Welcome - Let's Talk.

Politicized education serves none well. Let's take the diaglogue back to what matters, assuring a good education for the children of this nation.

This blog calls out the half-truths, myths, and downright lies that continue to scapegoat schools and teachers. The best schooling always required a partnership among the community, parents, and schools. At one time we could add the church to this list, but in our efforts to avoid controversy we now pretend that churches hold no sway with our young people.
A caveat is in order. Politically correct dialogue frequently strips the message of its power. Sensitive subjects will find their way to this blog. My hope is that we can engage, even disagreeing, in civilized, respectful discourse. You can be forceful, politically incorrect, and passionate. If you choose to be verbally abusive, profane, or bigoted you will be banned from the site.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Hypocrisy University: The Ol’ Boy System Rides High in the Southwest

It is time for a hypocrisy check at a certain southwestern university.  In a most strange series of seemingly unrelated events the institutional schizophrenia displayed within this university is truly baffling.
A professor is summoned to the VPAA’s office because “colleagues” overheard vigorous swearing coming from inside the professor’s office.  The professor was alone, so the alleged litany of profanity was not directed at anyone reporting the offense. The reporters remain anonymous and the professor is directed not to swear in the workplace. The VPAA refused to disclose the names of the supposed complainants.
A staff member is summoned to the Human Resources office because “students” complained about her use of profanity.  The profane usage in question was the word shit.  The reporters remain anonymous and the staff member is given a warning.  Human resources personnel refused to disclose the names of the supposed complainants.
A professor, known to dislike her dean, is summoned to the VPAA’s office because “colleagues” expressed concern about her mention of guns and said they think she is a threat.  The professor denies the allegation but does confirm that guns have been mentioned twice during the school year – once in a discussion with colleagues following the Alabama shooting and once when there was a safety meeting where professors were directed to barricade in their classrooms should there be a shooter during classes.  The professor in question pointed out that the doors to the classrooms in her building all opened out and provided no means to lock them from the inside.  She quipped, “Maybe we should all pack.”  A moderately intelligent person would recognize the statement as a joke – a dark joke, perhaps in poor taste, but certainly not threatening.  Despite this becoming a virulent rumor on campus, the reporters remain anonymous and the professor remains suspect.  The VPAA refuses to disclose the names of the supposed complainants.
The University instituted a stricter smoking policy and now smokers must smoke in designated areas.  These designated areas amount to an ashtray in the middle of a lawn.  None of the designated areas provide shelter from the elements and the penalty for smoking elsewhere includes being fired.  The campus community is encouraged to report transgressions with the assurance of anonymity.
The one thing that professors and staff can do with impunity on this campus is bed their students.  In fact it appears that the activity is blessed by said VPAA, who was witnessed at a party chumming with the 40+ professor, his 20+ girlfriend/student/live-in lover, and the dean mentioned earlier.  A new policy was recently enacted that will likely dismiss professors who engage in choosing their next partner from among their students.  This is the second case in the past two years of 40+ male professors bedding their students and the university apparently grandfathering them from penalty.
I see a pattern emerging that allows people to be accused of both petty and large infractions with their accusers enjoying immunity from ownership of their accusations.  This certainly creates an atmosphere of distrust and tension.  It also creates an opportunity for false accusations to thrive and perhaps serve a hidden agenda.  It is a pretty subtle way to harass select employees.  On the other hand if one is a drinking buddy of officeholders with a little power, it appears that the usual rules of decorum and ethics are ignored.  These good, God-fearing men have an ol’ boy network par excellence.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Bullying: Chickens Provide Insight

