Sunday, April 29, 2012

Far-Right Conservatives Invent New Language

This is a real cucumber.
I DON'T KNOW about anyone else, but I've been having trouble figuring out what many conservatives are saying lately. In one breath they tell me President Obama is a Muslim. The next moment they nod grimly and warn:  "He's a communist."  Occasionally, they insists that he's both at once; and on the nutty fringes it's not hard to find those who say the president is a Nazi, a communist, a socialist, a fascist and the Antichrist all wrapped up in one.

My confusion only deepened when Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican, was asked at a recent town hall meeting how many "card-carrying Marxists" he thought there were in Congress.

West hardly missed a beat, telling his stunned audience that there were eighty.

When pressed to clarify such statements later, Mr. West back off slightly, but his campaign manager, Tim Edson, insisted when speaking with reporters that labels weren't the point. And by that, I believe he meant "words in an actual dictionary." Maybe none of the Democrats in Congress were actually card-carrying commies. So what?

"We can quibble about the terminology used to describe them," Edson grumbled, "but it’s clear. Whatever you call people that oppose capitalism and free markets and individual economic freedom —maybe it’s ‘socialist,’ maybe it’s ’communist’ —but that’s the point the congressman was making, and he stands by the words."

It struck me, on reading Edson's response, that he would have been just as happy if his boss had called Democrats in Congress toaster ovens or card-carrying poltergeists. And that's when it finally hit me. For  fringe conservatives, at least, labels no longer meant what they meant in the English language.

You could call the president or any liberal a communist, a curmudgeon, or a cucumber. It wouldn't make an ounce of difference.

I DECIDED IT WAS TIME TO ACT and started trying to put together a new right-wing lexicon. Here's what I have so far:

Kenya:  an island in the Hawaiian chain where President Obama was born.

This is a communist.
Bush tax cuts:  magic legislation guaranteed to create jobs; passed in June 2001 when unemployment stood at 4.5%. Additional cuts in May 2003. Still in effect when U. S. economy crashed in 2008; still in effect in October 2009 when unemployment hit 10%. Cannot be repealed under any circumstances because this will cause a rise in unemployment.

free enterprise:  it's just what patriots (see below) do; includes the right of British Petroleum to pollute the Gulf of Mexico without government regulation, the right of Wal-Mart to bribe officials of Mexico and drive out competition and the right of Rupert Murdoch's people bribe police and hack into private cell phone and email accounts of citizens.

Fox News:  the last bastion of truth where free enterprise is always worshiped.

patriot:  any American who listens exclusively to Fox News, who agrees that taxes on billionaires can never be raised because it will make them sad, or something; a person who feels it is better to deny health care to other Americans, because, well, if you love America, you don't want poor Americans to love America and be healthy, too; may also be an American who supports family values and would love to die for his or her country, except when they might want to commit adultery, personally, or actually have the chance to enlist and get shot at by real enemies of the United States.  (See:  Cheney, Gingrich, Romney, etc.)

patriotism:  what a billionaire or millionaire feels when he or she sees other people's children sent off to fight to protect his or her freedom, while simultaneously keeping tax rates low (flag pin displayed in your lapel proves your patriotism, but serving in the military under the actual real flag does not if you'd like to marry your same-sex partner).

unplugging granny:  the act of disconnecting an elderly American from a life support system; inevitable result when godless, secular, humanist liberals (who are really Nazis) try to extend health care to millions of other Americans who can't afford to be connected in the first place.

red-blooded American:  often, a grumpy older individual, predominantly white and Christian, but not always; may own several guns and tote a Bible. Fears Big Government, because government is the problem not the solution, especially when government might curtail in any way government-provided health care benefits. The opposite of liberal Americans (also known as Fascists) who believe all Americans should have access to affordable health care. (See:  socialized medicine, following.)

socialized medicine:  any attempt to extend health care coverage to a 38-year old stay-at-home mother who suddenly develops multiple sclerosis, a 27-year-old type-1 diabetic who has just been denied coverage because of preexisting conditions and a 53-year-old factory worker who has lost his coverage after his company (see free enterprise, above) in Wisconsin closed operations and moved all assembly operations to China.

job creator:  any business person who can figure out how to avoid paying taxes to the government he or she purports to love (often seen wearing a flag pin) by hiding profits in the Cayman Islands and simultaneously closing American factories and shipping jobs to India.

public sector workers (also union thug, below):  men and women who undermine individual economic freedoms and pose an insidious threat to free markets because their jobs cannot be outsourced to Mexico or Honduras.

religion, freedom of:  one of the most important rights granted to us through the wisdom of the Founding Fathers; any attempt to require a Catholic institution to offer birth control coverage to female employees is an "attack on religion."

speech, freedom of; petition, right to; assembly, right of:  what conservatives do when they gather to hear Sarah Palin speak. Not to be confused the right of the Dixie Chicks to criticize the president or with the Occupy Wall Street movement, since those people look funny and according to Fox News don't bathe often enough, and even if they did it wouldn't matter because they're communists, anyway. Conservatives know that the U. S. Constitution was intended originally to protect only red-blooded Americans (see above), which includes those who agree with every syllable Glenn Beck ever uttered, including any babbling he did when he was still a baby.

