acknowledge that his decisions could be wrong? Do we wish to be like him, like this administration?

It is normal for people to reflect back at certain times, perhaps as a birthday or anniversary of a major life milestone occurs. Given the Civil calendar, there are many such reflections at this time of the year. We see Time announce its person(s) of the year (and by the way, congratulations). There are lists of the ten best and ten worst - movies, books, politicians, whatever. For many of us there is something of a lull in our normal level of activity. In my case the school is closed for 11 days. Others simply take extended time off, as my wife is doing to be with her family.

I offer these thoughts not because I consider them profound. But perhaps, even as they are at best tentative, a work in process (as is my life), they may in some way connect with the thinking of someone else.

Perhaps you will offer something back. Maybe my words don’t direct connect with some third person, but our exchange of thoughts does. Perhaps what you offer will crystalize something as yet not completely formed in my own thinking. That is why I post this. I encourage responses, whatever they may be.

And if there are no responses, if this diary merely scrolls into oblivion with little traffic, so be it. I claim neither profundity nor insight nor wisdom. I offer my somewhat unformed thoughts in the hope that they may be of value to someone else. Whatever happens from here, over that i have no control.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A different approach to leadership 

crossposted from dailykos

The Servant-Leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant: - first, to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or at least, not be further deprived?

The words above were written by the late Robert Greenleaf, in a short work entitled The servant as leader. In this diary I will attempt to introduce you to his work and explain why I think it is especially relevant on a political blog.

Back in my doctoral studies in education (never completed) I took a course in leadership. I had never heard of Greenleaf, but was required to read his Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. (in which the short work above appears as the first chapter). As I read other writers whose work was required in this course, people like Max DePree (Leadership is an Art, Leadership Jazz) I found additional illustrations of ways of leading that did not match the hierarchical model so often found in institutions, whether they were political, military, religious, commercial or even non-profit.

Both writers are firm on their belief that leadership is not something done by metrics, by scientific approaches, because that means imposing from above standards that might not be applicable to the situations and the people at hand. As I read these authors, I found myself being very much challenged in my thinking, and as I examine my copies I see extensive underlining and marginalia, as I discuss and even argue with the ideas with which they confront me.

Greenleaf rose to high positions at AT&T. His written work on leadership did not begin to get published until he was in his mid 60s. He lectured on leadership at a number of major universities, including MIT, Dartmouth and Harvard Business School. He was inspired to model of servant leadership by reading Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East, in which the ‘servant’ Leo - who while he is present all goes smoothly but when he leaves the journey falls apart - a man who did the menial tasks for others so that they could more fully function, turned out to be the titular head of a religious order that had sponsored the journey.

I remember that when I had first read the Hesse, many years ago, I had been reminded of one of the most important appellations applied to the Pope, once very much exemplified by John XXIII - “the servant of the servants of Christ.” There is in that title a sense of the humility of leadership.

In the chapter on The Servant as Leader, Greenleaf offered three examples, John Woolman, Thomas Jefferson, and Nikolai Grundtvig. Most readers will only know our third President, upon whom Greenleaf focuses for his ability to do one thing at a time, as he puts it. He notes Jefferson’s good fortune in having come under the mentorship of George Wythe, and having developed a fascination in how law worked. He also notes that Jefferson turned down the opportunity to take a leadership role in the Revolutionary War, but instead returned to Virginia, where he
got himself elected to the Virginia legislature, and proceeded to write new statutes embodying the new principles of law for the new nation. He set out, against the determined opposition of his conservative colleagues, to get these enacted into law. It was an uphill fight. . . . He wrote 150 statutes in that period and got 50 of them enacted into law, the most notable being the separation of church and state. For many years Virginia legislators were digging into the remaining one hundred as new urgent problems made their consideration advisable. (p. 31)

When I saw Greenleaf’s references to Woolman, I immediately wondered if he himself had been Quaker (he was), because few outside the Society of Friends know the influence this single Quaker had. As a young man he decided that for Quakers to own slaves was morally wrong. He decided to convince the Society that ownership of other human beings was contrary to its principles. He spent 30 years of his relatively short life (dying in England at age 52) traveling around and quietly challenging Friends along the Eastern seaboard. Because of Quaker activity in abolition movements and the Underground Railroad during the 19th century, many Americans do not realize how many Quakers had owned slaves, even been instrumental in the slave trade. And yet by 1770, almost 100 years before the outbreak of the Civil War, no American Quakers owned slaves, such ownership having officially been denounced by the Religious Society of Friends and forbidding its members such ownership. Greenleaf offers a follow-on thought:
One wonders what would have been the result if there had been fifty John Woolmans, or even five, traveling the length and breadth of the Colonies in the eighteenth century persuading people one on one with gentle non-judgmental argument that a wrong should be righted by individual voluntary action. Perhaps we would not have had the war with six hundred thousand casualties and the impoverishment of the South, and with the resultant vexing social problem that is at fever heat one hundred years later and with no end in sight. (p. 30)

Grundtvig is known as the Father of the Danish Folk High Schools. Himself a theologian, poet, and student of history and not an educator, Grundtvig embarked on this path to help transition Denmark, a nation at the beginning of the 19th century that was transitioning from a feudal and absolute monarchy, with the peasants almost wholly dependent upon the landowners, was undergoing agricultural reform lead by elites, for the sake of the peasants but in a sense not including them. Grundtvig encouraged institutions to offer intensive but short residence schools so that young adults could learn the history, mythology and poetry of the Danish people. Denmark lost both a chunk of its territory to Prussia in 1864 and its export market for corn as a result of the agricultural abundance of the Western hemisphere. Let me offer two paragraphs (from pp 33-34) which concludes Greenleaf’s examination of Grundtvig:
Peasant initiative, growing out the spiritual dynamic generated by the Folk High Schools, recovered the nation from both of these shocks by transforming its exportable surplus from corn to “butter and bacon,” by rebuilding the national spirit and by nourishing the Danish tradition in the territory lost to Germany during the long years until it was returned after World War I.
All of this, a truly remarkable social, political, and economic transformation, stemmed from one man;s conceptual leadership. Grundtvig himself did not found or operate a Folk High School, although he lectured widely in them. What he gave was his love for the peasants, his long, articulate dedication - some if through very barren years - and his passionately communicated faith in the worth of these people and their strength to raise themselves - if only their spirit could be aroused. It is a great story of the supremacy of the spirit.

One can see some of the influence of Greenleaf in the introduction to the chapter “What IS Leadership” in DePree’s Leadership is an Art
The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leaders. (p. 11)

In the introduction, DePree acknowledges the dependence of his thinking upon other people, especially those employees who worked for him at Herman Miller, Inc. He tells us that some lessons of leadership are transferrable from one kind of organization to another, and then reminds us on p. 2
Leadership is an art, something to be learned over time, not simply by reading books. Leadership is more tribal than scientific, more a weaving of relationships than an amassing of information, and, in that sense, I don’t know how to pin it down in every detail.

DePree acknowledges that he is writing in a corporate context, where participative democracy means one gets to express but not to vote on the decisions. Yet still several of his insights are transferrable to other contexts. Consider, for example, this from page 15:
Leaders owe a covenant for the corporation or institution, which is, after all, a group of people. Leaders owe the organization a new reference point for what caring, purposeful, committed people can be in the institutional setting. Notice I did not say what people can do - what we can do is merely a consequence of what we can be.

