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

Sunday, April 29, 2007

attempting to change education - some personal thoughts 

originally posted at dailykos. Also crossposted in a number of other venues

Education is the subject about which I most often write, about which I most often think. When I get a chance to speak with a public office holder, it is the subject almost certain to come up. I write about education and not only here. Last year I urged Yearlykos to have a panel on education and took the responsibility for organizing and leading it. I do all this as I continue to deal with the realities of our current educational system as a full-time classroom teacher.

Every now and then I find it useful to step back from specific issues to see if taking a larger view offers me any deeper insight or understanding. This diary is a small example of such a step back. It is of course based on my experiences and observations. It is especially shaped by my recent involvement in a number of efforts to shape the reauthorization of NCLB. And it is not thought out in advance.

Let me repeat that last thought - this diary is not thought out in advance. I am giving you a contemporaneous look at my larger reaction. You are hereby put on notice, even as you are warmly invited to continue reading.

Education is inherently political as well as social and moral. The latter two are perhaps easier to grasp. Education is social because even learning about oneself occurs in a context of interaction with others, both as individuals and in the larger context we call society. Insofar as it occurs WITH other people, be they designated teachers or fellow students, it involves relationships not only with the material, but with each other. I have come to understand it as a moral undertaking because the choices one makes in the process of learning or teaching have consequences. How one uses what one learns also has consequences, and the reasoning or judgment one applies both in the learning and the application of that learned will affect not only oneself but also the others in the varied larger contexts in which we exist. Absent reference points and recognition of the impact both on selves and others, our actions are amoral, as if we were in a vacuum. But we are not. In my mind there is no such thing as knowledge for knowledge's sake, pure knowledge, because the mere act of choosing to devote time and energy to the process of learning requires us to make choice to do that rather than something else, and that choice potential does harm or makes us oblivious to suffering at some level.

All of the foregoing is incomplete lacking a full understanding of the political nature of education. Plato recognized the power of education to shape societies, which is why he attempted to restrict what most members of his ideal Republic could learn. Greater knowledge derived from learning represents a very great threat to existing order. How we choose to organize our thoughts can define how we organize our societies. Knowledge can represent power over others. All of these are aspects of what can rightly be considered a political process.

IF how we thing, what previous experience and knowledge we legitimize in our current thoughts and actions has the power to shape the outcomes,then how much more so is the case within formal educational processes. The mere act of defining a school as "public" clearly indicates that the actions done therein, what and how teaching occurs, is something done on behalf of the society that funds those schools through its willingness to pay taxes. Control over that process - of curriculum and instruction - is thus inherently a major political issue. And given that the direct and indirect costs of public education just through the end of high school represents perhaps 4-5% of this nation's Gross Domestic Product, how those funds are raised and spent is of necessity a major political issue.

Arguments over education policy are very different than those over most other areas of public policy. Almost everyone has sat in a classroom at some point, whether K-12 or post-secondary. And there seems to be a normal human tendency to extrapolate, universalize from one' particular experience. Those who have children of their own often care very deeply that the education available to them reinforce their personal values and/or give their offspring the greatest possible chance for success, however that might be defined, in their future lives. Oftime those who do not have children or whose children are past the age of education or who choose to exercise the freedom this country offers to bypass public schools object to having to pay for the education of the children of others. Since schools are often the largest local government expenditure, and since the primary source of local government revenue remains the tax on real property, every homeowner has a stake in how much money is raised for public education and how those funds are applied. That tends to universalize discussions over education policy, at least at levels through high school. So there is a combination of a near universal belief of the public that they know something about education and a recognition that even without children they are involved in education through their taxes. And political figures who address education are cognizant of this, which further politicizes discussions of education policy.

In my forays into educational policy, as a reader, a graduate student, one whose classroom practice is shaped in many ways by the application of policies in which I have little say, I have come to realize that there is much wrong with our educational policy. Perhaps that is because we do not have consensus on the purpose of public education. People tend to talk past one another because they simply presume common understanding of purpose which does not exist. I recognize that we do not have a consensus on most important issues facing this nation, and a major part of our political discourse is devoted to trying to sway a sufficient number of voters and opinion makers to one or another point of view. Education policy is not completely different, but given the belief of most people that they understand education (and as a teacher I would argue with that belief) the political discussions involving education are that much more complicated. In things like international relations or tax policy in general there is at least a reasonable amount of common vocabulary (although how that vocabulary is used is subject to interpretation). One real problem in discussions about educational policy is the seeming lack of a common vocabulary. Even the words that appear the same can mean diametrically different things when expressed from differing philosophies about the purpose of education.

Another complication is the admixture of scales. By this I mean that there is a major contradiction between the desire for the perfectly personalized instruction that meets the needs and interests of an individual child - something for which many parents advocate on behalf of their own children - and the general understanding that doing things in more standardized fashions is more efficient and hence more cost effective. After all, much of our ability to afford so much "stuff" comes from the the uses of standardization. We use mass production, we have set sizes for everything from clothes to drink containers to door openings to lightbulb sockets to whatever else you care to add to such a list. Yet even as we are often drawn to the savings in money and reduction in aggravation (in finding something that fits/ we gain from such standardization, we are also often drawn to the unique, the hand-crafted, the custom-made. This conflict plays out in many areas of American life: think for example of the conflict between homeowner associations that try to keep some uniformity of appearance and the desire to customize and personalize that which one owns including one's home. Education is not different. In our attempts to seek to determine if educational funds have been well spent we seek some standard measure even as we may be unsatisfied if the uniqueness of our own child is ignored in the process of achieving success on such a measure.

During the past few years I have had many occasions to deal with a wide range of people concerned about schools, teaching and education. All of the complicating factors noted above have come into play. And when dealing with elected policy makers or those who aspire to such positions there are several additional factors. More often than I care to recall I have encountered an additional set of complication; the politician
- recognizes the insufficiency of his position and the correctness of what I am telling him but tells me why it won't sell to his voters/committee chairman/financial supporters/interest groups that back him
- has taken a position that is contrary to what she now recognizes is correct and does not feel she can afford to take the political hit to change her previous position
- sees the value of what is being suggested but argues against it on the basis of cost, even when shown that over the longterm the additional costs are far less than just the economic benefits

Perhaps because of my online writing about education and my participation in a number of lists devoted to various educational topics, I have increasingly had occasion to have others share their thoughts on how to fix education and teaching. I recently solicited ideas on a few narrow topics on behalf of a congressional staffer with whom I am working and got back no less than three complete approaches to reforming some aspects of education. In each case the person sending had reflected long and hard about a particular aspect of education, usually curricular, and developed an approach that was rooted in a particular philosophy and applied - often quite ingeniously - much of the knowledge developed in recent years in the various cognitive sciences of how people learn, retain, and apply new information and skills. All were impressive. None were directly on topic to the request I had sent out. I am sympathetic to the senders: they have worked long and hard to come up with an overall framework that they perceive as far more effective than our current approach to schooling. I admire them, because I am not that systematic as a thinker, despite the pretensions of this essay. And I am frustrated, because for all of the insight they have gained, often in real-world application of their approaches, in our current way of doing education policy in this country there is little chance that what has been learned in such approaches will even be considered. Too much of our battling over educational policy is because we are pushed to believe that there are immediate crises that must be addressed, that we cannot wait until there is greater understanding, that we must act NOW. And as a result we pour incredible resources - of money, of the time of our educators and our policy makers - into approaches that lack the experiential base of some of the approaches that have been sent to me - and what we wind up doing is creating even more problems.

