"Ask an impertinent question, and you're on your way to a pertinent answer." —Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man
As of October 2015, my goal for this blog is to ask 101 impertinent questions.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays

"Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in." ~ Henry David Thoreau

Gone fishin'—
Please come back on Monday, January 3.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

View from the Hall

The other day I had to stop by the local high school to pick up something from an acquaintance who works in the office. As I walked down the hall, I could have been walking down the hall of any of the schools where I taught from 1965 to 1992. The world has become a very different place since 1965. Why have our schools remained virtually the same? In fact, I would say very little has changed since I started first grade in 1948.

Undoubtedly children today are more tech savvy and given more leeway in expressing their opinions. They are fearless in their downloading and social networking. But as I walked through the halls of my local school, I saw teenagers crammed into classrooms, making the grade in pretty much the same way they've been making it since I entered first grade in 1948.

When I asked students for directions, the teenagers were friendly, polite, and happy to help. They didn't seem much different from teenagers back in 1965. One thing is assuredly different. Academic standards have been in steady decline over the years. According to 1983 study, A Nation at Risk, our education system has been slipping since the late sixties, a decline I describe on my website and in my memoir.

All of this, however, is nothing new. One thing not being discussed is that those who are now teaching and administrating our schools were educated by an inferior system. The damage is perpetuating itself. Jonathan Kozol began a recent article on illiteracy by saying that one third of Americans could not read what he was about to say. Perhaps an even more disturbing fact is that far more than one third are content to allow our children to be educated by schools that don't even come close to giving them the kind of education they need and deserve.

Perhaps the education system is not failing. Yes, it's failing to educate our children. But the education system appears to be the strongest and most influential institution in the country. What else could account for the fact that every year we send our children off to schools that we know are academically inferior and increasingly dangerous places. Could it be that as a people, we're all just doing what we were taught to do in school, which is to sit down, keep quiet, and do whatever it takes to get the grade, no matter how irrelevant or absurd the assignment might be.

Nothing is going to change until we acknowledge that every education reform over the last fifty years has been based more on political expediency and fad than on the welfare of children. Perhaps the place to begin would be for teachers in one school after the other to refuse to implement polices that are not in the best interests of their students and to have parents and concerned citizens support their local teachers. For an inspiring story of what's possible, consider the stand taken by Norwegian teachers during the Nazi occupation of Norway.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Why The Caged Teacher Doesn't Sing

In The Tao of Politics, Thomas Cleary translates the lessons of the Masters of Huaninan who point out the difficulties in trying to live with virtue and intelligence in an environment polluted with the desires of the ambitious and greedy. As the masters put it, "Place a monkey in a cage, and it is the same as a pig, not because it isn't clever and quick, but because it has no place to freely exercise its capabilities."

While I take issue with the disparaging tone toward pigs, this quote is still useful in questioning the recent slash and burn philosophy adopted by some education reformers such as former Chancellor of D.C. schools, Michelle Rhee. I don't doubt Ms. Rhee's sincerity in wanting to change the way we educate children. As she so accurately put it in the recent documentary, Waiting for Superman, our children are getting a "crappy education." But chief among Ms. Rhee's plans to improve education was a full-throttle drive to get rid of all bad teachers.

Certainly, we need to weed out teachers who don't belong in the profession. Just was we should be weeding out doctors, politicians, and financiers who are harmful to our well being. However, if we look at recent international test scores, American students are seriously behind other countries and sinking lower by the year. To what extent is bad teaching the problem? In 1983, that landmark study of our education system, A Nation at Risk, warned us that our education system had been in decline since the late sixties. There is plenty of evidence to show that decline has continued unabated. This means nearly everyone now running the education system and our country was educated by a system in decline.

The list of graduates from the system include not only Michelle Rhee but President Obama, former President Bush, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as well as most members of Congress and the presidents cabinet and advisors. The state of our schools as well as our government, health care system, financial institutions, and the environment suggests that advanced degrees from even the most prestigious universities have not imbued our leaders with the character, sense of justice, and problem-solving skills required to ensure the well being of the poor and middle class. We the People have also not learned how to demand better from our leaders.

