Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Education Reform Jumps the Shark

If you pay attention to the education reform game long enough, you will begin to seriously question the knowledge of the reformers and the naive gullibility of the public and the politicians they elect. Some critics have noted the problems such as Diane Ravitch in her book Left Back: One Hundred Years of Failed School Reform. It takes a knowledgeable historian to remind people there was never any Golden Age for education - keep in mind that Rudolph Flesch wrote Why Johnny Can't Read in 1955.

So the issue of education reform continues to go round and round, and some areas improve while many others stay stagnant. One former teacher and current education consultant argues that education has reform has "jumped the shark." His recent commentary in the Washington Post has a lot of compelling information and a copious number of links that are certainly worth investigating.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Food Safety

Pass the F.D.A Food Safety and Modernization Act. Call your senators' offices and urge support of this comprehensive bill. It is really a no-brainer, as recent food-borne illness breakouts and revealing coverage of corrupt, or just dirty and ill-managed, food production facilities have made regulation of the food processors a common cause across party lines.

Alas, some - like the Glenn Beck's of the world - are resisting this common sense action out of naive ideological bias and irrational conspiracy's of government regulation. It is astounding that in nearly a century of existence, the FDA does not have the authority to test food for pathogens or require a recall. Seriously - the FDA cannot demand/force a recall of food products it knows to be dangerous, even lethal, to consumers. All food recalls are voluntary on the part of the industry. This is corrupt and dangerously foolish.

Two of our strongest and most eloquent critics of the food industry - Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser - have a well argued and succinct commentary on the issue in the New York Times today. It is well worth the time.

Pass the "Food Safety Bill."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Teenage Brain

The baffling and random behavior that comes from the incomplete wiring of the teenage brain is not news to any high school teacher - though even people who deal with teens for a living can always use more information to help understand "why they act that way." This Sunday's edition of Parade Magazine offers a concise and up-to-date summary of what science continues to learn about the development going on "upstairs" in the teenage years.

The most significant ideas are the lack of development in the dorsal lateral pre-frontal lobe - or critical thinking section - of the brain. Teens are, to put it crudely, very much still "brain stem driven cavemen" in the way the see and approach the world. However, the important information for educators, and the education system as a whole, is the understanding the complex process of synapses "pruning" that goes on in these years as the brain prepares itself for what it's actually going to need in life. Unnecessary, or under-utilized, skills and knowledge is shut down.

This "pruning" that will inevitably take place is the most significant argument for a well rounded classical, or liberal, education. However, more than simply exposure to the content, the teachers and the system need to do a much more effective job of explaining and teaching kids what is happening to their own brains and why we do what we do and why we expect what we expect.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Formosa Betrayed

Formosa Betrayed is an excellent political thriller about a country and an aspect of US foreign policy that Americans know far too little of. When I went to Taiwan to teach English in 1992, I knew almost nothing of the complicated politics surrounding this island nation of 23 million people - people who have never truly been free of control by greater political forces from the Dutch to the Japanese to the Chinese governments. Yet, amidst the turmoil, a thriving free market capitalist democratic republic has been carved out by the Taiwanese people under constant shadow of invasion by the communist government in the People's Republic of China. I really fell in love with this country and its people, and I hope someday Taiwan will be recognized by more than just 23 countries.

I highly recommend this film, and I applaud the performance of James Van der Beek. Who know "Dawson" had such range. I hope to see him in more films. Congratulations to Taiwanese-American producer Will Tiao for an excellent film and a story that deserved to be told.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The German Job Machine

As Ireland spirals into financial disaster, Dubai struggles with a $100 billion in debt, and the United States economy sluggishly drags itself back to life with the albatross of a 9.5% unemployment rate weighing on it, the German state has sprung to life with factories churning out products and the chancellor talking about the potential for full employment.

How has this German miracle happened, amidst a world economy in disarray? The reality is an effective blend of public and private investment, committed to building the whole economy. Many of the more astute pundits - such as David Brooks - have been pointing to the German model for years on everything from industrial policy to health care reform. And with good reason. The German government and people have made rational, at times tough, decisions concerning public investment and social welfare programs while trying to jump start the economy. And it appears to be working.