terrorist cell:  any group of Muslim Americans who might wish to exercise their religion, freedom of (see above) by building a mosque, pretty much anywhere in America.

judicial activist:  a liberal judge who might vote, for example, to overturn The Defense of Marriage Act.

a strict constructionist:  a conservative judge who might vote, for example, to overthrow the health care law; also a judge who might vote to overthrow the decision of a state supreme court and award an election to a conservative candidate. A strict constructionist understands that the Founding Fathers (see below)  who wrote the U. S. Constitution intended corporations to be considered persons so they might speak their institutional minds and dump their tens of millions into all elections.

slut:  a young college-age woman who disagrees with Rush Limbaugh and can't imagine why anyone would sleep with that fat bag of puddings.

union thug:  any worker who organizes along with others to try to win the slightest improvement in wages or benefits; includes 22-year-old first-year female teacher, 5' 3" and 125 pounds, waving grade book in menacing fashion; also 58-year-old social worker, and grandmother, who hopes to safeguard her retirement (not to be confused with an unplugged granny.)

Founding Fathers:  the fifty-five men who wrote the U. S. Constitution; who knew corporations were people, while also believing that an absolute commitment to freedom meant women, blacks and poor, white men didn't actually need the right to vote; this group includes Alexander Hamilton, who originally argued in favor of monarchy.

Bill of Rights:  list of inviolable rights, meant to protect angry conservatives who want to carry concealed weapons into bars, saunas, day care facilities and funeral parlors. Does not protect Americans who don't want to be strip-searched when arrested for crimes as inconsequential as failing to carry a pooper scooper. Also:  Muslims and others who look "different" are not covered.

liberal (also known as Nazi, fascist, socialist, communist):  any person who has ever spoken out about any of the abuses of any large corporation, even when talking in his or her sleep; anyone who believes the average working-class American might be getting screwed; anyone a red-blooded American doesn't agree with on any topic, including NASCAR; and anyone who denies that Charles and David Koch are captains of industry and infallible job creators.

I'M STILL WORKING on my lexicon, but if good and honest liberals and good and sensible conservatives will only define their terms, we might get somewhere in the end.

Friday, April 27, 2012

ExxonMobil Announces Commitment to Fixing U. S. Education

IF YOU HAVENT SEEN IT yet check out ExxonMobil's commerical on YouTube announcing support for America’s teachers and the company’s commitment to fixing what ails American education.  

I know, if you’re like me, your first reaction is probably, “Who better to understand the needs of children than oil executives?” 

It’s a slick thirty seconds, focusing on the dismal ranking of U. S. students in math compared to kids from around the world. You see a row of nations, white outlines on a blue background. (I believe it’s meant to hint at a patriotic theme.) The outlines are anatomically correct but not to scale. So you have South Korea first in math. Finland is second; but you might not realize Finland is smaller than Montana. It’s not much of a “threat” to Americas standing in the world with 5.4 million people. And don’t get me started on Belgium (8th), Estonia (11th) or Slovenia (14th). 

It only takes thirteen seconds—and then the camera draws back to reveal a long line of white countries, with the USA in red (again that red, white and blue theme) way back at the end of the line, in 25th, out of thirty-odd nations.

That's right:  Luxembourg!!!!
My god! What if they invade?
Adding insult to injury, and proving that the U.S. is pretty much screwed and tattooed if we don’t act soon, whose kids do you think come in just ahead of ours? Luxembourg! We’re behind Luxembourg, 24th, a country smaller than Rhode Island. 

So, why does this commercial bother me? Why should it bother all public school teachers? Hey, ExxonMobil wants to help. How can that be bad? 

The problem is it paints a far bleaker picture than we should see. It implies that if we don’t fix public schools and don’t let corporations help, we’re pretty much crap-out-of-luck, economically speaking.

It’s a subtle message; but businesses like to imply that Americas schools are failing, because if the schools are failing it’s not their fault when the U. S. economy is struggling. 

“I didn’t spill that oil in the Gulf,” so to speak. “Teachers did it.” 

IF THAT SOUNDS STUPID it’s no different than the logic that underpins most of the “school crisis” clamor in this country.

Why do we need more charter schools, more standardized testing, more privatization in education? Well: because we’re getting killed economically.

Seriously? By Finland?

Isn’t it disingenuous to imply that America is doomed because we’re 25th in math? Is it a problem that Luxembourg is beating us? 

Iceland is 12th in math (see list for 2010 provided). Icelanders have recently watched their nation go into bankruptcy. Mexico is 34th. That doesn’t stop Ford Motors from shipping engine assembly jobs south of the border. 

If you’re old enough to remember the paranoia that swept the United States in the 80s, you may recall that Japan was going to dominate the future—because Japanese schools were turning out superior “products.” And then you might begin to wonder if there isn’t something else at work to explain America’s economic decline besides how the nation’s math teachers are doing. It might just be that education isn’t the key to growth. Japan has lost 1/3rd of its factory jobs in the last twenty-five years and the Japanese economy hasn’t grown at all in two decades. Apparently, it hasn’t helped to be fourth in math. 