All systems are the same system, and the system in America is not just broken; it's corrupt. At the heart of this corruption is an education system that places more importance on percentiles and winning than on character and wisdom, more importance on science and technology than the wisdom of the arts and humanities. Today in many schools, thirty thousand years of what it mean to be human have been reduced to an occasional elective.

The real problem in our schools is not bad teachers. The problem is that even the best teachers are hampered by a system created by leaders who for the last fifty years have legislated out nearly every impetus for compassion, creativity, intellectual integrity, and sound teaching methods. Could it be that if given a more just and creative system, those "bad teachers" might receive the kind of training and opportunity that would enable them to flourish.

It's the rare person who goes into teaching without wanting to teach and to make a difference in children's lives. Michelle Rhee and those who support her slash and burn policies give no evidence of understanding the history of education reform in America and why what's happening in our schools is defeating the efforts of even the best teachers.

For more on the history of education reform in America, please visit The Gulliver Initiative, and check the navigation bar for the section on the history of education reform.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Out Of Jail But Not Free

History shows that under totalitarian regimes, teachers and artists are among the first to go. Ideas threaten ideologues. Even in the Roman republic, military leaders marched the teachers and students from conquered nations through the streets of Rome to signify that foreign ideas were not welcome in the Empire. The writings of Russian poet Anna Akhamatova were condemned and censored by Stalinist authorities. Still, she continued to bear witness to Stalin's atrocities. Because Akhamatova was too popular among the Russian people to be imprisoned or executed, the state imprisoned members of her family who experienced deep suffering and even death.

The dictatorship in Nigeria pronounced a death sentence on Wole Soyinka for his activist writings denouncing oppression. He continued to write with his own blood after being imprisoned without a pen. Playwright Vaclav Havel spent four years in prison before becoming president of the Czech Republic. Throughout history, oppressors and apparatchiks have viewed artists and teachers as dangerous people. Not, however, in America.

In a series of lectures in the fifties, British scientist and writer C. P. Snow warned of the separation of what he called the Two Cultures. His academic friends in the sciences and humanities had stopped talking to one another. Snow said that this separation threatened to compromise life in the free world because the sciences were evolving without the wisdom of the arts and humanities.

Snow didn't oppose technology. He was concerned that while technology brought great advances in helping people, it also created a wider divide between the rich who could afford to benefit from the advances and the poor who could not. He also pointed out that while technological advancements offered great benefits, those same advancements also made a country more prepared for war. His concerns were prophetic, as we see now in our growing global crisis.

Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate in physics once said, "The theoretical broadening which comes from having many humanities subjects on the campus is offset by the dopiness of people who study these things...." It's tempting for me as one of those arts and humanities people to be offended by this statement. But I think that while the word dopiness may be too glib, Feynman was right.

A good argument can me made that since the fifties, many scholars in the arts and humanities have not made their studies relevant to our rapidly changing technological world. Neither have public-school teachers who, for the last fifty years, have acquiesced to policies they know have not been in the best interests of children.

Teachers and artists in America are not dangerous to the political establishment. Artists don't challenge the injustices, inhumanity, and rampant ambition within our government. Instead, they apply for grants and residencies within the establishment. Teachers will fight for tenure, salaries, and benefits but continue to implement policies that we all know are damaging to children and have decimated our entire education system.

Now, I don't want to see artists and teachers going to prison. On the other hand, the real promise of America is that people shouldn't have to go to prison for speaking the truth on behalf of liberty and justice for all. The problem is that the artists and teachers who should be the bearers of truth have grown too insular and comfortable and therefore irrelevant.

Hitler burned books and replaced the challenging work of German Expressionists with sentimental pageantry. Too many of our nation's teachers and artists have allowed themselves to become part of the sentimental American pageantry. Art events are a great places for networking and catching up with friends over wine and cheese. When a creative teacher is stifled or driven from the system, people just shake their heads at what we have all come not just to expect but to accept.