We already know that bullying in schools is epidemic.  Recent suicides related to bullying, especially of kids who self-identify as gay or who others perceive as gay, have shed new light on the issue and we rightly call for solutions.  Why has bullying reached such a crescendo?  There is no doubt that bullying is occurring in schools, with middle schools and junior high schools being particular vicious.  If we really take the time to look around and listen we can surmise that bullying is on the rise in every public venue.
Politicians bully each other daily, holding legislation hostage to their own egos and selfish agendas.  Bosses bully subordinates.  Mothers and fathers bully each other and bully their children.  Corporations bully consumers, without whom the corporations could not exist.  Why are we surprised when children bully anyone they perceive as weaker than them? 
For those of you who are urban from birth, let me explain chickens.  You have six chickens living peacefully in their enclosure for a long time and one day one of the chickens catches a wing in the wire surrounding the enclosure.  Even if the chicken manages to wrest itself free of the wire the other chickens begin to peck at the injured chicken until they kill it. For the chickens this behavior is simply instinct – cull the weak.  It often seems that bullying one’s way to the top of whatever height one is scaling at the time replaces civil discourse and behavior.  Everywhere our students look they see examples of adults who bully and are rewarded for the effort.
It is more efficient to describe the children in school who don’t get bullied.  Those who do get bullied include 
·         Small kids
·         Shy kids
·         Fat kids
·         Poor kids
·         Gay or lesbian kids
·         Religious minority kids
·         Black kids
·         Brown kids
·         Nerdy kids
·         Loners
·         New kids
·         Smart kids
·         Dumb kids
·         Ugly kids
·         Pretty kids
·         Big-busted girls
·         Small-busted girls
·         Kids with big ears or noses
·         Kids who wear glasses
·         Kids with freckles
·         Kids with red hair
·         Skinny kids
You get the idea . . . this list could get considerably larger.  With all kids as potential targets it is time to take this issue seriously.  But what does that mean, to take it seriously? 

Let us begin our serious attack on bullying by deciding to counter every move of every bully in our adult lives.  Demand that public officials behave out of honor and duty, not self-interest.  When they don’t do so, vote them out of office.  Counter your bullying boss with complaints and lawsuits.  Provide them a vote of no confidence.  Don’t spend your money with companies who bully you and if you don’t think you have a choice because the company holds a monopoly in your area – telephone companies, cable TV companies, cell-phone companies and the like – then organize protests, write letters, put pressure on them to be responsible to the people who pay their salaries.  Organize a boycott of their products.

Influence your own extended families to provide a safe environment for children.   Report child abuse, no matter who perpetrates it, to the appropriate authorities. Demand that the adults in your life treat you respectfully, regardless of your relative position on the hierarchy.
Two things have to happen in schools to stop the bullying.  First, all of the adults involved in the school have to value all of the children.  Coaches can’t scream, “Pussy, fag, and little girl to their male ball players.”  Teachers can’t turn a blind eye, and therefore signal tacit approval, to bullying.  The adults in school need to be brave and determined and relentless in demanding civility and fair play.  Second, children need to be taught to counter the bully.  It must become”cool” to call out the bullies.  Teach the bullied to shed their cloaks of victimhood.  Teach the bullied to literally step into the space of the bully and tell them, “No more!”  Bullying is a choice and far too many adults benefit from the spoils of being a bully.  Bullies share a characteristic. No matter where they are in life at the moment, beneath the fa├žade of the bully is a coward.  When confronted, the majority of cowards skulk away.

Why I Blog

Considering that I have spent the past 35 years in one intellectual setting or another you would think I am weary of discussing issues.  The sad truth exists that I crave conversation about issues that matter. 
The academy should fairly seethe with weighty conversations covering social issues, education, politics, and religion, the state of the economy, interesting books and people. . .   Not the case.  We talk about class size.  We talk about recruiting and retention.  We talk about the lack of sufficient money for carrying out our work as we understand it.  We talk about governance, the quality of the food on campus, and whether or not the heat or air is working efficiently.  In our building we talk about the constant smell of sewer gas.  I have a theory about that one that I should probably keep to myself – at least until I retire.
After 10 years at this institution I can report that I have yet to engage in a planned, deliberate discussion of ideas.  Somewhere in the minutia of making a university work the notion that we must make time for discussing matters of substance just seems to get lost.  Maybe this is true on every campus, but my own experiences would belie that conclusion - so I blog.
I invite you to engage in conversation about ideas of substance.  The world is not confined to the petty, territorial machinations becoming typical on college campuses.  Even if we pull our heads into the turtle shell it is not likely we can wait out the storms hovering above us.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pet Peeve Time: Midterm Grades for University Students

