Talking About Education Never Stops

Talking about education never stops. Why is that? Because there is no general agreement as to what education is, let alone should be.

There are probably as many meanings to the word as there are people alive on the earth. When looked at closely each individual’s life represents a unique educational path. One’s learning is the result of a unique, continually evolving set of environmental and hereditary factors giving form and substance to one’s experiences throughout one’s lifetime.

Then there is school. Probably that which, helas, most people mean by education. A monumental irony lies in the fact that school is no less apt to inhibit one’s education, that is, restrain and narrow it, as promote and further it.

Now much of the talk about education is really about educational or rather school reforms. Today, as always, schools are clearly not successful with all of their students. The talk of change, of reforming the schools, is the result.

It used to be that all school talk, including talk of reform, was local. This was so because in our land the local authorities were to begin with the ultimate arbiters of how schools should be built and structured as well as of what should be taught within them. The Feds were, to begin with anyway, out of the picture. (And some, from both the left and the right, would like to return to that time.)

During the past century the situation changed radically. Why was this? Why did the Federal government become a principal player in our schools? Well isn’t it always the case that when the locals fail to properly handle their responsibilities to those in their charge the Feds are brought in? And this is what happened and is still happening, with no end in sight. Many see a national curriculum as being the next big Federal intrusion into our local schools.

Would we have had the Federal efforts to integrate our schools if the locals had not so easily accepted separate as equal? And would we have had the Federal disability legislation of the 1970s, including the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, if the local authorities had shown proper concern for the needs of the handicapped? And would we have had the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 if the local school districts had not allowed the achievement gaps between whites and racial minorities to continue unchecked?

So the case has been powerfully made for the still expanding role of the Federal bureaucracy in the local school districts. As in so many other instances of our national life certain corrective actions were clearly called for and the local school authorities were unwilling to take those actions unless compelled to do so.

Now one might ask if the pendulum of primary responsibility for what goes on in the schools has swung too far to the side of central control? I would say it has. Certainly this is so in respect to the three examples mentioned above. The imposed busing solution to segregation in the schools is clearly not working and our schools, many of them, are more segregated now than ever. The disability entitlements, enacted into Federal law, have placed unacceptable and mostly unmet financial burdens on state and local governments. And finally the rigid standardized testing program of No Child Left Behind has not resulted, after some five years, in any of the children “left behind” catching up.

Educators ought to talk less about schools and more about education. For a proper understanding of the nature of education could then bring us to a more effective and compelling Rx for the schools. Of all the things we could say about education here are two that I would put at the very top of my list.

For one, education is constantly going on as we experience our world. It may or not take place in school. It’s not a part of life, but rather it is our life. Education is the brain’s breathing, and over that we may have some control in respect to our own, but not in respect to that of anyone else. Parents take note! Your children will be what they are, not what you would make them.

We have more power to change the direction of a mighty river, to channel the light of the sun into new sources of energy, than we have to shape an individual’s growth and development, that is, his education. For each person’s education is on its own trajectory, the course of which is mainly determined by each person’s own efforts. There’s no way we can completely control anyone’s learning aside from our own, no way we can direct the countless encounters that everyone will make during a lifetime, and most of which do not even take place in school.
      
This thought of our powerlessness before a life not our own ought to humble the educators among us, keep us from constantly going on about all that we intend to do for the kids in our charge. For how much of what we would do can we do? Not all that much. Do you know, for example, a school or school program that ever turned one or more of its students into good citizens? And yet don’t we talk all the time about our doing just this?

For two, isn’t it true that education results most of all from what people do for themselves? The tragedy is that kids don’t know this and attend school thinking that by their attendance, by some kind of osmosis, by just being there, they will be educated. The schools, of course, go along with this conceit, for that’s their livelihood. But that’s exactly why kids can spend so much time in schools and learn so little. Probably not a few, perhaps most, only learn to learn when the school years are over and they have no choice but to rely on their on efforts.

Hasn’t most everything you now are, everything you now know, come about primarily through your own efforts? All the talk about schools and education really ought to be talk bout how we might best help people to want to learn for themselves. For if they don’t, if they have no learning goal of their own, whatever we might do for them will be of little or no avail.

More Idle Thoughts in Paris

Imagine a society where the men were hunters and trappers, and the women were home and child care givers. What would school be like in that society? Would there be a school? Probably not. Boys would learn by doing (a method that John Dewey reinvented in 1900). The boys would learn directly from their fathers and from the other men of the village, the girls from their mothers.

Some children would learn faster than others, perhaps creating achievement gaps, but they all would learn enough to very early on take on useful roles in the life of the village. As the adults retired from hunting, trapping, gathering, and cooking there would be no lack of well taught youngsters to replace them. 

In this society teachers would teach what they know. And there would be no attempt as now to continually reinvent the curriculum. For the curriculum would be what the adults did, would be what their lives were all about. Only if the adults took on new roles, only if they did something else, such as wage war, would they need to expand the curriculum to include the now necessary new skills.

