"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.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Is A Culture of Guns the Answer?

This article from Concealed Nation is seductive. Yes, we want our children to be protected. And without trivializing the violence done to the lovely Arapahoe High student Claire Davis and her family, we are all thankful to those who ended the shooter's rampage before more lives were damaged. However, is the answer to this epidemic of violence to promote a culture of guns? Any weapon can become or be perceived as a form of bullying and therefore encourage more weapons. After a career in teaching, I don't believe for a second that any shooter just snaps or that no one was aware of his precarious mental state. My experiences as a teacher also convinced me that we would likely get more bang for the buck if all the money spent on assault weapons, hand guns, and training police forces to respond to mass shootings were spent on the development of mental health programs and the development of an engaging and creative problem-solving curriculum to replace the culture of popularity, competition, and measurable objectives that now permeates our education system. And imagine what might happen if all the money and power that goes into promoting the gun lobby's agenda were used to encourage our politicians to give all of our children the education they deserve and to create a jobs program aimed at putting Americans back to work and eliminating the growing income disparity throughout our country. It's just a thought in this season of peace and goodwill.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Letter to Richard Brodhead, Cochair of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences

Dear Dr. Brodhead,

I saw you several nights ago on the Colbert Report and previously with John Lithgow on the PBS NewsHour. Yesterday, I read The Heart of the Matter. As a former English teacher, I am overjoyed to find that so many prominent citizens are making a case for the arts and humanities. However, as a teacher who was driven from the profession for her crimes of imagination against the system, I feel there are some pieces missing from the education section of The Heart of the Matter. I’ve therefore decided to send you my heartfelt two cents.

This matter of restoring the arts and humanities to their rightful place alongside the sciences has been my cause since the National Defense Education Act of 1958 turned me into second-class citizen behind my fellow students whose talents lay in science and engineering. I’ve always thought it unfortunate that instead of trying to beat the Soviets in the arms and space races, we didn't do more to inspire the Russian people’s love of poetry in our own citizenry. I mean, great science is often metaphor: Einstein’s ride on a beam of light, Watson and Crick’s climb up the spiral staircase, and Loren Eisley’s fabulous lessons in humility as he takes us into the many worlds that exist beyond the edges of human consciousness. 

So that you might know I’m not just an idle complainer, I have included my memoir, Prisoner of Second Grade. I wrote this book because what happened to me during the forty-six years I spent in school as a student and teacher is a metaphor for why we can’t solve the problems in our education system. But my story also shows the more intimate consequences resulting from policies that in many schools have reduced 30,000 years of what it means to be human into an occasional elective.

I wish with all my heart that you would take the time to read at least the two sections about my experiences at the Home of the Wildcats. This school was a microcosm of the great American melting pot, and what happened there shows how much human potential is lost when policymakers and administrators cannot see past their programs for change into the hearts of those they would change. Improving education in civics will mean nothing if young people are taught by example that the way to get ahead is to sit down, be quiet, and do whatever it takes to get the grade. The tragedy of our country is that so many children’s lives are turned to dust before they even have a chance to contribute their considerable talents. Perhaps there might be a way to add a new dimension to your commission’s goals that would include more average and poor people in your planning—not to help them but to allow them to help policymakers, academics, and corporate leaders discover a deeper, more inclusive vision for America.

It seems to me that The Heart of the Matter is by academics for academics. I understand that the map is not the territory. However, the academic language of the document lacked the poetry of a humanistic vision. Where is the passion and imagination that would make scientists believe they can’t live without us? Where is the call to give more respect to teachers by allowing them the power and initiative to do what they know is best for their students? Where is the promise for changing the mindset of so many schools administrators who are so afraid of their jobs that they won’t risk any deviation from the policy manual? Like the education system and the country itself, ordinary people are not made to feel welcome. The language has no, well, heart.

Nowhere is the lack of heart more evident to me than in the fact that this commission that has tasked itself with bringing heart back into American life and education did not include one public school teacher. And where was Arne Duncan? Nothing is going to change in our education system until someone in authority addresses the mindset that determines education policy. And nothing in our country is going to change until we have a national education policy that will solve the problems in our schools. When Finland reinvented its education system, everyone was involved.

Changing the mindset of public education policy has come to mean soliciting contributions from foundations and donors. Having such contributions sounds great but will do nothing to generate the kind of vision that we need to solve the problems that have been compounding themselves over the last fifty years of ineffectual education reform. We’ve seen this in the efforts of Bill Gates and Eli Broad, among others. Diane Ravitch, more credentialed than I, says the same thing. But I would also point out that there is little that she has seen following her conversion that that my colleagues and I didn’t see as young teachers back when she was rising in the ranks of power. 