I recognize that there are those who are venal. They seek to undercut the legitimacy of public education. or to shape it so that they can make a profit, or to insist that it meet their economic needs even if it does not meet the needs of those being "educated." Realistically, they are less of a problem than those who are well-meaning, but unwilling to step back and look at the larger picture. Politicians in particular want to fix problems. That is how they can make a difference. So if someone can identify a problem and offer a way to fix that problem, there is a strong tendency on the part of politicians to want to grab hold of the suggestion and run with it. And few politicians have the time - or the inclination - to fully understand a topic as complicated as education. Remember, we all tend to think we understand it, because we have almost all sat in a classroom.

I don't have high hopes that we will ever get education right. On the other hand, I know that our young people are actually far more resilient when it comes to learning than many involved in the policy making process understand. They often learn very well the unofficial curriculum. If they attend school in run-down and overcrowded buildings with overworked teachers and under the gun administrators they learn very well that our society does not value them enough to put sufficient - and the correct - resources into their education. When we place all of our emphasis on high stakes tests of one sort or another, it merely reinforces a tendency that used to develop in middle school but is apparently now becoming more evident in lower grades: they want to act with economic precision, so if it is not going to be on the test, why should they pay any attention? And once the test for which we gear them is complete (often a month or more before the end of school), of what importance is anything else we may offer them?

As a teacher I am a public employee, hired to carry out public policy that is shaped at many levels, often quite removed from the reality of my own classroom. That often presents me with a direct conflict of the needs of the individual students who appear in my classroom (and remember, some get so turned off to school that they simply stop coming). I am constantly juggling the various aspects of such conflicts, with varying degrees of success.

I make the attempt to communicate what I see and experience in the hope that I may thereby make a positive difference for a few more students. I have no illusions that my own perceptions about education are any more complete than those of any other person. While I do not universalize my own experience, even as a teacher, and while I am probably far more widely read about educational policy and theory and practice than the vast majority of people, I am also not omniscient either in aspects of education or in the challenges that different groups of students bring to the classroom. Still, I feel that perhaps the voice that I offer, the understanding I have of the intersections between the political, social and moral aspects of education, give me a somewhat unusual point of view, even perhaps a unique one.

And so I persist in acting beyond my own classroom. I write, I talk with policy makers and "ordinary people." I know that our system of education badly needs changing. Meanwhile I have students before me whom I must assist in learning. It is a balancing act, with choices that are not always pleasant to make. I have no choice but to compromise by ideals in the hope of having some immediate positive effects. I suspect that many involved in making policy, whether as professional educators or as politicians confront that same problem.

This has been a rambling excursion through some issues that concern me. I wonder if people encountering it will even embark upon reading it, and if so, how many (or will it be few?) will persist to this point. I cannot predict that. The writing has served me - it has enabled me to place my current activities of lobbying on the Hill in a broader context, and perhaps thereby enabled me to persist even knowing how little impact my actions may have. I am but one drop of water hitting upon the rocks of our educational policy. Perhaps there will be others, and perhaps someone will read this and be motivated to act as only she can, with her unique experience and perception. And if enough of us bring our uniqueness together in commmon? Perhaps we can begin to make a difference in how we do education.


Saturday, April 21, 2007

acknowledging the important but often overlooked? 

crossposted from dailykos

My message to you tonight is simple. Stay true. Hew to the facts and to your ideals. Listen with respect, but do not cede an inch to intolerance and lies.

Those words were near the end of don’t back down, the diary last night by the wonderful kid oakland. The title is also the last line of the diary.

I have written before on what was important and non-negotiable. Last August I wrote Important versus non-negotiable - with poll. And in July I had written I am unwilling to remain silent anymore. Perhaps, provoked by kid oakland, I am again at a point where I reflect on what is important.

This is not directly a response to kid oakland. Neither will it be an overarching philosophical statement. It is Saturday morning, a time for acknowledging the important but often overlooked.

Important but often overlooked. That's how I titled this. Perhaps you do not overlook these things, but unfortunately I cannot make the same claim for myself. So perhaps this is a personal chastisement.

I will offer only a very few ideas that are important to me, and which I sometime neglect, or overlook. Then I will attempt to explain why I think them relevant to share on a blog dedicated to the political purpose of electing Democrats.

1) I don't want to go to sleep, or leave the house, or hang up on a phone call with Leaves on the Current without remembering to say "I love you." I am approaching 61, I don't want the last words between us, should something happen, to be anything that does not reflect the experience of a love now more than 3 decades old.

2) I don't want an interchange with another person to deny that person's humanity and essential worth. As a teacher I know how important it is to give hope of learning, of growing, even as I must insist upon responsibility. As myself a shy and insecure person I also know how important it is to receive some sense of validation of worth even as I also receive the criticism necessary to give me the opportunity to grow. And as a Quaker, as I so often note, I wish to emulate the words of George Fox to walk gladly across the earth answering that of God in every person.

3) I want to be able to freely admit when I don't know something.

4) I should remember to offer thanks to others whenever possible. This does not have to be gratuitous or smarmy, but it is essential.

5) I want to more readily accept thanks and praise from others.

The first item underlies everything else I do. If in my most important and essential relationship I do not acknowledge my interdependence and how much it matters, I am not prepared to participate in the political processes. My participation has to be for a purpose beyond self-aggrandisement, or power for the sake of power whether for myself or for others I support. Power should be for the purpose of helping others, empowering them, giving them more freedom. To me love gives freedom to the one loved. I do not say this well. I cannot force one I love to do anything, but I can hold her up, encourage her to take risks knowing that I will still love. Our politics should be a politics of love, not of fear and control.

Answering that of God in every person. It's an odd statement, since I really don't concern myself with God. I justify this in part by noting that in Orthodox Christian theology each human being is, since the Incarnation, himself an icon or image of the divine. And I remember the Biblical challenge: how can we say we love God whom we cannot see when we hate our brother whom we can see? If my political actions are driven more by anger, by desire for retribution, than by attempting to answer that of God in another, then the chances of finding common ground in our common humanity become limited. I remember once telling someone running for the nomination for Congress (which he got although he lost the general) that he could not be seen as rude to a voter who was not first rude to him. When he complained that the woman in the incident was not going to vote for him anyhow, I pointed out the issue was how the interchange was perceived by others, that his actions were demeaning to her and thus might put off others who witnessed the exchange. That's a practical political matter. For me it is a moral issue. I believe that no person is beyond redemption. I may reject the action I encounter, but I do not reject the person, the possibility that there may at some point in the future be an issue on which we can agree and move forward. I will stand firm on the matter of any action with which I disagree or find repugnant, but by not finally rejecting the person behind that action I leave open the possibility of change.

The third point is key. As a teacher it is tempting not to admit lack of knowledge. Not admitting gives control. And I would guess it is difficult for those seeking political office to admit lack of knowledge for fear of being seen as weak or incompetent. But people are often willing to help us, if only we let them. And if our political participation is, as is the case for me, intended to improve life for others, we inevitably need their understanding and their participation. We need to hear their voices, see with their eyes. As a teacher if I do not listen to my students, give them opportunity to teach me, I cannot help them learn as much as they might otherwise.

