Thursday, July 14, 2011

Unionized Public Sector Workers vs. Free Market Enterprise

Lee Farkas in cuffs.
We all know what's wrong with our economy: It's those damn deficits, and those damn deficits are the fault of inefficient local, state and federal governments, wasteful of taxpayer dollars and ever ready to give those damn unionized public sector workers everything they demand.

We know if we listen to Governor Kasich or Walker in Wisconsin or Christie in New Jersey or the robots on Fox News that there can only be one solution: introduce business efficiency and free market principles to government operations.

So let's take a sampling of how the free market works in the real world. Let's see what conservatives really want. Here are a few examples, gathered randomly, in recent months:

A) Lee B. Farkas, the chairman (pictured left) of Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, one of the nation's largest mortgate lenders was convicted in April 2011 on 14 counts of securities, bank and wire fraud, a scheme that cost investors and the government $2.9 billion. (Six other company executives pled guilty.) 

Farkas's actions brought about the collapse of Colonial Bank, which was sold worthless mortgages, and when the whole scheme headed south, Farkas tried to convince Colonial to apply for $570 million in Troubled Asset Relief Program funds. 


B) In May we had a federal indictment of George H. Lee and Justin W. Lee, charged with four counts of bribery and one count of conspiracy. The Lees are only two of scores of contractors and military officers who face or have faced criminal charges related to manipulation of lucrative government contracts during the Iraq War. They gave away airline tickets, spa vacations and big bribe money in return for sweet deals to build warehouses for the U. S. military and provide bottled water and blankets to the troops at a healthy markup price.

According to the indictment, the Lees paid Major Gloria D. Davis $225,000 in bribes in return for $14 million in contracts funneled to their company. Davis shot and killed herself in Baghdad in 2006, after admitting her role.

In a related case, Maj. John Cockerham was sentenced to 17 years in prison for taking $9.6 million in bribes from various private contractors interested in doing "business" with the U. S. military in Iraq.  (New York Times, 5-31-11)


C) If the public sector is wasteful of tax dollars call in the business experts! A case in point, involving the New York City Public Schools, proves how much we can learn if we apply sound free market principles to education. Willard Lanham, just the kind of get-it-done fellow to show those unionized bums how it's done, won a contract to serve as a technology consultant to the New York City Public Schools. In the weeks and months ahead, Lanham is accused of stealing $3.6 million dollars, relying in large part on the old-fashioned profit motive to keep others from blowing the whistle on his scheme. 

Lanham hired five consultants, one of them his brother, who worked from home at a rate of $60-70 per hour. Lanham billed a cable subcontractor, Custom Design Communications for the work, but at a rate of $225 per hour. CDC held it's nose and billed Verizon and I.B.M. $250 per hour. Then Verizon and I.B.M. held their noses and closed their eyes and mouths and billed the Education Department $290 hourly, all for the same work.

If you like juicy stories, this one gets better. Lanham and his wife Laura Lanham are deep into an ugly divorce. Laura , 42, blogs about her pursuit of younger men and her "cougar" lifestyle and one story describes her as a hot "yummy mommy." The couple lived a lavish lifestyle before the indictment, with three luxury homes and a fleet of flashy cars: a yellow Corvette, a Porsche, a Lexus, a Mercedes and a Cadillac Escalade.


D) Now we have a story involving Rupert Murdoch and his paper News of the World in England. There is no bigger champion of free market principles than Murdoch and you don't have to listen to the folks at Fox News to hear them touting the absolute virtues of private enterprise and scaring up a little terror among viewers about evil unionized public sector workers. Unfortunately, the free enterprise system has no morality, except profit, and Murdoch has a bank book for a soul. To insure sales of newspapers editors at News agreed to bribe police to gain access to sensitive information, hacked the phones of celebrities and politicians illegally, and in the most egregious cases tapped the phones of murder victims, like Milly Dowling, 13. Murdoch employees deleted frantic messages left on Milly's phone by her parents when her in-box filled, so that new messages could be received and hacked, giving the family false hope that she was still alive and deleting the calls herself.


E) If you're an NFL fan (and what model of business efficiency out there can possibly be more impressive) you might have noticed that John Mackey died this week after a decade-long battle with dementia. Mackey, a Hall of Fame tight end, was 69, but showed the first signs of football-related brain damage in 2000. That same year, Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner insisted there was no evidence that repeated concussions put players at risk.