What has happened that our young people, in spite of spending 12 or more years in school, are not ready to assume useful roles in society? Why is it that it seems to be so hard to give our children the knowledge and skills they will ultimately need? Is it that adult occupations are now too many and too complex, no longer easily transferable to the young? Or is it that real learning cannot go on in school, separated as school is from the activities and occupations that embody that learning?

It’s not surprising that professional schools are all closely allied with the institutions that house the activities of the profession, medicine with hospitals, law with courts, music with concert halls, athletics with playing fields. Probably there is nothing that is best learned from a book. Certainly not languages, nor history, nor science. Yet that’s what our schools are mostly about, book learning. For the teachers are not for the most part native speakers of the language taught, historians, mathematicians, or scientists. And their knowledge of all these subjects is mostly secondhand or book knowledge.

Teach a man to hunt without being a hunter yourself. It’s possible, but not very likely that it will happen. So what might we do to take ourselves back to an earlier time when young people learned by doing, and best of all by being apprenticed to those who knew how?

I see only one way out of what I call our present school impasse, when too many children, especially minority and poor children in our inner cities, attend school for many years and do not learn and therefore do not reach a springboard onto something else and something better, but too often find themselves at a deadend with something worse. I say take school away from the school people and close them down as presently structured.

Open them again, but this time allow anyone to teach, and anything to be taught. And allow parents and their children freedom to choose from what’s offered their kind of school and how and what they want to learn. And if it’s not offered stay home until it is.

In this way once again those who knew something would be the teachers, and those going to school would be going there to get  what that person knew. No longer how to trap a bear or catch a fish, but now such things as how to program a computer, write a musical composition, speak Mandarin Chinese, or write an essay.

Idle Thoughts, Paris, March 2007

World wide the haters of our country are enjoying double digit growth rates. Given the war in Iraq, and given the Israeli Palestinian stalemate it is no surprise that the American haters are multiplying in Arab and other Moslem lands.

Furthermore, highly critical voices, if not the voices of hate, are being heard more and more even, among our “friends” in Europe elsewhere.

What a dismal time it is for the land of the free and the brave. How we have squandered what could have been a fine opportunity, given our great wealth, for making the world a better place.

Instead of our citizens as ambassadors of good will throughout the world we have our young men and women in combat gear fighting seemingly endless wars against Islamic foes among whom are tens of thousands of young people ready to blow themselves rather than submit to what they see as our degenerate way of live.

In Iraq the war goes on and on and there seems to be nothing, as in Vietnam earlier, but the complete withdrawal of our forces from the country, that has any chance of stopping it.

But then even our leaving may not bring the killing to an end. For there are those who say, not without reason, repeating the words of the like minded in Vietnam nearly 40 years earlier, that our leaving will result in an even bigger bloodbath, not only in Iraq but throughout the Middle East.

Who is to blame? One would first blame the president, but he seems like such a little man to have made such a big mess. How could little George Bush have brought our country so low? And the answer, he had big Dick Cheney behind him, is not much better.

The situation is more like an accident of the road. One small mistake by the driver leading to multiple deaths as the resulting chain of car crashes plays itself out. Bush’s small mistake was to send our first soldier into Iraq.

William Sumner’s Forgotten Man

In the Boston Globe of February 26, 2007 we learn that Governor Deval Patrick seeks a $72 million hike in health aid that would boost prevention and add 3 inoculations.

Of course the announcement delighted public health advocates, who have seen the state’s prevention programs depleted by budget cuts in recent years.

We also learn that the Governor would spend an additional $13 million to turn about 800 of the state’s 1,500 half-day kindergarten classrooms into full-day programs, and that he would provide about $200 million more for public education next year.

And that in his budget for the 2008 fiscal year, which begins July 1, the state would:

“Increase funding for early intervention programs by $3.8 million, which would provide services of social workers, developmental specialists, and other therapists to young children under 3 to meet the expected 2.5 percent increase in demand next year.

“Increase funding for health promotion and disease prevention by $21.6 million, a 168 percent increase over this fiscal year, according to the governor’s office. … The $12 million increase for the state’s smoking prevention and cessation program would be the largest since 1999, according to the governor’s office.

“Increase spending on the state’s universal immunization program by $24.8 million, a 67 percent increase over this fiscal year, to add three new vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” **

The Governor, were told, has not yet explained how he would pay for all this. We’re not surprised. Politicians talk much about what they’re going to spend, little about where the new monies will come from.

The state is already facing a $1.3 billion budget deficit. Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, had this to say in response to the Governor’s proposals, “I am surprised, given the tight budget, that they’ve been able to find this much money.” Aren’t we all?

The Governor, or course, has nothing to say about the “man,” the taxpayer, who would fund his new spending initiatives. Among politicians, including presidents as well as governors, there is as a rule little or no mention of the taxpayer, the “forgotten man.” The subject is rather how the tax money will be distributed, never the justice or validity or legitimacy of the imposition of taxes on the working public.

Perhaps the best case for the tax payer, or Forgotten Man, was made by William Graham Sumner in an essay, entitled, “On the Case of a Certain Man Who Is Never Thought Of,” originally published in 1883, as part of Sumner’s book, “What the Social Classes Owe to Each Other.”