When it comes right down to it, it’s time to quit crying about the failure of U. S. education and consider a few numbers that truly matter:  “22,” for one. That’s the average pay, per day, in China, a college graduate can expect to make at FoxConn, which makes iPads for Apple. In fact, what a dream world we would live in if only we could convince our young, just coming out of Yale, or Tulane, or Ohio State, saddled with an average of $25,000 in tuition loan debt, to work for $22 per day. Think of all the jobs we could bring back to America if we could pull off a trick like that! 

Maybe there’s more, in 2013, to what ails the nation’s economy than the “failure” of a few teachers who teach math.  

Maybe when you take a closer look, the real problem is corporate accounting. 

P. S. IT MIGHT BE WORTH REMINDING CRITICS of public schools that the international comparison of 15-year-old students in 2010 focused on kids from sixty-five nations, with ours finishing 14th in reading and 17th in science. 

That’s not great.  

It’s not Mayan-level cultural disintegration either.

If you found this post interesting, I poke all kinds of holes in the anti-teacher logic in my book. I explain what good teachers can do, which is much, but also outline the kinds of problems we inevitably face.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

President Obama: Muslim and Job Killer?

I respect those who vote Republican, too.
But I don't think most of the recent
job losses are the fault of Mr. Obama.
It's a slow day in education. So I've been checking out a few Facebook pages; and I notice a certain degree of unrest among conservative friends--and I want them to be happy.

I like to check out Governor John Kasich's wall, for example, and today he's highlighting his success bringing jobs back to Ohio and supporters are calling President Obama an illegal alien, a polecat, a Muslim, and just about everything except a Mennonite. 

President Obama, they say, is a job exterminator.

I love my friends, conservative, Tea Partier, libertarian, liberal, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Jew alike. I think God loves Mitt Romney and Mormons and Sarah Palin and atheists, too.

When I checked the Romney Facebook page I saw more complaints about unemployment--and all of those complaints aimed at the "Kenyan" in the White House. So I decided to do what any liberal might do. I decided to see if I could find a simple graph or two.

Now I’m trying to think like a conservative. If we go back to January 1981, the unemployment rate in the United States was 7.5%. I think fair-minded individuals might remember that the economy was in terrible condition at that time. But job losses soared while President Reagan was in office, the unemployment rate peaking at 10.8% in November 1982.

In fact, it took Mr. Reagan his entire first term to reduce unemployment, so that by January 1985, the rate had fallen again to 7.3%, a stunning recovery of +.2% in four years.

By the time he left office, however, he had “tamed” the problem, reducing unemployment to 5.4% (January 1989). In other words, the last great Republican president saw unemployment balloon by 3.3% and then drop, in the end, by 2.1% over eight years.


Under President George H. W. Bush, unemployment surged again, to 7.8% in the summer of 1992. By January 1993, when Bill Clinton took office, the level had fallen to 7.3%. Still, we lost almost all the ground made up under Mr. Reagan. Again, fair-minded people might argue that Mr. Bush had bad luck and that the economy was turning as he left office.

BUSH 41 (1989-1993): -1.9% DECLINE IN U.S. EMPLOYMENT.

During President Clinton’s two terms in office, the unemployment rate fell to 4.2% in January 2001. We even had a budget surplus—something every Republican born since 1919 now claims he really, really, really, and I mean really, likes.


George W. Bush came next, saw unemployment spike to more than 6%, recovered, saw it fall to 4.4%, and then, Bush Tax Cuts and all, the economy tanked in 2008. By the time Barrack Obama took office the unemployment rate was 7.8%.


I doubt anyone, even Dale Robertson, the founder of the Tea Party Movement, would try to claim that President Obama inherited a healthy economy, or a federal budget that was even close to balancing. Leaving that deficit problem aside, however, the unemployment rate rose to 10% in October 2009, similar to but not as terrible as the rise during President Reagan’s first four years in the Oval Office.

As of March 2012, the rate has dropped once more to 8.2%, a figure lower than at any time since February 2009, when Mr. Obama had been in office less than two weeks. So, even if you’re a Republican and want to claim that all job losses since the moving van brought Sasha and Malia's books and dolls to the White House are the fault of the current chief executive, you might have to wonder, “Isn’t everything we’re going to have to do from now to the next election and probably deep into the next administration to fix the jobs problem really just undoing damage done by a previous president?


If you're a Republican, and cut him even the slightest break, and start with February, 2009, Mr. Obama is  ALREADY IN +.1 TERRITORY. One more tenth of a percent and he equals the first term success of the paladin of conservatives everywhere, the almost-sainted Mr. Reagan.

Again, all the right wing has to do, if they don't mind facing reality, would be to check the graphs.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Big Bucks in Tater Tots: When Public Schools Run with Business Efficiency

TODAY, WE'RE SPEAKING with the superintendent of Enron City Schools in Enron, Texas. As astute readers may already know, Mr. Frick heads up the first public school district in the nation to be turned over entirely to a private company and run according to best business methods and practices. John Galt, our lead reporter, will be asking all the questions.