I missed a couple of days posting a blog not because I had nothing to say, rather because I was buried in figuring mid-term grades for my university students.  Since two of my courses are online and the other is supported online this should have been a relatively simple task.  After all, there are electronic grade books built into the learning management system my university uses.  More about that issue when I blog, probably several times about teaching online.
Even if the electronic grade books worked well, and they don’t, I would object to generating midterm reports for my university students.  You may be thinking about now, “What an old curmudgeon!”  Maybe I am, but I can’t be sure, since when I was a young professor this expectation did not exist.
College courses require a syllabus.  The syllabus requires a thorough rendering of what is assigned, what is graded, and how each assignment fits within the larger determination of grades.  As a university student I always knew exactly how I was doing in any given class.  I could and did read the syllabus.  I jealously kept track of my own progress.  I had a goal and I knew precisely what I needed to accomplish to reach the goal.
Providing midterm grades for both undergraduate and graduate students serves the purpose of taking the personal responsibility of achievement away from the student.  I’ve already had three calls today; from graduate students who are “so surprised” by their poor showings.  Bunk!  If you have failed to do half of what is expected of you, you ought to have a clue that you aren’t doing well.  If you don’t, then you are too stupid for graduate school.
Probably a little harsh; on the other hand my excuse is fatigue from doing a job those individual students should do themselves.

Teachers Squirm When the Topic is Race

October 13, 2010
 Teachers Squirm When the Topic is Race
I recently assigned graduate students in a class called the Social Context of Instruction a discussion question that went something like this,
African-American students in your class bust on an achieving classmate and say the person is ‘acting white.’  How do you handle both sides of this equation?

Since my students have access to this blog a caveat is in order.  I don’t fault any of their responses because it is clear that language is inadequate for tackling these issues.  In addition, there isn’t a single African-American teacher in the class.  I would have loved some black voices chiming into the conversation.  Maybe we’ll get some here.
Without exception the graduate students, all of them currently teaching in secondary schools, skirted the actual question and wrote about (it is an online course, so discussions do not occur in real time-no doubt the subject of a later blog) either what they were comfortable with discussing or some variation.
To also be fair, I don’t have an answer to the question.  It isn’t a simple question like it appears prima facie.  The nuances and interplay of history, culture, social interaction, and the need to protect one’s standing in the adolescent community all play into the dynamic.  The phenomenon is not limited to black culture.
Young Hispanic men fight inwardly with the imperative of traditional machismo and the lure of academic accomplishment.  Native American children of both genders must pull away from the cultural expectation of ‘fitting in’ which is defined as not ‘standing out’ if they are to negotiate the expectations of culture.  As a young woman several of my family elders reminded me not to bring attention to my accomplishments, lest someone find me arrogant.  The same advice dictated that I not always outdo boys at games or I’d never have a date.  When I completed my doctorate my grandfather, an aging Native American farmer, worried that my accomplishment would shame my husband who did not share my ambition for a doctorate.
The mix of family expectations and cultural memory won’t allow us to ignore race or gender or economic status.  We must address these issues even when they make us uncomfortable.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Charter Schools: The Magic Bullet for Education?

On September 27, 2010 Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced “the award of 5 Charter Schools Program 2010 National Leadership Activities grants, totaling $3.5 million to non-profit organizations for projects of national significance to improve charter school quality across the country.” Please read the statement carefully – that is 5 grants to non-profit organizations for a total of $3.5 million dollars. That is some serious juice for private organizations charged with leading the way to education reform of public charter schools. What exactly are we getting for that money? And who are these people?

