Friday, January 30, 2015

What a Difference a Century Makes

My father and mother, both age 27.


My father, James R. Viall, would have turned 100 years old today. So, what was different when he was born a century ago? 

One of the first differences we would notice would be that in 1915 there were simply not as many people

U. S. population stood at just over 100 million, less than a third of what it is today.

The world population would not hit two billion until 1927, when my father and mother were entering seventh grade. It would top three billion about the time my older brother, Tim, was in junior high. Population growth accelerated from there: four billion in 1974, when Jenny Viall, my father’s second granddaughter was born, five billion in 1987, when Sarah Viall, his fifth grandchild joined the fray, six billion by the time she entered junior high, seven billion by the time she graduated from Yale in 2012.

(Ellora Viall, born in 2014, is likely to see the world’s population reach nine billion before she turns 40.)

Medical care was far less advanced a hundred years ago. The first heart transplant was half a century down the road. Insulin had not been discovered. Any boy or girl who developed type-1 diabetes was doomed. (Glad thats no longer true, Emily Viall.) Smallpox was still a killer and a sister of my father’s succumbed in 1912. An outbreak of influenza would sweep the globe in 1918. The death toll was at least twenty millions, perhaps as high as fifty million. 

Life expectancy was 52.5 years for men, almost 57 for women.

A little more than 1 in 4 American workers (27%) were employed on 6.4 million farms at the time of my father’s birth. 

(The figures today are 2.2 million and 2%).

Speaking of workers, Henry Ford dominated the fledgling auto industry and his company would roll a millionth car off the assembly lines before the year ended.

Ford also had problems. He had perfected the assembly line but was having trouble keeping workers. He decided to raise wages. In 1914, the average Ford factory worker earned $2.50 per day for nine hours. Ford cut the workday to eight hours and raised the daily rate to $5.00, including bonuses. The president of Pittsburgh Plate Glass predicted ruin for Ford Motors, or for American industry, or both, as a result. The Wall Street Journal hinted that Ford was infected with Bolshevik tendencies.

Over half of all workers in mines and factories were foreign-born in 1915. Conditions were far from ideal. Almost 2300 coal miners would die on the job during the year, roughly average between 1903-1930. A steel worker could report working 68 hours per week. And no Saturday off for most workers! A Polish immigrant reported making $41 in two weeks at his factory job. He then had to pay the company $9 rent for living in a company-owned house, owed $24 for purchases at the company-owned store, and had to pay a fee of 50¢ for a visit to the company-owned hospital and 30¢ for the privilege of having his tools sharpened at the company-owned shop. “Company towns” were common in those days—with workers sometimes paid in “scrip,” or bills and coins only good at the company store. Only 1 in 10 American workers then belonged to a union.

April 5: In a heavyweight fight held in Havana, Cuba, Jess Willard defeated Jack Johnson, a match ripe with racial undertones. Johnson, a black fighter, had made all kinds of enemies over the years, mainly by pummeling white fighters, and seeming to enjoy it, as well as marrying and/or living with various white women. (Interracial marriage was then illegal in most states, which did complicate matters.) 

April 26: Francis Marion Harbit, the mother of my wife, Anne Viall, was born. (The middle name is for the Revolutionary War hero.)

The world she entered in 1915 was a place where women were still denied voting rights. Legally, in most states, a wife’s services also belonged to her spouse—so a husband could control her paycheck. In one famous case a St. Louis woman, long separated from her husband, lost her leg in an industrial accident. She sued the company for $10,000, only to have her long-lost man reappear, agree to settle with her employer for $300, and disappear with the cash. In some states it was still legal for the husband to grant custody of the children in his will to whomever he chose.

At the time only 1 in 5 workers was female. 

Only 1 in 25 medical school graduates was a woman, a figure that would remain virtually unchanged from 1905 until 1965. 

There were still almost no female lawyers, judges or elected officials.