The final two points are very much connected, the giving and accepting of praise and thanks. Perhaps this is not an issue for others. And perhaps those in the political trenches are wary of praising an idea of an opponent, or thanking someone with whom one has had and will again have political disputes. It may make us wary when they say nice things about one of our ideas, as we attempt to ascertain what their real motivation is in even temporarily offering us something other than criticism or ridicule. Perhaps this ties back to the second point, answering that of God in another person. I might comment, tactically, that by reacting with grace and positiveness towards such an offering I might actually turn what was intended as a set-up for the next attack into something that is actually a genuine connection. I might also note that politically it is like my exchange with the Congressional candidate who did not understand that every action he did was experienced not only by those to whom he directed it but also by others who could observe.

Let me be clear. In what I have said I do not in any way intend that one ignore intolerance or lies, or abandon what one believes to be essential. In the second of my previous diaries cited above I made clear when I would not remain silent. I would not remain silent in the presence of a Don Imus demeaning others, even as I would thank him for his willingness to help others less fortunate than himself. "Hold fast that which is good." Another line that echoes in the empty spaces of my mind.

I wish I could write with the grace of others whose work I admire. My awkwardness with words may be because these ideas are not yet fully formed in my mind, or more likely because I have not yet learned how to live them.

It is important to tell people that you love them, that you care for them. That applies to children, spouses, good friends.

It is important to treat people with as much respect as possible, even when their actions seem to indicate a lack of respect for others or even themselves. We do not have to lower ourselves to the levels to which others resort, and in being firm in this we give challenge to the idea that demeaning behavior and words is something either necessary or ultimately effective in the political process.

If we do not acknowledge when we do not know, we may lose the opportunity to learn from an expert who is reluctant to impose her knowledge and insight upon us,someone apparently unwilling to admit less than perfection, even though all of us can still grow, and learn.

Thank you Two of the most powerful words possible. That is acknowledging what another has given us, even when it may challenge us, or make us uncomfortable. And this is a two-way communication, being willing to offer it and to accept it. It is an acknowledgement of our interconnectedness, and why we need to pay attention to one another.

I have offered above nothing particularly profound. And yet, the accumulation of seemingly small gestures can have a profound affect on the human heart and consciousness, as the series of drops of water can eventually erode the hardest rock.

So I thank kid oakland for offering something that provoked me to this reflection. I thank kos for providing a forum where we can mutually explore and share ways of making our world and ourselves better. And I thank you for being tolerant with my prolixity in offering something that is realistically nothing more than some fairly basicd and simple ideas. They may be important, and surely they are far too often overlooked.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Superficial notions of evolution 

It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.
The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being,
Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination—
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.

The words above, from “Dry Salvages,” the 3rd of the “Four Quartets” of T. S. Eliot, seem appropriate to my current state of being. This is a personal reflection on the world as I experience it. Stop reading now if that doesn’t interest you.

“Superficial notions of evolution.” That phrase catches my attention as I reflect back upon the past week or so. But first let me offer some context for the reflection that will follow.

Today is the last of my 10 days of Spring break. The time has not been totally free from responsibilities. Far from it. Oh, to be sure, my responsibilities to my primary occupation as teacher have been minimal - a little planning, most of which I have deferred until today. And like many, it has been during the past few days I have finally addressed my taxes. I have completed a review for an educational professional journal. I have done many of the household tasks that are inevitably deferred during the business of my ordinary life. And I have even had the time to write online extensively, not only the diaries I have done for dailykos and elsewhere, but also in extensive participation in email lists that intersect my life.

But I have reserved time to just “be,” to really listen to music, to sit and allow our five cats to crawl over me. And I have read, books as well as news publications. And I have reflected.

This diary is titled with a phrase from the poetic selection. It was one of two possible choices, the other being :we had the experience but missed the meaning.” I see both expressions as key to the reflective process I have been undergoing, even if that process has not heretofore been demonstrated in what I have publicly written.

We are concerned about where we find ourselves and our nation. We look at the near past and there is much to concern us. We worry about what the future might hold. For many of us our concerns and worries serve as a motivation towards action, towards trying to rectify the wrongs we perceive. Such is the basis of hope, even of having any meaning at all in our lives. Perhaps we opine “if only” as if were we to change one - or even many - things in the past the place in which we would now be would somehow be more salutary and the future would be one in which we could have greater confidence. Perhaps it is my aging (I turn 61 in 38 days) but I wonder if we do not delude ourselves.

Eliot offers to us a caution, one perhaps derived from our human need to understand. If we look at events and cannot mentally organize them it confuses us, even scares us. If we cannot make “sense” we tend to withdraw to a point that what confronts does “make sense.”

As I reflect on our political discourse, most of it seems to presume simple cause and effect, linearity. It ignores much of what we have learned in recent years about the physical universe, at both the extreme micro- and macro- scales. The insights of systems theory, especially of the subset known as chaos theory, somehow rarely enter into how we address the world around us. Perhaps the idea of “superficial notions of evolution” might inform us that our thinking is too limited. When we are able to step back and use a different lens our understanding changes:
“And approach to the meaning restores the experience in a different form...”

I am arrogant. I presume that I can understand the world around me, that I can sufficiently make sense of it that I can thereby justify the actions upon which I embark. Absent this arrogance I might well be paralyzed by fear or at least by anomie, lacking any point of reference that could inform my potential actions.

I hope in my sixties I am also at least partially humbled by the experience of knowing that my arrogance is insufficient. I am regularly reminded of this in my role as teacher when my adolescent students ask questions or offer perspectives I have never considered - in some cases they are but 1/4 of my age, and yet are able to expand my perspectives in new ways.

I choose to participate in the civil society and political processes that shape much of the world around me. I bring to that participation a unique set of experiences - that might reinforce my arrogance, except that I know I have such uniqueness in common with every other person around me. My understanding of my own experience is imperfect, known only “through a glass darkly” because I was in it, absorbed in what I was doing at the time, and even subsequent reflection does not give me complete understanding. And if I cannot have complete understanding of my own experience, how can I hope to have even sufficient understanding of the larger world to justify taking action, of seeking to make judgments and decision not only for my own benefit as I understand it but also for that of the larger society around me?

“but the sudden illumination- “

There are moments for all of us when things make sense. We may not be able to succinctly place that sense, that understanding, into words that will connect with others. Although to us the clarity is absolute our understanding may remain illusive to others, even ineffable. When we encounter someone who is motivated by such a moment, we may recoil because we do not understand, or we may surrender any critical facilities and follow blindly, because we are drawn to someone who seems to possess a clarity we feel we ourselves lack.

I spoke of arrogance. It is arrogant of me to write this, or anything else directed to a general audience, many of whom I will never encounter in any other fashion. How dare I presume that my expression can in any way have any meaning for them, much less the meaning I think I intend? It is foolish to believe that anything coming from my absolutely unique set of experiences can haven meaning for others, particularly when my self-understanding is so imperfect, incomplete.

“And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.”

Here I am reminded of many things. What first comes to mind is Gandhi’s “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” If I want others open to different ways of seeing and experiencing, so must I be open. That requires me to take the risk of expression, a risk born perhaps of arrogance, with full awareness that I may find the response I receive shatters the understanding which undergirds that expression - because the interchange with others connects me with their absolutely unique experience, which of necessity confronts me with a challenge - to listen and thus expand my understanding, or to defensively reject and be trapped inside the limits of my own experience.