Mr. Galt:  Thank you, sir, for sitting down to talk. It has been said that success here in Enron will show the nation how we can best reform U. S. education.
Frick:  I'll do my best to give you a glimpse of a better future.

Galt:  Looking back over your first for-profit school year, now almost complete, what changes make you proudest?
Frick:  I'd have to say the cost-cutting benefits we brought to schools by following the Apple strategy. You want cheaper iPads, or cheaper education, you have to make choices that benefit consumers.
Galt:  Also the bottom line?
Frick:  Well, yes...that, too, a mere side effect; but we all know that the real problem in education is unions. So we broke the union here in Enron and just like that, you create a docile workforce and you can reduce wages and benefits and realize huge savings. That's the genius of the Apple model and we want to bring that genius here. Apple is able to employ college graduates and pay as little as $22 dollars per....
Galt:  Hour....
Frick:  Oh no, per day! Think of the profits...I mean savings for taxpayers. Since teachers are no longer unionized we require them to put in 12-hour days, six days a week and ignore overtime rules, too. It's just like China!

Galt:  Speaking of taxpayers, not everyone in Enron is happy with your methods. You're demanding tax breaks and calling on the community to build a new high school with taxpayer dollars; but you operate at a profit and plan to pocket almost all the money you save, not return it to taxpayers. What happens if voters turn down the next building levy?
Frick:  You're either for socialized education or you follow the Miami Marlins business model and enjoy the fruits of free enterprise. Our company has made it clear. If voters won't build the new high school here we're prepared to move operations to Madoff, Oklahoma. Or Mexico. Is that what voters want? All those student openings in kindergarten being shifted to a different state or foreign country?
Galt:  So, you'd outsource students?
Frick:  Let's just say we have our accounting department studying the business metrics.

Galt:  Well...what are some of the most dramatic changes you've seen this year?
Frick:  I think you might notice a huge decrease in discipline problems. We've been following the Jansen Pharmaceutical Model. You have a child with any kind of behavior issue. You make sure that child is on a prescription for anti-psychotic drugs, like Risperdel.
Galt:  Isn't there evidence that some of these powerful drugs have dangerous side effects, that children sometimes die as a result?
Frick:  That's a lie pedaled by the liberal media. Jansen keeps only the finest doctors on the company payroll and those doctors produced all kinds of reports to show that all these drugs were perfectly safe. And just because the Arkansas courts recently fined Jansen $1.4 billion dollars for lying, well that was just the work of activist judges.

Galt:  On a happier note, it's been said that you're bringing business efficiency into all areas, including school safety.
Frick:  Yes, we're proud of several cost-cutting steps we've instituted. We cut back on unnecessary CPR training for teachers, for example, and reduced the maintenance budget.
Galt:  What happens if  students get asphyxiated because fumes from dangerous chemical compounds you order janitors to use to speed the cleaning process (another idea copied from the Apple playbook) back up inside classrooms? Wouldn't your company face liability issues?
Frick [laughing]:  I'm sorry. That struck me funny. We have our friends at the American Legislative Exchange Council working on rewriting safety rules and regulations, too. And our safety director, Thomas Harrah, used to work for Massey Mining Corporation.
Galt:  Isn't he the fellow found complicit in the death of 29 miners at the Big Branch Mine in West Virginia? Isn't Massey the corporation that kept two sets of safety records, one for company use, the other, glossing over safety issues, to show "compliance" under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act?
Frick:  You bring business methods to schools, you get business morality in schools.

Galt:  Any other innovations you'd like to mention?
Frick:  I'm proud to say we've copied First Premier Bank of South Dakota when it comes to student lunch charges. We allow families to open accounts but cap charge limits at $300. They pay $95 to create the account and a $75 annual service fee.
Galt:  Big bucks in tater tots?

Frick:  Of course. And think about costly school nursing and psychological services! You can't expect free medical care. Are we some kind of socialist country? We've boosted profits significantly by adapting the methods of the Hospital Corporation of America. First, we deny services to children with pre-existing conditions. That saves us a tidy pile of dollars...
Galt:  Don't I remember reading that HCA once had to admit to fourteen felonies for defrauding Medicare and pay a fine of $600 million...
Frick:  Disgusting rumors, spread by union thugs...they just want to discredit Rick Scott, former head of HCA and now a leader in education reform as governor of Florida...

Galt:  I see. I really do. Suppose I told you that voters are unhappy with many of these changes? There's growing pressure on school board members to take action. How would you respond?
Frick:  We might follow the lead of the Pearson Corporation. The State of Illinois is paying Pearson $138 million, this year, to administer the state's standardized testing program. So we might say to board members, "We'd like to fly you and your families to a conference in Singapore, where you can stay in luxury motels and discuss education reform...."