A committee of doctors appointed by the league agreed. You know: no sense having the medical people stamping all over the golden eggs the league had laid.

By 2007, Mr. Mackey was using a spoon to drink his coffee, confusing coffee with a bowl of soup. On another occasion, when security agents at the airport asked him to remove his Super Bowl and Hall of Fame rings before going through the scanner, he exploded and broke for the gate. When wrestled to the ground by armed guards he kept mumbling, "I got in the end zone."

Finally, with evidence piling up so high, not even a rich tycoon like Jones could ignore it, the NFL began making rules changes in 2010. Meanwhile, cities keep pouring tax dollars into new stadiums for billionaires, and much of the bill for the dozens of former players suffering from similar ill effects will probably have to be borne by government-financed health plans in the end.


F) Finally, if you haven't been paying attention, it has just been reported that Phillippe Dauman, top executive at Viacom made $84.5 million dollars last year and median pay for top executives at U. S. companies rose 23% last year. 

Leslie Moonves of CBS was second in pay, earning $56.9 million.

Put it this way: Dauman was "worth" as much as 1,690 police officers (at $50,000 yearly). Mr. Moonves did greater service to society than 1,625 first year teachers ($35,000) combined.

And last year the leading head fund manager, John Paulson, earned $4.9 billion for his efforts, equal to what the sweat of 184,000 average American workers could make in the same time. (You figure, maybe Paulson put in a few long weekends and a lot of overtime.)

But it gets better yet. Since Paulson makes money in a convoluted fashion, the tax code allows him to claim almost every penny he makes as "capital gains" and so he pays a much lower rate in income taxes than say your average state social worker or city prison guard. 

Yep, the man pays 15% federal income tax.

It's just killing him. It's killing his ability to create jobs. No way, no way, should we raise that poor man's taxes. 


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Confessions of a Unionized Thug: Why are Supporters of SB 5 so Angry?

Trust me, you don't want to get supporters of Senate Bill 5 mad.  If you do, and they run out of logical points to make, they start calling you names.

Recently, I posted a blog entry titled "Casey Anthony and the Hollow Promise of "School Reform."  I was trying to make a simple point:  that those who vilify public school teachers (and other public sector workers) overlook many important issues.

Todd Marion, apparently a fan of SB5, saw the title of my post (I don't think he read it) and responded on Facebook:  "Leave it to a lib to 'cash in' on a trajedy."

That wasn't quite what he wanted to get off his chest, so he posted again:  "Some nut goes on a shooting spree...ban guns. A devestating warming. An oil spill...stop drilling. Now this. What a scum bag!!!!"

A scum bag!  Ouch.

I don't think Todd quite got my point.  So let me try again.  My point is that A LOT of problems we see in schools relate to terrible parents, and the pipe dream belief that we can "test" our way out of the mess we're in is kind of...well...stupid.  Yes, I'm sorry to say this, Todd, but I think Kasich's plan to "fix" education in this state is stupid.

I think SB 5 is stupid.

Todd was still mad, and wasn't done.  It might be me, but it seems a lot of conservatives spend a lot of time stewing and angry, and spend a lot of the time when they're angry venting about public sector workers.  I mentioned to Todd that as a teacher I had probably done more to help real kids than he ever would.  That made an angry man angrier.  He responded: "Comparing the parent of a failing child to a murderer is absolutely ridiculous. However, I'm never surprised by how low you union thugs will go. Typical liberal rhetoric.....never let a good trajedy go to waste. You should be ashamed of yourself."

But I wasn't ashamed of myself.  I was only mystified by Todd's unreasoning fury.  So I looked up "thug" in my dictionary.  The first defnition was:  "a vicious or brutal gangster or ruffian."  The second choice was:  "a member of a religious organization of robbers and assassins in India."

I wondered:  was Todd, the fan of SB 5, insulting my religious views?  Or did he know something the cops (also unionized thugs) didn't know?  I don't think my teacher friends or I have brutally attacked anyone.  All I've seen happening is peaceful protests up in Columbus and some industrious gathering of 1.3 million signatures to overturn this foolish law.  I wondered again.  Was Todd against freedom of speech?  Was he against the right to assemble?  Did he want to take away the right of workers to petition?  Why was Todd so ANGRY?