Or consider this, from page 120:
Finally, I think there is value in considering thoughts from other leaders, leaders not necessarily in the same area as one’s own. Mahatma Gandhi one wrote that there were seven sins in the world: wealth without work; pleasure without conscience; knowledge without character; commerce without morality; science without humanity; worship without sacrifice; politics without principle. Performance considered in light of those seven sins would be a well-reviewed performance indeed.

For many reading this, this evening is a holy and important time, one perhaps of worship, of gathering in family. For others they may have just completed a cycle of renewal in a festival of lights. Some, perhaps like me, are grateful for a period of days which offer a break in a too intensive pattern of work. Thus offering philosophical ideas about different approaches to leadership may seem off-putting. If so, perhaps you can return to these ideas at a time more appropriate for you. I believe that for the sake of the future of our nation we do need to rethink our ideas on leadership, and the two authors to which I refer are but some of the alternative models of leadership we might want to consider.

Dailykos is dedicated to the election of Democrats. We have had some success almost 7 weeks ago. Our next cycle is still almost 11 months off for those of us with significant state contests. Some will already begin to be consumed with the primary processes for national leadership. Still, I think it somewhat beneficial to think about leadership. What models of leadership will the Democrats now in Congress provide to one another, and to the nation? What can we expect of newly elected governors? And what expectations should we apply as we evaluate those that seek positions of leadership in the future? Certainly those who aspire to and achieve leadership positions will have ambition, for without that motivator it is hard to imagine undertaking the grueling course of campaigning. And we can expect that most will have some vision of what they hope to accomplish, otherwise why bother? After all, most are gifted enough to make far more money with much less effort in other endeavors. I would hope that at least one part of the mindset is a desire to truly serve, to find ways of empowering the people they represent. That is why I have taken the time to offer this reflection.

Enjoy the season.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Democracy and Education - thoughts by Deb Meier 

crossposted from dailykos

The motives of the drivers behind NCLB—which fixes in law our misplaced obsessions—vary, but between them they have helped create a climate that removes democracy from our schoolhouses. Folks like us who advocate a different kind of childhood are on occasion labeled elitist, failing to confront the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged that requires that we throw overboard the frills of childhood along with the frills of local democracy.

For me the primary purpose of our public schools should be to prepare our students to be creative, active participants in our democratic way of life. I know of no one today who addresses this more directly than does Deborah Meier, who is the author of the paragraph with which this diary begins.

For those who don’t know her work, Deborah Meier is one of the most important people in the education field. She founded Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, which demonstrated that one could teach children from economically poor backgrounds in an human and progressive fashion and still have them succeed. She later founded a progressive charter school in Boston named after Francis Parker, one of the giants of the progressive education movement. Both of these are members of the Coalition of Essential Schools, which is founded upon the principles of Theodore Sizer.

Now she is, along with George Wood and others, one of the Conveners of The Forum for Education and Democracy. It was at a May 20 town meeting of the forum that Meier gave the remarks on which this diary is based.

It is almost criminal for me to attempt to extract from these remarks, but in the interest of keeping this diary short enough to allow me to offer a few remarks of my own, I will engage in that less than perfect behavior.

After beginning with a reference to how Dickens begins A Tale of Two Cities (about the best of times and the worst of times) and worrying that we have too much of the latter, Meier offers us the following:
That’s in part my innate long-term optimism speaking, but also an optimism born out by forty years of experiences in schools in which I am daily reminded of the amazing capacity for learning and for empathy deep within every child – every infant - part of our very humanity. It’s these two amazing human qualities which I hope to “conserve”—and better yet enrich, extend, and toughen—so that they can withstand the complex times ahead of us.

These are capacities that make the idea of democracy—which often seem a fragile if not utopian dream—seem feasible.

Democracy may not be “natural” to our specie—it may even at times be counter-intuitive.

She illustrates this by referring to a study that after specific instruction in the Bill of Rights students willingness to grant rights to those with whom they disagreed rose - from 25% to 35%!

She recounts an example from her own experience, in which the lesson was greatly enriched, even as slowed down, because she listened to the insistence of a student who offered an idea that was outside the framework of the lesson. Darrell was 5 years old.

She addresses the implications of how we learn for our democratic future:
It’s because we are naturally capable of being both extraordinary learners and capable of imagining ourselves in the shoes of others that it’s possible – but not inevitable - that democracy can still win.

But imagine an educational system devoted to nurturing democracy? Yet it’s hardly even a third place contestant in most reform packages—See Ed Week--Not one of the 6 goals for 21st century schooling even mentioned democracy! As a result the continued potentials for even a pale version are threatened. Democracy is threatened more by its seeming irrelevance than by any enemy planning to wrest it away from us. Cynical gerrymandering has made even voting seem pointless in the vast majority of the districts that elect our Congress, Uncertain of the differences between millions and billions—we witness the impact of each equally mutely. We withdraw—further and further. Meanwhile the decisions we know a lot about are made further and further from where our voice can have an influence. It’s no wonder that when I ask audiences how many know Roberts Rules of Order, few raise their hands and others afterwards ask me what in the world I was talking about.

Meier goes on to note the loss of leisure in America, and the implications that has for our society at large:
We barely have time to leisurely contemplate our own children, much less their schooling. Compassion for our fellow citizens is the first victim of such stress. The second is authentic learning.

One unfortunate result in our recent efforts at school reform has been an increase in dropouts. This parallels the increase in stress for most in American society, caused in part by the scrambling the vast majority have to undertake in the hope of staying economically even. And as Meier notes
The motives of the drivers behind NCLB—which fixes in law our misplaced obsessions—vary, but between them they have helped create a climate that removes democracy from our schoolhouses. Folks like us who advocate a different kind of childhood are on occasion labeled elitist, failing to confront the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged that requires that we throw overboard the frills of childhood along with the frills of local democracy.

“The” poor need, our critics argue, something different—something more akin to a boot camp with a boot camp approach to intellectual skill and authority. And to this end, they say, we must cut out our romantic love affair with local democracy.

Here I cannot but be reminded of one of the most famous lines to come from the Vietnam conflict. Commonly quoted as “In order to save the village we had to destroy it” the actual statement by an major after the destruction of the village of Ben Tre in 1968 was “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.” Somehow I have seen the same happening to schools supposed to preparing our economically poorer students to be participating members in our society. We drive them out to increase test scores, we turn them off to learning, and we take away from teachers the flexibility needed help them succeed in learning. There is no time to listen to the 5 year old Darrell's inform us that the categories we are using to classify things might be insufficient.

Let me return to Meier’s words for a moment:
The current focus on narrowly defined “academics”—starting more or less at birth is, I would argue, a frill. Likewise the current test-oriented approach to defining “academic” deprives the least powerful of precisely what academia at its best offers: the ability to use one’s mind agilely, freely and with the utmost self-discipline.

That cannot happen in settings in which everything that young people (and incidentally their teachers) have a natural curiosity about that appeals to their enthusiasms for challenge and risk-taking is labeled a frill where uncertainty doesn’t fit the multiple-choice format.

It cannot happen if children’s thirst for independence is called fluff. If their hands-on delight with real craftsmanship and real entrepreneurship are no-no's! Too time-consuming, Untestable!

Those of us working on the plan for education that is the basis of the education session at Ykos2007 struggle with many things, one of which is how we can provide adequate information to parents, taxpayers and legislatures who provide the means for our public schools without reducing the school experience to that which is easily measured, ‘testable.”