One man who was enjoying himself was Babe Ruth. In the spring he signed a contract with the Boston Red Sox for $3500. The investment paid off, as Ruth, a lefthander, compiled a record of 18-6. As a bonus he led the Red Sox in homeruns with four. No other player on the team hit more than two for the season. The Boston squad would go on to win the World Series, 4 games to 1, vs. the Philadelphia Phillies. Ruth never had a chance to pitch and went 0 for 1 as a pinch hitter.

Charlie Chaplin was also having a fine year, having inked a deal to earn $1250 per week, mostly on the strength of a popular new character, “The Tramp,” who first appeared as a full-blown figure in a movie of that name in April.

Billy Sunday, the fiery preacher, was also in the news. In one blistering sermon after another he railed against dresses which showed too much cleavage, with “collars down around the waist.” He also warned against playing bridge, about listening to jazz, and said it was impossible to “see God through the bottom of a beer-mug.”

World War I had raged for six months by the time my father arrived as a squalling infant. In August 1914, news of war had been met with singing and cheering in Moscow, London and Paris. In Berlin one observer reported that the people were “mad for war.” Military experts predicted it would all be over within three to five months. Now enthusiasm was waning. On a single day in 1915, newspapers could report that 20,000 soldiers had been killed in just the last twenty-four hours.

On May 7, 1915 a German submarine put a single torpedo into the side of the great ocean liner Lusitania. The “floating hotel,” as the ship was then called, would sink in eighteen minutes, carrying almost 1200 passengers and crew with her to the bottom, including thirty-one infants aboard.

From that moment, pressure would grow on President Woodrow Wilson to enter the war on the side of France and England. He would refuse, and in 1916, run for re-election on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” (Wilson would go to bed on election night believing he had been defeated; but final results, three days later, would show he had won a narrow electoral victory, 277-254, over Republican challenger Charles Evans Hughes. Ohio had 24 electoral votes—California 13—Florida 6, in those days. Today the figures are 18—55—and 29—reflecting huge population shifts.)

July 26: My mother, Eleanor Cecile Winter, was welcomed into the world.

There was great concern at this time about the flood of immigrants. The term hyphenated American came into use. Teddy Roosevelt popularized the idea of the “one hundred percent American.” Would German Americans be loyal during the war? Were Italian Americans all criminals? What about the radical ideas of many foreign workers? Could these people even assimilate? After visiting one Italian immigrant family a social worker grumbled: “Not Americanized. Still eating spaghetti.”

From 1900 to 1915, three million Italian immigrants landed on our shores. The flow had been changing. More and more Jews, fleeing persecution in Poland and Russia, joined them. There were many others from Greece, Romania, Hungary and Armenia. On the eve of World War I, 1 of ever 4 Greek males at work was working in this country.

Edward Ross, a professor of sociology, watched the flood and saw only “hirsute, low-browed, big-faced persons of obviously low mentality,” people who clearly belonged in “wattled huts at the close of the Great Ice Age.”

These weren’t the kind of people who built America—who made it great! (Doesn’t that sound familiar?)

The Ku Klux Klan was also having a good year, as membership blossomed, and the Klan message—anti-black, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant—resonated. Sometime during the 20s, I believe, my mother’s Catholic family looked out one night to see a cross burning on their lawn in Akron, Ohio.

A number of books during this era warned of the growing immigrant menace. Madison Grant, in The Passing of a Great Race (1916) talked of “a large and increasing number of the weak, the broken and the mentally crippled of all races drawn from the lowest stratum of the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans, together with hordes of the wretched, submerged populations of the Polish ghettos. Our jails insane asylums and almshouses are filled with this human flotsam and the whole tone of American life, social, moral and political has been lowered and vulgarized by them.”

Almost 1.2 million immigrants landed on American shores in 1914. Then war in Europe cut the flow to just over 350,000 in 1915.

Spoon River was published in 1915. 