Perhaps it is because of music that I do not remain trapped. When I take the time to really LISTEN even to a piece I know well, I often find myself in a new place, or rather, experiencing a familiar place in a new fashion. Yes, the sounds will connect with places and times of my past, that is familiar. But I am not precisely the same as the last time I experienced that music, hence my reaction to it, my experience of it will be different, perhaps subtly, perhaps significantly.

What does all of this have to do with participation in our civic and political processes? Poetry has the ability to use language to take us beyond language. Since I began with poetry, let me conclude with poetry, with two more selections from “Dry Salvages” that - at least to me - speak to the question I have just asked. The first is from the very beginning, and the second from a bit further on in the first section of the poem.

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget.

And under the oppression of the silent fog
The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future,
Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
When time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
The bell.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A fable about teaching 

is the content of this diary. I will, below the fold, reproduce what a friend sent out across an educational list last night. Before you read it, let me note the following

1) this is but one of many examples that can be used to explain so much of what is wrong about our current approach to education, one exacerbated by NCLB

2) If you pass it on, please be sure to give credit to the good Rabbi who created the tale. Oh, and by the way, the correct title is "Preparing Your Children for Success", but I have left the email as I received.

3) I will have a few final comments at the end.

Now to our fable

The story has been reproduced from Preparing Our Children for Success, by Rabbi Z. Greenwald.


Once upon a time the animals had a school. They had to create a curriculum that would satisfy everyone, so they chose four subjects: running, climbing, flying, and swimming. All the animals, of course, studied all the subjects.

The duck was very good at swimming, better than the teacher, in fact. He received passing grades in running and flying, but was hopeless in climbing, so they made him drop swimming so that he could practice climbing. After a while he was only average at swimming, but average is still acceptable, at least in school, and nobody worried much about it except the duck.

The eagle was considered a troublemaker. In his climbing class he beat everybody to the top of the tree, but he had his own way of getting there that was against the rules. He always had to stay after school and write, "Cheating is wrong," five hundred times. This kept him from soaring, which he loved, but schoolwork comes first.

The bear flunked because they said he was lazy, especially in the winter. His best time was summer, but school wasn't open then.

The zebra played hooky a lot because the ponies made fun of his stripes, and this made him very sad.

The kangaroo started out at the top of the racing class, but became discouraged when was told to move swiftly on all four legs the way his classmates did.

The fish quit school because he was bored. To him, all four subjects were the same, but nobody understood that because they had never seen a fish.

The squirrel got an A in climbing, but his flying teacher made him start from the ground up, instead of from the treetop down. His legs got so sore practicing takeoffs that he began getting Cs in climbing and Ds in running.

The bee was the biggest problem of all, so the teacher sent him to Doctor Owl for testing. Doctor Owl said that the bee's wings were too small for flying and they were in the wrong place. The bee never saw Doctor Owl's report, so he just went ahead and flew anyway. I think I know a bee or two, how about you?


The duck is the child who does well in math and poorly in English and is given tutorials by the English teacher while his classmates are doing math. He loses his edge in math, and only does passably well in English.

The eagle is the child who is turned into a troublemaker because he has his "own style" of doing things. While he is not doing anything "wrong," his non-conforming is perceived as troublemaking, for which he is punished.

Who does not recognize the bear? The kid who is great in camp, thrives on extra-curricular, but really just goes flat in the academics.

The zebra is the heavy, tall, or short, self-conscious kid whose failure in school few realize is due to a sense of social inadequacy.

The kangaroo is the one who instead of persevering gives up and becomes that discouraged child whose future disappears because he was not appreciated.

The fish is a child who really requires full special education and cannot shine in the regular classroom.

The squirrel, unlike the duck who "manages," becomes a failure.

The bee, oh the bee, is the child who the school just feels it cannot deal with, yet, against all odds, with the backing of his parents, has enough self-motivation to do well even though everyone thought he couldn't. I've had the pleasure of knowing many bees.

Ah, the menagerie of students. These are six examples, but there are so many more. And yes, I can in my current classes think of multiple examples of each type listed, as well as a few more.

We do have a responsibility to help children with their areas of weakness. Ducks do need help with their English, but certainly NOT at the expense of their math, and so on. And yet, because of the necessity of raising test scores to some acceptable passing level, we treat far too many children, especially in elementary school, as if they were ducks. And the process we may be turning that duck at least in part into a kangaroo, whose particular skill is so unappreciated that s/he begins to shut down.

If we recognize that our children are unique, each and every one, then we need to help them use their strengths even as we also assist them in working on their "deficiencies." Actually, I don't like that terminology, which is why I put it into quote marks. Often it is little more than a different developmental rate. Certainly I see some elements of that in myself, although because I was precocious it was not applied to me in elementary school. I was far more developed in music and math than I was in any ability to express myself in writing. But because I could read quickly and was a good speller, my deficiencies in written expression did not begin to become evident until secondary school, perhaps not even fully until high school. Like many of my current students, I could hide it by being a fluent talker, so that people just assumed I was being lazy when the quality of my written expression seemed so poor.

I know I cannot universalize from my own experience either as student or as teacher, but it does serve to provide me with a little sensitivity, or awareness.

I began this with a fable, the words of someone else. I will similarly end with the words of someone else, T. S. Eliot, from Burnt Norton, the beginning section of this, the first of The Four Quartets. It speaks, at least to me, of possibilities, which is what I think should be our responsibility to our students.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.


Monday, April 09, 2007

Do we still have freedom if we lack privacy? 

crossposted from dailykos and neverinournames

Privacy, the dictionary says, is the state of being free from unsanctioned intrusion. But that definition seems anachronistic, with ubiquitous intrusion a new fact of life. For security, or mere efficiency, we Americans are sanctioning the end of our right to deny sanction to such invasion.

That is a quote from the final paragraph of Fingerprint foreboding, an op ed in today's Boston Globe by the superb writer James Carroll, provoked by his reading about school near Boston that intends to have students tap an electronic reader with a finger as a means of identifying themselves to pay for school lunch. The technology has already been banned in other states. And given his past, Carroll brings a unique perspective to the skepticism about the use of fingerprints.

You see, Carroll (whose father was a high-ranking intelligence officer) spend one summer as a college student working for the FBI. As he notes

I went each day to what was called the " Ident Building," the mammoth headquarters of the Identification Division, which occupied most of a block in an anonymous corner of Southwest D.C. near the rail yards. In the building's vast open rooms were thousands of file cabinets holding millions of cards, each with ink smudges and classification codes. A swarm of file clerks (of whom, for a time, I was one) buzzed around the drawers like bees around a network of hives.

Carroll describes a bit of the history of biometrics, from the 19th century use of calipers to measure skulls and other body parts, with acknowledgement of the imprecision of such measurements. BY the 20th century, the switch to fingerprints because of the uniqueness and permanancy of the ridges and swirls fingerprints

proved to be the perfect aid to the law enforcement project of identifying persons who do not want to be identified.

That was the point of fingerprints, of course. The entire system of collection and classification aimed at criminal prosecution.

Carroll, as an employee of the FBI, was fingerprinted. SO was I, as an enlistee in the Marine Corps. So were, as I have been told, were many who toured the J. Edgar Hoover building once it had been built (but in the early days these were often school children, and wasn't this done without parental permission?). The prints could be used to identify the dead (military especially, if dog tags were lost) as well as for purposes of criminal justice, and in theory the FBI distinguished between civil and criminal files. And yet the main purpose of the voluminous files was to catch "bad" people. Carroll describes his own reaction to being fingerprinted:

That is why I remember the day that my own fingers were pressed onto the inkpad and card as one of foreboding.

