Category Archives: Education

A Short Question. A Longer Answer

I wish to propose a question. It’s likely to be held in contempt by a number of people. Some might even condemn me to Hell. However, society has gotten nowhere by keeping its mouth shut. It progresses by the asking of questions. So here I go.

Are Judaism and it’s spin-off of Christianity supposed to be monotheistic religions?

Most people would probably say yes. Jews and Christians worship one God, not many Gods. That answer misses the point of the question. I’m not asking if they do worship one God. Instead I am asking if they are supposed to believe that there is only one God. Let’s look at the 1st Commandment:

6 I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7 you shall have no other gods before me.” Deuteronomy 5:6-7

That doesn’t say there is only one God. It just says you only get to worship one God. Maybe it’s heretical, but I’m just trying to ask a question that I don’t hear anyone asking. Like I said, society progresses through the asking of questions and the search for answers. That is what made Newton question why things fall to the ground. It led Franklin to investigate lightning. In 1969 that spirit put a man on the moon. We should stop accepting what we have been told and go out and discover for ourselves.

It is of interest that this is the very problem with American political participation. We are far too willing to accept something that is said to us repeatedly. Karl Rove can raise millions of dollars and use it to sway elections because a 30 second attack ad is easier to absorb than a complicated argument. Everyone complains about attack ads during a campaign, but they are there because they work. It easier to say, “raising taxes is bad.,” than it is to go out and find the information that shows those tax increases would be on %2 of the population. Guess what? You’re not one of them.

What truly saddens me is that we don’t have the desire to even question the most simplistic statements. If we can’t get past those, then no one questions the 1st commandment. Many people would tell me that my argument about Deuteronomy isn’t really that important. There are roughly 2 billion Christians in the world. How is it not important?

Questioning our leaders, in our communities, government, or churches is very important. One fact that is often forgotten is that those people work for us. Ministers are supposed to be servants of their congregations. Government employees work for the public good. We are their boss, and any good boss pays attention to what his employees are doing. I’d say it’s about time we check in on ours.


The James Tate Affair

Just who is James Tate? If you don’t already know, he is the target of this week’s unbelievable piece of irony. Tate is a high school senior who attends Shelton High School in Shelton, Connecticut. He’s been thrown into the public eye because he has been banned from his high school prom. Why? Because he asked a girl to go with him. I was going to talk about voting to raise the debt ceiling, but this is too good to pass up.

To be fair, he wasn’t banned for asking the girl, but for the way he asked. He sent her a message. The message was in giant cardboard letters taped to the side of the school. I’m not kidding. Tate and some friends made cardboard letters and like Navy SEALs, snuck up to the school at night with a ladder and posted an old-fashioned text message. The school principal in response punished Tate for trespassing (because it was not during school hours) and putting students at risk of injuring themselves (because he climbed a really tall ladder.) The real punishment was an in-school suspension. Apparently, at Shelton High, a suspension after April 1st also gets you banned from the prom.

I have a couple of problems with this decision. One question is, what’s the deal with April 1st? My guess is that the policy was put in place to deter would be April Fool’s Day pranksters. It is not fair, however, to prevent those suspended one day from attending prom, while allowing those who were suspended the day before to attend. If the policy said if you are suspended at all you can’t go to the prom that would be fine. I think it would be a stupid punishment, but that’s just my opinion. The bigger question is what kind of message does this send? James Tate was being bold and creative. Aren’t those attributes that school’s should promote? We want kids to think outside the box. We want them to find new and creative ways to accomplish things. This is the most creative way to ask a girl to a dance that I have ever heard of.

Yes, he broke the rules but how is preventing him from going to prom a reasonable punishment? He has asked for some alternative, like community service and the school denied him. This thing is not going away though, because somebody in Hartford caught word of the story. That’s right, a state legislator is getting involved. As the Christian Science Monitor reports, Rep. Jason Perillo in offering an amendment to an education bill that would require Shelton High (and all Connecticut schools) to offer community service as an alternate punishment for being barred from any school function. I like that idea. I don’t like barring kids from school functions. These events define a school community and it is important that everyone be able to be involved.

I already saw cast suggestions for the film about this event. You gotta admit that if Tate and his date get to go, she did say yes, there will probably be applause when they walk in. It would be a genuine coup d’etat if they aren’t voted Prom King and Queen. It might not make such a bad film. We’ll have to see what happens next.

Who Wants Be A Teacher?

“Education will not cure all the problems of society, but without it no cure for any problem is possible.” -President Lyndon Johnson

Attacking teachers is becoming an all to common occurence in this country. We all watched the protests in Wisconsin as teacher’s rights were being stripped. We know about the bills in Ohio and other states. Recently, it really hit home for me because it hit Kansas City.