For more on the history of education reform in America, please visit The Gulliver Initiative.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Down the Pipeline

Albert Einstein said that when it came to science, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Richard Feynman, nobel laureate in physics, said, "Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but to comprehend those things which 'are' there."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan says that to compete with other nations, we must accelerate learning and improve the "pipeline" from our public schools to college. The metaphor of the pipeline, narrow and enclosed, is disturbing, given that the problems of our time will require solutions that most of us cannot even begin to imagine. Just as disturbing is the push to accelerate learning. In fact, every drive to reform education since the National Defense Act of 1958 has been to accelerate learning. These reforms have obviously failed. The reason is that they were not reforms but more of the same. So-called acceleration amounted to nothing more than piling more work on students and pushing everyone to go to college. As Secretary Duncan also mentioned, the problem is that we don't have students going to college; the problem is that they aren't graduating.

A closer look at the goal for accelerated learning was never more than to achieve some pragmatic end. In 1958, the goal was to prepare children to beat Soviets in the arms and space races. In the eighties, the focus was to prepare students for the world of business. Today, the goal is to teach children to read and to raise their test scores so that they can become competitive in the global marketplace. None of this has been about the children. Its been about achieving political and corporate ambitions. And no one is challenging this shortsighted approach to education reform. Or that such use of our children is abuse.

In response to last Friday's Gullog about the importance of reflection, I received this comment from a scientist at a national laboratory. His B.S. and Ph.D. are both in materials science and engineering:

"Perhaps something you can address in your Gullog blog is the concept that what passed as a doctoral thesis 50 years ago in chemistry is now taught in 10th grade. The sheer amount of information being pushed on youngster's minds is not sustainable. At least that's my $0.02. I was looking at the curriculum at the university from which I graduated, and I'm not sure how the students have time to learn with the volume of information they are expected to instantaneously absorb. Some students also take 6 courses a term to graduate on time. There is no way one can learn at the depth required for critical thinking under these circumstances."

By Education Secretary Duncan's own admission, the performance of American students declines the farther along they get in school. Many fall behind under the load. Many find no relevance for their lives in the increasingly standardized curriculum. But should we take pride in the academic glories of those who not only survive the load but emerge with multiple degrees from our nation's most prestigious universities? What has the load of their learning brought us?

Mr. Feynman is probably most popularly recognized for his work on the panel investigating the Challenger disaster. He famously dropped the O-ring material in a glass of ice water to show that the shuttle had been compromised by cold weather. Some people working on the shuttle had warned of this. But the push was on to reach for the stars. Lives were needlessly lost, resulting in perhaps the most important and tragic lesson taught us by the teacher-in-space program. It's one thing to imagine great achievements. But we should also have the humility and wisdom required to imagine the consequences of our actions.

Where is the vision, the humanity, the wisdom in stuffing information down the young people's throats when the problems they are suppose to solve when they grow up are caused by the ambitions and carelessness of the adults who are supposed to be nurturing those children?

Perhaps the problems in America keep escalating and compounding themselves because sending our children down the pipeline over the last fifty years has narrowed our vision as a people.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Truth Teller

Education Secretary Arne Duncan says recent international test results are a "massive wake-up call." He describes himself as the "truth teller" whose job it is to wake us up to the facts: Our schools have a twenty-five percent dropout rate. The longer children stay in school, the worse they do. And on recent world-wide tests, American students are tenth in reading literacy, twenty-forth in math, and nineteenth in science. Mr. Duncan is the first education secretary in memory who doesn't sound like a cheerleader and has had the courage to say that we should stop chanting that we're #1 because we're not. Sadly, the truth teller's eyes are not fully open to the source of the problems in our education system. Or that he has become part of the problem.

In a December 7 forum on education, Mr. Duncan said that failure to reverse academic decline in America would result in a "national, permanent recession." He talked about needing "cradle to career" strategy for improvement. And to ensure higher graduation rates, he said, we must "fix the pipeline" from high schools to college. If language is a reflection of thought, the secretary's cradle-to-career plan suggests that those who aren't aware of the history of education reform are doomed to repeat it.

Over the last fifty years, students have been trained to win the arms and space races, then to be first in business, science, and technology. We did all that but in the process wrecked the education system. Even leaders—like Mr. Duncan with his magna cum laude Harvard degree—lack the critical thinking skills to assess the problem. We also created a nation that that is being run into the ground by corporate greed and political ambition.