I strongly believe in the value of play, not merely for small children. Far too many of our children have lost the opportunity for learning how to play well with others. Even our games are highly structured by adults, and children lose the opportunity to work out how to play under appropriate but not overly directive adult supervision. As a result many as adults do not know how to take charge of situations that may dissuade them and yet would be amenable to organized efforts from the ground up. As progressives this should scare us. One could argue that our schools are increasingly preparing generations of future adults whose orientation will not include the willingness to challenge those who may be abusing authority. Democracy does not work without active citizens.

And that even presumes that our young people will stay in school and complete their educations. Absent play, students get turned off. Meier notes that even the American Enterprise Institute argues for the value of play, and then she says
The ending of recess, the ignoring of arts and crafts, of shop and music— are signs of peril—Peril to human intellect, and grandiose as this will sound: threats to democracy which rests on both intellectual skepticism and empathy—the two underpinnings as well. of play. Yes that’s what play is all about!

America’s traditional skepticism about academia was not wholly unwarranted. Who can be sold on the barren version offered our young. Not me-–or you. Dropping out is the predictable end product of years of boredom, disengagement and failure. It accounts for the drop in graduation data for the first time in our history.

There is so much in this set of remarks. Let me offer one more extended extract to give you a sense of why Meier is a hero to so many educators:
If our purpose is to prepare a generation of citizens equipped to respond skillfully to difficult and complex and, above all, novel situations-it won’t do. Focusing on test scores is the wrong prescription. It cannot and does not respond to what either academia, democracy, or in fact, a healthy economy requires of its members. Even if tests were far better than they were—and in fact they are appallingly limited at even measuring important skills or knowledge—and likely to get worse in our rush to multiply more and more of them--such a focus betray their best potential.

If learning to weigh decisions and consider trade-offs, to take into account not only one’s immediate interests but long term ones, and not only one’s own community but the nation and even the planet, if taking initiative and risks, of working well with others, if speaking clearly, if meeting deadlines and accepting responsibility count—and on and on; than we need an alternative because none of the above don’t count a whit on the tests our kids are now subjected to.

America’s prominence in science and technology was built upon America’s perennial respect for imagination and the practical arts. To preserve it we have to tamp our enthusiasm for text-based-learning as the only source of achievement or competence. It doesn’t work. No wonder my contractor in upstate NY complains that he hires graduates who passed the math test but don’t know how to use a ruler.

As a teacher I have to wrestle with conflicting mandates. One is imposed from above, and that is how my kids do on external examinations which I do not prepare, and often whose results are not returned to me in a fashion that enables me to improve my instruction. These range from county benchmarks in preparation for state high school exit exams to Advanced Placement exams for my brightest 10th graders seeking to burnish their transcripts and gain college credit. Each of these restricts my flexibility in exploring the individual interests of my students and using these as the levers to move the world: a skilled teacher should be able to start with the specific interest of the child and use that as the method to connect the child with the domain of instruction, and to show its connections to other domains as well. I am more fortunate than many teachers in that my principal gives me almost total flexibility to instruct my students as I see fit so long as the test scores stay up.

One reason I have been so active in trying to help people understand the issues and impact of educational policy is that most teachers do not have my flexibility, and even for me I must accept a Faustian bargain in order to have any chance of truly reaching my students.

I am going to end with one more quote from Meier. It is not from the very end of her piece, but it concisely expresses much of what I believe should be essential in how we design and run our schools. I offer it for your consideration, even as I again urge you to go and read her entire set of remarks.

The best schools keep their eye on the prize—the kids—not just whether they are pleasing higher civil authorities. They see the job of adults as one of nurturing intelligence and empathy, openness to the world, while cherishing their children’s uniqueness. They stay close to families, and see teachers and parents as allies not adversaries. Schools for democracy are quintessentially always an act of collaboration with families and communities ----expression of the grassroots vitality and ingenuity that has always made our nation great.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Why do we swear at all? 

this is crossposted at Dailykos and elsewhere. Please post any comments over there

From the King James Bible, Matthew 5:34-37:

But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.
But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

I have always been amused by Christians who insist that we swear upon a Bible, because it seems to be a direct contradiction of this command from Jesus. If one is to be insistent upon a literal interpretation of Scripture, why are some “Christians” selective in ignoring this clear command? And given that the passage I have quoted is directly from the Sermon on the Mount, is it not even that more binding upon those who would call themselves Christian?

I am aware that there are two oaths specified in the Constitution, that for the President in Article II, and that for other government officials in Article VI. Both have the option to swear or affirm. As a Quaker by choice I will affirm when required to in a legal proceeding, but I respect some of my Friendly brethren who will not even do that on the grounds that there is no distinction between being bound by oath or affirmation or not, one is still obligated to tell the truth, and that the passage from Matthew makes that clear.

We have had much discourse since Virgil Goode Jr. put both feet in his mouth with respect to Keith Ellison. I do not think I need to revisit an issue that has been the subject of multiple diaries and now one front-page story. I do think we need to consider the larger context.

I often wonder about the selective reading of the Bible. In that same Sermon we hear blessings upon peacemakers, and yet as a nation we are far too willing to criticize those who seek peace as either weak or perhaps even traitorous. Or perhaps even more appropriate in an age where politicians find it necessary tom publicly demonstrate their piety, and to end public addresses with “God bless the United States” or words to that affect, we should remember the introduction Jesus offers before teaching the multitude the Lord’s Prayer. Let me offer from the RSV the beginning of Matthew 6, several selected examples, beginning with Matt. 6:1
Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

And most appropriately, Matt. 6:6-7:
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

I do not consider myself a Christian, even as I am a Quaker. I am more concerned about the here and now then I am about some ultimate future. I believe that I am responsible for my actions and my words. That responsibility does not change by swearing or affirming that my words and actions are true. I acknowledge the need for ceremonial demarcations, which I why I accept the idea of an oath or affirmation. I remain puzzled as to why someone who seriously accepts the words of Jesus as binding would ever swear, given the passages I have quoted, but I am not offended if that is how they choose to indicate a moment of especial solemnity. Given my strong support of free exercise it is not for me to deprive them of such an occasion.

I offer this not very well constructed diary not because I wish to challenge our traditional practices in this nation. Nor do I necessarily mean that those who pray in public and insist that people swear upon the Bible are necessarily hypocrites. I am puzzled at the lack of consistency, as I am by the insecurity I see in those who feel threatened when others of us choose to act in a way contrary to the choices they have made.

So I offer this diary as perhaps a means of provoking a discussion about the meaning of oaths, of public religiosity. I have no classes to teach today, as we are on winter break, so I will be happy to dialog should anyone choose to respond.

And if not, then may everyone find some peace and solace in this time of the year.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

As Winter Break approaches 

I have chosen to offer a few thoughts from one who for a change will welcome the break. Normally as a teacher I get somewhat depressed being apart from my students, because it is a time when I cannot make a difference. But this year I find I am not alone in being glad for a chance to recoup. In my case there are some things that are specific for me. But for many of us who would otherwise be somewhat down at the period of the break, we have something in common - it is what the imposition of tests from the outside means to our instruction and our students.

Regular readers of what I post know that I have been very involved in political affairs and in attempting to make changes to education on a broad scale. I still have not caught up on sleep and household tasks as a result of the first, and I need more time for the latter. That is what is particular for me. But for all of us the impact of external tests is now significant and detrimental. I talked on Friday with one of our top science teachers, a man with Ph.D. in chemistry who chooses to teach high school rather than college, and I talked last night with my fellow social studies teachers at our annual holiday celebration. Even those who are normally optimistic about the difference their teaching can make are now discouraged, and as a result simply want to get through this next short (4 day) week and get away from what is an increasingly frustrating experience this year.