Lillian Gish starred in the film, The Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroic defenders of Southern women and Anglo-Saxon culture and civilization.

Anti-Semitism was also in vogue. Leo Frank was lynched in Marietta, Georgia after his death sentence was commuted in the murder of Mary Phagan, a young woman employed in Frank’s factory. (Many legal experts believed Frank was innocent all along.) A mob of outraged citizens dragged him from his cell and left him dangling from a tree. The Marietta paper approved of the mob action, referring to participants as “law-abiding citizens” who only wanted to see a just sentence carried out. For the year there were thirteen lynchings of white prisoners and fifty-six of blacks. Harvard and other elite institutions implemented quotas on Jewish admissions and Henry Ford, himself, published a newspaper which regularly attacked Jewish bankers and ordinary Jews in language that, after the Great War ended, warmed the heart of a young veteran named Adolf Hitler.  

Speaking of prejudice, African Americans, referred to in those days as “negroes” (if they were lucky), were denied access to the vote across the South. Literacy tests and poll taxes were employed to keep them off the rolls. In some counties, with majority black populations, a black man had a better chance of being lynched than he did of casting a ballot. In many places not a single non-white voter would be listed on the rolls until after 1960.

Finally, Americans were far less educated a century ago than they are today. Only 6 in 10 white children, ages 5-19, were enrolled in school in 1915. 

The figure for blacks was roughly 4 in 10 and the average number of years of schooling completed was 8.6. 

As late as 1940, my father would still be the exception—my mother and Anne’s mother even more so. The year they all turned twenty-five only 5% of adults had college degrees. (A year before the United States joined the fighting in World War II the average high school graduate was earning $1,661. The average college graduate was doing much better, earning almost a thousand dollars more: $2,607.)


Who knows what the next hundred years will bring?
Ellora Viall, b. 9-2-2014, great granddaughter of James R. Viall.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Teachers: Accountable for What?

The true task of the teacher is to convince students to explore.

Monday morning, 7:31 a. m.; January 26: You are a public school teacher, already ensconced at your desk. Typically, you arrive early for work; but today you feel rejuvenated after a relaxing weekend with your family. You have your coffee and danish and soon you’ll be charged up and ready to go.

Unfortunately, you can’t shake a nagging doubt. 

You have heard the school reformers insist that if we expect to improve U. S. education we must “hold teachers accountable.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is an avid supporter of Common Core, with a tidal wave of standardized tests to follow. Test scores will be critical, he claims, when it comes to measuring accountability.

This past weekend you saw another report indicating that politicians in several states hope to revoke their decision to sign up for Common Core. At a meeting in Iowa Saturday, potential Republican presidential candidates for 2016 came out vehemently against what they now call “Obamacore.”

Sitting at your desk, you take a gulp of strong coffee and shake your head. You might be a Republican. You might be a Democrat. You might be a Whig. 

When it comes to understanding what teachers do, you feel school reformers, politicians and Secretary Duncan have no clue.

“Accountability for what?” you mutter.

If you’re approaching the end your career you have even greater cause for doubt. You remember how politicians promised to fix schools in the early 90s by implementing state proficiency tests. That plan didn’t work. 

In 2002 Congress stepped forward to pass No Child Left Behind, promising to fix everything by 2014. That didn’t work. 

Now Common Core is coming—or maybe not coming—and you wonder if politicians have revolving doors in their heads.

If you teach second grade, you think back to Friday. You know what Duncan never knows. You know no member of Congress ever sees, or even cares to see. You still feel sad about what happened, when you had to deal with an eight-year-old boy who wanted to wear his stocking cap all day in class. When you asked why, he started crying. So you led him gently to the hall to see what you might do. He wiped his tears and felt better because you cared. He said his mother got drunk Thursday night. (He told you two months ago that his father disappeared soon after he was born.)