It's no secret that over the last fifty years, the arts and humanities became expendable. While reading is a skill, reading well is an art that requires imagination, a point of view, and perspective. The same can be said for nurturing critical and creative thinking across the curriculum. A cradle to career curriculum lacks the soul, vision, and humanity that will inspire our children to learn and our nation to live according to the nobility of the principles it espouses.

When interviewed, Mr. Duncan rattles off his to-do list for implementing his cradle-to-career strategy: great principals, world-class teachers, longer school years, meals for hungry students, eye glasses for kids who can't see to learn. While I agree with the secretary, I also know from my teaching that the successful teacher is the one with the skill to transcend the realities of the system. We have a nation full of teachers who are struggling because they haven't received good training and are working for administrators who have been trained to keep the lid on problems instead of solving them. The slash-and-burn policies that would drive "bad" teachers and principals from schools may be shortsighted. Maybe what these teachers and administrators need is a more creative type of retraining...and the leadership to help them bring order and discipline to schools that have fallen into chaos.

I'm not sure that Secretary Duncan really understands what is happening to our children and our teachers in those pipelines to college. He is not seeing how fifty years of education reforms based on political ambitions and fads have resulted in schools where thirty thousand years of what it means to be human have been reduced to an occasional elective. He is not seeing how this narrow vision of education has stifled the spirit our children, as well as their capacity to learn, and how fifty years of this approach to education has damaged the national psyche.

Monday, December 6, 2010

What is Mayor Bloomberg Thinking?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg's choice for the new chancellor of New York City schools is Cathie Black. A publication executive heralded as the "First Lady of American Magazines," Ms. Black is the author of "Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life). Interesting that life lessons is in parentheses.

Ms. Black has no experience in education and sent her own children to a private boarding school. But Mayor Bloomberg insists she is qualified by virtue of her cost-cutting skills and her experience in customer relations. The latter, he claims, will enable her to heal the rift between teachers and parents. What she brings to education is essentially a business model.

I haven't read Ms. Black's book. The pitch for the book portrays her as "a funny mentor who understands the challenges she faces." The pitch also tauts her as one of Forbes's "100 Most Powerful Women" and among Fortune’s "50 Most Powerful Women in Business." Her book would teach me how to handle interviews, which rules to break, and why I shouldn't hold grudges. It sounds like the power of now meets everything I need to learn I learned in kindergarten. But there's a history to education reform that has led to failure, and we need to address this, not with simplistic lessons but with serious reflection as a people on how it is that with all of our country's wealth and human resources, we allowed our education system to deteriorate into a national disgrace.

But let's assume that Ms. Black will be successful in creating a model for education reform. There's still the question as to whether what she will bring to education is what we want for our children. Since the National Defense Education Act of 1958, education has been a means to an end, much like the successful business model. Schools prepared students to win the space race, to beat the Soviets in the arms race, to outdo each other in sports and test scores, to make great strides in the sciences and technology, and to excel in business. In this competitive, goal oriented environment, the arts and humanities became expendable. And so did the commitment to giving all of our children the education they need and deserve. Perhaps student achievement has declined because children are not driven by nature to achieve the goals set by those who are ambitious for wealth and power.

The language of Education Secretary Arne Duncan's Race to the Top and the Common Core State Standards for curriculum tells us that our education goals should be to prepare children to compete in the global marketplace. This sounds high minded. But I learned as a teacher that when planning lessons, I needed to imagine what children would actually be doing in the classroom during that lesson. It seems to me that goals of achieving military and economic success are better suited to fulfilling the ambitions of politicians and corporate leaders than children. Most children don't naturally respond to such cold goals. Maybe declining achievement is rooted in the resistance of our children to goals that stifle rather than nurture their growth as individuals. Maybe the apathy and dropout rate are unexpressed desires for education that broader in scope and spirit than what our schools are offering.

Friday, December 3, 2010

On the Rat Race, Reflection, and Ivan Illich

Fridays here at The Gullog will be a day of reflection.

There's not much time to reflect in school, is there? When I was first assigned to teach AP literature back in the eighties, my principal sent me to a seminar. The presenter was a gung-ho but motherly woman. Her students eight novels a month and gathered at her house one evening a week to memorize all the literary lingo from aesthetic distance (the detachment by a writer or reader from the work being written or read to ensure an objective rather than emotional response to the subject) to zeugma (the technique of yoking two words together for effect as from Gibbon's observation "laws the wily tyrant dictated and obeyed") Her students were also taking four other AP or accelerated classes.

