Yet Another Memorial (Day)

Americans devote way too much energy to memorializing the past. Maybe it’s because I live near Washington, DC (home to 535 historial monuments collectively known as Congress) but it seems to me as if we spend a hell of a lot more time and money on building memorials and holding retrospectives of one kind or another than we do on creating the future. The fight over building a huge memorial to World War II in the middle of the mall (in which Congress violated the law and their own rules to shove it through) is just one good example. Maybe it’s just easier and less scary to look backward than to look forward.

I’ve always the idea of “creating” the future instead of just letting it happen. That’s probably why many of us became teachers. The best teachers I’ve ever met always felt that they were doing something to create a better future, if not for the world in general then at least for their small part of it. Great teachers – both in and out of formal classrooms – are optimists. I don’t see how you can teach and not be an optimist. The whole concept of education assumes that you and your students are going to become better people in some way.

Unfortunately, we come back to my first point: Americans are more interested in looking backward than moving forward. Too many people running this country seem to want to rewind society to some vague version of their good old days. Yet another memorial to the past.

Goals? What Goals?

An article in yesterday’s New York Times (free registration required) talks about how some states, including Texas, are lowering the passing scores on their standardized tests. The motivation is to avoid the penalities that come with low scores as dictated by the No Child Left Behind act.

So, if you can’t hit the target, move it closer. What does that teach our kids about setting goals and achieving them? Sorry… I forgot. That topic isn’t on the test.

How are Education Reform and the Vietnam War Related?

According to this article by a writer named Rob Stein, both are wars that “we have neither the will nor the willingness to win”. With that great analogy as the start he goes on to list the major so-called reforms being proposed – standardized testing, vouchers, prayer (!), etc. – and illustrates how each is nothing more than a diversion from the real educational reform that is sorely needed.

With only eighteen years of teaching experience and no doctorate, I’m no educational expert but I think this guy is right on target. The educational system in this country needs much more substantial (dare I say radical without the feds showing up at the door) reforms, ones that require completely new ways of thinking about teaching and learning.

Let’s start with continuous schooling rather than the start-stop, nine month, highly segemented approach to the school year that was only valid when most kids came from farm families (at least a century back). Another is losing the concept that teaching is something that anyone can do with minimal training and little or no additional training. And flush the old theory that teachers are only in it for the love of the kids (and are the second income in the household) so we can pay substandard salaries. Plus kill the idiotic concept that standarized tests will improve learning!

The magazine this article came from, HeadFirst Colorado, says they try to bring together diverse viewpoints on educational policy in Colorado. But the articles I’ve read from the current issue have lots to think about for anyone in American education. This site is going on the regular read list.

It Ain’t Easy Being Green

It’s been a long time since I was a beginning teacher but I still have many memories of those first couple of years – and some of them are rather scary in hindsight (I feel sorry for the kids in my classes that first year :-). For the people just starting out in the profession today things are even tougher with all the standarized tests, No Child Left Behind, large numbers of students who speak little English and other major problems hanging over their heads.

So I wasn’t surprised at all by this article from the Arizona Republic that says that nearly 30 percent of all new teachers will leave the profession by the end of their third year. While the combination of long hours, low pay and lousy schedules (try five periods of senior “last chance to graduate” math :-) is bad enough, none of those factors top the list of reasons why new teacher leave. The number one reason cited is the lack of support and assistance in their schools. Most schools still just assign a classroom, add the kids and wish everybody good luck. We don’t do that with lawyers, doctors or even hairdressers.

Some school systems have set up some kind of new teacher induction program (and a few states require one) to provide support and training for beginning teachers. But obviously not enough considering that 30% statistic.

A few months ago I moved into a job in the office in our district that manages such an induction program. The problem is that we have a very small staff and a very small budget to provide help to the 500+ novice teachers our system hires every year. So we have a program but it’s underfunded and understaffed. I guess that’s better than not having one.

You’d think the cost of high turnovers would make putting more money into induction programs a no brainer. But school systems, like most government bureaucracies, don’t think long term. Planning is only in one year increments even though most kids will be with us for twelve. And we’d like the teachers to stick around for more than five which is when most studies say a teacher learns their profession well enough to be effective.

Free Speech or Stupidity?

eSchool News has a story about a teacher who has been suspended because his district objects to material on his web site.

“The Grove City Area School District placed music teacher and assistant band director Dan Konnen, 24, of Hermitage, Pa., on an unpaid suspension in March when students found his personal web site, which contains jokes about genitalia and scatological references extracted from the controversial Comedy Central cartoon series South Park, as well as other sources.”

Evidently the site, which was still live as of this posting, was created when he was still in college and probably doesn’t contain anything more offensive than you’d find in an episode of South Park (which seems much tamer than it did when it first went on the air).

I’m not sure whether I’m angry that a teacher’s First Amendment rights are being violated or feel that the guy is rather stupid for leaving that stuff on the web. There have been dozens of court cases over the rights of students to publish questionable material, often highly critical of their schools and teachers, on their web sites. In every case that I’ve read about, the courts ruled in favor of the student.

Teachers are another matter. School boards are, for the most part, a very conservative bunch, especially when it comes to teachers saying or doing anything that may draw attention. (A quick look at the Grove City district’s web site should tell you that there are no liberal thinkers running this outfit!*)

This is a rather trivial issue, however, compared to teachers who are fired over genuine First Amendment issues. More than a few have been fired for participating in anti war or other protests over the past two years. That is a much clearer violation of constitutional rights than this situation but it’s all part of the same mix. Of course, Ashcroft and friends haven’t finished their rewrite of the Constitution yet so that may change.

*I’ll save the rant about their web design for another day.