With my fingerprints in the bureau file, the absolute presumption of innocence to which I was entitled as an American was mitigated. J. Edgar Hoover had a tag on me, and even though I admired him then, I felt the chill of his cold breath on my neck. The ink stain was hard to get off my fingers.

Carroll describes the next time he was fingerprinted, after being arrested at a peace demonstration in DC, and a reaction to the idea that his fingerprints were a window into who he was, enabling the bureau to know about him without his acquiescence.

In his penultimate paragraph Carroll offers a thought experiment:

Imagine if, in addition to fingerprints, J. Edgar Hoover had access to the high-tech biometrics of the iris scan; in addition to wiretaps, the eavesdropping technologies that snatch conversation out of the air; in addition to agent surveillance, the electronic trails of credit cards, cameras on subways, satellite imaging, and EZPasses that register auto traffic through every toll booth.
. Then after the material quoted at the beginning of this diary, he reminds us that nowadays it is not just the FBI (and other law enforcement) that has windows into us - who we are is in many computers in private hands, suc as credit card companies, email servers, credit card bureaus and the like.

Carroll is writing with specific reference to the situation in one school district in Massachusetts. But his concerns are far more widely applicable, and he does not address all of the technology currently being used. George Orwell could not imagine the depth of knowledge available about each of us and J. Edgar Hoover would have drooled all over himself had he access to the technology that is so ubiquitous today. IF we use a discount card at the supermarket our buying patterns are being recorded. If we use a credit card - especially because we want to earn cash back such as I get on my Costco American Express card - a much wider pattern of the purchases that define our lives is being constructed. As we switch to DSL and cable modems with fixed IP addresses any anonimty of our surfing disappears, even if we erase every cookie, all cache, the history files in our browser, even if we erase or destroy our entire hard disk. We know that Google can maintain a record of all our searches, that the providers of our email have a record of everything that goes through their servers (and that the government wants to require them to maintain those records for search purposes). We have found out that the NSA was having electronic traffic diverted into rooms that enabled them to vacuum up all information to search by computer.

We are constantly on camera - anyone who has watched law and order knows about the ubiquitous nature of surveillance cameras. And if you watched West Wing you got a hint of how far advanced is the technology to analyze and even identify using such video images - they can be digitized and processes even as they are being captured, they decreasingly require human viewing and analysis.

And now we have RFID tags. If you obtain a new passport, it will contain a passive chip that can be electronically checked at any point to identify where you are. Such technology has been used for a number of years to track things like shipping containers, and as the technology has become less expensive is being inserted into multiple products that we all buy. For all you know, your house already contains multiple items with such tags. And i you bought a Lo-Jack for your car, the police already have the ability to know where that car is at any time, without your knowing.

In the 1960's law enforcement and the military kept voluminous files on those they viewed with suspicion, primarily those opposed to the Vietnam war, or whom they suspected of being communists (perhaps because like me they were active in Civil Rights?). The Church Committee exposed much of those activities in the 1970's, and in theory the government was supposed to stop doing such things, at all levels of government. As we know from disclosures in recent years, such activities are again common, whether it is the electronic information gathering by the NSA orit is the Army keeping records on Quakers because we are classified as possible security threats because of our opposition to the military action in Iraq.

In theory we have civilian control over military activities. Also in theory, we can change these attitudes and such actions by those we elect to high office. In theory. Remember, Robert Kennedy approved of the wire-tapping of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was Truman who authorized the creation of much of the apparatus of the national security state, including both the CIA and the NSA, and it was on his watch that the Attorney General was directed to establish a list of possible subversive organizations.

Using the media to frame the issue and justify such intrusions by our government is also something very old. In my school days one of the nation's best selling books was titled The Enemy Within and was written by that notorious cross-dresser J. Edgar Hoover, a justification of what we ostensibly had to do to protect ourselves from Communist subversion. People of my generation will all remember the FBI show with ZImbalist produced with the cooperation of the Bureau, but many may have forgotten an earlier show entitled "I Led Three Lives", starring Richard Carlson (of such 50's classic films such as the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers - itself an illusion to the "communist threat", was it not?) in the role of Herbert Philbrick, who by then was making a living as a professional anticommunist.

I entitled this diary he way I did because it is a real issue. It is not clear to me if we have the ability to maintain freedom absent an ability to maintain privacy from the government. This is an issue I would like to see addressed by every candidate who seeks my vote. I would want every presidential and senatorial candidate to assure me that they will seekmin every way possible to ensure appropriate oversight of the use of such technology, that they will only appoint and approve of judicial candidates who will commit to the principle that the government must not be allowed to invade privacy and maintain records on people merely because it can. I would want to see similar commitment from all who supervise police, who draft laws. I am not interested in a justification that says if I am not doing anything wrong I have nothing to fear. We know how such information has been misused in the past.

Yes, I suppose I could not use discount cards, cease posting on the internet or doing Google searches or getting driving directions from mapquest. I could pay cash for all my purchases - but even in thelast case there would have to be an electronic record - my paycheck is electronically deposited and my pattern of withdrawals, even though my bank does not charge me more for seeing a teller, would already begin to build a record on me. And think in how many cases we cannot pay in cash, such as payment of taxes (another electronic record). And if we buy a car or anything else costing more than $10,000 a cash transaction must be reported to the Treasury department (on suspicion that we are laundering drug money).

So I ask again as I did in the title - do we still have freedom if we lack privacy?

Friday, April 06, 2007

No Significant Impact of Educational Software 

originally posted at Dailykos

Educational software, a $2 billion-a-year industry that has become the darling of school systems across the country, has no significant impact on student performance, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Education.

The long-awaited report amounts to a rebuke of educational technology, a business whose growth has been spurred by schools desperate for ways to meet the testing mandates of President Bush's No Child Left Behind law.

Note the driver - schools desperate to meet the testing mandates of NCLB. And note the results - no significant impact

Come along with me for some commentary.

The quotes are from an article that appeared on the top left - above the fold - of the April 5 Washington Post entitled Software's Benefits On Tests In Doubt and subtitled Study Says Tools Don't Raise Scores. And it might seem amazing that the Bush Education Department would release a study which seemingly undercuts the profits of many who have been feeding at the NCLB trough. After all, Nekl Bush is in the business, and this Education department has been known to suppress other reports that undercut its asserted (should we say theologically based) educational positions. So let me offer one real caution from the article that I think most people miss, and please note the added emphasis:
"We are concerned that the technology that we have today isn't being utilized as effectively as it can be to raise student achievement," said Katherine McLane, spokeswoman for the Department of Education.
In other words, it is not the DOE is saying that there is a problem with or a waste of funds expended on such software. Want to bet that eventually it will all be blamed on teachers who don't use the software properly? Well, all we need to do is to read a bit further,so let me offer two snips from the industry:
Industry officials played down the study and attributed most of the problems to poor training and execution of the programs in classrooms.
"This may sound flip or like we're making excuses, but the fact is that technology is only one part of it, and the implementation of the technology is critical to success," said Schneiderman, whose group represents 150 companies that produce educational software.