Our state (Maryland) has mandatory examinations for high school graduation. These high school assessments are applied largely in the 10th grade, in order to allow time to offer remedial instruction before retaking the test. These tests are applied in 10th grade English, Biology, Geometry, and Government (my course). Those in English and Geometry are used as the one-time assessments in reading and math required under No Child Left Behind.

Our district has worried for a number of years that our high school graduation rate was going to plummet when these tests began to “count” as they do for the class of 2009, which just happens to be our current sophomores. Now, it is possible knowing that the exams in previous years did not matter for them (although the English and Geometry mattered for the schools) students may not have taken them serious. Regardless, the response has been to impose quarterly benchmarks consisting of released items (questions) from previous state examination. There is one such in each of the four courses, in order to monitor if students are on track to be prepared for the official High School Assessments (as the exams are called) given in late May.

There are several inconsistencies in this pattern, which might seem otherwise beneficial on the surface. At least in Government, in my school we do not follow the County’s pacing guide. That is because the order of units we use makes greater pedagogical sense, at least in our experience, and even our non-gifted students have a higher pass race than the overall scores at any other school in the county. Thus we have students “failing” the benchmarks because they are tested on material for which they have not yet received instruction who will have no trouble passing the test in May.

Also in Government, I have students taking Advanced Placement US Government. Most are 10th graders, but some are seniors because the AP option was not available when they were sophomores. All except one of these has already taken the state exam (and prior to class of 2009 students had to sit for the exam but their score did not matter for graduation), and yet they are being required to sit for the benchmarks. Further, the AP curriculum is completely different than the regular government curriculum, and they will also be tested on material not yet covered. I use the 10 days or so between the AP examination and the state exam to go over material that is part of the state testable content but not part of the AP content. Last year we had exactly one AP student who did not make the cut score for the state exam, and that student had a bare D in AP because he did not do his assignments on a regular basis.

It is true that most of my AP students will do well enough on the benchmarks that people will leave me alone. But even if everyone got a perfect score, I am still losing an instructional day to do a testing not relevant to their studies. That is frustrating.

It is also frustrating that we are being required to give the benchmarks this week, in theory Mo-Tu-We, and the official timing requires us to burn part of one class period and all of another. That is because the other schools in the County are on A-B day schedules with double periods, whereas to keep our flexibility in what we offer, we still have 45 minute periods. The test is set officially for 60 minutes. My AP students will only be given the one 45 minute period, but I have to burn the two periods for my non-AP students. And yet the quarter ends on January 11 for the students. Thus we should be able to have the 4 day week on which we return to finish up instruction and review before applying the exam, and yet we are forced to cut short the instruction to give an exam. Someone in the bowels of school administration apparently worried that the kids would forget too much over the holidays. We had originally been told we could give our exams after we returned, but found out on Wednesday that we must give them this forthcoming week. That has required us to scramble in order to squeeze them in, making major changes in our planning, which is not what one wants to do just before a break. We will now not have the opportunity to bring our instruction to a sensible close with appropriate culminating activities, and as a result our students WILL forget more than necessary during the holiday.

But our high school graduation tests predate NCLB. Yes, two are used for the requirements of that act, but not ours. And yet NCLB is making what we do that much more difficult. The law requires that all students be tested in reading and math every year from grades 3 through 8, and once in high school. As originally proposed, if the act is reauthorized science is supposed to be added next school year, but not social studies. What has happened is that in elementary and middle schools the amount of instruction in science and social studies is being significantly decreased, if not eliminated. Thus students, even bright students, are coming to us in science and social studies with far less grounding that previous cohorts have had. Yes, in middle school there are separate classes designated as science or history, but we now have more than anecdotal evidence that teachers in at the middle school level are increasingly taken away from the supposed content for the classes to do prep work for tests in reading and math. And at the elementary level the time that should be designated for these domains is in some cases completely disappearing - I spoke with the girlfriend of one of our history teachers who described this exact phenomenon in her elementary school, which is Montgomery County MD, one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the US.

Education is ever more distorted. It is increasingly test prep, and little more. And the children most hurt by this are those from lower Socioeconomic Status, the ones for whom the Act was supposed to ensure were not shortchanged in their instruction. Despite that, after more than half a decade of implementation it is clear that the act has failed in its intent. At a recent conference which brought together those who had argued for the increase in accountability represented by NCLB as well as some of the strongest critics of the act, Diane Ravitch, formerly Undersecretary of Education in the Bush 41 administration offered the bleak assessment that none of the features of the act were working, and NO ONE offered a contrary assessment.

This might be because the act is not fully funded. Whether or not is technically violates the unfunded mandate provisions of other federal legislation is besides the point. All one need to do is compare what was authorized for the provisions of the program versus what has actually been appropriated by the Congress. You can see for your state, program by program, by visiting this link, wherein the National Education Association has put together PDF files by state to provide you with that information. The results do not surprise me, even though the appropriation figures are only about half of the amounts authorized for the programs. After all, several decades after IDEA, the federal legislation for special ed, was passed, Congress still only funds about 1/2 of the share it was supposed to provide, and I know in Virginia alone that represents an annual shortfall of over $300 million.

We have a four day week. We will return to two consecutive four day weeks, and the first semester will be over. As teachers we are frustrated, by the decreasing readiness of our students and by the unreasonable and pedagogically unsound imposition of external tests. More so than previous years, many of us really want to get away for this forthcoming break.

And the real fear is that the most dedicated teachers in having such an attitude have taken a first step that is fraught with dangers for the future of our schools. I will use myself as an example. I will be 61 in May. I had planned to teach until I was 70. Last night my wife and I talked. I am eligible to take retirement at age 62, with a reduced pension. For the first time I openly considered the possibility of doing that and going and doing some other kind of work, perhaps working on the Hill or signing on to a political campaign. For the past 11+ years my entire existence has focused on my identity as a teacher. But if we cannot change the direction NCLB is imposing upon American public schools, I may be willing to give up the battle. And I will not be alone in making such a decision.

Now let me get back to focusing on the changes to my planning I must now make for these next four days, changes forced by the unreasonable and pedagogically foolish requirement that I give a quarterly test 2 weeks before the end of the quarter.

Have a nice day!

Jim Webb - unmuzzled and undeterred 

this diary was originally posted on 12/16 at dailykos and at RaisingKaine. It was on the recommended list at dailykos for more than 12 hours, and I have posted in text from that version

crossposted at RaisingKaine

One aspect of Jim Webb that I do not expect to change once he is sworn in on January 4th is that he will say what is on his mind.Certainly this has bee true of him in the past, as he was reminded during the campaign of some of the things he had said in the past about people whose support he sought in the campaign, people like John Kerry and Bill Clinton.

Last night I heard a story that I think illustrates this characteristic of Jim Webb, as well as his determination when he sets his mind to something. By the way, both are things I admire about him. I will explain why, but first I have to set the scene for you. It was at a gathering of VFW at a VFW: Vets for Webb at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in Falls Church Virginia.

There were perhaps 30 vets whose service ranged from beginning in 1944 to one person still on active duty in the Navy. The event was to honor Jim, to thank him and congratulate him. He was not able to be with us - he has a new daughter who was due on December 21 but was born on the 11th, and he is moving to have an easier commute to Capitol Hill. Many of the vets were like me of the Vietnam Era, and most of us were not VFW members. We had contributed for a gift for Jim. The Post fed us dinner, entertained us with a dance band from a local high school. This was also a fundraiser on behalf of the charitable work of the Post,which includes assisting working poor families at Christmas (this year a group of 50).