Galt:  That sounds a little like bribery, to me; but suppose we spend millions on these tests and a testing program doesn't really help raise learning outcomes for the students. Would companies like Pearson be willing to admit their failures? What happens if they put their vested interests in selling more and more testing first?
Frick:  Surely, you understand basic economics. If a product is selling well, why would any company want it any other way?
Galt:  Wouldn't Pearson have the same vested interests, then, as Phoenix University...the for-profit college which has been sued by federal authorities for graduating students with worthless degrees...
Frick:  I'm sorry, It's getting late...

Galt:  Yes, of course...Thank you for your time. This session has been highly informative.
Frick:  That's what for-profit education is all about. Helping the bottom line while helping people.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Standardized Testing: Confessions of a Terrible Teacher

If a social studies teacher
gets more students to read more,
does anyone in the forest 

hear the pages turning 
if it isn't on the standardized test?
I'VE SEEN TWO RECENT STORIES about standardized testing that, frankly, I found stunning. The first indicated that only 5% of teachers believed the dramatic increase in testing was improving U. S. education. The second report had the figure higher, at 7%.

I suspect your reaction might be similar to mine:   Who'd have thought it would be that high!

Then again, 12% of Americans still approve of the job Congress is doing. So you figure some people are just more forgiving.

Why is it, then, that teachers hate standardized testing? Is it a case of hiding their deficiencies? Or is it a concern for real learning?

Let me try a few examples and see if any of this makes sense. Start with the terrible attacks of 9-11. Imagine that those events occurred this morning. Should a social studies teacher (as I was) take time out in days ahead to discuss the tragedy?

In a standardized testing world the answer is obvious.

The answer is NO.

In fact, it would be a grave error in education today to focus on current events. Standardized tests cannot reflect current events. "Sorry, kids," a good teacher in 2012 would wisely say. "We're going to be discussing the Townshend Acts, instead."

(No joke, there:  That was in the standardized curriculum the State of Ohio designed and used for American history from 2004 to 2009.)

OR: TRY THIS. I REMEMBER KATY, in my World History class. Katy had Down Syndrome and to complete a project requirement I put in place for every student, she did a decoupage of the Mona Lisa. With the help of our very fine Learning Disabilities teacher, Katy got up in front of fourth period and answered basic questions about Leonardo da Vinci and her work. When she finished Katy looked proud and her class did something I had only seen once before. They gave Katy a standing ovation.

Standing ovations, though, don't prepare anyone for standardized testing.

I had failed again.

Let's go back again to consider 9-11. For weeks, following that tragedy, the New York Times ran brief biographies of every victim of the attacks. I read them, day after day, and almost always cried. One was about a woman who came from England to visit her brother. On that fateful day he asked her to come to see where he worked and they went up to the the restaurant, Windows on the World, at the top of the North Tower. They were there at 8:46 a.m. when the first plane struck. They were trapped there. And they died there together.

So, call me a crappy educator, because, I'll be honest, if 9-11 happened today, I'd still focus on current events. I'd still tell that story about the woman from England.

I'd still be a terrible teacher.

One final example and my shame shall be revealed and complete. I admit that in those September days, now a decade past, I had a young girl in class, Jenab, who was Muslim. I could see it every day that she was wondering, "What do my classmates think about me now?"

I confess I forgot that only standards mattered. I made it a priority to make clear to a 12-year-old girl that no one in their right mind could ever hold her accountable. It didn't hurt that Jenab was one of the sweetest, smartest kids I had in class that year. It wouldn't have mattered if she wasn't. Fool that I was, I thought my duty was to address the needs of every child in the best manner possible.

SO, YES. I CONFESS. I was a terrible teacher.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

An Education Expert Goes to the Doctor...

IF YOU HAPPEN TO BE A TEACHER you’ve probably noticed something strange about education reformers these days.

You could pile up their combined experience in teaching and add a stack of baloney sandwiches and still not have the equivalent of one thirty-year veteran in a first grade, or middle school science, or high school Latin classroom.

So, whenever we hear Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg or Michelle Rhee or various governors talking about what they would do to fix schools, if they were doing the fixing, it’s like asking me or my father to talk about what we would have done if we had ever been in combat. My father was an officer in the Army Air Corps during World War II; but he did duty as a weatherman and never left the States.

In keeping with family tradition, I enlisted in the Marines in December 1968. After boot camp I wasn’t sent to Vietnam. I was sent to supply school and did my “fighting” behind a desk in California. I was more likely to get sunburned at the beach on weekends or die inhaling “White Out” while correcting typos than to be hit by bullets or step on a booby trap.

It would be the height of arrogance to style myself a “hero.”

Unfortunately, humility never stops the non-combatant types in U. S. education from portraying themselves as Medal of Honor winners. They don’t do any fighting but love to tell the combat veterans what they ought to do to win the war to fix the schools.

Just imagine what might happen if these bold reformers lived in a world that operated on similar principles. It would be a world where no experience was required to qualify an individual as an expert, in education, heart surgery, or airplane maintenance.

First, let’s send Mayor Bloomberg to the doctor. He’s having heart trouble. So he drops in on John Sears, the plumber. John taps his chest a few times with a pipe wrench and says the mayor needs a valve replaced. “We’ll run 1/2 galvanized piping while we’re at it,” Sears explains.