This was a Congressionally mandated study. Let me quote again, adding emphasis:
The study, mandated by Congress when it passed No Child Left Behind in 2002, evaluated 15 reading and math products used by 9,424 students in 132 schools across the country during the 2004-05 school year. It is the largest study that has compared students who received the technology with those who did not, as measured by their scores on standardized tests. There were no statistically significant differences between students who used software and those who did not.

Let me note that the immediate past superintendent of the district in which I teach, Prince George's County MD, purchased one of the products evaluated, made by Leapfrog SchoolHouse, for over a million dollars, in a transaction in which (a) the superintendent was living with a saleswoman for the company, (b) when the company investigated she and the saleswoman who got credit for the sale were fired, and (c) he has been indicted for corruption for demanding kickbacks. Let me also note that one explanation for the high visibility placement of the article is buried well down in the article (after the jump from Page A01 to Page A07) and again I will offer some emphasis:
To persuade companies to participate in the study, researchers promised not to report the performances of particular programs. Among the businesses whose products were in the study were LeapFrog SchoolHouse, PLATO Learning, Scholastic Inc. and Pearson. (The Washington Post Co. owns Kaplan, a test preparation company that sells education software. Kaplan applied to be in the study but was not included.)

Folks, we are talking big bucks - Los Angeles spent over 50 million on software. And the explanations, from the DOE and the vendors, is that it is an issue of implementation, of training, of how the software is used.

I will not burden you with more examples of prose that supports the statement I just made - I have given you the link to the article, and you can decide whether or not my representation is fair.

Let me offer some commentary. Technology is a tool, never a silver bullet. It can be used in some cases to provide an inexpensive way of drill, and giving immediate feedback and correction to students, that can be useful IF THE SOFTWARE IS WELL DESIGNED. Sorry for the screaming, but I spent 20 years of my life in the field of data processing, and I am often quite cynical as a result. First, I have seen far too many products that are not all that well designed. Second, just as machine-scored bubble in test force a convergent thinking pattern that may not be an accurate measure of what students know and can do, many programs force one to thinki in a particular fashion, and unlike a well-trained human cannot make adjustments to the unpredicted. I am sure many of you with experience in the microcomputer world can remember many such occasions in your use of software.

Further, I have seen many efforts at technology tha were supposed to be magic solutions in my student days in high schools and colleges. They were almost inevitably oversold and had an unfortunate equal tendency of underperforming. To put it in terms that perhaps even Republicans can understand - they were NOT cost effective methods of supporting instruction.

What worries me is some of the rhetoric that is coming into play. Remember, the current atrocity of a Federal education policy was sold by the idea of leaving no child behind, even though the negative impact of NCLB has fallen most heavily on the schools and students it was purported to be designed to help, minorities, from lower socio-economic status, etc. Thus when one reads a statement from a University professor who is an advocate of such technology, who wants to discount the study because it only followed the students for one year, perhaps one should take note:
"This is the last thing that we need now," he said. "It is the poor kids who will suffer, because it is their schools who will not get technology because of this study."

I should inform those readers who don't know that many in universities are in bed with for-profit ventures. Heck, in many cases they create them. We have seen this in other fields, in the distortion of corporately funded scientific research, and it should not be surprising to also find it in Schools and Departments of Education. We have seen clear evidence of this in recent examinations of the corruption in the Reading First Initiative, especially with certain personalities at the University of Oregon.

I am NOT making specific accusations against the professors quoted in the article. It would be interesting to ask the reporter how we wound up talking with those particular professors. I wish I had the time for such a dialog.

Technology has its uses. I am certainly not a technophobe, as my 20 years in a variety of roles in DP should indicate. I make use of a variety of technologies in my teaching, in my classroom when I can, in various labs around the school. But I worry that this is indicative of an insidious trend. We want to do things in "rigorous" manners that diminish human variability. We want to replace human effort and the expenses associated with same by using technology instead. There are even well-developed trends towards computerized scoring of essays. I do not think these can all be justified as either more efficient or ultimately more productive, unless our only goals are maximizing profits for the vendors, reducing costs spent on personnel, creating more conformist school graduates, and so on. We might well get higher test scores on tests that are similary narrow and reductionist in their tendencies. We will be losing the amazing and ultimately beneficial variability among our students.

Perhaps it is that I was trained as a musician, that I am a humanist by nature, and not an engineer, a technician, or a businessman. Perhaps that is why I have the visceral reaction that I do. But to me if we are to leave no child behind, that means that we give every child the opportunity to fully explore her own potentiality, even if it is not easily supported by a computer, even if it requires the interaction with a human mentor, you know, that creature we call a teacher.

And that's my rant for the day.

Teacher shortages - the real crisis in American education 

this was originally posted at dailykos on April 5

The tug of war for talented teachers heats up every spring as graduation nears, particularly among the Washington suburbs, which demand far more teachers than nearby education schools can deliver. Virginia's teaching programs produce about 3,100 graduates a year in a state with more than 7,300 job openings, according to recent data. Maryland's programs have offered only about 2,500 potential candidates in recent years for as many as 7,600 jobs statewide.

The above is from a Washington Post article on April 4 entitled Loudoun Tunes Up Its Sales Pitch in Quest for Teachers. Loudoun is a Northern Virginia county with an exploding population growth and an equivalent growth in schools and thus the need for teachers. And the lengths to which it is going to try to hire teachers is symptomatic of the real problem in American education - the shortage of qualified teachers.

This is a personal commentary - it is not officially connected to the official Education Uprising / Educating for Democracy effort for Yearlykos, but there is an inevitable relationship.

It is hard to imagine effective schools without competent teachers. I think that is one of the few statement one can make about public education without immediately being in the midst of a heated argument. There is far less agreement on how we determine what demonstrates that a teacher is competent (and if you think the performance of students on a one-shot external test is either sufficient or even necessarily accurate you can stop reading now).

Let's recognize the basic problems. First, most teachers are not fully competent until at least three years of teaching. For many, the first year is one of being overwhelmed, attempting to keep one's head above water, creating a year's worth of lesson plans, and doing all the other quotidian tasks of the teacher's life. The big mistake most make in the 2nd year is to try to take the lessons off the shelf and reuse them. Perhaps near Christmas time it finally dawns on the sophomore teacher that the students in this year's class(es) are not identical to those of last year, so that the lessons need to be modified. By the end of the 3rd year one is beginning to hit one's stride.

But by the end of 3rd year we have lost perhaps 30% of those who started out around a thousand days back. Thus we are constantly subjecting our students to teachers who are trying to figure out how to teach effectively. Perhaps the only apt comparison of which I can think is the high rate of casualties for and in units commanded by newly commissioned 2nd lieutenants, who really do not know what they are doing. And I make that comparison deliberately.

So one key problem is how we can shorten the time it takes to help teachers become fully competent. And that points us at teacher preparation.

There are many argument that can be made against traditional methods of teacher preparation. Some want to bypass the normal education programs, perhaps do something intensive in the summer before taking over a class, providing support during the first year or so of teaching. Among other things such programs are often less expensive for the teacher candidate than doing what I did - I left my previous career and did most of an MA in teaching in 7 months. But in that time, and in the succeeding 4 months of student teaching, I had no income, and eventually had to decide to take a risk a drop health insurance because the cost uneder COBRA was simply too great.