Todd's next post was brief:  an apology for mis-typing "tragedy."  I let it go.  Typing isn't my forte, either.  Todd and I share that bond.

Michael -----, a second supporter of SB 5, jumped into the discussion and explained that he was halfway through my post.  From what he had read to that point he responded, "I'm reading this article now, and not to far into it, it says we need to get rid of the bad teachers as fast as we can........With SB5 in place, it will be a reality, not a pipe dream..........;)"

Now it was my turn to respond.  Todd seems to be stewing in bile, which seems true of a lot of people who attack unionized workers; but I would try.  I don't FEEL like a unionized thug.  I feel like a guy who's a good father.  I feel like a guy who was a dedicated teacher.  I feel like many of the right-wing attacks on working Americans are fueled by illogic. 

I told Todd that I believed standardized testing (a linch-pin of SB 5) was NEVER going to help kids who need help in our schools most:  kids whose parents are sick psychopaths, kids like Casey Anthony's daughter, who live with evil at home.  I told him I wanted to know how more vouchers were going to solve our biggest problems when Hamilton County, alone, had 8500 cases of child abuse and neglect in one year.  I wanted some angry conservative, Michael or Todd or Governor Kasich himself, to tell me how vouchers would help when the PARENTS don't really care.  I wanted someone to tell me how taking bargaining rights away from teachers would solve problems in Scioto County, where reports indicate that one out of ten babies born now has illegal prescription drugs in his or her blood.

I guess I just don't see how attacking public sector workers is going to help education or Ohio children.

So:  let me wish Todd and supporters of SB 5 well.  I hope they can get over some of that angry, because it's not good for the health.

Meanwhile, I'll be leaving Cincinnati on July 20 to bicycle my way to California.  Yep, this unionized thug is taking it on the road in an effort to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

I did a similar ride back in 2007; and with the help of great students and the Loveland, Ohio community, where I used to teach, we raised $13,500.

Now, I'm riding for the cause again and it makes me feel good about myself and my liberal views and my life-long commitment (similar to almost every teacher I ever met) to helping real kids.

Maybe Todd will donate.  It might make him feel better.

I started my ride at Acadia National Park and rode 1200 miles in June, back to Cincinnati.
Another 2800 miles to go and my ride will take me through Yosemite National Park
and down to the Pacific coast.
If you would like to donate to help find a cure for type-1 diabetes please click HERE

(This single click takes you to my fund-raising page.  There, click again on "donate to this event."  Then click "Biking and Painting for Diabetes."

Friday, July 8, 2011

Casey Anthony and the Hollow Promise of "School Reform"

I've been tinkering with this post today because one of my former students, whose judgment I tend to respect, said he thought it didn't make any sense.

Meanwhile, a supporter of Senate Bill 5 saw the title and weighed in with his opinion on Facebook.  I don't think he actually read the post, but he was mad enough to call me a "union thug."

Actuallly, I'm just a harmless blogger who often sees current events through the lens of a former public school teacher.  That was true again this week with the acquittal of Casey Anthony on charges she murdered her daughter, Caylee,.  For those who followed the trial closely on television, the jury's decision sparked an explosion of outrage.  For those who did not, let's just say that Casey left the family home in Florida on June 16, 2008, with Caylee, then nearly three, in tow and did not return for 31 days.

When she did Caylee was nowhere to be found and mom claimed the toddler had been abducted by a nanny; but it soon turned out that the "nanny" did not exist. 

It was the start of a bizarre case and bizarre trial and at the end all we know for sure is that a little girl is dead, her body found several months later with duct tape covering the mouth, decomposing in a trash bag by the side of a road, with a Winnie the Pooh blanket she loved nearby.

As a writer interested primarily in education--in finding ways to help all kids--in no way do I mean to trivialize the death of this young child.  It's a tragedy that stands alone.  And yet, from a retired teacher's point of view, this kind of tragedy comes as no surprise. 