Anyway, mom decided to give him a haircut, but ended up clipping only part of his head, leaving odd patches of hair sticking up in every direction. When you asked if you could see, he slowly removed his cap and you knew you had to do something to help him get through the day. You contacted the counselor and worked out a plan to have the school nurse trim off the last strands of hair.

(You were accountable to help. You were not accountable for what happened to the young man Thursday night.)

If you teach eighth grade American history, a fourteen-year-old will come to your room at the end of fourth bell today, just before lunch. “I’m pregnant,” she will tell you and together you will talk about choices she is going to have to make. 

A bell will ring again, thirty minutes later, signaling the end of your lunch and hers. Neither of you will have eaten, but you will tell the young lady you are more than happy to talk any time she feels the need.

You are accountable to give counsel to the teen. You are accountable for teaching about the Bill of Rights, the topic for the day.

(The girl, the young man who impregnated her, perhaps their parents, too, are accountable for everything else.)

If you teach Language Arts at the twelfth grade level your plan on this cold January day is to pass back a set of essays on Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other nineteenth century authors, students were assigned to write. These essays took fifteen hours to grade over the weekend. You earned nothing for your extra work. But you don’t begrudge the time.

You will discover, as the day goes by, that ten students have failed to complete the assignment. One boy is a pot smoker. (You don’t know that; but, he is.) Another will admit he stayed up till 4 a. m. twice last week—not to work on his essay—but to play video games. Three who will fail to turn in work have chronic absenteeism issues. After a recent stretch of two weeks’ absence you will learn today that one girl has dropped out. You will think back to a discussion you had in November—when you told her you could see she had college potential. She explained then that her father had lost his job, and her family was losing their home, and she had to look for full-time work to help out.

(You are not accountable for that.)

You don’t have time to worry about arrogant school reformers and idiot politicians. If you teach kindergarten, you will be putting out fires all day, trying to direct two dozen five- and six-year-olds toward a better future. You will be busy helping one boy who recognized neither letters nor numbers when you met him last August.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, if you are a high school football coach, you spent the fall trying to teach boys what it means to be men. Your season is over and your team went 6-6. This was better than expected, given the broken leg suffered by your first-string quarterback. You are proud to know that you plucked one young man out of gym class, because you saw he was a hard-nosed kid, and convinced him to try out for the squad. All season, he starred on defense and you think he might eventually be able to play at the college level. You know you change lives for the better, just as your colleague teaching kindergarten does.

In cavalier fashion you once heard a school reformer tell reporters, “We now know it is possible to teach every child, even the poorest kids, even from the toughest backgrounds.” 

You know what the reformer said was true. Yet, you understand that “possible” doesn’t mean “easy.” You know the kid with the drunken barber for a mother—or six million kids suffering through abusive situations every year—is going to be harder to reach than the child seated behind him who comes from a loving home.

Seated at your desk this morning, you shake your head. Then the bell rings and a wave of young people floods the room. You smile and another day begins. You are accountable only for doing the very best you can.

An art teacher is accountable for helping students find their own talents.
A Language Arts teacher fosters the love of books. 

A history teacher brings in a World War II veteran to talk about fighting at Okinawa and Leyte Gulf.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014: The Year Teachers became Public Enemy #1

Most teachers were probably too busy working with kids to notice. But in 2014 we were declared “Public Enemy #1.”

Who so declared? A group of arrogant fools who had no idea what it was like to spend a life in the classroom.

Luckily, as the chart below indicates, the general public still has faith in teachers. When it comes to ethics and honesty, elementary teachers rated higher in a 2013 Gallup survey than almost any other profession. (We were not included in a more recent survey in December 2014.) True, we lost to nurses. But we nosed out doctors and military officers.

Members of Congress, state officeholders and lobbyists (who now have a stranglehold on education policy) ranked at rock bottom.


The only profession they beat out was witches.

(In 2014 nurses finished first again at 80%. Members of Congress dropped a point and came in dead last.)