I will not argue against those who can point at teachers who should not be teaching young people. I have seen my share since I began the process of changing careers in 1994, some while I was studying, others, while I student taught, and more than a few in the time I have taught, often in good schools. Our current approach to ensuring that every teacher is "highly qualified" does not, however, address the issue. The procedures used to ascertain that classification often have nothing to do with effectiveness in the classroom. And even alternative certification processes do not solve the problem. You still need an adult body in the classroom, and it is very hard for an administrator to remove a fully licensed teacher no matter how ineffective when the only replacement available may be a substitute who lacks academic background in the subject. I have been in schools where we had to cover a class for weeks at a time with someone who did not even have a minor in the subject area because that was the only body we could get for that period of time - many who substitute do NOT want to work a full day.

And in some jurisdictions substitutes cannot prepare lesson plans - so some one else has to take on that burden, and assist the warm body in correcting the work, and so on.

Go back and look at the figures cited for Maryland and Virginia, the inability to produce in-state sufficient qualified candidates for the openings in state. I remember when 15% of our new hires were not fully certified, but were hired provisionally. We got a new superintendent from out of state, and she immediately forbade the hiring of such provisional certs, but only fully qualified teachers. Of course, that meant that we had a large number of classrooms for which there were no certified teachers, so they had to be staffed by substitutes. At least a provisionally certified teacher would have had content knowledge background, but often the substitutes did not.

We need to seriously reexamine a lot of issues.
- why do so few people want to go into teaching?
- why do so many leave teaching after a brief whilew
- what do we need to change to address the shortage of teachers?

Some will argue that we need differential pay, to pay more for content area in which there are shortages - science, special ed, math, certain foreign languages. I believe that is to make the mistake of believing that the issues of education can be addressed in the same way one would for profit organizations. I am in my 12th year of public school teaching, and I do not believe differential pay will do anything except exacerbate our problems of recruiting and retaining teachers. Those whose subject area is not considered critical, and therefore are paid less even though they are doing equivalent work, well you can imagine the resentment it will breed and hence the concomitant loss of teaching experience.

What most people don't realize is how unattractive teaching is as a career. Even with increases in starting pay, most who qualify as teachers get paid less than they would for work outside the classroom requiring similar training and responsibility. And please don't fall into the trap of people like Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute who tries to argue that teachers are overpaid because we only work 10 months and have a short workday - if all I did was work in the hours I am required to be in the building, 8-3:30, and never did anything in the evening or weekend, i would be an ineffective teacher by any measure.

Money is not the main motivation for most teachers. It can be a discouraging element, particularly if one wants to have a family, and lead a normal life, a situation exacerbated when your significant other is also a teacher, and for many young teachers they lack time to socialize with anyone other than their educational peers.

The lack of respect for the work one does is probably a far more significant discouragement. Let's be clear - if politicians and pundits continually bash teachers, do not expect parents or students to show much respect. Granted, I believe it is my responsibility to demonstrate to my students that I am worthy of their respect. But it does not help to hear as I and other teachers often have a retort from a 14 year old who when you try to correct behavior says something like "my father says I don't have to listen to you because you are only a teacher, so can't be all that smart." Administrators and superintendents who believe they demonstrate their own competence by belittling teachers, by infantilizing them merely to demonstrate their own power, these are also part of the problem. I have been fortunate not to work in such environments, although I know of far too many both in the system in which I teach and a few in the system in which I live. And I hear enough about such situations in electronic and personal exchanges with other teachers.

We need to rethink what it is we want from our teachers. They should be prepared for the job we want them to do. They should be paid as professionals, treated as professionals, and then maybe it becomes realistic to expect them to act as professionals. We need to do a far better job of transitioning people into the classroom so that they are not overwhelmed , so that they can experience success from the first day.

Then perhaps we will be able to recruit and retain a sufficient number of teachers that all of our students will have access to effective teachers in all of their classes.

If not, if we continue to overburden, undertrain, not support, and even disparage and demean, we have no right to complain about the results in our schools.

Please note - I am not even going to touch the issue of lack o9f support or preparation outside of school, that is, what happens in the family and the larger community, both of which have a powerful impact on the effectiveness of the learning which can be facilitated by the teacher in the classroom. That is another serious can of worms, but we can leave that until fishing season.

Let me make it more concrete. I began with some figures for MD and VA. Let's try another state. Also from the article:
Florida has one of the biggest teacher-candidate deficits in the country. State officials anticipate about 22,000 job openings next year, but the education programs graduate only about 7,000. Recruiters look north or anywhere they can think of to fill the gap.

Ultimately states and systems begin to cannabalize one another. If we really cared about the shortages, we might start by doing what is necessary to traing sufficient candidates instate to meet our own needs. Let me point out the local effects, from a sidebar article:
Before the next school year begins, Loudoun County needs to hire more than 800 teachers; Prince William County, 900; and Fairfax County, about 1,450. Montgomery County usually hires about 1,000; Prince George's County, about 1,300; and the D.C. school system, about 350.
. I teach in Prince George's. That figure of 1,300 is a bit lower than it has been some years. I don't remember the exact figure, but I think we have around 8,400 teachers in the system, so that represents a fairly substantial turnover. It is hard for a school to perform effectively without some sense of school culture - teachers do NOT do their work as individuals, but as part of communities, and it is hard to have a school culture without some staff stability.

I said this was a personal rant. I am frustrated at the teacher bashing I see, including in some of the proposals to "fix" NCLB. I am tired as well of people seeking magic bullets to replace the hard work of rethinking what it is we are doing so that we understand what is not working and why.

And I hadn't done a diary, so I sat down and did this. The first thing I did after coming home to start my Spring "vacation."

Basta. Do with this what you will.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

It was not an April Fools story in 1985 

On Monday April 1, 1985 Villanova was about to play Georgetown for the NCAA championship. It was the Monday of Holy Week. At lunch I went outside to buy a Philadelphia paper to see how they were covering the game. And then I saw a story which shook my world. A man named Leon Moser had the day before, Palm Sunday (as it is today) had shown up at the church where his estranged wife Linda was attending with her parents and with her two little girls. Leon shot all three to death, turned the rifle upon himself, and at the last second flinched, and as he pulled the trigger through himself back on the ground.

The coincidence of the tournament this year with Palm Sunday inevitably reminds me, painfully so. This Palm Sunday and April Fools Day are not times of joy or merriment for me.

I have written about this incident before. When Tom Fox was being held captive in December of 2005 I finally came to the conclusion that I could no longer support the death penalty, and I wrote ... no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death

I have since then periodically thought about the case, and also read about it further. Leon had been treated for emotional disorders. But when he was brought before a judge of the Court of Common Please in Philadelphia he pled guilty to all three murders, and for ten years never wavered in his desire to be executed. A last minute appeal was filed on his behalf in 1995, alleging that he wasnot competent to make that decision. In a 1995 report of the Death Penalty Information Center I found this in The 1995 report of the Death Penalty Information Center:
Leon Moser in Pennsylvania was also executed by lethal injection. Moser, a former mental patient, wanted to die but it was not clear that he was mentally competent to make that decision. A federal judge had ordered a competency hearing and stayed the execution. That stay was appealed by the state and was lifted by a higher court. But the order for the competency hearing remained. Nevertheless, the state pushed ahead with the execution before the scheduled hearing. As the execution approached, the federal judge called the state's attorney to see if there was a cellular phone at the prison. He was told there was none. He was not told, however, that there was a standard phone in the execution chamber. The judge had wanted to determine Moser's competency before the execution occurred. By the time he was able to get through to the chamber, the lethal chemicals were already flowing into Moser and it was too late.