We talked before and during dinner, and then we had some brief ceremonies. One man had suggested a gift. He had obtained an exact replica of the map used by the Marines at Iwo Jima, and gotten it nicely frames. One of Jim’s fathers-in-law had served at Iwo, and Jim had given a notable speech at an Iwo reunion in 2000. Those of us there signed the back of the map, and we hope and believe he will have it in his Senate office.

But the most important moment was from our senior veteran. He had first enlisted in 1944 at 15, and was in California about to be shipped out to Iwo when the Marine Corps discovered he was underaged and discharged him. And he told the story about Jim.

When Captain Webb served on the staff of Secretary of the Navy John Warner, one of his jobs was to give speeches supporting the Vietnam War effort. After he had been doing it for a while he began, as our speaker pointed out, to go of the plantation. He would depart from his assigned script and freely speak his mind about the conflict, criticizing some aspects of how the war was being wage. This got him into trouble. He was called into the Secretary’s office and warned to stick to his assigned script. But Jim is outspoken as i think anyone who has been around him knows. And he went off the plantation again. Secretary Warner went ballistic, and told a top aide to court-martial Webb for having disobeyed a direct order.

Now that aide was a Marine. So he called our speaker, then at the EPA, and asked if he could hide a Marine there for a while? Our speaker did, and everytime Warner inquired about the court martial he was told that they were working on it. After a few weeks they got paperwork together and walked into Warner’s office with a set of discharge paperwork - honorable - for Jim. Warner was at first quite upset, pointing out that he wanted to court-martial the captain. His aide and others explained that politically it might not look too good to be court-martialing a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam conflict for speaking what he believed to be the truth about the conflict. Jim was honorably discharged.

Meanwhile he had worked out very well at EPA, and our speaker tried to encourage him to continue to work there. Jim said he had decided to go to law school that fall. This was August. He had not yet applied. Our contact asked if he had taken the LSATs. Jim had not. But when our speaker said that he would have to wait a year Jim made clear that he was determined to go that Fall. So here is a former Marine at an executive position in the EPA, our speaker. He calls up a good friend who is a senior partner at a major Washington firm, who is also a former Marine. The two of them conspire, and go visit the head of admissions at Georgetown Law, who - yep - is also a former Marine, and without having taken the LSATs Jim Webb was admitted to Georgetown Law.

Let me tell you what the story of refusing to be muzzled reminded me of. In Russian church history there is the tradition of the iurodivny, the Holy Fool. These were truthtellers, who because they were fools and thus considered touched by God were given a freedom to speak out not available to others. The most famous of these was a man after whom the iconic image of Red Square is nicknamed. St. Basil lived at the time of Ivan the Terrible, and he was the one person who could speak blunt truth to the Tsar without being immediately executed.

This is something that has its roots in Biblical prophecy. The Nevi’im were less foretellers of the future than they were speakers of truth, often from a condition of ‘ecstasy’ - there is the tale of Saul falling in with a company of prophets and rolling around and prophesying. But the most famous example was the Court prophet Nathan, who inquired of King David what he would do with a wealthy man with many cattle who took away from a poor man his only cow,and David expressed with righteous rage how he would punish the man. Nathan then confronted him with “you are that man” and David was stricken, realizing that his prophet had challenged him on how he had gotten Bathsheba. Of course the biblical tradition is that this is the inspiration for the Psalm 51.

I think the two aspects of Jim Webb described in the anecdote are important to remember as he is about to embark upon his senatorial career. He has never been afraid to speak out, to speak the truth as he sees it. I will not be surprised to find that what he says can be described with the title of the Al Gore movie on the environment, because Jim WILL speak the truth and it will not always be either convenient or comfortable for those who hear it. There have already been some stories about Senate staffers that worry about how different this will make Jim, that he won’t play by the traditional rules, which I think is good. We already saw this to some degree in the incident at the White House with the President.

And as his entire life should demonstrate, Jim does not get deterred by serious challenges. The entry into law school is but one piece of a consistent pattern. When he was considering getting into the race, he had lunch with Steve Jarding, who had run Mark Warner’s campaign for governor as the crowning jewel in a career that included work for Bob Kerrey and Tom Daschle. Jim pushed Steve to tell him what the odds were of winning the seat. Steve was reluctant to be specific, telling him that it would be difficult. Jim was insistent on hearing the truth, as insistent as he has been in telling it. Finally Steve told him probably no better than 15%. Jim responded that he liked those odds. The man does not shy away from a serious challenge.

I sensed part of this from reading Jim’s writings, from seeing him on TV several times over his literary career. I realized it when i first met him at a local Democracy for America event at Attila’s near Courthouse in Arlington back last winter. Since deciding to run in February Jim has consistently demonstrated both his honesty and his courage. I expect nothing less than a continuing demonstration of this high character in the next years as he embarks on this latest period of service to the people of the nation.

Semper Fi!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Comments for the Yearlykos2007 education project 

The material below is the comments and suggestion offered by the dailykos community in response to several diaries soliciting input for what we should address in our attempts to redesign American education. Thanks go to DeweyCounts for organizing these by topic. And if you have read this far, I apologize for the poor html of this blog.

1. History

2. Where we are now (standardization, punishment, lack of innovation)

(rhubarb)* I'm going for homeschooling out of desperation. I want my kid to associate joy, not fear and discomfort, with education.

(robertdfeinman) There are two models of education.

In one children are supposed to be taught how to learn and how to gather information for themselves. Let's call this the "think for yourself" model.

In the other children are supposed to be taught the important "truths" about the world. Among those is a respect for authority and to learn how to fit in to one's "station in life". Let's call this the "know your place" model. (BANKING? dc)

We see these themes played out at the political level as well. Currently we see a rise in the authoritarian model both in government and in the types of claims being made by popular religious groups.

The other model was proposed during the first half of the 20th Century by John Dewey and other "pragmatists". It worked well for over 50 years and led to an unprecedented growth in economic wealth, educational achievement and scientific progress.

Obviously NCLB is the perfect example of the authoritarian model, now with unprecedented federal intervention. If education is to be restored to its successful 20th Century model then the real issues of what type of society we are going to have needs to be addressed.

Dewey was one of the first to point out that democracy could only survive if the populace was educated, understood the role of science and knew how to "think for one's self".

(Rayne) Begin community-wide dialogue about the future of education and how it ties into the future of the local community. We need to talk about education being an investment in a community that attracts economic development, instead of treating education as a drain.

In the same dialogues, talk about what works -- not just what somebody is willing to sell. NCLB was "sold" to the American people by the Republican party under the branding of "The Texas Miracle". Screw that; it's a miracle that we were stupid enough to buy the concept, when so many other, better programs out there work.

Elect better representatives to the school board and to state legislature. We need to do a more effective job of identifying highly qualified candidates who are strong advocates for education, who are also grounded in science and the arts, who will go to bat for better education systems.

a number of discussions on funding, including some response to what I said about that for IDEA. Here is part of a comment from Sidof79: You are right again that the system of property tax for education is inherently flawed. A wealthy district can enact lower property tax rates and generate much more money than a high rate on low value neighborhoods. Essentially, this ensures that the wealthy will always receive a better education, public or private. The only way I can think of is 1) flat property tax, combined with 2) revenue sharing of some sort, in which property taxes are paid to the state DoE and redistributed (along with state funds) on a per-student level.