Well, then, who decided teachers were the Great Satan? Glenn Beck was one. Campbell Brown was another. Frank Bruni, education writer for the New York Times, was a third.

And there were plenty of others.

Beck weighed in with his book: Conform: Exposing the Truth about Common Core and Public Education. It wasn’t just Common Core that left Beck fuming. He also railed against extending the school day in hopes of raising test scores. What really made teachers wince, however, was his reasoning:
There’s also the issue of what our kids would learn with even more hours at school. Many of these educators would relish the opportunity to spend more time feeding students a steady stream of radical, anti-American political ideas, encouraging teen sexual activity, and deemphasizing the importance of traditional values and religion.

Former CNN anchor Brown also had a bee-filled bonnet. Leading the charge against teacher tenure, she left listeners with the impression that this was the gravest problem our nation faced, with the possible exception of Ebola.

Again, her “reasoning” was what shocked: 
In New York City, home to the largest public school system in America, the four-year graduation rate hovers at a dismal 60.4 percent. More distressing: Less than 22 percent of the city’s students graduate college and emerge career ready, and the number drops to 12.2 percent for Hispanics and 11.1 percent for African-Americans.
Despite those statistics, a new teachers’ contract celebrated by political and union leaders offers more frustration. The deal will weaken evaluations of teachers, reduce instructional time, send teachers with disciplinary records back to the classroom, and make it harder to fire a teacher who engages in sexual misconduct with kids.

In August the California Supreme Court rendered a decision which may end tenure in the state. First, the judge in Vergara vs. California ruled that students from low income families often had less-qualified teachers and attended schools which were less safe than schools attended by students from high income families. Therefore, the judge added, a more equitable method of assigning good teachers and a quicker way to fire bad ones was essential.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was thrilled. After all, Duncan likes to tell anyone who will listen: “equal opportunities for education must include the equal opportunity to be taught by a great teacher.”

Real teachers, struggling to help real kids attending low income schools, might have pointed out that children from low income families also deserved great neighborhoods to live in....

Great pediatricians to keep them healthy....

That the parents they worked with deserved great job opportunities....

And that teachers deserved a great Secretary of Education, one not so clueless....

Who else decided in the last twelve months that teachers were the root of all evil? Thomas J. Kane, a Harvard economist whose research helped decide the Vergara case, “proved” it with numbers. According to Kane, a poor teacher cost the average child something like sixteen bazillion dollars in lifetime earnings.

So, for god sakes, we had to have excellent teachers in every classroom.

Time piled on, too, with an egregious cover story about bad teachers (“Rotten Apples”). If a reader followed the logic of the article, they came away convinced that millions of feloniously-inclined educators were hiding behind tenure protections. Naturally, Time decided to ask former Washington, D. C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee to comment. And just as naturally, Rhee agreed the Vergara decision would fix a “broken status quo.”

Rhee, for those who still don’t recognize her by name, appeared on the cover of Time in 2009. There she stood—looking menacing, broom in hand—indicating she had her own plan to fix a broken status quo. She was going to use that broom to clean up the mess in the schools by sweeping out...of course...all the bad teachers!

During her three years as chancellor, Rhee did indeed fire hundreds of educators when they “failed” to raise test scores. Rhee did reward hundreds of others who raised scores. She then grabbed her broom and skipped town before news of a huge cheating scandal involving “raised” test scores hit the educational fan.

Who else was leading the fight to fix education?

Bill Gates, for one, was hard at work behind the scenes. Unlike Beck, however, Gates was all for Common Core, even though politicians seemed unable to decide if they were for it—or against it—or for it and then against.

Common Core, as you may recall, was adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia four years ago. But in 2014 lawmakers in Alabama and Ohio were hard at work trying to withdraw from the program. In Mississippi the issue turned out to be “politically radioactive” and the governor called it a “failed program,” even though he had once touted it. Georgia dropped out, citing the high costs of all the new standardized testing. In Louisiana the governor wanted to rescind approval. But the legislature wouldn’t let him. Indiana and Oklahoma pulled out entirely, with lawmakers who voted for it four years before leading the repeal effort.