For years we've been hearing about the failure of America's public schools, about the failure of public school teachers--as if bad teachers are the biggest, or even the only problem, in our schools.  So what we get are all kinds of experts talking about standardized tests, as if we can TEST our way to some perfect world, where all parents care and all kids get a wonderful educaton.  You don't have to be a public school teacher to know this:  but if you are you know there are a lot of terrible parents out there and they send us almost all the kids who struggle in the public schools.

These days, the most vociferous critics love to trot out this old quote from George Bernard Shaw:

“He who can, does. He who cannot teaches.”

Unfortunately, no one ever seems to remember this quote, also from Shaw, whose father was a raging alcoholic:

“Parentage is a very important profession; but no test of fitness for it is ever imposed in the interest of children.”

You can find shocking examples like the Anthony case any time you want.  When I was bicycling recently across Maine, the local papers were filled with details of the murder of Amy Lake and her two young kids.  The triggerman was Amy's estranged husband, the youngster's crazy dad. 

Maybe what Shaw should have said is, "He who can, produces sperm." 

That's the real problem.  That's the problem we need to consider:  that the worst members of the human race still produce sperm and eggs.  What's the "school reform" plan in the news today designed to addresses that fact?

Sure, there are bad teachers out there.  And we need to get rid of as many as we can, and do it as fast as we can.

The problem, though, when reformers talk about "fixing" schools, when Congress passes a law that promises every child will be proficient in reading and math by 2014, when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says "it's all about the talent," meaning that education reform all boils down to the man or woman at the front of the class,  is that we refuse to look the Casey Anthony's of the world squarely in the face.

We don't pay enough attention to their kids until it's already a month or more too late.  We ignore the children who suffer, day in, day out, in homes with awful moms and dads.  Had Caylee lived long enough to enter kindergarten her problems would have gone far beyond crayons and glue and standardized testing would not have been the cure..

Casey Anthony is not the aberration many we might care to imagine.  Hundreds of American parents kill their children every year.  Many hundreds of thousands more abuse their sons and daughters regularly.  I spoke to a Hamilton County child welfare worker not long ago and asked how many cases of child abuse and neglect his agency handled in a typical year.

Eight thousand, five hundred cases in one Ohio county in one twelve-month stretch.

As someone who tried to help every child I ever taught or met, I keep wondering when we're going to have a "school reform" plan designed to really help these kids.  Tying teacher pay to test scores won't do it.  Certainly, increasing the number of vouchers the State of Ohio will grant won't do the trick.  What do schools do--what do we as a society do--when PARENTS don't really care?  That's the "school reform" questions that bothers me.

And it bothers me every day.

For far too many children problems start long before they enter kindergarten.  In far too many cases problems begin while the child is still "safe" in the womb.  In April a series of articles in the New York Times highlighted growing prescription drug abuse nationwide.  One story focused on Portsmouth, Ohio and Scioto County, where some of the highest rates of overdoses in the state can be found.  There nearly 1 in 10 babies born last year tested positive for drugs.

As the Times explained, "The pattern playing out here bears an eerie resemblence to some blighted cities of the 1980s; a generation of young people who were raised by their grandparents because their parents were addicts, and now they are addicts themselves." 

Nina Mannering was one.  At age 29, she was having trouble raising her 8-year-old daughter.  She tried to kick her habit and entered a counseling program but was told to leave after her boyfriend brought her pills.  In January 2010, while living with an older man, a 65-year-old veteran who had access to the kind of prescriptions she craved, both were murdered by another addict who broke into the home looking for their stash of pills.

At some point, our leaders have to wake up and realize that nothing they're now proscribing to fix the problems "in" our schools is ever going to make much difference, not until someone comes up with a standardized test to administer to moms and dads.

You could wave your magic wand today, and if you could make all the bad teachers in the world go away, tomorrow you'd still have 80% of the worst problems we see now in our schools.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Grading School Reformers: Michelle Rhee and the Miracle of Rising Test Scores

THE BIG BUZZ, OR IS IT THE BIG PILE OF B.S. in education reform today is accountability. We are going to hold teachers accountable. We are going to hold their feet to the flames and maybe their grading hands and make them raise standards.

We are going to test students until they're dizzy. And we are going to fire the bad teachers if pupils score low for any reason whatsoever. Then everything wrong in education and in the lives of children will miraculously go away.