I sat there thinking of my nephew who on the last day of his AP lit class burned his copy of Walden out of rage and hatred for the book and the oppressive demans of the class. Hearing this broke my heart. I loved my nephew and Walden and admired the transcendental qualities in both. Of course, these qualities had not fully flowered in my young nephew who would nevertheless graduate third in his class with an impressive accumulation of cross-country awards and acceptance to Carnegie Mellon University where he would major in one of those scientific fields that remains beyond the comprehension of most of us. Despite his accomplishments, it seemed to me to be a crime of the spirit that the crushing workload imposed by the system had turned what might have been a reflective encounter into just one more analytical exercise crammed between two other analytical exercises.

For all my classes, I chose depth over breadth because I wanted my students to have the opportunity to experience that magical realm of the spirit where all of the arts originate. If they did choose to join the rat race, I hoped what they gained from my class would serve as a reminder to pause from time to time to ask themselves exactly what they were rushing toward and who they would be when they got there. I was always sadly aware, and somewhat guilty, that by not driving my students to consume books and terms, I put them, the AP students especially, at a disadvantage on the standardized exams.

How do we transcend the system and put soul into the education of our children?

On the Friday of every month, I'll be tossing out thoughts on education from those who inspired me throughout my teaching career. Today, I give you the opening lines from Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society, first published in 1970:

"Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby "schooled" to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is "schooled" to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work...."

Next week in the spirit of Christmas, we'll have from Ivan Illich on consumer education.

And oh, one final note. My nephew, now in his thirties, did find his way back to Walden. He works at a national laboratory. We still don't understand exactly what he does, except that it includes finding more environmentally responsible ways for powering our world.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Fire Bombing of Sesame Street

Every 26 seconds, one of America's children drops out of school. On the November 30 PBS NewsHour, John Bridegland, CEO of Civic Enterprises discussed his organization's assessment of the problem with Margaret Warner. Warner began by announcing the good news that "the national graduation rate hit 75 percent in 2008, up from 72 percent in 2001. And the number of so-called dropout factories, high schools where fewer than 60 percent of freshmen graduate four years later, declined to 1,750 in 2008, down from some 2,000 in 2002."

According to Bridgeland, the delisted dropout schools achieved "Adequate Yearly Progress," AYP in the lingo of No Child Left Behind. Yes, it's still in effect. And we know how teachers have been complaining that NCLB has forced them to focus on teaching to the test. So does boosting the graduation rate mean that our children are better educated? A statistic that Mr. Bridgeland left out is that 50 percent of those who do graduate are not prepared for life, careers, or further schooling. Or was I being too cynical about his focus on statistics?

I checked out the Civic Enterprises website and came upon the "Civic Marshall Plan for Building a Grad Nation." A Marshall Plan? A Grad Nation? Are we talking about rebuilding Dresden following the fire bombing or learning to read on Sesame Street? It's difficult to tell as the plan sets goals to enlist community support to "combat absenteeism" and achieve "percentage point increases" in something called "promoting power," which I understand to be the power to raise graduation rates.

I can't even imagine how much money went in to the study and plan presented by Civic Enterprise. Yet, nothing in the effort addresses the quality of American education, other than to say we need to raise standards and expectations. The report does mention that 38 states have adopted the Common Core Standards. The stated goal of these standards is to prepare children to compete in the global economy. But where are the living-wage jobs in America?

Statistical analysis will not improve education. Neither will all the community support in the world. Better schools will come from more creative teaching and effective curriculum—two qualities subverted by the obsession with AYP. Moreover, there is nothing in the Civic Marshall Plan that hasn't been tried—and failed to reverse the deterioration of our education system.

The tragic reality is that our children are falling through the cracks between America's military and economic superpower status (See my history of education reform at The Gulliver Initiative). The problems in our schools reflect the way We the People have allowed politicians and corporations to shape the nation's value system. Blogs to come will explore this mindset and antidotes to it in more detail.

Meanwhile, send us examples of how your school takes the spirit of the child out of learning.