Of course, the most significant benefit of the Germans has been their ability to handle health care. Some American critics might like to credit the German turnaround with the Merkle government making painful cuts to "welfare." Yet the factor remains that German companies and German workers are not burdened with health care and insurance costs as a result of the most effective blend of national health care.

Good for the Germans. Any chance we'll ever learn?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Teacher Pay and Master's Degrees

A column in the Huffington Post notes several shots taken at "teacher pay," notably criticism from Bill Gates that the linkage of teacher pay to graduate degrees is a waste of time and money, as tests have disproved any link between a Master's degree and better performance. While I agree with much of that sentiment, Gates does have a tendency to miss the mark through over-generalization when it comes to education. To be a truly accurate criticism, there should be criticism between the type of degree.

Master's degrees in content areas - English Language and Literature, Biology, American, European, & World History, Mathematics - are certainly going to inform teachers in a much more meaningful way than one in Education or Administration or IT, or any of a number of other nonsense degrees. The College of Education on most university campuses are mostly to blame - that and teaching associations - and don't even get me started on the University of Phoenix. For years, I have been annoyed and dismayed by colleagues who got the Master's in Education "just for the pay raise," and they are the worst in complaining about what a waste of time and money it was.

Scholarship is what truly guides a growth in education, and a program that lacks one is destined to be mediocre. To start with, the lack of a Master's Thesis, or the substitution of a "shorter" assignment of "three long papers" or a few "projects" is anathema to intellectual growth. If states want to clean up the system - and their payrolls - they ought to start with the Master's in Education.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Candy in the Classroom

When I first started teaching in the classroom, I used to have what I called "Tootsie Pop" Answers". Each year I would buy a big container of Tootsie Pops, and when a student offered particularly insightful comments in class, I might toss out a sucker to the astute scholar. In reality, I gave out no more than a couple a week. However, after a while I realized - after watching the kids come back from the cafeteria with copious amounts of candy and snacks - that the treat system really wasn't necessary. In the past ten or twelve years, I have provided no treats in my classroom, and it in no way decreased participation or effort or changed the demeanor of my class.

However, at the same time I have been shocked by the amount of candy and junk that is consumed by students in school on a daily basis. This revelation has been accented for me by also having two kids in elementary school now. My conclusion: there is too much of an emphasis on candy and treats in school. In addition to the candy handed out in classes for nearly every activity, students bring treats for their birthdays, and some classes even schedule "Cookie Fridays." Every fundraiser seems to offer a donut party for the winning class. There is near constant consumption of sugary snacks - and that can't be good.

Many people argue that this is "simply part of childhood." They believe candy is an integral part of being a kid. That's ridiculous, especially when considering the "ridiculous" amounts of candy and cupcakes that are being consumed in schools - from kindergarten to senior year - everyday. There is simply no reason for candy to given to kids for good behavior, and the constant parties and treats emphasize the wrong idea. Celebrating a birthday or a good grade or a school function shouldn't have to be about sugar.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Teacher Training

Most teachers I know don't have many favorable comments about education classes. They may have had a class or two they enjoyed in college, such as Educational Psychology. But the vast majority argue that teachers learn to teach by teaching - and that doesn't mean student teaching/practicum. It seems most learned to teach in their first 2-3 years, and that probably explains why half of all teachers leave the profession after about three years. Thus, the question is how to "train" effective teachers - if that is even possible.

Colorado is joining a group of eight other states that are seeking to change the way colleges and universities train teachers, as they seek a way to produce an effective educator for every classroom. The focus is, of course, on the practice of teaching - notably expanding the in-classroom experience. The idea of teacher education as an "internship" seems to be relevant in this case. The plan reminds of a book I read a decade ago called The Conspiracy of Ignorance. The author called for the elimination of bachelor degrees in teaching and instead envisioned a Master's degree program for teachers who have completed a bachelor's degree in content. He also argued for higher academic standards for teachers, requiring that teaching candidates only come from the top third of their class.

