A caution about government interference in education …

February 25, 2011

I don’t want to equate anyone wanting more government control of education as fascist, whether that person be the governor of Wisconsin or Barack Obama (they both do, and neither is fascist).  I merely want to point out a caution as to why a mixture of local and national control is something we should be striving for, vs. a single entity having all of the control.

The link above is to an episode of Frontline, which visits Peking University.  There is a small section where students are shown a picture of “Tank Man”.

“Tank Man”, the subject of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable pictures, is an unknown Chinese man, dressed in a white shirt, who at the height of the Tiannamen Square events, stood in front of a column of tanks, refusing to allow them past.  I doubt you could go anywhere in the world and not find educated people who have some familiarity with that picture, and what it represents.

Almost anywhere.

A small group of Chinese college students were unable to identify the picture, or its context.

The events of Tiannamen Square are over two decades gone now.  It would be unfathomable for people of any decent education, or who lived through it to not recall something about it.  The Chinese government has banned any information on those events, except for the government approved story.  On the one hand, this is newspapers and websites, but on the other this is textbooks and films and documentaries.  An entire nation’s education on a topic totally erased by the government.

Before you say “That’s China, it couldn’t happen in the United States …”, you should know the USA has a long history of censorship in education … and it goes on today (though mostly at the local level), there are plenty of school districts that refuse to teach natural selection, Huckleberry Finn, slavery, human reproduction …. the list goes on.  However, while this is terrible, a school board can only affect one district … one relatively small group of students.  States and the federal govenment can affect far, far more.

The Department of Education is fast tracking the Common Core; a comprehensive curriculum that the Obama Administration is pushing states to adopt because it will add more points to their application for “Race to the Top” money.  My state has just finished adopting it and is working on a time table for implementation (note:  they are doing this even though the actual standards have not been fully published to the states yet).  This marks the first time in history that the federal government of the United States has set a control of any sort on the curriculum taught in schools.

On the one hand it is supposed to eliminate the so-called “Mississippi Option”, where some states set their tests at such a ridiculously easy level that nearly every school passes under NCLB (compared to Illinois which had unrealistically high expectations and nearly all schools have now failed).  I think it is a good thing that states trying to take the easy way out are being held accountable.

However, I can’t help but wonder what will eventually be targeted by some politicians to be pushed into our curriculum, or left out, depending on which political party is in power.  Will students be required to learn that the Civil War was entirely over states rights (a lie continually promulgated in certain parts of the country) … will they be forced to study the role that Darwin “played” in developing social Darwinism, and how that led to progroms and genocide … will a discussion of natural selection be strictly about its “controversy”?

I hate to sound paranoid about our government, and send the feeling that our politicians can occasionally take advantage of getting pet projects passed as law … but history speaks far too loudly and too often about this being the case in the past.  It can go both ways.  California recently passed a law requiring that aspects of all minorities be taught in student course work.  I don’t object one bit to learning about the perspectives of different groups …. I would argue one can’t be well rounded unless they do learn about the perspectives of different groups of people … but this adds a huge restraint now on what can and can’t be taught in schools;  and the motivation is one that is purely political.

When will this end?  When the people of the United States demand the government to get out of education.  I don’t see this happening any time soon.


For those of you sending kids to charter schools to avoid unions …

February 21, 2011


You may want to reconsider this.  One charter school in Chicago is in the early stages of unionizing.  The charter school claims that it is a private organization, and that it is exempt from rules allowing workers to unionize.  The $23 million they have received from various government sources to stay open says otherwise …  NLRB has ruled in the favor of the teachers trying to unionize, but appeals are ongoing.

Not a good couple of months …

February 21, 2011

Mid December to mid February aren’t going down as the best couple of months I’ve ever lived through.  Mind you, they could be worse.


First, there was the dad thing …

I have spent a lot of weekends either working to retain my moderators certification in quizbowl (I was up for recertification this year), or back at mom’s house helping with dad related things.  Needless to say, I have had little time to see or talk with anyone.  I have a long standing put off dinner with John Cosgrove, and I also need to get in touch with Ed and RJ soon.

One of our state’s best moderators was fired from this job with the state tournament.  I am still trying to get to the bottom of that one.  There was no real justification for it.

Then the snow came … I had parked my car in a guest spot to allow the plows to clear my space … only to wake up the next day and find about an inch of snow in my unplowed spot, and my car under a glacier.  After digging out the car and rocking it free, I parked it in my spot, only to be awoken by the police the next morning to find out my neighbor had backed into my car.   To make matters worse, the neighbor has been dragging his feet on the insurance.

Then on Saturday this last week, my heat went out.  Not so big a problem, except this is the second time my brand new heater has conked out since November.  When the workman arrived (very quickly), he opened it up, and it looked like someone had set off a Molotov cocktail inside … melted wires and insulation, charred ash … not too good!  The guy told me that he had to come back today with this boss to figure out the problem.  That meant two days sans heat.