That may sound simplistic but that's pretty much the message today. Arne Duncan is for standardized testing and tying teacher pay to test results.Michelle Rhee is for it. President George W. Bush was for it. President Obama thinks it will help. Ohio Governor John Kasich is emphatically for testing-tied-to-merit pay. In fact, it's hard to find a great mind in education reform now who isn't sure testing is The Cure.

Everyone seems to feel that we need to hold teachers accountable for everything. Low test scores. Childhood obesity. The increase in teen pregnancy.

Yeah:  and don't forget the sinking of the Titanic.

Then again, maybe we should start holding our reformers accountable. Let's start with Michelle Rhee, a woman who has become a brand name in education reform. There are times when it seems she's all show and no substance, a fraud really, akin to a shill who pushes penis enhancement pills on late-night tv. Rhee has made grandiose claims about her own success in a classroom but abandoned the classroom after three years to climb the bureaucratic ladder. Eventually she rose high enough to run the Washington, D. C. schools.

WHAT HAPPENED DURING THE THREE YEARS she ran the city's schools? Well:  she fired a lot of teachers. Hundreds. Yet, getting rid of those "rejects" at the front of the room proved no magic fix. Attendance rates for students fell from 91% in 2006-07 to 88% by 2008-09. Or, put another way, the average D. C. student was staying home 21.6 days per year.

Graduation rates did rise; but SAT scores fell from 1217 (the D. C. web page had a mistake and said 1271) to 1196 in those years. It was decline across the boards:  down 9 points in reading to 405, down 7 in math to 392, down 5 in writing to 399. Apparently, the penis-enhancement pills weren't working.

Then again:  maybe they were. While Rhee ran the schools standardized test scores, so beloved by reformers, soared. Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus went from 10% of students "proficient" or "advanced" in math in 2006 to 58% in two years. Amazing success!!! Way to go, Michelle Rhee!!! In 2009, Noyes was one of 264 schools across the country to win a prestigious National Blue Ribbon School award.

Naturally, Rhee was thrilled and made the school Exhibit A in her campaign for reform. Twice, in 2008 and 2010, she awarded teachers at Noyes (which serves preschoolers through eighth grade) $8,000 bonuses. Wayne Ryan, the principal at the school was awarded $10,000 both times.

Unfortunately, these stunning improvements were more "saw-the-lady-in-the-box-in-half" trickery than actual progress. An investigation by USA Today revealed that many high performing schools in Rhee's district had "extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones."

The pattern showed up in 103 schools, more than half of all buildings in Rhee's district. And in 2009, seventh-graders in one class at Noyes averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures on the reading test when the average, citywide, was less than 1.

That's penis-enhancement-type success, and while teachers who were fired for low test scores looked for new careers, Rhee was busy touting her success and calling for greater reforming zeal. 

So what happened in the meantime? The D. C. schools won another $75 million in the "Race to the Top" program run by Arne Duncan, because Duncan loves testing measures. Ryan has been featured in recruitment advertisements by Rhee's old district, calling him "one of the shining stars of DCPS" and a man known for his "unapologetic focus on instruction."  Applicants for administrative posts are asked:  "Are you the next Wayne Ryan?"

SOON THE OFFICE OF THE STATE SUPERINTENDENT OF EDUCATION began to catch a whiff of something fishy and recommended investigation. Top D. C. school officials balked and dragged their feet. The State Superintendent's office asked McGraw-Hill to examine test results at 96 D. C. schools, including 8 of 10 buildings which won TEAM awards from Rhee "to recognize, reward and retain high-performing educators and support staff."  Based on rising scores in 2007 and 2008, more than $1.5 million in bonuses were paid out. McGraw-Hill found that three award-winning schools had wrong-to-right erasure rates that raised red flags about cheating in 85% of classrooms. After 2009 the district hired an outside investigator to examine eight schools, including Noyes, and test scores plunged. A second investigation, after tests were completed in 2010 found 41 schools, including Noyes again, had at least one classroom with unusually high numbers of erasures.

Even parents were getting suspicious.

The head of the teachers' union called Rhee's push for testing and linking scores and teacher pay an academic Ponzi scheme. Mary Lord, a member of a board which has only power to advise the D. C. schools, puts it succinctly:  "You've handed out these big bonuses. What are you going to do? Take them back? It's a bombshell. It's embarrassing."