(SDorn) The interests of businesses and communities are not that far apart, as long as we think about things broadly. In the same way that we get irritated when friends are unreliable (who ever likes being stood up?), businesses have an interest in workers who are reliable. In the same way that we want neighbors who have good judgment and can prioritize things, so should businesses (we hope!). The critical word there is broadly.

3. The goals of education (humanization, democracy, work, thousand flowers bloom)

DFWmom: to be a lifeline for children… to socialize children of different backgrounds by teaching them a common curriculum of knowledge and skills, including citizenship…to identify children who are in need and to get help for them…to provide children with survival skills…to provide care for children during working hours, so that parents can work and contribute to our society.

(deweycounts) To be educated in a democracy means: To be able to identify, access, and utilize information from various knowledge systems in order to implement progressive change in a given space over a given amount of time…of course, if i am staying true to a democratic concept of education, the question "what does it mean to be educated" would have multiple, valid, responses....

(WarrenS) Kieran Egan points out several separate "goals" of Educational institutions: Exposure to a canon of approved materials (the "great books" approach); Socializing people to make them better participants in our culture; training people in logic and critical thinking; developing people's creativity and imaginative resources. Then he follows up by pointing out that these goals are inherently contradictory; the more we focus on one, the less we can actualize any of the others. Different educational theorists emphasize different goals, but very few have noted the disconnect between them.

(rserven) The purpose of the education process should be to teach people how to learn. The material covered in the actual teaching is often incidental to that goal: It is the medium in which the teaching occurs, not the point of the teaching. . . . I would suggest that the goal of education should be to construct a community of critical thinkers, and to do so demands that critical thinking itself needs to be applied to the process of how to build a pathway that can approach that goal.

(Alien Abductee) Democracy rests on the ability of the people to make informed decisions about their leaders and the policies they promote. A populace that doesn't understand its own form of government, its history, or the culture of other nations, and can't apply critical thinking and some level of philosophical analysis to national and world events isn't really able to maintain the checks and balances demanded by a liberal democracy.

Education for employment purposes should always be secondary. America needs to support a sound and widely accessible education system to maintain itself as a functioning democracy.

(DeweyCounts) Democracy, as I understand it through Dewey, is a form of associated living that fosters the growth of the individual through his or her participation in social affairs.

Free, reflective, critical social inquiry and the welfare of others undergird interaction, communion, and community building. Unlike authoritarian modes of government, democracy requires its members to participate in the political, social, cultural, and economic institutions affecting their development and, unlike authoritarian states, democracies believe in the capacity of ordinary individuals to direct the affairs of their society, including schools.

Active participation in various institutions—the reshaping and reinvention of norms, laws, and communities—should prevent homogenizing authoritarianism and allow for individual and community re-creation and growth…Finally, and importantly, democracy is not static. As individuals engage with, reflect on, and critique the worlds they inhabit, democracy itself evolves.

Goldberry, plf515 and others argue for insisting upon quantitative instruction, specifically an understanding of basic statistics. Methinks if we are educating citizens for democracy the ability to process statistical claims is an important thing to have.

4. Who is taught (customization and integration, the child and the community, nutrition, IDEA, IEP)

(Niemann) What is the role of children in our society in the first place? . . . I've come to the conclusion that in our society children are pretty much third-rate citizens. Simply put, the things we value, we take care of. Considering the state of children in our society as a whole -- that is, looking at poverty levels, availability of healthcare, support for families, quality of public education -- the inevitable conclusion is that we simply don't value children enough to take care of them. … our current structure and approach for school does NOT seem to value children as children, but only as a potential resource for the economy and society in the future.

(Fasaha) If we are going to reform our entire educational system, it makes sense to start at the beginning. We need a new first level of education that extends from prekindergarten to the third grade, since it is clear that children who do not leave third grade reading fluently, thinking systematically about mathematics concepts, etc. have a very difficult time catching up. see this related link: http://www.fcd-us.org/

(teacherken) I accept the idea that we have a responsibility to ensure that our students can read accurately a variety of kinds of texts and express themselves in a variety of written and spoken formats. But not all will achieve that by going through the same sequence of instruction, nor will all move through that or any other domain at the same speed. I believe that there is some validity to the work of Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences, and have found that students strongly oriented in one intelligence can use that strength to assist them when required to work in another intelligence. I watch as students who are not by nature either verbal-linguistic nor logical-mathematical struggle in a school environment in which perhaps 90% of their instruction and assessment in core subjects is the former with most of the rest being the latter.

(sandblaster) I taught Montessori for a number of years, and the dignity of each child was central to how we structured the classroom and schedule. Now my daughter is in High School and they round up all tardy students like stray cattle and shame them.

It seems the administration has lost sight of the trust they are supposed to build, and has instead dug a pit of fear for themselves, leaving the kids wholely unsupported as humans.

(OrangeClouds115) the importance of food and nutrition, the issue of obesity in our young children, and I responded with the additional concern about lack of phys ed and exercise and Mi Corazon reminded us of Eric Jensen’s “Enriching the Brain” which addressed both nutrition and exercise as necessary preconditions (LESS FOOTBALL MORE YOGA?)

(teacherken) we need to be sure that we connect health issues with learning. All children should be tested for vision and hearing problems at an early age, and if corrective action is needed, whether glasses or something else, that there be appropriate public funding available – one cannot expect a child to learn who cannot properly see or hear the material being presented.

Issues of nutrition and exercise are also relevant, but perhaps not easy to address. But we must also address them…The structure of the school day is physically unhealthy for growing kids and adolescents – we should structure into the day some down time, some chance to just be…

5. The teacher (professionalism, diversity, experimentation)

(SDorn) Children need to be in the hands of adults with authority who can model what we want children to become. This has three parts: the qualified adults part, the authority and trust part, and the meaningful stuff part.

(Granny Doc) One thing that has worked well in this rural area is to use Community College teachers in the high schools to offer classes that might not be otherwise available. They have been doing this for over 20 years and the result is an enriched education for our HS students, interesting information on teaching for the CC instructors, and far better preparation when the students go on to college.

6. What is taught (the canon, inquiry, engagement, resiliency, the arts)

(marescho) I would like every student to get a sense of our interdependence with the people and life support systems of the planet. I would like students to learn about other cultures, and in high school or college spend some time abroad, hopefully in a less developed region.

a number of people argued for more individualization of education, perhaps using the model of an IEP, while not necessarily following all the legal requirements of current IEPs. This idea of course needs to be combined with the concern for some minimal common learning, especially with regard to civics and US history.

(Sidof79) the concept of critical thinking skills is almost extinct in public education. The only time I see it is during Gifted evaluations. The new matrix allows a student to be identified as intellectually gifted if the student meets certain levels of a) academic achievement, b) cognitive ability, c) critical thinking, d) academic performance [different than achievement], and e) leadership. C-E are all assessed via teacher checklists. That means that if a teacher decides you have excellent critical thinking skills, then you do; if not, you don't. There are better ways of assessing critical thinking skills out there, and they need to be employed.

Critical thinking skills are just as essential to a public education as reading and math. Critical thinking skills are what makes Democracies work. Freedom of speech without critical thinking skills is a wasted freedom. Universal suffrage without critical thinking skills is a wasted freedom. In fact, most of our constitutional rights are based on the notion that we, as individuals, need to know when our rights are being violated. Without critical thinking skills, without problem solving skills, without objective analysis, they are empty rights.

(Cato come back) Distinction between individual desires and cultural ones.

