Sunday, September 27, 2009

Summer Vacation at Risk Based on a Myth

It seems like every time Education Secretary Arne Duncan opens his mouth about reform of public education, he perpetuates myths and offers reforms based on those myths that I find very frustrating. For in the news today, President Obama and Duncan are both continuing with the argument that the American school day and week and year are too short. This is based on the erroneous idea that Asian and European kids who beat American kids on international tests spend more time in school. The Education Secretary again showed his ignorance of the history of public education when he said, "Our school calendar is based on the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working in the fields today." This is, of course, fundamentally not true.

First of all, up until the late nineteenth century, the school year, especially in the cities, was actually all year long. This was driven by the desire to have the kids in school so their parents could work, especially in factories. In rural areas, kids were given release time in the spring and fall for planting and harvesting - not "summer vacation" to work in the fields. The "agrarian model" explanation is a myth, and up-to-date education researchers have known this for years. The school calendar was not set so kids could help on the farm. Most of the work on a farm is done during spring and fall - planting and harvesting. Clearly, that is when the kids were most needed. The summer vacation schedule was set to appeal to middle and upper class families (the ones who actually went beyond sixth grade) because these families wanted to get out of the hot, crowded cities (and classrooms) during the summer months, especially before the days of air conditioning.

The "myth of summer vacation" has been well-documented over the years, though misperception persists. Perhaps the most informative analysis of the history comes from a really good read by Kenneth Gold, entitled School's In: The History of Summer Vacation in American Public Schools.

While there are arguments for longer school, the agrarian model is not one of them. Additionally, the longer school day has shown a definitive impact in struggling, urban populations, but suburban middle and upper class populations have never shown the "summer loss," and they are well-served by a myriad of summer activities that enhance and add to their education as well-rounded citizens in ways that more classroom time drilling for standardized tests doesn't. If we are going to have effective discussion about education reform, we need to dispense with the perpetuation of myths by the misinformed. Additionally, the article I linked to noted that the belief that others countries' students spend more time in school is also not true:

While it is true that kids in many other countries have more school days, it's not true they all spend more time in school. Kids in the U.S. spend more hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests — Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013). That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years (190 to 201 days) than does the U.S. (180 days).

As I noted after watching the movie Two Million Minutes, critics have argued that by the time they graduate from high school, Chinese and Indian students will have spent twice as much time in school as American students. But that leads to the following questions:

Are their economies twice as large or powerful? Are their buildings and bridges twice as strong? Are their doctors and scientists twice as effective and efficient and innovative? Are their products twice as durable? Are their workers twice as productive?

The answer is, of course, no.

Arne Duncan and President Obama need to do a little more research before they start speaking of reform in education. Clearly, there is evidence that a longer school day, week, and year is helpful for struggling populations. However, my high school has a 90% school-wide pass rate on AP exams in nearly all subjects, and we have more honors classes than regular levels. And we do it with the current schedule.

If anything, our students can get through K-12 effectively in less time, not more.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dual-Credit is Key In Education Reform

As I've noted on several occasions, there is much inefficiency in the way we direct our students to bachelor degrees. Problematically, half the students who go on to a four-year college don't finish, and many people seeking careers that need an associate's degree end up going for a bachelor's. Additionally, we have established twelve years as being the standard for being ready for college, when that number is arbitrary at best, and completely overestimated for the top thirty percent in the country. Additionally, the rise of AP and IB could alleviate some of the waste in time and money for college classes, yet many colleges are now reducing the credit for those programs.

However, there is a growing trend in dual-credit courses where students can take core classes in high school, that if taught by a qualified teacher with appropriate rigor, can also count for college credit in associate degree programs. This concept is long overdue, and the Denver Post spotlights it in an article today about students who are moving more efficiently through the k-16 labyrinth. The story discusses several students who pursue college courses in high school. Notably there is Lauren Goh:

Goh, 18, fit the profile of the high achiever who was the traditional target of concurrent enrollment. For two years, she took most of her classes at Red Rocks Community College instead of Golden High — where she still was elected student body president.

"High school is definitely a unique experience, but I'd had enough of it," Goh said. "At Red Rocks, there were people in their 60s I'd make friends with, from all walks of life. That was the appeal to me."

She earned her high school diploma and associate degree on the same day. Eventually, she faced a choice: Transfer her credits and begin as a junior at any number of schools, or enroll at Harvard for four year.

A high school diploma and an associate's degree on the same day. I know so many students for whom this should apply, as I regularly tell my AP Lang juniors at the end of the year that they "are ready for college." Sadly, the AP system is arbitrary, and many schools won't give them credit and will make them re-take classes for which they are already qualified. This is a ridiculous waste of time and money.

Dual-credit, also called concurrent enrollment, is precisely the type of reform that can alleviate the logjam of public education, and ease many of the funding problems in schools. We can get kids out of school and on with their lives in a much more efficient and effective manner.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Kurt Anderson and America's Reset

As Jesus Jones noted in their hit song "Right Here, Right Now," we are in the midst of "watching the world wake up from history." While the pop hit from the early 90s focused on the fall of communism in eastern Europe, Kurt Anderson's "Reset" is a calm, reflective meditation on the end of the bubble economy/bubble society that began in the 1980s and has finally and resoundingly ended after a near decimating crash. While Anderson is not big on specifics in terms of what the end of the party will bring, he is hopeful that America, and the world, will be moving into a more rational, pragmatic world view on issues of health, wealth, and well being.