While there are reasons to criticize this idea, it is more in line with teacher education practices around the world. I've argued before that there are only so many "Superman" teachers, and I really think an effective teacher is much more a natural characteristic than a taught skill. But that's not an absolute position. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Wrong Approach to E.Coli

As the battle continues to improve food safety and decrease the number of food borne illnesses, it appears corporate America is going the more complicated route once again, as it only seeks the bottom line. According to this story, the Cargill Corporation is having some success with a vaccine against E. Coli for the cattle in its herds. After testing 85,000 cattle, researchers report the cattle have not reacted negatively to the vaccine. However, this could simply create more problems.

It's always been my understanding the E.Coli - the dangerous strand of of 0151 - is non-existent in grass-fed cattle. Thus, if cows graze and eat only that which comes naturally to them, they never fall victim to E. Coli and don't pass it on to consumers. It seems, in some ways, as if companies like Cargill, who raise cows unnaturally on massive feedlots, are actually responsible for causing the illness they are now trying to develop a vaccine against. Yet, if they simply changed their business model, they wouldn't need this vaccine in the first place.

Not dealing with geniuses here - just unthinking profit seekers.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction - Reach Out

It's a Friday, and I'm feeling like I need an interesting pop culture moment. So, here is a fascinating mix of movie clips from Will Ferrell's movie Stranger Than Fiction mixed with the song Reach Out. If you haven't seen the movie, you are really missing out. This will give you a great taste of what is truly a pop culture, existential masterpiece in modern film. If you have seen the movie, you surely loved it, and this clip will make you want to watch it again. Enjoy.

I wish I were that effective at mixing music and film. Have a great Friday.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Movies in the Classroom

Each time I'm teaching a new novel with a group of students, the question will inevitably come - "Are we going to watch the movie?" It is generally in the early part of the year, for as the year goes on the students don't even bother to ask. Are we going to watch the movie? In Class? After we already finished the book? The answer: Of course not. We're at school. It's not the weekend. It's not free time. It's not an hour to just kick back and veg out in front of the TV. It's school.

Occasionally, students will not ask, but "recommend" - "We should watch the movie. I've heard it's really good." In the case of a book/movie like To Kill a Mockingbird, I completely agree. I even tell them You're right. You should watch the movie. Why don't all of you get together at [Amy's] house this weekend and watch the movie. [Joe] can bring the popcorn. That's a great idea. They sneer as they smile back at me, not appreciating my smug recommendation. I sneer as I smile back, believing there is absolutely no reason to just "watch a movie" at school. It's not our job, it's not our purpose, and it is, in my opinion, a colossal waste of time and the taxpayer's money.

This is not to say, I'm opposed to using clips of movies to accent a discussion, or even using a film as a unit unto itself. I actually use a four-minute clip of The Jungle Book while teaching Lord of the Flies, and I have developed an entire unit on documentary film using Supersize Me. We watch the film, deconstruct the argumentative strategies, analyze it as commentary, take an objective test on the strategies and content, write an argumentative deconstruction of it, and develop our own piece of commentary about a social issue. That is a reasonable use of film in the classroom. Watching the movie for three days for fun after finishing the book is not.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Teacher Contract Work Time

The issue of "work time" has reared its head in Aurora Public Schools after the school district voted to ignore a ruling from a non-binding arbitrator that the district violated its contract for requiring that teachers accept an additional period of classroom instruction. Clearly, the scores in the district indicate the students need more instruction - or to put it realistically more effective instruction. At the same time, the district can in no way afford to pay teachers for additional time. And, of course, some always argue that if the teachers really cared about the students and student achievement, they would accept the task.

That's a tough one. And teachers have argued that taking away a planning period when they could tutor and counsel individual students will be even more detrimental to students. I certainly agree with that point, as I teach five classes in an eight period day with one period for lunch and two for planning and conferencing. Even then, it's tough to get everything done, and I put in at least two hours after contract time every day. And that is for the kids. And that's at a high performing school.

No way the teachers can look good in complaining about this. And I have to disagree with the extreme behavior some took in response. No easy answer and an unfortunate conflict.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Teachers as Performers

My students often refuse to believe me when I describe myself as shy and rather introverted. Obviously, the classroom persona seems to defy any possibility of reserve or anxiety - in the classroom, I am extremely enthusiastic and energetic and, yes, very loud and outgoing. However, I explain, that persona is, in many ways, a show. It's a performance. It's the Mazenko Show - and it's on five shows a day, five days a week for ten months of the year. That's excluding test days - though even the handing out of the test has some entertainment value.