Ryan declined to speak with reporters for the story but has since been promoted to instructional superintendent in the D. C. schools.

WHEN RHEE WAS REACHED BY PHONE she told the USA Today reporter she was no longer chancellor of the D. C. schools and passed on a chance to comment.

If you follow Rhee's career you know what a rarity that is. Normally Michelle Rhee loves to talk. In fact, her favorite topic is Michelle Rhee.

D. C. officials also refused comment. They refused to let reporters visit the schools or talk to principals, including Adell Cothorne, the new leader at Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus.

As for Rhee, she's still a leading voice in the charge for education reform. She's still an advocate of testing. She still believes teachers should be held accountable and fired if scores are low.

She's still selling penis-enhancement pills.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Yellow Brick Road to Nowhere: Teachers and the Tea Party Movement

I’VE BEEN HAVING AN ONLINE DEBATE with a Tea Party supporter, focused on the effect on schools of standardized testing. I think it’s going to be the ruin of American education. He seems like a fair-minded man but doesn’t understand my fear.

On one subject, however, we do agree. We both believe you could close down the U. S. Department of Education and no one directly involved with work in America’s classrooms would notice.

What scares me most is the fear that we’re heading down this path of standardized tests and we’re going to get so deep into the woods that we’ll never be able to find our way back. Secretary Duncan believes in testing—thinks this is the way to go—and likes to imagine he’s leading a “Race to the Top.” According to Mr. Duncan this is the opposite of the “race to the bottom” which resulted when the push for “higher standards” (which begot the era of more and more tests) began under No Child Left Behind.

It’s not the “Race to the Top” at all. It’s more like the “"Yellow Brick Road to Nowhere.”

It is a nearly perfect recipe for disaster.

If you love standardized testing, consider the list below, provided in the State of Ohio’s eighth grade curriculum, which all Ohio social studies teachers were ordered to follow in regard to the American Civil War (at least between 2004 and 2009. These are the sum totals of standards and benchmarks and indicators we were ordered to cover.

This was “learning” in the Era of the Testing Fix:

BENCHMARK G: Analyze the consequences of the American Civil War

INDICATOR 10: Explain the course and consequences of the Civil War with emphasis on:

Contributions of key individuals, including Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant

The Emancipation Proclamation

The Battle of Gettysburg

If you value broad-based knowledge, you might notice that this is a sparse and pathetic offering. But what we discovered as classroom teachers, every year, when the Ohio Achievement Test (OAT) was given, was that unless a person was named or a document noted or a term highlighted in the curriculum it could not be turned into a question on the standardized test.

So, if I'm teaching in Ohio, should I mention William Tecumseh Sherman? Not really. He can’t end up on the test.

His comment: “War is hell?” No longer relevant.

Stonewall Jackson? Nope. Not on the test.

What about insuring that students know what the Confederate flag looked like? They might see this symbol in real life. No, no, no, doesn’t matter.

Not going to be on the test.

THERE WAS A TIME, OF COURSE, WHEN TEACHERS had the flexibility to set their own standards. And then, I would always say it does matter if students recognize the symbol; and I tried to be sure my black students, in particular, knew what that red flag with the blue X and white stars meant, both in 1861, and what it can mean today.

The existential dilemma I faced in my last years in a classroom, and the problem all young teachers face today, is that learning no longer counted unless it could be measured—and this idea of the flag?

It wasn’t going to be measured in any way.

With an increasingly narrow focus on testing, and with merit pay tied to test results thrown in for good measure, I believe we need to understand that true learning must inevitably suffer. When I was still in the classroom, and before bureaucrats gained control, I was able to convince students to read books like Gone With the Wind, Cold Mountain and Killer Angels, all great Civil War novels. Another popular choice was Co. Aytch, a memoir written by Sam Watkins, a Confederate soldier.

Now I knew that nothing in these novels and nothing Sam Watkins could say about warfare could ever end up on the OAT. In other words, time devoted to reading great literature wouldn’t count as learning because it couldn’t be measured.[1]

Frankly, that struck me as nuts.