As far as a predictor of trends and guru of solutions, the books of Matt Miller are more detailed and prescient. But Anderson's book is a nice short meditation, strong on hope and belief in American's ability to respond to the current crisis and be the better for it. Granted, Anderson's book was written and published during Obama's honeymoon period - and notably prior to the rage of the town hall meetings and the audacity of Joe Wilson's "You lie." However, knowing the generally moderate views of middle America, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Anderson's insight and hope for a more rational and simplified future in America society is on the horizon.

As we decrease our "lottery-winner" expectations of an early retirement in our McMansion based on our unrealistic mutual fund projections, Americans may begin to downsize their purchases and simplify their lives. More rational plans for education reform and immigration reform and health care and finance and materialism could potentially lead to a calmer, happier society.

The book is a nice, easy read - big on hope and brevity. A nice reflection.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Carter Finally Gets It

If John Hughes had ever written a young-adult novel, it would have been Carter Finally Gets It. This hysterically entertaining, and pleasantly insightful, debut from author Brent Crawford is one of the best YA novels I have read in years. In fact, there are few books that better capture the voice of a boy during his freshman year of high school, especially one with ADD, an occasional stutter, an overbearingly popular sister, and his "boys." These characteristics and characters are the main vehicles of Carter's conflicts as he navigates the trials of adolescence - football, girls, parties, girls, competition, girls, homework, girls, and, well, girls.

Carter tells his own story in a voice that is as honest as it is hilarious. The frustration that comes from the pressures of school and social situations moving just a bit too fast for an eternally distracted mind is always entertaining, and at times rather poignant. Carter can't seem to get a handle on his social or athletic or academic responsibilities, and at times he simply helplessly admits I've been in high school almost a month, and it's nothing like I thought it would be .... I want to feel comfortable ... I want people to think about me as much as I think about them, and I worry I'll always feel this way. Like I did on the first day of kindergarten. That sort of honesty is so refreshing, and it's nice to see in a character like Carter who isn't simply a stereotype of a dorky freshman. In fact, Carter is a popular, athletic kid who struggles with schools and the social expectations of an increasingly fast adolescent world. Carter is an Everyman, for whom many high school students will be able to relate.

This is the kind of book that I wish every adolescent girl would read - it might do a lot help them understand the adolescent boys that frustrate them so. Like so many of the movies from the classic young adult raconteur John Hughes, this book presents a fun, funny, and truly honest portrait of adolescence, in all its manic glory.

I highly recommend this book.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Civility and Decorum

Here's a thought:

Perhaps Joe Wilson, Kanye West, and Serena Williams could all get together for an idiot party.

We all make mistakes ... and we all should be roundly chastised for acting infantile in our adult years. Hubris is a terrible thing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Words of Wisdom

During the course of the school year, I read a lot of selections to my students from various books by Robert Fulghum, author of All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Generally, we will write about them, and occasionally these short pieces generate some nice personal essays. One of my favorites comes from Fulghum's time studying Zen buddhism in a Japanese monastery. Upon Fulghum's leaving, the zen master reads to him the following proverb:

There is really nothing you must be,
And there is nothing you must do.
There is really nothing you must have,
And there is nothing you must know.
There is really nothing you must become.

However, it helps to know that fire burns,
and, when it rains, the earth gets wet.

This sort of sentiment and insight is especially important for teenagers during these years of the search for identity and autonomy. Hopefully, as the country seeks its identity, the course of the future will be influenced by such level-headed wisdom.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Corporations are People, Too?

In a sad development for the roots of democratic republics - and a backdoor victory for oligarchy - the The Supreme Court's conservative bloc sounded poised Wednesday to decide, on free-speech grounds, to end the ban on corporations spending large amounts of money to elect or defeat candidates for Congress and the presidency. The "ironic" issue of money as "free" speech has always troubled me, though I understand the reasoning behind it. Of course, it wasn't nearly the problem thirty and eighty years ago before the rise of television, especially cable. Now we have trillions behind spent to promote agendas, and the concept of truth in politics and ideology becomes even more bent.

This development - corporations being freed to use their resources to specifically influence individual political races - is a nail in the coffin to any hope of campaign finance reform. Perhaps the most disturbing concept is the idea that "Corporations are persons entitled to protection under the First Amendment," said Olson, who represented Citizens United. This is an absolute affront to the rights of the individual and democratic republics. A corporation is NOT a person, and that was not the intention of the First Amendment. If individual members of a corporation want to exercise free speech, I support it. If the corporation wants the same right to use its massive funds to override representative voices of individuals, that's a move toward oligarchy.

Thom Hartmann - and I know he's very liberal - first brought this to my attention in his critical book What Would Jefferson Do. Issues like these really do bring Supreme Court appointments into prominence. While I was bothered by the Courts ruling on private property last year, I am equally, if not more, bothered by this one.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Great Book Choice

I'd like applaud Denver for choosing a truly remarkable book, a verifiable classic, To Kill a Mockingbird as its latest choice in its annual One Book, One Denver program. Unlike past years, when the mayor, or a group, chose the book, this year the book was voted the winner by popular demand.

I teach this classic "coming-of-age" novel each year in my freshman English classes, and I often introduce it as "nearly the perfect book." While there is no book that I would say is "sacred" in education and that every American student has to read, this is one that I would put on the list of "If-you-only-read-one-book-read-this-one." The allegorical nature of the work, and it's deeply thoughtful look inside the issue of prejudice and the essential nature of man is awe-inspiring.

I am fascinated by the way Lee weaves such an intricate tale of mystery and social criticism, in which the reader joins Scout in peeling away layers of prejudice she never knew existed in her hometown and her own heart.

A truly masterful and heartwarming work. Great choice, Denver!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Separate Peace

Some insight from the end of John Knowles quintessential coming-of-age novel, A Separate Peace:

Because it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart ....

All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way - if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.