I found in my teaching that the arts and humanities can change lives—and the system. The problem was the policymakers. I am convinced that with fewer bureaucrats and more imagination, solving the problems in our schools would not be as expensive and difficult as we’ve been led to believe. But this can happen only by enlisting teachers because the problems our schools face are as diverse as the schools themselves. Administrators and funders should be facilitators, not policymakers. 

Believing this, I found The Heart of the Matter’s praise for the National Defense Education Act of 1958 disturbing. In fact, I would go so far as to say that many of our current problems began with that legislation. Yes, the NDEA did promote international studies, and we do live in a global world and must learn to communicate. However, the NDEA also narrowed the vision of the education system to beating the Soviets in the arms and space races. Faced with the challenges of the sixties, the education system had nowhere to go. Even as we walked on the moon, our education system was in serious decline. By 1983, a U. S. Department of Education study declared us to be “a nation at risk.” Since then, things have only gotten worse. When will policymakers begin to communicate with teachers before imposing policies that are based more on political expediency and academic fad than on the welfare of children? And when will we make effective education reform the priority it should be? 

Also disturbing to me is the support for the Common Core. The Common Core will not work because it’s stated goal is to prepare children for college and careers. This is not a bad objective, but a narrow one given the problems with achievement, discipline, and class disparity in our schools. We saw a similar reform in the early eighties when schools went rushing back to the basics in response to A Nation at Risk. The goal there was also to get more children into college. The result was to push students in a direction they were not prepared to go. The only way to get them there was to lower the standards. And we see how well that has turned out.

Mostly, though The Heart of the Matter made me sad because what I read in that document was an academic proposal prepared and promoted by academics. Its vision was corporate, not personal. I felt nothing in it that would touch the heart of the nation or inspire We the People to a more humane consideration of each other and the problems that threaten our everyday lives. Change must be personal, not bureaucratic. It will require heart, not goals and mission statements—teachers, not academics and corporate funders.

I hope that I’m wrong here, that the map is not the territory you and the commission envision. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Show Me How You Are Searching

Some months back on the PBS NewsHour, I watched students of all ages in a North Carolina school where everyone has a computer. Books in that district will soon be obsolete. The students were all sitting at their desks, eyes glued to their own little screens. Several days later, I heard on the radio that a new study shows that children, especially the young and disadvantaged, learn best by discussing and playing.

Now I see that the iPad will be arriving in the Tillamook School District where I live. I’m old. I started my career as an English teacher in 1965. I love books. But times are changing. Besides, textbooks are expensive, heavy, and environmentally unsound. Even worse, most textbooks, having been dumb-down and edited so as not to trouble anyone with a controversial thought, exude all the personality of Pablum.

When I started teaching in the sixties, I swore I would never become like those cranky old teachers, wringing their hands about the new generation and all their irreverent ideas. Technology is not the problem. I’m a writer and deeply attached to my computer. And yes, the iPads will offer unimaginable opportunities for students. The sky is no longer the limit.

On the other hand, surfing is not learning. Acquisition of massive amounts of information is not wisdom or insight. Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” The iPads should definitely stimulate imagination. But Einstein also said that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” The universe runs according to laws, even the quantum world where electrons behave differently, depending on how you look at them. How cool is that.

But while it’s been said that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” we might also say the same about limitless information. Access to all the information in the universe is nothing more than a whole lot of information if you don’t know how to use it. The scientific method is the same now as it was in the time of Aristotle—the ongoing use of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and verification. These terms are, of course, just fancy language for figuring out how to do or fix stuff whether you’re a farmer, politician, or NASA scientist. Having instant access to all the information in the universe is fun and may harness the attention of students. But despite the 24-7 access to limitless information that is already available to many of our young people, the fact remains that American students rank 29th in science, with one out of four students falling at the very bottom of the rankings. What else do young people need to know in order to solve all the problems we’re dumping in their laps?

Today’s hospitals are all hooked up so that their staffs have great swaths of information at their fingertips. Yet, a recent study of three sophisticated hospitals showed that one third of all patients suffered some adverse complication during their hospitalization. Also, every week in America, forty wrong-side surgeries are performed, as in amputating the left leg when it was the right leg scheduled for surgery.