“My god,” replies the billionaire businessman, “do you know anything about heart surgery?”

“As much as you know about teaching,” Sears retorts.

Meanwhile, Michelle Rhee heads for the auto repair shop because her “check engine” light is blinking. She’s driving a Ferrari, purchased with a few of the fat speaker’s fees she earns by talking about fixing schools. She pulls into a McDonald’s and asks the acne-faced young lady at the drive-thru to step outside and consider the problem. The teen rolls her eyes; but when Rhee offers $100 merit pay agrees to do what she can. The teen studies the matter briefly then tells Rhee she needs oil and pours two gallons of used deep fry fat into her gas tank.

“This is going to be great,” Rhee says as she speeds away.

Finally, several governors and members of state legislatures board a 747 bound for Tahiti. A company that runs for-profit charter schools and another company that designs standardized tests are paying all expenses and sending everyone to a conference on education reform and a week’s vacation in that Pacific paradise.

Ohio Governor John Kasich is nervous before he flies and asks about pilot experience. “Don’t worry,” a flight attendant tells him. “U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is at the controls. He hasn’t ever flown a plane before but he has watched planes take off. Besides, he went to Harvard.”

Suddenly, Kasich feels better.

His seatmate, Chris Christie, isn’t quite convinced. The governor of New Jersey is kind of wedged in his seat, anyway. “Uh, who’s the co-pilot, just in case?” he wonders.

“Not to worry, sir,” the attendant smiles reassuringly. “Our co-pilot is Snooki, of Jersey Shore fame.”

“Ah, a solid citizen and a constituent,” Christie replies. He feels better and asks the attendant for an extra bag of peanuts.

Sitting across the aisle, the majority leader of the Wisconsin Senate is hard at work. He’s wearing one of those Cheeseheads, which he thinks might come in handy as a flotation device should the plane go down over water. Obviously, he knows just about as much when it comes to airplanes as all the passengers aboard, combined, know about teaching. But he’s drafting new legislation on his laptop—actually, he’s cutting and pasting language provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council—which will fundamentally alter public education in his state.

“May I ask,” he says, “who did the pre-flight safety check? I hope they knew what they were doing.”

“Only the most knowledgeable mechanics are allowed to work on our planes,” the attendant assures him. “Glenn Beck, who knows everything, signed off on engine maintenance. And that new kid, from Teach for America, checked flight controls.”

“Does the new kid actually know how to do a safety check?” the senator wonders.

“Of course not,” the attendant admits. “But she’s really smart. Besides, what do any of you know about how schools really work? Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll exit before takeoff and go back to my real job. Trust me. You’ll be fine.”

“What do you normally do for a living?” asks Governor Christie. His words sound a little garbled because his mouth is full of half-chewed legumes.

“I’m a special education teacher from Newark, your home state. Twenty-four years in the classroom, if you care, devoted to helping kids with serious problems. Well, gentlemen, have a safe trip. You’re in the same good hands as American education reform today. And if there’s any trouble, don’t worry, there are plenty of parachutes.”

“You might need two,” Kasich says, poking a bit of fun at the chunky chief executive from Jersey. “Who did you say packed those parachutes?” Mr. Kasich asks more seriously.

“We hire out that job to the Vile Anvil Company of Lima, Ohio, sir. Remember? Non-union workers. People earning minimum wage. You gave the owners a huge tax break to bring anvil-making jobs to Ohio and promised they wouldn’t have to worry about a lot of government safety inspections. What can possibly go wrong? You’re in the hands of anvil-making experts.”

The special education teacher smiles knowingly as she gathers personal items and heads back to the boarding gate.

The only fighting I did in the Marines was against germs.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Forsooth: Shakespeare Doth Explain School Reform!

The author speaks 
in terms we still might grasp.

I’M A RETIRED TEACHER. Perchance too much idle time doth rest upon my hands.

I’ve been trying to read every Shakespeare play there is. And it doesn’t take long to see the Bard still speaks to us today.

If you haven’t noticed, politicians seem to put forth new plans to fix the public schools almost every day. These plans are stupid, generally, and at least one Republican governor I might name fits this description from England’s beloved poet:

“He hath not so much brain as ear-wax.”

Meanwhile, more and more state lawmakers answer to the beck and call of deep-pocketed, far-right conservatives like Charles and David Koch, and do the bidding of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which the brothers doth graciously fund. As Shakespeare might put it:

“They say if money go before, all ways do lie open.”

Even politicians who slavishly follow the Koch brothers might sound cool if they spoke with the same power as England’s greatest playwright. Imagine, for example, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, saying to teachers of his state:

“Your hearts I’ll stamp out with my horse’s heels
And make a quagmire of your mingled brains.”

WE’VE ALL HEARD A HUNDRED TIMES that business methods and business leaders can bring great improvement to the schools. So, here’s an idea. Why not apply the principles of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to stores and factories and hedge funds and see what happens?

Here is how it might play out: Starting in 2014 every boss would be responsible for the quality of the work of every worker—just as teachers are now accountable for the work of every student. Businesses would run on the same principles as public schools. First, they would no longer be allowed to ask job-seekers to fill out applications. If a worker entered the factory gate they would have to hire him. It would be up to them to turn him or her into a productive member of society.