If you’ve never heard of Watkins, I admit I hadn’t either, till halfway through my teaching career. Sam was a Tennessee infantryman who enlisted with great enthusiasm in 1861 and had to survive four bloody years of war. I had never read the book until Ken Burns quoted heavily from Watkins’ story in his acclaimed Civil War series in 1990.

I picked up a copy soon after, read it with immense pleasure, and knew immediately that if I created a summary of Sam’s tale I could get students interested in this part of our nation’s history. So, in my class we went far beyond “basics” and students read an eight-page selection detailing Watkins’ experiences.

Again, keep this clearly in mind: none of what Watkins says can end up on any standardized test.

WE USED TO DO SKITS IN MY CLASS, like plays without dialogue, with my students at center stage. Whenever it came time to wrap up my Civil War unit, I found it easy to get volunteers to play the roles of soldiers from both sides. You could have two Yankees and two Confederates talk about their experiences, maybe even throw a girlfriend or a wife to get a woman’s perspective. And it was easy to find kids who could keep the discussion going the entire period.

(I don’t know what the bureaucrats would say—but I believe that’s learning of the highest and most important form.)

Like any good teacher, I knew you should never tell a student, “No, I don’t believe you can do it.” And only once did I come close.

Brad was a pleasant young man in my seventh bell. On the surface he was unimpressive, clothes rumpled, hair uncombed, afflicted with a terrible stutter. Despite his handicap he was a pleasure in class. He loved history and could add astute comment to any discussion. If you called on him, though, you had to have time. Words came slowly, painfully, and you had to listen closely in order to follow his logic. Sometimes, if I was in a hurry, I pretended not to see his hand raised in order to wrap up a lesson.

One day, I was sitting at my desk while students started the Watkins reading. I reminded everyone who still had a project to do (each student had multiple options for projects and had to do four every year—damn—again with the non-standardized learning) that this would be a good time to come back and explain their ideas. Brad quietly approached. For obvious reasons he had never volunteered to get up in front of class before. Now he said he would like to do a skit on the life of a Civil War soldier, a subject that clearly intrigued him. I held my doubt in check, asking only, “Who will be working with you?” Stumbling over every syllable, he replied that he would go it alone. “I…I…I wa…wa…wan…wan…want to bu…bu…be a Rebel sol…jer,” he stammered.

It was in my blood and bones to have faith in my kids, to assume that each young man and young woman could do more than either they or I knew. For once, I wanted to say: “No. You can’t.” I could only imagine how awful Brad’s experience might be, exposed in front of an entire class, trying to talk for forty-five minutes. The tip of my tongue touched my palette to form the word “no.” I didn’t want this kind-hearted young man to be cut up by the verbal knives of peers. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell him to lose faith.

I caught myself and gave approval.

A week later Brad stood at the front of the room dressed in gray jacket and battered, gray slouch hat. For all intents and purposes he was naked emotionally, risking at age 14 being stripped of his dignity should he fail.

It was quickly apparent he had studied long and hard. Brad wove details from Watkins’ story and half-a-dozen other sources into a cohesive narrative. What surprised us all was the clarity with which he spoke. Perhaps because he was focused only on what he had to tell, his stuttering was less profound. He still stuttered, but we all realized we were witnessing something different and great. Brad told us about battles in which he played a role—talked sadly of seeing friends die—and mentioned love letters his girl back home sent to him. When asked what his girlfriend looked like he said she was “b..b..beautiful, with d..dark hair and d..dark eyes.” He handled every question we asked, stumbled over syllables, but never faltered in his tale, and held center stage the full period.

When he finished, his class did something I’d never seen before. They rose and gave him a standing ovation.

I almost started to cry.

TODAY, OF COURSE, SINCE NONE OF WHAT BRAD DID COULD BE MEASURED, none of this would count as real education.

Like I said before, that’s nuts.[2]

[1] Technically, if my students read more this might help them on the reading section of the OAT. Sadly, I would be rewarded or penalized only for scores on the social studies section of the same test. (The test was total crap, by the way.)
[2] Call it double nuts when you realize that the State of Ohio dumped its own social studies test in 2009 and—not one iota wiser—started all over, designing a new and improved standardized test.

The owner of this farm, just off I-71, north of Cincinnati, 
used to hold KKK rallies on his property.
Should students know what this symbol sometimes means?
(There's also a burned cross standing in his orchard.)