I roughed it out the first night.  But when 5 pm rolled around and I was bundled up while the thermostat hung around 55, it was time to go.  I stayed in a hotel last night, saw the dentist this morning, and came home to let in the work crew who had to do major surgery …. new wiring and a new circuit breaker.  I hope they are finishing up as I type this …. (actually, I have just heard the whoosh of heated air coming from the vents … I should be warm in a little bit).

The only good news:  with dad’s health, my biannual review had to be put off a bit, and my department chair was very accommodating.  When we finally got to do it a few weeks back, I got the best review in the last three years.  That was good.

All in all, it could be worse …

Wisconsin, teachers, unions, and the budget

February 20, 2011

Lots of semi-interesting things going on up there in Wisconsin these days … that is with part of their legislature spending some time in Chicago.

I have, I think, a fairly different view on things being that I do teach in a public school, but I am not a union member.  I think its hypocritical on my part to be a part of an organization and take its protection while knowing I would not walk out on kids over a salary or benefits issue.  I don’t judge others on their choice to join a union, and support the idea that a worker has the right to choose to join a union.

So it is from that perspective that I look at Wisconsin.

1.  I fully agree that something needs to be done to get the budget of all the states (and cities and federal government) under control.  Part of that has to be tax raises.  Part of that has to be cuts.  It will not work under any other scenario.

That means, on the one hand, I support the general principle of what Wisconsin’s governor is doing.  Cuts need to be made to current retirees and future retirees need to pay more and expect less.  One of the things that is spreading incorrectly:  teacher pensions are not being fed by tax payer money except where the state failed to provide for its funding in the past.  That is, the money that is paid in by the districts (what people often think of as “tax payer money”) is in fact part of the teachers’ salary.  The districts pay it as a service to the teacher (rather than pay the teacher more money, and then having individual teachers send thousands and thousands of checks to the pension board).  Now, if the states have been poorly planning and not making adjsutments over the past few decades (like they all have, like the federal government has with social security), then they have had to shift parts of their budgets over to cover shortfalls.  That is not, per se, the fault of teachers or the unions, even though they will ultimately have to pay a great deal for what is happening.

On that note, if the governor is interested in cuts, I hope that he is making across the board cuts … like to senior citizens centers and to road construction and to reimbursing government workers, including the legislature, and the governor’s staff … this is not being covered in the media, so it is difficult to assertain if that is the case here.

2.  The governor wants to strip unions of their closed shop status.  This, of course, I favor.  My colleagues and I had a relatively civil conversation on this.  I was told that getting rid of a closed shop would lead to corruption.  I responded by saying that having a closed shop has already led to corruption, and that the corruption would simply shift.  If laws are in place to keep districts from going too far, then unions should be able to hold on to a modicum of power in order to protect the workers.  Nonetheless, a move like this in Illinois would save me roughly $650-per-year.  However, that, I admit, is a selfish motivation on my part.

On the other hand, even I have to ask: How does this somehow save the state money?  I can only conclude that this is some attempt by the governor to strip unions of their money (and hence power).  I think, however, that he highly overestimates the number of public school teachers who are not unionized.  I’ll be the first to admit that I am in a huge minority.  I think this is a union-busting move … and I am not sure how well it would work.

There is an even worse outcome to consider.  If a closed shop is done away with, normally quiet unions may start getting far more aggressive in terms of how they deal with non-members.  Most of my colleagues these days do not hold my union status over my head, though it is easy for them to not have to make a big deal out of it.  However, if the laws suddenly changed making any non-member a perceived threat, that good will could vanish quickly, and the climate for non-union workers could get chilly very quickly.

Our (my colleagues and I) current line of thinking is that these moves are going to have a deleterious effect on teaching and learning in Wisconsin, because it is based on a great many fallacies.  Young teachers who can move will be more likely to move.  Young teachers leaving the universities in Wisconsin and neighboring states will be more likely to try their fortunes elsewhere.  That will give Wisconsin schools slimmer picking of good teachers.  The same will be true for school administrators.  Those who can will move elsewhere.  Poorer ones or ones with a tendency to enjoy power trips will stay.  Wisconsin may end up saving some money (who knows how much, but I would bet dollars to donuts it isn’t going to come close to covering the amount they need), but it has the potential to cost them a lot more in the long run, if good education is worth something.

More and more I counsel students not to enter teaching as a profession because of the uncertainty that exists for its long term viability as an actual profession.  For people of my generation, it is difficult to remember that there was a time when teaching was either a part time profession, or a profession for married women who were permitted to work by their progressive husbands … or was a profession for nuns, single women, brothers, or priests.  I think teaching and learning in general has gotten much better since it became more of a true profession.  However, if salaries/benefits and (just as importantly) working conditions are going to be stripped back, then teaching is likely to become what it used to be:  a profession that you engage in until something better comes along … something that you do alongside another job (because chances are you would be released before you retire because you are too expensive to keep).  The idea of professional development as it exists now will be gone (another improvement of the last few decades), because more and more teachers will have to spend their free time working another job instead of getting training to be a better teacher.