All our Washington politicians have one or more degrees from our finest institutions of higher learning and large staffs to gather massive amounts of information. Yet many of these politicians appear to lack the character and basic skills required to solve our nation’s growing problems. In fact, much of what the politicians have done has made these problems worse. What didn't they learn in school?

While budget cuts have become routine for Tillamook schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan just spent $4.35 billion of our taxpayer money on his education reform program called Race to the Top. The idea of the program was that states were to compete for the money by coming up with innovative programs. Except the money went to the eleven states and the District of Columbia who are developing data systems, massive collections of data on individual students from test scores to their interaction with child services. The winning proposals uttered hardly a word about more effective curriculum development.

“Show me how you are searching,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, “and I will show you what you are searching for.”

Technology is a marvel of the human mind. Ray Kurzweil predicts in The Transcendent Man that by 2045, computers and man will have merged. Isaac Asimov predicted the same thing in his fabulous short story "The Last Question," which I first read in 1975. In 2045, I'll be 103. Or not. It's a strange feeling to see the world changing before my eyes, almost by the day. What concerns me is not the future, but what I have experienced in the past that has brought us to this point where we are now shrinking our children's experience within this vast universe to fit inside a tiny screen.

Shouldn’t we at least be asking ourselves if staring into little screens might actually be narrowing our vision as a people. In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act so we could prepare children to beat the Soviets in the space race and the arms race. Since then, the arts have been systematically eliminated from curriculum and the humanities so denigrated that today in many schools, 30,000 years of what it means to be human have been reduced to an occasional elective. 

Bridgeport Parents Say No to Icebergs

Bridgeport, Connecticut parents complaining about their school superintendent Paul Valles have it right. U. S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan does not.

Mr. Valles, formerly CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and Superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, was hired about two years to revamp Bridgeport schools. But apparently annual salary of $234,000 isn't sufficient, as Mr. Valles has also negotiated an $18 million contract to bring his famed "Valles Turnaround Model" to Illinois schools. Bridgeport parents don't think much of the model which is based on a standardized curriculum, aggressive testing, and the move to reorganize schools under the leadership of charter management companies. And there's evidence to show they're right.

Remember when Secretary Duncan said that Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing ever to happen to education in New Orleans"? This, he said, allowed the old system to be washed away to make room for the "perfect" system. Enter Paul Valles as superintendent. Mr. Valles does what so many school reformers, including Bill Gates, like to do. They go into a district, spend a lot of money, get no results, then just leave and call it a success.

So what happened in the New Orleans Recovery (so-called) School District. Well, reports show that 79% of Mr. Valles charter schools received either a D or an F on Louisiana's school report card. And the average score on the ACT is 16.8, among the lowest in the country. This average score rose by less than half a percentage point under the Valles Turnaround Model. All this, of course, happened at a cost of millions.

Yet, when Connecticut parents see their schools headed down this dead-end street, Secretary Duncan calls their complaints "beyond ludicrous"and an example of too many schools who are clinging to "archaic ideas." Both Secretary Duncan and Mr. Valles served as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. In 2012, only 21 percent of eighth graders tested at grade level or above with only 20 percent at gradge level or above in math. 

In his criticism of Connecticut parents, Secretary Duncan said they were "just another painfully obvious, crystal-clear example of people caught in an old paradigm. This is the tip of the iceberg."
Reformers like Mr. Valles and Secretary Duncan are the iceberg and the voices of denial driving the American public education system full steam ahead into disaster. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Has the President Thought Out His High-Tech Promise?

In last night's State of the Union Address,  President Obama proposed a program for encouraging schools to prepare students for high-tech jobs. This brought to mind a friend who is a school librarian. She spent the last 15 years building up her library to include a balance of books, computers, and a variety of resources based on the needs of the school’s students and teachers. Recently, her administrators instructed her to get rid of 5,000 books. Then without consulting her, they turned the library into a media center with a coffee bar. My friend says the place now has the look and sound of an arcade. I’m not sure how this will prepare young people for high-tech jobs...unless in our new world it’s enough to be wired from caffeine.

This is probably not what the President has in mind. But if we look at education reform going back to the National Defense Education Act of 1958, we see a history of short-lived reforms that were based on academic fads and political expediency rather than on sound classroom methodologies and the welfare of children. For example, that National Defense Education Act of 1958 was a knee-jerk reaction by Congress to the Soviet's launching of Sputnik. Without any proof, our legislators concluded that the Soviets were first into space because American children were behind in math and science. So they passed the NDEA of 1958 to promote the study of science, math, and engineering. This had the effect of denigrating the arts and humanities and turning those of us in these fields into second-class citizens. This is what began the systematic elimination of these subjects from our school. Today, in many schools, 30,000 years of what what it means to be human have been reduced to occasional electives. 