Interestingly, this is something people in "the real world" will never truly understand. Often, friends and acquaintances will talk about a "big presentation" they have coming up at work. And, I think, "so do I. All day. Everyday." To be on stage as much as teachers are, we really have to be performers. Yet, it's never a problem for effective teachers because they, in the words of Bob Dylan "know your song well before you start singing." Outside of the classroom is something altogether different. Outgoing teachers are often rather reserved in public and at social functions. They often get nervous giving presentations to their colleagues. They are often quiet when away from the classroom.

Marlo Thomas, who is doing interviews for her new book, recently spoke of a similar situation for entertainers. Comedians, for example, are often troubled by the expectation that they be funny all the time. And they're not. The show takes a lot of work, and it's not always so easy. In fact, in most interviews with comedians, they will reveal that they were not the class clowns or the life of the party. They were, instead, the observers. They watched very carefully what was happening, and that understanding of humanity is what drives their art.

This issue tends to come up regularly as I talk to student about the task of figuring out who they are. As teachers, these kinds of conversations are important to have. Even as we project confidence and knowledge in the classroom, we are still human, and it takes a lot of effort to put on the show each day.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Cost of College

The College Board reports that the net price of college with tuition and fees is actually lower in 2010 than it was five years ago. The predominant causes of this drop are increased financial aid and lower inflation. In fact, the average price for a state school, including room and board, is about $10,000 per year. The average for private colleges is about $20,000. That is certainly reassuring.

Of course, the criticism I hear from my students is "OK, but what about the costs for a good school." Obviously, the prejudice against state schools will always be there, though many studies argue that the elite college prices are not always worth the excessive price tag. That has to be decided on an individual basis. The reality is higher education needs to be more affordable, and consumers need to be more practical about where they are choosing to invest their education dollars.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Magic of Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift rocks. That girl can flat out sing, and she's one of the few pop stars I don't mind my five-year-old singing along to. With the release of her new album the magic is back, and her new single "Mine" reveals the secret to her success. Like all great country singers, Taylor is a great "storyteller." It's the narrative component of Taylor that, as an English teacher, I can really appreciate.

However, as an English teacher, I do have a few criticisms. In the song "Fifteen," does she really have to sing "say hi to your friends you ain't seen in a while." Really? Try singing the song with the phrase you haven't - it doesn't mess with the cadence at all .... and it's grammatically correct. Is the use of the word "ain't" so important for realism? At my school it isn't. And of course, in the same song she sings "If someone tells you they love you, you're gonna believe them." It should be "he loves you ... believe him." And the idea of making the song appeal to both genders isn't relevant.

Regardless of these weak points, though, Taylor still rocks. Here's the latest:

Enjoy a great story - a love story.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Voucher Debate in Colorado

After the movie Waiting for Superman premiered, I expected the "voucher debate" to resurface across the country. Obviously, the target for voucher programs has always been the schools and communities featured in Superman - poor and low performing areas. Strangely, in Colorado, the voucher program has reared its controversial head in the most unlikely of places - suburban Douglas county, one of the highest performing districts in the state and the sixth wealthiest county in the United States.

The push for "vouchers" in Douglas county is an extension of the issue of school choice that has been so prominent in Colorado. With open enrollment and an extensive charter school movement, Colorado has been a leader in school choice. In Douglas county, however, there is a small movement of reformers who are promoting reforms that will extend choice beyond the current status. The goal of this plan is to extend the "choice" to private, and predominantly religious - specifically Catholic in DC - schools.

Though a similar plan was shot down as unconstitutional in 2002 in Colorado because it violated local control, proponents of this new plan argue it will respect local control while still extending choice. It should be a fascinating debate - as the issue of "low performing schools" is not the issue. They literally want students and families to be able to spend their education dollars anywhere they want. The Denver Post has weighed in on its editorial pages, and columnist Vincent Carroll has commented as well, both arguing that it is at least worth the debate.