Secondly—of course—they couldn’t fire anyone. Public schools like businesses; businesses like public schools.

Imagine a future where government woulds’t measure how every company fareth and requireth each company to increaseth yearly production. Productivity woulds’t be measured according to work done by thy employees of all different racial categories and sub groups and failure by any group woulds’t be proof of failure by thy business as a whole, just as schools are ajudged presently. Here’s how the Bard might tell the tale:

Much Ado About School Reform:  Act 1, Scene 1:

Falstaff, a fat government agent, visits Koch Brothers Industries and delivers bad news to the billionaire brothers. 

FALSTAFF: As I’m sure you doth know, after reading this year’s standardized reports, production here at Koch Brothers hath been deemed “unsatisfactory.” Thou must know that thy workers with learning disabilities are faring poorly. Forsooth, we’re going to have to fire you, sir, and you.
CHARLES KOCH: Hast thou no feeling? What must we do with that girl, Juliet? She doth take drugs all the livelong day, in sooth on Mondays and Fridays most oft. Yesterday didst she driveth yon forklift over yon supervisor’s left foot.

FALSTAFF: Subtle be thy words, sublime thy excuse. We of thy government stand unmoved.
DAVID KOCH: Marry thee, I can’t get that fellow, Claudio, to show up at all. By my troth he hath called in sick 49 times this year! Under No Worker Left Behind, you won’t let me dispossess him of robust employ!!

FALSTAFF: Oh sighs! Oh groans! If you had but created a more stimulating environment employees might have been motivated to come to work.

CHARLES: Idle knave! I beseech thee to be realistic. What about that Hamlet fellow? His criminal record is long and deep in breadth. Last week the shift manager tried to tell him to get busy and he didst punch him and cracketh his jaw. Can’t we fire him, at least?
FALSTAFF: Verily, he’s covered under the Workers with Severe Emotional Disabilities Act. Thou art the boss and if the bees doth not gather nectar, and thy factory isn’t functioning to capacity, if any worker doth not produce, who doth thou think we ought to blame?

DAVID: Hamlet?
FALSTAFF: ‘Tis absurd of you to sayeth!

DAVID: I asketh but a fillip of understanding. What say thee of that poor homeless varlet who wandered in off the street but yesterday? Doubt not, he be touched in the head, betimes. We tried to tell him how to run the stamping machine and he started talking to some imaginary co-worker, or, perchance, the Ghost of Christmas Past!
FALSTAFF: Thou doth confuse thy famous English authors! Dost thou not know what the law requires? Every worker must be productive by 2014.

CHARLES: Some workers are but lazy sots. You make us take all and we can fire none. How doth you expect us to get that girl, Cressida, to do anything? I but turn my back ten minutes and she doth disappear and we find her on yon factory roof an hour hence, sound asleepeth.
FALSTAFF: I care not for thine hollow wordlings! Thou art the motivator. It ‘ist thy job to turn that worker round.

DAVID: Sometimes it seemeth the law is setting bosses up for failure. Six months past we had to take on that Moor, Othello, darkly doth he look, a man who speakest not a speck of English. We try to tell him what he needs must do; but he utters only grimmest mutters.
FALSTAFF: A creative boss findeth creative solutions. A creative boss knoweth even a second language is no barrier. A creative boss seeth it as a challenge. I’m sorry. We’re going to have to let both of you go.

CHARLES: You whoreson cur!
DAVID: I will beat thee into handsomeness. Your guts are made of puddings!

Exit Falstaff Flying.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Governor Kasich and His Mullet: What Next in Education Reform?

WHAT'S NEXT? The return of the mullet? I mean, we all know that Republicans miss the glory days of President Ronald Reagan. But who dreamed they'd be leading Ohio schools back to those halcyon days of 1988?

What have Ohio lawmakers got up their sleeves now to fix the schools? If you've been too busy catching up on last season's episodes of Game of Thrones to follow the news you might not know the Third Grade Reading Guarantee is back.

Governor John Kasich:
Education reformer extraordinaire.
Perhaps you're too young to remember what happened when a previous generation of lawmakers "guaranteed" the Third Grade Reading Guarantee. It's a guarantee. That's good, right? Well, it sounds good if you're standing on the floor of the Ohio Senate, talking smack about a subject you don't understand.

No doubt about it. The "guarantee" looks fine on paper when you say that no child in Ohio can move to the fourth grade until they can read at the third grade level--because you want to help every Buckeye boy and girl succeed in life and reading is the key.

It looked good two decades ago, too, when we first tested out this concept.

Almost as fast as the guarantee was implemented, our noble politicians lost their nerve when they discovered that setting a hard-and-fast standard and trying to stick to it was going to rile up a whole lot of parents.

We mean, of course:  voters.