Dr. John Covington is the superintendent of the Kansas City, MO school district. The KCMO district has been plagued with huge problems in the past. Dr. Covington was brought in to turn it around. He took a radical approach, that he knew would be unpopular. He drastically cut back on staff and closed around half of the districts schools. People didn’t like it, but understood the necessity for change. Now he may have gone to far. As the Kansas City Star reports, the district recently informed a large number of non-tenured teachers that their contracts would not be renewed. So the district in reducing staff, what’s the big deal? The deal is that the district isn’t reducing staff. They have a contract with Teach For America, a groups that recruits college graduates to teach for a few years in needy schools. The district plans to bring in around 150 new teachers from this program. So why did they fire teachers they already had? We don’t know. The nice thing about non-tenured teachers, in the eyes of districts, is that you don’t have to tell them why. We do know that performance was not a consideration. Dr. Covington confirmed that. So the reason had to be money. The district has budget problems and new teachers cost less than experienced teachers. While, the average pay of teachers is 55 thousand dollars a year, a first year teacher averages only 36.

This raises a question about teacher pay statistics. We’ve heard a lot recently about teachers average pay. There are a few different ways of looking at teacher pay. One is the mean average, where you add up all the teachers salaries and divide it by the number of teachers. Another way to look at it is pay per contract hour. Teachers don’t get paid by the hour exactly, but they sign a contract that says they will work this many hours for this many days. Those contracts are usually around 8 hours a day for an average school year of 180 days. If you take their salary and divide it by the number of hours you get an estimated per hour wage. I don’t like either of these ways. Pay per contract hour is ridiculous. There is no teacher in this country who doesn’t work hours outside of their contract. It’s impossible. Teachers cannot do their jobs in an 8 hour day with kids. There are papers to grade, lesson plans to develop and any number of things that have to be done outside of contract hours. Average pay is better but it is skewed by higher income teachers. In some states teachers make considerably more simply because the cost of living is higher. Usually median pay is the best way to look at salary because it gives you a better idea of the true middle. For instance if Bill Gates is in a room with 50 low wage workers, the median income will be much smaller than the mean. It is also a more accurate view of that group. Median teacher income in this country varies by state but is somewhere between 40-43 thousand dollars a year. That’s not a bad salary by any means, but the media representation has been that teachers are living the high life. They’re not. They are living very middle class lives.

I could go on and on about teacher pay and teacher rights but there is an underlying point here. Teachers do get better benefits than the average worker in this country. They are paid decently. If we continue to hack away at those facts we will find ourselves in a difficult spot. If we continue to take away the incentives that bring people to teaching, are we going to have enough teachers in the future?

The fact is that we need teachers. There are 49 million public school students spread across 98 thousand public schools. Someone has to take on the job of educating them. The truth is not everybody wants to be a teacher. There are those who think of teaching as a calling. Education is sacred to them and they want to go out and teach the world. There aren’t enough of them. We have 3 million teachers in this country and not all of them chose teaching. Many see it as a transition from college to a career. That’s what Teach For America is all about. Those people agree to teach for a couple of years in needy schools. After that couple of years they might quit and move on to what they originally wanted to do. Some of them may find that they really like teaching but another career may offer them more. If we want to have any hope of retaining those some of those teachers we’re going to have to give them a reason to stay. A decent income and guaranteed pension might be a enough of a reason. Taking away those things is reason to leave teaching. In Wisconsin, they are seeing far more retirements than usual. Educators are leaving in droves to make sure they get the retirement benefits they’ve been promised.

In the state of the Union speech, the President said we need to “out-educate” the rest of the world. Can we out educate the world when the total amount of money spent on education at all levels of government doesn’t even equal what the federal government spends on defense? In 2010, the Department of Education had a budget of 64 billion dollars. After you remove Pell grants, they only had 48 billion dollars. Imagine if what we spent on education was equal to what we spend on defense. Somewhere around 700 billion dollars to train teachers, build schools, and send kids to college.  We live in a time where Congressman and Senators sound like the government does too much, when it actually does far, far, too little. Maybe we should look to history and something Lyndon Johnson said:

” So we must give every child a place to sit and a teacher to learn from. Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty. But more classrooms and more teachers are not enough. We must seek an educational system which grows in excellence as it grows in size. This means better training for our teachers. It means preparing youth to enjoy their hours of leisure as well as their hours of labor. It means exploring new techniques of teaching, to find new ways to stimulate the love of learning and the capacity for creation.”

The “love of learning and the capacity for creation.” We don’t talk like that anymore.  We need to add incentives and bring in new teachers, not take them away. You often hear that certain professions need to be paid top dollar. A company needs to pay their CEO millions to attract the “best and the brightest.” Shouldn’t we want the “best and the brightest” passing on all the knowledge they have? Shouldn’t we want the “best and the brightest” in our classrooms. An average teacher makes 43 thousand dollars a year and is being treated like they shouldn’t ask the government for so much. Yet, that CEO really needs more stock options.  If we want to know why education this country is consistently ranked lower than others look at how we treat educators.  If we truly valued education we would spend hundreds of billions of dollars and pay teachers more, build better schools, do more research into how to teach, and build better teacher education programs. Then we might see real results in education.