(rhubarb)* Waldorf! Quirky, I know, but my mother almost inadvertently raised us kids following an informal Waldorf curriculum, and although I am the only one to finish a degree, all of us kids are well-rounded and make a great living doing what we love. Quirky as it is, Waldorf-type programs don't produce mall rats.

(Wide Waske in NJ) I've heard it suggested that future archaeologists won't be digging up math dittos to learn about today's culture and values. It's the arts that are always the most interesting and informative things to dig up when looking for evidence of intellect, expression, innovation, and history of a society. I've seen how the arts in education have saved many a student from failure... and has led to a lifetime of creativity for many.

(Mi Corazon) notes that educators can use “customization” as an apposite to standardization, with some reference to the understanding in the business world of meeting the needs of the customer. I included one quote from the comment in which I read this: “Education should be customized to the individual student, to fit his/her needs for meaning, vocational interest, personal and intellectual development.”

7. How we teach (experiment, replication, repetition, engagement)

(keener): There is some great research by Schank on this...the problem is that reading is a tool to be used for solving problems, and that to present it as an end in itself MAY be useful when building some basic code knowledge, but the usefulness of that model very quickly evaporates as children advance.

(Crustybunker) (THIS MIGHT WORK BETTER UNDER 8) Education should be designed around fields of interest as early as possible, with age barriers collapsed as much as possible.

There needs to be a general, age-appropriate curriculum that will be available to all kids, but if children display strong interests in mathematics, science, music, art, language, and eventually various subsets, like geology, physics, astronomy in the sciences, visual, computer and graphics in art, etc. those children should be grouped, and team-teaching the rule.

Imagine that: kids maybe K-3 all learning how the planet works, or how to program computers, or how to solve equations, or in a group orchestra, then stepping it up in complexity, always working in age groups where kids would normally have "age peers" like older or younger siblings, where the younger ones have examples and the older ones learn to teach and cooperate (damn hard to bully a little kid on the playground when he's your lab partner).

By the time a student reaches what we now call high school, he or she will have worked with others older and younger and with the benefit of focused studies, have a grasp of what is college-level thinking and skills. Why try to make kids as good in history as they are in science, or as good in Math as in art? Channel their interests and skills and ensure minimum across the board competence.

(DeweyCounts) we teach civic knowledge by refusing to divorce children from the communities that they live in….This means our science classes study water quality in local streams…This means our history class listens to the elderly…This means our 16 year olds spend time with 6 month year olds….This means our Language Arts students visit both the elderly and children to read and to listen to stories…This means constant conversation about the ideals that shape this country and about the obstacles that have historically prevented us from achieving them.

(barbwires) In teaching young adult musicians, or participating with them in master class experiences; occasionally I have worked with those trained in Orff disciplines and sometimes via the Suzuki method, as well as many who had private instruction of varying levels of competence. The Orff trained appear to have a more creative balanced approach to performance, with more expressiveness and freedom in their playing. The Suzuki trained students play extraordinarily well by rote, but sometimes expression seems to be lacking or is very subservient to the concept of "note-perfect." This is probably a horrendous over-generalization, but I've seen it more than once (and in some players of professional status as well as students).

In teaching to the test I fear we encourage rote-learning at the expense of creativity. It would be interesting to examine the ways music is taught and draw from the different schools to get more balance. I'd add that I don't know much about the Orff approach to music ed; a friend of mine was a Suzuki instructor and I watched her train students fairly frequently for a while.

8. What the interaction is like in classrooms/schools (the importance of failure)

(rhubarb)* How can public education institutions really help homeschoolers? Be they wackadoo fundies or people like, well, my family and me, we want to work with the schools in some aspects of education.

(Keener) The essence of America is the ability to fail multiple times.

We were founded by people starting this country as a second career. Washington was a failure, as was Sam Adams. More as well.

That's one reason why our bankruptcy laws have been historically lenient.

Part of the disturbing direction this country has taken is that you get to fail precisely once. If this continues, it will destroy both our peculiar dignity, and shut down the engines of our economic progress.

And I note that we can look at this in terms of Edison’ creativity – all the things he tried that didn’t work for a light bulb filament, and the entire idea of science, where you are approaching things trying to prove them wrong. Somehow this has to be part of our discussion and framework

(teacherken)Unless we create freedom to err, and to learn from our mistakes and from our ignorance, we cannot grow, we cannot change. We thus have a responsibility, each of us as individuals, to be willing to admit error and ignorance, and thus empower others to similarly be willing to acknowledge their all too human fallibilities and limitations.

9. How school systems are structured (increase fluidity, break down traditional barriers, open in the evenings for parents/community members, k-college funding)

A number of people, too many to quote, argued for more fluidity of movement through K-12 education, including possibly changing the start age, and letting students move apart from cohorts, either faster or slower as necessary. This of course is less “efficient” than having age-group cohorts, especially in lower grades, and might require teachers trained differently than those we have now

(Mi Corazon): At this point, I think we need to support "let a thousand flowers bloom." The United States already have a strong tradition of local control via school board and elections. Plus, the States are the ones who are charged with education under the constitution.

So, the first step TK, is to affirm that America's basic framework of educational responsibility flows to the state and local level.

(nightsweat) How about Pre-K to 16?...Ireland went from bottom of the heap to top of the pops by offering universal post-secondary education. Imagine an America where everyone who wanted to could get a basic college education.

(turkana) and, at the very LEAST college tuition should be fully deductible. long-term, i want to see college fully financed, too.

Or make it vocational training for those who prefer or are better suited to a trade than to a white-collar job. Instead of unskilled laborers we could have an apprentice system similar to the one in Germany to create skilled machinists, mechanics, technicians. Start with a pilot state or two and expand it from there. Heck, start with Alaska or Wyoming and watch the population triple.

(42) Get rid of lock-step age/grade configurations. They only came into being in the '20's.
Multi-age classrooms are an improvement, but even then may not be enough to handle children who are at either end of a subject spectrum.

Be it in English, Math, Science or the Arts, children should be able to work at an appropriate pace and challenge…(WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THE SKILLS CHALLENGE CONTINUUM HERE)

(saodl) argues for the Sudbury Valley approach, allowing kids to use their natural curiosity. There is no doubt that the structure of school often squeezes out time and opportunity for such exploration. It is also true that some students need structure to keep them going. So one question might be how we structure education, learning, school to account for both of these needs.

(LynnS) offered the idea of libraries as schools and schools as libraries. We currently have a situation where many schools lack adequate libraries, and public libraries have seen hours restricted by funding and staffing cuts. In some way if we are going to view education as a lifelong process, we need to also address issues like public libraries, and possibly see about working out relationships between public and school libraries, and possibly even community access to facilities in local colleges and universities. Certainly those higher education institutions that are publicly funded have a community obligation, but we might find many private institutions willing to cooperate, at least in part

(rhubarb) Why peer-group promotion? Do we really need to work in cohorts?

(Devilstower) We knocked this one around before, but I'm anxious to understand the thoughts on the "small schools" models.

I've waxed idyllic over my little high school back in Kentucky, but the reason I'm often enthusiastic about small schools -- along the lines of the ones that I've seen documented in Ohio and NYC -- is the experience I've had in managing large projects. So often, attempting to run such a project as one massive creature with huge and distant goals, results in failure regardless of the quality of the people involved. But break that same task down into small units with small, discrete goals, and things work.

In particular, there is a methodology called "Scrum" (as in rugby), that I've used on my last few projects to darn near mystical effect. It may be a delusion, but I have to think there's something in the way these iterative methodologies -- which recognize that mistakes will be made, schedules must be flexible, and people are individuals -- are applicable to education.