(Teachers could only shake their heads and wonder if these people had any idea what they were doing.)

The New York Times also kicked teachers in the shins on several occasions. Frank Bruni delivered some of the best blows, agreeing that problems in U. S. education pretty much began and ended with poor teachers. After talking with Mike Johnston, former Teach for America star/turned Colorado lawmaker, Bruni had no doubt the Centennial State had acted wisely in eliminating tenure. Because, with tenure, Johnston told Bruni, there was “no incentive for someone to improve their practice.”

Who else agreed that teachers were the problem? Naturally, Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America (who never taught for America or for the Fiji Islands, either), joined in the kicking with gusto. We needed smart people in every classroom, Kopp clamored We needed people like Rhee and Johnston and everyone else who signed up with Teach for America!

Of course, one problem with this model boiled down to math. Those who signed on agreed to try to save children for two years. (After that: not so much.) And Kopp had to admit that of 47,000 men and women enrolled in the last twenty-five years in the program only 11,000 remained in the classroom this past September.

Amanda Ripley also weighed in on the subject of bad teachers, delivering a number of speeches in 2014 to august bodies of non-teachers. Ripley specializes in reporting on education, although she has no personal experience in the classroom, except as an avid student. In The Smartest Kids in the World, And How They Got that Way, she first pinpointed the problem in U. S. education in 2013. Finland, she wrote at the time, had smarter teachers. For that reason, Finnish students scored near the top in international testing assessments.

(See: PISA scores.)

What could we learn by studying the Finnish model? We could learn that American teachers were numb skulls. That’s why American students scored somewhere in the middle on PISA assessments.

Bruni was at it again in the fall, penning a review of another new book on education, this one by Joel I. Klein, former New York City school chancellor. What factor mattered most in “the education equation?” Surprise, surprise: “Teacher quality.” Insisted Klein: “a great teacher can rescue a child from a life of struggle.” 

This is true, of course. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy—and Klein might find that out if he tried teaching.

(Needless to say, he never will.)

Bruni reminded readers that Klein “oversaw the largest public school system in the country and did so for longer than any other New York schools chief in half a century.” “That gives him a vantage point on public education that would be foolish to ignore,” Bruni insisted. Or to put it plainly, anyone interested in education should jump in a car and drive at breakneck speed to the book store and pick up a copy of Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools.

Then again: maybe the potential reader should tap the brakes once or twice. Klein devoted eight years to fixing the New York schools and then he decided he’d had enough. (Most of his life he has been a corporate lawyer.) Plus, Campbell Brown said the New York City Schools still sucked, despite all his efforts! So, if you’ve taught nine years, or fifteen, or thirty-one, you can offer valuable insights because you have “a vantage point on public education that would be foolish to ignore.”

Of course, Bruni never bothered to ask veteran teachers what they thought about pretty much anything.

In 2014, that was typical.

With the year drawing to a close, Campbell Brown journeyed to Washington to speak at the convention for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Without noticing the irony, the Foundation later reported: “At the nation’s premier annual education forum, lawmakers and policymakers were immersed in two days of in-depth discussions on proven policies and innovative strategies to improve student achievement.”

Two measly days. Two measly days—and they knew everything.

So it was, last year, that teachers were labeled “Public Enemy #1” by those who knew nothing about what it meant to work in a classroom.

These fools talked and talked and talked about what had to be done to save every child. Meanwhile, they left all the saving to teachers.

*******

If you liked this post, you might like my book about teaching, Two Legs Suffice, now available on Amazon.

Or contact me at vilejjv@yahoo.com and I can probably send you a copy direct, a little more cheaply. My book is meant to be a defense of all good teachers and a clear explanation of what good teachers can do, and what they cannot do.