Arizona Doesn’t Support Religious Education. They Just Pay For It.

The Supreme Court ruled on an important case today. In a 5-4 decision they upheld an Arizona law that provides a tax credit to citizens if they donate to a “school tuition organization.” This tax credit, called the “Private School Tax Credit Law” gives citizens somewhere between $500-$1000 dollars in a tax refund if they donate to one of these “STOs.” The real question is whether this is government support of religion. There are a few very important questions that need to be answered about this law.

First of all, how is it not government support of religion when government is providing money that supports religion. The Arizona state government is saying if you promote private education they will give you the money to do it. A tax credit means that they reduce the amount of taxes you pay. This is different from a tax deduction that only reduces your taxable income. How is that not government support of private education? It is true that not all private education is religious, but most of it is. When it gets down to the facts of the case, government should only be funding private education because it is the only way government can control the agenda. Religious schools teach only their view of the world. That’s why children brought up in religious schools may not be taught evolution for example. Government should provide education for its children without religious influence.

It would be very interesting to find out if those people who support the Arizona tax credit would support it if they heard that the money was going to Muslim schools. It shouldn’t. It also shouldn’t support Christian, Jewish, or any other religious schools. It is important that education explores world religions. It is also important that they do not show a bias. Education is something that should provide a broad worldview. It should never narrow that view to support any one viewpoint.

President Obama Should Fight For Education . . . Now

In his speech on public education in America, the President made many grand statements, but offered few solutions. It’s good that the President is taking up the issue of public education. Public education is the single most important issue in this country.  It affects every aspect of our lives. It drastically affects our economy. The United States will be better off it our workforce is more educated.

In his speech at Kenmore Middle School, the President stressed that it all begins at home. Instilling a desire for education and the discipline to obtain is the responsibility of parents. What he didn’t address is how do we help kids who don’t have that. As much as we don’t like it, some parents are not responsible. Some parents will not instill those values in their children. Some children will show up at school tired and hungry. We have to address these children’s problems. One step is providing breakfast at schools in the same way that we provide free and reduced lunches.

The President also stressed his program, “Race to the Top.” This program told states that if they showed progress then the best of them would see federal money. While you can say the program caused states to raise standards, it raises the question, “Is competition the right model for public education?”

This is a very big question. The President called on Congress to send him an education bill that he could sign by the beginning of the next school year. He put the responsiblity on Congress. The reason that the competition question is so important is that Congress is increasingly under Republican influence and they believe competition is the answer to everything. Republican views of education range from promoting school choice and voucher programs to dismantling the Department of Education and saying, “Screw the public, they can educate themselves.” Public education cannot be subject to this idea. The very idea of public education is that it is available to everyone. It doesn’t matter what your ethnicity, or socio-economic status is. Every child deserves a certain level of education, and the government should give it to them. Competition doesn’t work because in a competition someone always loses. Right now the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments are taking place. Every team cannot win. That’s not how it works. In public education, however, everyone is supposed to win. We cannot let the free market, competition standard be applied to public education.

The President did mention a number of important points. He repeatedly stressed that education is about abstract skills like critical thinking. He said they were more important that test scores. He stressed that we need to revamp teacher education. We need to give teachers more time to collaborate and more time for veteran teachers to mentor new teachers. Most of all he highlighted the fact that education costs money. He pointed out that reform is necessary but we will also have to spend money. While money is tight, he said we cannot cut education funding. With Republican’s trying to cut spending on everything from the IRS to Pell grants, this is an important statement, however, the President did not threaten to veto a bill containing cuts to education.

President Obama’s heart is undoubtedly in the right place. He seems to truly value the idea of educating all children. He said, “In the 21st century it is not enough to make sure that no child gets left behind. We need to make sure every child has a chance to get ahead.” That is the right idea. He said educating every child is important. “That is who we are.” The President has stopped short of leading the way. His speech on Monday had the right goals, but now we must ask if the President has the political will to push for those goals.  If the job is left to Congress, we will see the same fight we have seen over the past 50 years. The nation will continue to decline in education, because we refuse to invest in it. President Obama has fought for healthcare, and financial reform. Now is the time for him to fight for education.

A Quick Thought, Again. . .

I’m working on my reaction to the President’s speech on education reform that I posted yesterday. In addition I’m continuing my work on our addiction to technology. Since neither of those is finished, I would like to leave you with this question. How confusing must it be to someone learning English that “Indian-American” and “American Indian” mean two very different things?

Let me know what you think. In the meantime, listen to the President’s speech, and check in tomorrow for my reaction.

Something You Should Watch

I’m working on a post about technology and our addiction to it, but while checking my Facebook page (yes I’m an addict too) I found this. If you are interested in education reform, you should watch it.