This led to another discussion:  what is the real value of a teacher?  If a teacher makes $45k a year, is that a bargain?  Is $100k still a bargain?  I hear some seniors talk, and they talk about the great teacher they had that made $5k a year back in the 50s and 60s … an obvious apples and oranges comparison.  I find that this is a decision the public has to make … and over the last 10 years or so, the overall discussion seems to be one that teachers, and to some extent in some areas education, are not worth it.

I say that is a bad attitude … time will tell if that attitude will prevail.

You know it snowed a lot when …

February 2, 2011

… you look across the street where you know you parked your car, and you debate whether or not to call the police and report a stolen car, or just hope that somewhere underneath that snowdrift your car really is there.


Showing that I learned something, I parked my car across the street so that my parking space would be opened to plow.  This morning I woke up and there was no more than an inch of snow in my parking spot.  The winds blew all of the snow across the street where drifts reached well over the top of my car.

Mother Nature, 1 … SiaSL, 0


I’ll get my revenge this summer by chopping down a tree.

Critical thinking and the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus

February 2, 2011


There is no surer way to prove how dumb American students are than to out and out lie to them!

Hey … this is nothing new:  George Washington and the cherry tree, Newton and the apple … there were and in some cases continue to be a lot of lies shoveled down the throats of students.  I have no doubt that this is a strictly American phenomenon, but because a lot of other nations don’t bother fostering original thought in their public schools, I think it is more noticeable in America.

A text book company has released information about the horrible state of critical thinking in American schools, and points their finger squarely at the internets.  In this case, students were directed to look up information on the highly endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.  The kids did this and reported back.  SUCKERS!  There are no tree octopi (Pacific Northwest or otherwise).  It should be noted that there was a wonderful website created for the study that kids could find that gave them lots of info about the fictitious arboreal cephalopod.

I won’t argue that critical thinking is not something that you see a lot of in schools.  I went to a good high school, and even there, critical thinking was not embraced a great deal.  It is easy to teach facts.  Teaching higher level thinking is much more difficult.

In my current teaching assignment, I have seen very few teachers that actively dissuade thinking outside the box.  There are some general problems that I have seen:

1.  Critical thinking is not something that top students generally embrace.  Most “top students” get to the “top” because they have learned the system (learn facts, learn skills, spit them back up, perform them on cue).  The system works!  They don’t like it when teachers change that system into something more chaotic and unpredictable.  If you think the “top” kids don’t like it, the people who like it even less are the parents of “top” students.  They really don’t like it when their student, 7 years of straight A’s to support their point, come home moaning about how this teacher doesn’t teach (teaching critical thinking often involves not teaching and becoming more of a guide).  These parents often have principals, superintendents, and school board members on speed dial.

At big schools, the complaints of 20 parents out of 2,000 are often filed in the crank file.  At schools with 200 students, 20 parents can get their way very easily.  Hence, at smaller schools, any attempts by any teachers to change the system are usually shot down.  This is why smaller public schools typically have students who get “A’s”, but don’t expect them to do much more than regurgitate and perform.

NCLB tried to be a system that took control of education away from such parents by replacing their power with the power of the dollar.  The problem was that it didn’t do that.  It proscribed states (read: local politicians) to come up with how they tested.  Some states make the test really easy.  Illinois uses the ACT and a test that was a compromise between down and upstate interests (the science section will never test on natural selection because a lot of downstate schools >>never<< teach that!)

2.  Students generally are not used to it.  Students are not used to an education that asks them to think.  As young kids, they are being taught the basics, which is basically factual information.  I think that Elementary Ed. preparation needs to start emphasizing this in their collegiate preparation.

3.  States need to start insisting on this.  NCLB does nothing (quite the opposite) in pushing more critical thinking in schools.  Smaller schools need to be better examined to make sure that kids are being taught how to think, and I am not talking about “how to think like everyone else in this town”.  I teach in a bastion of suburbia, and I think one of the things that our teachers pride themselves in is that we tend to push a more global vs. local perspective.

This in and of itself is difficult.  Multiple choice tests do not do a good job of assessing whether someone is a good thinker (maybe some exist, but if they do exist, they are not often used).  The only way to properly assess if a school is doing a good job at this is to do on site inspections, student interviews, and assessments of student portfolios of work.

Yeah, that sounds expensive, but if states would dump paying umteen millions to the College Board for their tests used for NCLB, they could free up some money to do this.

It sounds like I have been looking down my nose a bit at little town America here.  I talk to a lot of teachers and students from those places, and for all of the benefits of those places, until they start supporting really good education, their schools will not be worth a hill of beans.  I have no doubt there are some good schools in rural America … but my experience is that they are the exception, not the rule.

Urban America has its own problems, but they are a different.  Even if the schools have incredibly dedicated teachers, the attendance issues, the lack of parental support, and the bureaucratic red tape make for a situation where trying to teach original thinking is either not going to be supported (depending on your principal) or not going to matter (because the students aren’t there are don’t care).

Until then, students will continue to be more easily suckered as adults.  Politicians will be happy that their supporters will still be easily suckered into following them.