According to the press release,

  • The Arizona Charter School Association (AZCSA) is going to develop a start-up model that includes key characteristic of a good leader and best practices for schools serving a high percentage of low-income, Native American, and Hispanic students. Price tag - $444,480
  • The Center for Educational Innovation – Public Education Association (CEI-PEA)  Plans to “build the capacity of charter schools to implement effective academic and operational programs and meet accountability requirements; improve professional development and evaluation for charter school teachers.” Price tag - $756,797
  • The Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS) plans to explore the potential of charter schools in three - make that 3 – communities. Of course the value added piece is the design teams and support groups that will share their discovered knowledge with others. Price tag - $807,058
  • The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) These folks are developing a model set of policies and practices for model authorizers and then disseminating the results to other authorizers. I’m not even sure what this means, but with the cost it must be important. Price tag - $834,670
  • West Ed is developing eight – make that 8 – modules for online delivery of best practices professional development for charter school teachers which will then be disseminated online to other charter school entities to facilitate online instruction for charter schools. Price tag - $656,995
What all of these groups have in common is that they are private entities. They are not living day-to-day in the public schools of this nation. Even though they are non-profit groups we certainly notice that their quest to reform charter schools is expensive. I personally developed eight modules for one online graduate course for the cost of my salary; and I did it for eight different courses in one academic year.

Arizona was one of the first states to pass a charter school law and it quickly leapt onto the bandwagon. It was also one of the first states to have charter school officials indicted for misuse of public funds and charter schools closed as a result of bankruptcy.

I assume all of these groups are well intentioned but after many years in education I am skeptical about slick advertising that promises a magic bullet for curing the problems of schools. The evidence is still out on charter schools. Many are doing a good job and many are poorly conceived and whither before getting much of a track record.

Charter schools are public and if they provide the panacea that everyone believes they do, why not reconfigure our public schools on the charter model? Make schools and classes smaller, staff them with teachers who buy into the school philosophy and emphasis, and take away the oppressive regulations foisted on ordinary public schools. Let teachers teach and students will learn.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Intellectual Disabilities, College Attendance, and Becoming a Teacher

I read with incredulous interest Joanne Jacobs October 7, 2010 blog about the Education Department earmarking $10.9 million in grants to help students with intellectual disabilities attend college. Really? Are you kidding me? Jacobs points out that intellectual disability is the PC term for mentally retarded.

Having spend 23 of my 30+ years in education in higher education I can tell you that an oft- heard complaint of college professors is that our students seem less prepared for college level work than they did 10 years ago. Extending IDEA to the college classroom seems a recipe for disaster. Already campuses boast Disabilities Offices that put together the equivalent of an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for college students; these are students with various learning disabilities. At least on my campus most professors comply with these plans but are careful about how they do so. I’ve had countless students who present me with one of these plans with accommodations ranging from taking exams privately to having exams read to them in the disabilities office. I get the need for a private exam space. Many of us need quiet, non-distraction for thinking. I am a little alarmed by the exam needing to be read to the person. Since I train secondary teachers it is important to me that they can read. I’ve learned over the years through a little experimentation that these students do much more poorly on the exam if I, or a select graduate student, read the exam to them. It does make me question if more than exam reading is taking place in the disabilities office.

Originally conceived after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, these offices set out to make campuses and higher education available to students who were wheelchair bound, blind, deaf, or otherwise denied access to the intellectual pursuits their active brains, but non-compliant bodies denied them. No problem. This is a fair and much needed accommodation for people who have something to contribute to the intellectual health of the nation. How sad if the great physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking had been denied an education because of his physical limitations.

Jacobs, in her blog, points out that until now community agencies have served the purpose of providing life skills training, job shadowing, and the like to intellectually disabled people. Does this service – and service it is – really belong on college campuses? Once the camel’s nose is under the tent will colleges have to provide accommodations for intellectually disabled student who want to become teachers?

Teacher education programs are already dealing with this phenomenon. In the past 10 years I have had no fewer than 15 students who wanted to be teachers, often special education teachers, and who, simply put, did not possess the intellectual prowess to master the content, let alone pass it on to the next generation of students. At least three of those 15 students had IQs in the 70 range and of course could not pass the state teachers exam, even with accommodations. Their failure to pass the exams, though taken multiple times, then reflected badly on our program. The powers that be in the state want to know why all of your students are not successful. If these are the numbers for one professor, in one small program, what must be the case for the hundreds of teacher preparation programs across the country?

To quote my dear, late grandmother, who I know didn’t originate the adage, “You just can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”