Teachers had been expressing doubt all along; but when do politicians ever listen to teachers? Educators warned that it might be counterproductive to hold kids back who were good in other subjects, who were working hard in school, but still behind three or four months in reading. They said it might not work to hold back kids who had chronic absentee issues, unless you addressed that problem, too. They cautioned that it might be hard to "guarantee" reading levels for kids who spoke English as a second language and pointed out that if you held back kids in grade three and any other grade thereafter, when they were older they tended to drop out with alarming regularity.

With problems multiplying, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee proved to be an unworkable failure and it was scraped before voters could unleash their wrath on the hacks who came up with the idea and teachers shook their heads. Now it's back again, as good as new, or just as bad as ever, and just as likely to live a long and healthy academic life.

(I give it three years.)

BUT WAIT, AS THEY SAY on TV game shows, there's more! On a second front, Governor Kasich (and    who doesn't think our chief executive would look fantastic in a mullet) and his allies in the legislature have turned back the clock to a time when Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston were still putting out hit records and the Bengals were Super Bowl contenders. Now we will require the teaching, in grades 4-12, of "founding documents," including the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance and the U. S. Constitution, ordering teachers to turn to the "original documents."

Again, this might be brilliant--if it was 1988 and we had lost our collective consciousness. But if you remember those days, you remember that school reformers were bragging about plans to fix schools then too. You might recall that the State of Ohio created a battery of what were called the "Ninth Grade Proficiency Tests" to implement their master plan. New curriculum standards were put in place and suddenly teachers were required to teach about the Northwest Ordinance, the U. S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

As a history teacher, I always focused heavily on the U. S. Constitution and Declaration, anyway. But the Northwest Ordinance? Not so much.

Now, I developed an entire lesson on the Ordinance; and ended up having fun linking land sale provisions of the law--$1 per acre--and additional legislation which followed, culminating in the Homestead Act in 1862 (land for free)--to development of the "American Dream."

Like a dutiful soldier, following orders and charging up the hill, I increased coverage of government, as State mandates now required. Soon I was giving my seventh graders a test over government (state, local and federal) consisting of 150 questions, an exercise designed to take two entire days of class. I made all my students memorize the 84-word section of the Declaration below. And we even defined the words in caps, to start.

Teach a little vocabulary, you know:

We hold these truths
 to be SELF-EVIDENT,                                                       
that all men are created equal;
that they are ENDOWED                                                   
by their Creator
with certain UNALIENABLE RIGHTS;                                                         
that among these
are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;                  
that, to SECURE these rights,                                           
governments are INSTITUTED                                          
among men,
DERIVING their just powers                                             
from the CONSENT of the GOVERNED;                            
that, whenever
any form of government
becomes destructive
of these ends,                                                                  
it is the right of the people
to ALTER OR ABOLISH it,                                                 
and to INSTITUTE                                                 
a new government.

Then I tried to make sure every person in my class could answer the following questions:

1. Government gets its power from ___.
2. If government does not work we have the right to ___.
3. Governments are set up to ___.
4. If government works as it should everyone will be treated ___.
5. Certain basic rights cannot be taken away from you by ___.
6. Government should leave you alone to enjoy ___.

SO, WHAT CAME NEXT? To put it in a legislative nutshell, State proficiency tests didn't really do the trick. The federal government stepped in next, with No Child Left Behind, passed in 2002; and now we had a new Grand Plan to fix the schools.

A new State of Ohio curriculum was drawn up to meet the challenge of  the new rules coming out of Washington--and pretty much eliminated all mention of the Northwest Ordinance. There was certainly nothing about the "American Dream," an omission I found then and still find, odd. And now you could score perfectly on the new social studies section of the new "Ohio Achievement Test" (created after much study and at great cost) if you could write one crappy five-sentence paragraph and include any two ideas found in the Declaration of Independence.

I had been spending three days on the Declaration and its import, including the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers, who failed to adhere to founding principles.

Suddenly, a student could be declared "proficient" by the State if he or she could write an essay no more impressive, intellectually, than this:
"The Declaration of Independence was important in American history. This is since it says "all men are created equal." Americans are required to live by that idea. It says governments must protect our rights. John Hancock signed it really big."

Across the state social studies teachers focused on preparing pupils for the brand-spanking new Ohio Achievement Test (OAT). We went to meetings and learned the little tricks to help students write five-sentence paragraphs, and studied the new curriculum with care, and tried to adapt lessons to what we were told we absolutely had to cover. But it costs a lot of money to give all these standardized tests and grade them, too, and besides, the social studies section of the Ohio Achievement Test turned out to be very, very badly designed, which I could have told you the first time I saw it, and saved the State of Ohio millions of dollars in the bargain.

The social studies section of the OAT, implemented with great fanfare in 2004, died an ignominious death five short years later.

NOW THE LADIES AND GENTLEMEN of the Ohio General Assembly and our great leader in the Governor's Mansion want to lead us backward in time to "success" again.

I'm retired from teaching now. Maybe I shouldn't let this get me riled up. But I'd like to sit a few of those lawmakers down in my old class and make them learn about the history of stupid legislation, at both the state and federal level.

IT MIGHT be fun to turn to original documents. It might be cool, too, to require all our lawmakers to grow their hair out in mullets.

Really, what have we got to lose?