I've always felt that "whatever works" is the answer for any school reform. The issue is whether Douglas county seeks "reform" or just more freedom. And is that a problem?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Balzac in the Heartland

As always, I love the way David Brooks of the New York Times looks at the world.

In today's column, he addresses the problems for the United States in the lack of ideas for how to put blue collar, working class Americans back to work in "the Heartland." The reality is that since America lost its manufacturing base, this segment of the population has been losing ground. For that reason they voted in droves to oust the GOP in 2006 and 2008. However, since that time, they feel like they have seen no benefit - other than unemployment benefits - from the Democrats and the attempts to "stimulate the economy." Thus, they sent the Democrats home.

The reality is that we need skilled labor, and we need jobs for the laborers. The jobs need to provide a living wage for working class people, so they can buy houses and send their kids to college. Brooks addresses some of the irony of this demographic that struggles to pay the bills on $40,000 a year, yet seems to have an Xbox and a smartphone and cable. Of course, those items cost a couple hundred dollars, but health care is $12,000 a year, and college educations run into the tens of thousands.

Something needs to be done, and my feeling is that it will take a complex blend of taxpayer backed infrastructure and higher education spending, along with a tax code that frees up money for small business investment and the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation that has always driven American society.

Here's hoping.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Shocking Stats about Education

The Accredited Online Colleges blog features a list of "Ten Shocking Stats on the State of Education." The list addresses issues on everything from literal and functional literacy to arts education to bullying to sex ed. Certainly, these sort of snapshots are interesting conversation starters, and the links are worth taking a look at.

The connection between these sort of stories and a student's ability to be successful "in college" is certainly the focal point of much education reform talk these days. At issue, as I've noted before, is exactly what sort of post-high school education most people need. The country's myopic focus on "seat time" and a k-16 system is a hindrance to any real reform.

Hopefully, more discussion of alternatives to the bachelor degree will surface as the education reform movement marches on.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

2010 Midterms, and the Republic Survives

Waking up on November 3, 2010 in suburban Colorado after the mid-term elections, I had only one question on my mind: Was Josh McDaniel re-elected as Broncos coach? I couldn't find the returns on this one anywhere.

Now that the elections are over, and my phone can stop ringing non-stop, and it's safe to watch a commercial again in between possessions of the Broncos games, it's time to be proud of ourselves and our democratic-republic. Congratulations are in order for the American people in once again making "democracy" work. Something that is so fragile and often chaotic worldwide seems so seamless and easy here, and we should never take that for granted.

The republic survives, and no one should feel to good or too bad about the results. For, despite all the rhetoric, Congress will still not tackle the deficit by making cuts in military spending or entitlements, and, thus, nothing will really change. National health care reform will not be repealed, but it will probably not survive its current form either. Hopefully, the major tenets desired by most Americans will survive, some untenable components will be reigned in, and some additions, such as easing "state-line" restrictions can be added.

Perhaps the Congress will begin to listen to the best parts of budget ideas from the Wyden-Gregg plan, as well as Paul Ryan's Roadmap. But I don't hold out too much hope. Perhaps some government spending will come under control, and we can reach compromise on tax rates. Perhaps dogs and cats will start living in harmony. Regardless, the republic survives. Feel good about that.

And, finally, in the words of Wil Rogers:

Don't vote for politicians - it only encourages them.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Early Graduation on the Rise

According to the New York Times, in 2011 eight states will begin offering the option of graduating after sophomore year for high school students who seek to enter community colleges, associate degree programs, and career education. This plan, which has been discussed in the education world but not enough in the media, is being promoted by the National Center on Education and the Economy, and was a key component of the study Tough Choices, Tough Times that circulated several years ago.

Starting next fall, students in Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont will be allowed to "test out" of the remaining two years of high school. Students who qualify will be allowed to enroll in associates degree programs or technical schools. This is an idea that is long overdue, and one that I wish was the norm, as opposed to an experiment in a few states that will try to encourage some of their high schools to join. This very idea is the benchmark of countries such as Singapore, Finland, Germany, and practically every other foreign school system that are so adored by politicians and critics of American education.

What has taken so long? And how long before this becomes the norm?