So we did beat the Soviets in the space and arms races to become the world's sole military and economic superpower. But what was the trade-off? When I take a look at our nation's leaders, I see men and women with degrees from our nation's most prestigious universities. Yet they seem to lack the character, skills, and compassion required to solve our country's problems so that all of our citizens have the equal opportunity promised by our founding documents. We the People do not seem to understand the powers of citizenship well enough to demand better schools for our children and decent health care for all.

George Santayana warned us that those who don't understand history are doomed to repeat it. I invite you to take a few minutes to read up on the National Defense Education Act on my Web site, The Gulliver Initiative and then follow the links at the bottom of the page to discover more about what has turned our education system into a national disgrace. I believe that unless We the People begin to demand better from our local school boards and administrators, our we are never going to learn what we need to know to demand better solutions from our leaders.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The President and His Priorities

As President Obama beings his new term, he speaks of America's limitless possibilities. America’s possibilities would be limitless if all our children were getting the education they need and deserve. Since the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the arts and humanities have been eliminated from many schools—and with them, the spirit of creativity and humanity required to solve the nation’s problems and carry us into the future. Math and science alone are not the gateway to innovation. As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” 

In his new Organizing for Action campaign, the President encourages us all to become involved locally and nationally in issues related to immigration, gun violence, and budget concerns—all vital concerns. However, this campaign offers no encouragement to take action to improve the American education system.

When will we address the fact that for decades schools have been sending an increasing number of young people into the world with little more than minimum-wage skills? And when will we ask ourselves why America’s leaders have degrees from the nation’s top universities, yet lack the character and skills required to solve the nation’s problems? In fact, it seems that our leaders not only fail to solve our problems, but often make them worse with their stalling and ideological bickering. What are we teaching our children?

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls his plan for improving our schools Race to the Top. Race to the Top of what? As America was busy becoming the world's economic and military superpower, our education system deteriorated into a moral and intellectual disgrace. Restoring the arts and humanities to their rightful place alongside math and science in our schools would be a good thing. But nothing will change until the lessons of humanity become more important than the acquisition of money, position, and power. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Makeshift Memorials

Last night on the TV news, a story about Newtown, Connecticut showed a huge warehouse filled with toys, games, stuffed animals, and dolls sent to Newtown from all across America to honor the memory of children and teachers gunned down and held the troubled town. In the warehouse, Newtown residents are now sorting out the mounds of stuff and trying to figure out how to distribute or dispense with the items. I couldn't help wondering how much money had been spent on these toys. I estimated that there were probably at least three thousand items. At $10.000 each, the collection would total $30,000, not counting postage to send them from across the country. Even if I'm off by half, $15,000 is also lot of money. My thought was that this money could have bought a lot of books for children whose homes and schools were destroyed by hurricane Sandy. Also the toys could have brought joy to many poor children over the holiday. Or homeless shelters could have fed a lot of hungry people. Even if the games and plush toys are donated to good causes, the cost to Newtown of doing this will not be insignificant. I've noticed in previous tragedies that makeshift memorials are piled high with stuffed animals and other such things. Perhaps, we should rethink the idea of the makeshift memorials—maybe send or even create a card offering condolences to the bereaved and make a small donation of goods or money that will help alleviate the grief of the world in more practical ways.

Arms or Arts?

December 23, 2012

This morning, I heard more discussions on TV about putting armed guards in schools than I’ve ever heard about eliminating the arts and humanities from our classrooms. Since the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the arts and humanities have been budgeted away so that today in many schools, more than 30,000 years of what it means to be human have been reduced to an occasional elective.

Several days ago, a gun enthusiast on TV advocated arming teachers. A skeptic said that in recent public shootings, the shooter wore bullet proof gear, so did this mean that the teachers would have to do the same and if so, what about students? As a former English teacher, I thought it’s way easier to ban books than assault weapons. The American Library Association's list of 100 Banned and Challenged books for 2000-2009 includes The Color Purple; Brave New World; To Kill a Mocking Bird; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Bless Me, Ultima; Slaughterhouse-Five; Of Mice and Men; and The Catcher in the Rye. . . .