* realize you don't know everything going in, and plan for change instead of assuming you can research every issue up front.
* work in small, discrete units where the timeline is rigid, but the items to be tackled are flexible.
* deliver results as soon as possible, even if that means giving some tiny process to customers months ahead of the full project completion.
* keep daily contact with everyone on your project -- including your customers, and make sure everyone is aware of all decisions.
* make the manager's job making sure the pipeline is flowing, not manning the pump.

Here I note that our entire approach to education does NOT take into consideration such an approach – in fact we have fixed curricula, rigid pacing guides, benchmark tests at fixed points, and the like. A properly skilled teacher should be able to be far more flexible, able to move more quickly when possible and linger or cycle back when necessary.

kath25 argues that we change the procedures on repayment of education loans from being based on what you borrowed to being based on what you make, as is done in some other nations. The idea behind this is our current approach discourages people from pursuing occupations that are not as remunerative, and thus robs us of the abilities and skills of people we need in such occupations, including teaching. Dept of Ed direct loans under Clinton did allow for this, but the current administration has moved away from this, and more to for-profit institutions doing the loans, and they had little interest in such an approach.

10. How we define progress in education

(teacherken) In the process of claiming that we need to leave no child behind we increasingly rely upon measures that of necessity are unfair to some children whose brains work differently, we narrow the curriculum so that the intellectual stimulation of our children is being diminished, and then we wonder why even the measurements we impose seem never to demonstrate that what we are doing is succeeding, beyond raising scores on tests whose measurement is of a limited nature.

(formernadervoter): Point is this: test scores aren't really good measures of anything other that what you'd get on another corporate test.

The other measures better support kids' learning, excellent teaching, and tell parents best what kids know and can do. Research by Lorie Shepherd shows parents wants these better measures, not the bunch of facts, standardized, corporate controlled tests.

This model, progressive accountability, also has the virtue of putting assessment and accountability back in the hands of the local district professionals and away from McGraw-Hill and the other corporate giants wrecking our classrooms by thousands.

(scoff0165): The gist of my proposal, were it to be considered for implementation in our educational system, focuses on two areas of the student's experience. The first area, and the one I consider to be the more important of the two, is the student's desire as far as the content of the education he or she would receive. The second area is the student's needs for an education that equips him or her with the requisite skills to find employment in the 21st Century American labor market.

My proposal is really simple in that it tries to balance the needs of the student against his or her abilities and desires. What I would propose would be, first, a series of tests to determine the student's grasp of academic subjects. These tests would not be used as a measure of the success of the system, but rather as a gauge of the current level of competence exhibited by each student. Second, I would institute a series of questionnaires to ascertain the level of interest each student shows for particular subjects.

Together the tests and questionnaires could be used to develop an individual course of study for each student, geared to his or her level of attainment and areas of interest. We all know that people are much more likely to put real effort into learning about subjects in which they are interested. My proposal would use that knowledge to customize, as much as possible, the curriculum for each student and to create a course of study that would engage the student's abilities and interests.

Tests and questionnaires could be retaken periodically (in my thinking every 2-3 years) during the course of each student's time in school. Educators could then determine the effectiveness of the preceding years of study as well as changes in the student's likes and dislikes in regard to specific subjects.

In other words, a more personal approach to education should be used to develop a more individualized educational plan for each student, one which recognizes the individual abilities and preferences of the student. I believe that it is only by addressing the individuality of each student and his or her strengths or weaknesses can we create an educational system that serves the interests of society, the business community and the student equally.

11. How we talk about education in a democratic society (where is the line between school and not school?, can’t different schools “talk” differently?)

(SDorn) Every school needs a coherent focus. Every school needs to know its students and have faculty who can work together. That doesn't mean that every school has to be identical

(DeweyCounts) In order to keep debate free and critical, democratic societies must help their citizens acquire the skills and dispositions to intelligently engage one another in substantive discussions, discussions which may lead to solutions to their most pressing problems. In line with Engel, I contend that citizens should acquire those skills and dispositions in public schools, schools committed not only to the development of the individual, but to the development of individuals capable of realizing and maintaining an organic, evolving, and participatory democratic social order.

I recognize multiple, and often conflicting, definitions of “democratic education” or “education for democracy,” and I offer a broad outline here in order to remind parents, teachers, students, policy makers, and concerned citizens of the essential role public schools play in realizing and maintaining a democratic social order.

1. Authority for shaping goals lies in the hands of the people.
2. Education is political.
3. Democratic participation requires a specific type of voice and literacy.
4. Justice, while elusive, is worth striving for; injustice, when discovered, requires action.
5. Education is more than job training.
6. Education serves both productive and reproductive processes.
7. Education engenders independence and interdependence.
8. Children should not be standardized.
9. Democracy requires a certain type of teacher and a certain type of teaching.
10. Democratic education requires a certain type of space.

I want to offer an extended selection from pioneer111 because it touches on so much: The problem is always mediating the tension among the corporate, societal and individual interests.

Some schools need to intercede in social engineering because their communities are in extreme distress and breakdown.

Others can foster individual creativity and truly "draw out" the best potential in the child. (Latin educare means to draw out)

There is no one solution. There never will be one solution. The challenge is hearing all the different voices and looking for models that allow for creative and critical thinking in restructuring education. We need a new framework for the debate about education that the regular citizen can understand.

All of us have an idealized idea of what good education looks like. And we like to get into the design aspect quickly. We think equal opportunity means the same experience. I'm not sure how to frame this into the political debate. I think if DKos can create a political climate that is supportive of educational experimentation it will be in the right direction.

Beyond my skills as a categorizer

(Cskendrick) The principles of the mass education system are obsolete. The efforts at differential implementation (tracking and locking in children to various artificial academic paths) are worse then useless. I say change everything.

1. Change the schedule,
2. ditch the concept of grades,
3. curtail the scope of 'school' in community life, especially the community of students,
4. return the concept of free time and voluntary learning to childhood,
5. reset the focus to creating lifelong learners, not proficient standardized test-takers...though, by necessity, that will come into play here.
6. Don't just decorate classrooms with PC's and internet access -- make the class something that cannot happen without the new instruments of cognition and communication.
7. Have smaller, less frequent, more effective and learning-rich classes.
8. Which reduces the capital budget footprint by reducing the need for college-sized campus, thus you have smaller classes, ...
9. fewer instructors, ...
10. smaller schools, ...
11. less administrative overhead, ...
12. more freedom for the student, ...
13. grading via achievement proficiency examinations, as standardized tests are inescapable in a world where every child is on his or her own academic path to success.
14. have children write more, ...
15. speak up more, ...
16. challenge more, ...
17. ask more questions, ...
18. do more of their own thinking ...
19. more creation of of their won ideas...
20. and give the kids the tools to do so.
21. Actually use the vast canon of academic literature on curricula and classroom behavior science,...
21. rather than stump about promoting wedge issues ...
22. ...and protected entrenched and loyal voter constituencies.

Ditch it all, build it afresh, and showcase the superior results. Do it first, perhaps in a Blue state with a high education priorities, resources and will to act. Do so, and let the Republicans learn the real meaning of being left behind.

Oh, and people might find it worthwhile to go back read some of the ideas offered to Tom Vilsack at HeartlandPac when he was seeking ideas about education. He had a diary on that that was one of the top diaries of the day, November 24, 2005. http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2005/11/23/164238/40

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