And in a a review in Sojourners of a book by Mumia Abu-Jamal there is a reference to Leon Moser:
THE MEN in this place don’t own their lives—the state does. To some, like Leon Moser, the inevitability of that death destroys them long before a lethal injection or a rush of voltage ever does. "To execute me won’t mean nothing," Moser tells Abu-Jamal, "cause that man ain’t alive no more. To kill me, Jamal, is just like puttin’ out the garbage."

For a Christian (a category in which I no longer place myself) this time of year is a period of hope. From the despair of the Passion Week, the depths of the Crucifixion, comes the renewed hope of the Resurrection. As a sometimes student of religion, and one who has himself wandered through a variety of religions, I am aware that the idea of resurrection from the dead is far from unique to Christianity. Yet as I reflect back on 1985 I am inevitably struck by when the murders occurred - on the occasion of commemorating Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem - a time of hope turned into something bitter in brief moment of violence.

I have wondered in the past if how devasted I was by this event was at all colored by the relationship I had with Linda. She was my subordinate for several years. She had married Leon when they were both quite young, but after the two little girls, Donna and Joanne, had been born, Linda continued to grow and Leon did not. Besides learning to be a computer programmer under my guidance (the wife of my boss was her friend which is how she got the job) she had a weekend business which was her love, going to crafts fairs and sellling what she made in the evenings after the girls were put to bed. She was gifted, and hoping eventually to do that work full time.

Our relationship had its problems. Linda was unhappy in her marriage then, and I was single. One evening several years before her death, when we were working late, she all but made a pass at me. Nothing came of it - I was already emotionally committed to Leaves on the Current, although we would not finally marry until December of 1985. But in that moment when Linda’s loneliness was expressed in a somewhat awkward way touched me. It was not when I first learned of her death that I remembered it, but later that day. It was not that I felt in any way at risk, but rather that I was connected to the unhappiness of the family.

When I read the story I immediately called the office where we had both worked. I had transferred to our Washington office in October of 1982, and had left the company in January of 1984, but I still knew many people - in an office of about 40 everyone knew everyone. People were in shock, crying, and the office had come to a complete stop as people grieved.

I had to take the rest of the afternoon off - I was too shattered. ANd even though I greatly enjoyed Villanova’s upset win that night, especially the large wager it won me from a co-worker, I could not easily put aside the experience of looking at that newspaper front page and the impact it had on me.

I have been far more fortunate than most people in the world. I have encountered relatively little violence in my own life, or among those close to me. I grew up in a comfortable middle class environment with two lovbing, albeit flawed, parents. I have had enough resources - financial, intellectual, and emotional - to recover from the messes I have created in my own life. The youngest death of anyone close to me, before 1985, wa my mother, who was not yet 48 when she died shortly after my high school graduation.

Since then I have been on the fringe of other things equally shocking. The older brother of a young man I knew in both middle and high school as a teacher, although not my students, beat a girl to death as part of a gang initiation. One student in that middle school was the young son of a former African dictator who had been killed, and he was being raised by his elder sister. In one of my early years at my current school two of our 9th graders killed a man they were trying to rob as he walked home from the local Metro stop. A popular young man at our school somehow got sucked into the side of a train and was so battered that he could not survive - that one devasted many of our students, as he was very popular.

But none of these, not even my mother’s death, affected me in quite the same way as Linda’s. Someone I knew, someone with whom I had worked closely, someone whose personal difficulties were a subject I had to address at least in passing as her immediate supervisor, was brutally murdered.

For many events in our life there are triggers that bring back memories, both good and bad. Smell is one of the strongest. If I smell a certain pungency of wood smoke it inevitably reminds me of the time I spent in the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos in Northern Greece, particularly the monastery of Simona Petra, which was my spiritual home for a decade, in the 1980s. A piece of music I have not heard for years can have a similar effect. Perhaps it will be a song from the 1950s orf 1960s that will evoke a memory of a time in school - that probably won’t be happy, as adolescence was perhaps the least sanguine time in my 6+ decades upon the earth.

Calendars don’t seem to have quite the same effect on me. That is, the mere fact of a month and day, although those dates associated in my relationship with Leaves of course are major. It is often a day associated with something else, like the Friday after Thanksgiving. In this house that is Elspeth day, because it was that day many years ago that I went to a pet store and came home with a small and irrespressible Shetland Sheepdog who taught me more about inextinguishable and irrepressible love than any human ever has.

I did not know until I looked it up that the Villanova game was on April 1st, which perhaps makes it appropriate for me to write about this today. This memory was invoked by the combination of Palm Sunday and the final four, just as it was in 1985.

I know that there was nothing within my power to prevent the tragic events of that day 22 years ago. That does nothing to lessen the sorrow, the shock, even after more than two decades.

Tomorrow starts our fourth and final quarter of the academic year. The students have been off for four days, and this is a four-day week before they go on a ten-day break. I do not know if I will share this experience with them. It is not directly relevant to their lives, but it is something that is a major part of mine, and I don’t normally hide things from them. I will have to see how it plays out. I am sharing electronically. That may or may not be appropriate. But we are all the product of an accumulation of life’s experiences. And sometimes those that shape us in important ways are not readily apparent to others who encounter us, even if only in virutal reality. For me, what happened in 1985 is one piece of the larger fabric, a patchwork quilt whose overall integrity and wholeness may not seem evident at first glance. Yet even those pieces on opposite sides tie together, not merely because they are part of my personal experience, but because each is yet another reason I find I can not disconnect myself from the larger universe, from the teeming humanity on this fragile ball in space we call Planet Earth.

In 1985 I was an Orthodox Christian. March 31 was not our Palm Sunday, so it was not my Holy Week (Easter was one week later, as it often is). This year the dates of Easter coincide for the Eastern and Western Churches. Some in my Quaker Meeting take Easter seriously, some do not. Next week I will attend the Resurrection service with my wife, who has remained in the Orthodox Church. And I will hear liturgical texts of hope and renewal, the words of a sermon of John Chrysostom written about 1600 years ago, a sermon that welcomes all, those who have kept the fast and those who have not. In the mind of the eastern Christian, the key are the words of the Troparion (hymn) of the Feast, words to which Chrysostom refers in his Sermon. The hymn goes like this:
Christ is Risen from the Dead,
Trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.

I am agnostic on the issue of life after death. But I am resolute in the belief that people live on in our hearts, our memories. And even in tragedy if we are to remain sane we must find joy, and hope. Perhaps that is the real resurrection, the rearising of hope that enables us to go on, even after the greatest tragedy.

The murder of Linda and Donna and Joanne was a tragedy for those who knew them. Perhaps in some way I have been able to offer them some continued existence in this reflection, perhaps not. The scope of tragedies is not a competition - the losses are felt individually, and deeply. Some seem avoidable, others senseless, far too many are both. And yet - even if we cannot prevent senseless and seemingly avoidable tragedies, we must go on, perhaps altered by the experience, challenged to make a difference someplace else. We are human, we fail as individuals and as that collection of individuals known as society to do all we could to prevent tragedy. I will not forget, for that would dishonor the memory of those we have lost. But I will go forward in the hope that in some way I can make a difference - that honors, and keeps alive at least in memory.

Thank you for allowing me to share this with you.

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