According to Sumner the Governor (or President) and his aides put their heads together to decide what the tax payer should be made to do for those who do not pay taxes (other than on consumption) and are not able to provide for themselves. The taxpayer is never allowed a voice in these matters and his position, character, and interests are as a rule entirely overlooked, hence the term “Forgotten Man.”

Politicians seem to regularly forget that a government produces nothing at all, and that the state cannot get a cent for any man without taking it from some other man, and that this latter must be a man who has produced and saved it.

Governor Patrick is not without certain benevolent feelings toward “the poor,” “the weak,” those without health care, and other such. “These investments,” he says, “will not only save lives, but also reduce treatment costs in the future.” But his proposals, all government expenditures, are only possible by the transfer of capital from the better to the worse off.

Now there are always two parties to any government scheme of the transfer of wealth, those on the receiving end, and those from whom the wealth is taken. The latter, represented by our forgotten man, is “worthy, industrious, independent, and self-supporting. He is not ‘poor’ or ‘weak.’ He minds his own business, makes no complaint, and consequently the politicians never think of him and trample on him.”

Here are Sumner’s own concluding words to his essay:

‘The fallacy of all prohibitory, sumptuary, and moral legislation is the same. A and B determine to be teetotalers, which is often a wise determination, and sometimes a necessary one. If A and B are moved by considerations which seem to them good, that is enough. But A and B put their heads together to get a law passed which shall force C to be a teetotaler for the sake of D, who is in danger of drinking too much. There is no pressure on A and B. They are having their own way, and they like it. There is rarely any pressure on D. He does not like it, and evades it. The pressure all comes on C.

“The question then arises, Who is C? He is the man who wants alcoholic liquors for any honest purpose whatsoever, who would use his liberty without abusing it, who would occasion no public question, and trouble nobody at all. He is the Forgotten Man again, and as soon as he is drawn from his obscurity we see that he is just what each one of us ought to be.”

(**That these numbers be put in perspective, be aware that the 2006
Massachusetts state budget appropriations were just over $26 billion,
with the largest single amount, $11.2 billion, going to health and
human services. Education was second, with appropriations amounting to
just over $5.5 billion.)

School Choice and Charter Schools

Today’s Boston Globe has a story about a new Massachusetts charter school, that if approved would become charter number 63 in the state. Charter schools, both in Massachusetts and elsewhere, have come about for two reasons.

First of all, and about this there is little disagreement, public schools, in particular those in our large inner cities, were failing to educate their large populations of poor and minority children. Something radical was clearly needed, especially given that previous incremental reform efforts had not been successful.

In the second place there were growing numbers of individuals who cared about the schools and were concerned by the plight of the large numbers of poor and minority children who were either dropping out of school altogether, or, if they completed high school, were often reading at an eighth grade level and still floundering in the rudiments of algebra, if indeed they had got that far.

These individuals who were ready and willing to act were either parents or young, idealistic college graduates, or both, all of whom shared the belief that schools needed to be completely remade in accordance with their ideals. And it was no longer enough to merely reform them from within.

The charter school, now outside the control of the district school authorities, became the vehicle for these individuals to go ahead with the realization of their dreams. In Massachusetts perhaps half of the new schools have become what their founders intended for them, and these schools are truly great schools. Nationally, however, the success rates are less, and it seems now, some 15 years into the charter reform movement, that too many of these schools have done no better for their students than the district schools they have replaced.

Notwithstanding this, however, the charter school still represents the single most powerful and most hopeful reform effort that we who care about the plight of our failing public schools possess. And the new Massachusetts charter school shows us why.

The current and dominant reform movement in public school education is that which allows parents and their children more school choice. District schools, no less than charters, bear this out. In our large cities district schools may be magnet schools, exam schools, alternative schools–especially high schools, small schools, regional math and arts academies, still a few intercity and regional vocational schools, not to leave out of course the various schools and particularly classrooms within the schools designed to provide for some 20 degrees of disability among the some 20% or so of all students who have been labeled as disabled. In other words district schools are not of one size, shape or color but are as different and varied as the children who attend them. And they should be.

Charters (and in Massachusetts their imitators, but still in the district, called pilots) illustrate this same tendency, to vary the school offerings as much as possible, given the fact that the children themselves represent widely different interests and abilities. In Massachusetts there are as many different charter schools as there are different individuals and parent groups behind them. This, I think, is a good thing. Schools could never with their students succeed the way the Ford Motor Company did with its cars.

Why did we try for so long to do so, to turn out kids in mass as products on an assembly line? And why do those nostalgic for the past still think of that time as a Golden Age? There never was a Golden Age in the history of our schools.

The new Massachusetts charter school, number 63, would be a Mandarin Chinese Immersion school. This school also is the result of individuals who wanted something else, in this instance parents and educators who wanted some children, not all children, to have the opportunity to master Chinese at a young age when language mastery is easiest to come by. Given the place of China in the world, given the one billion or so people who speak Mandarin, who could disagree with their plan to create a few more Mandarin speakers in the United States?

I have two things left to say about all this. First, I would ask you what do you think was the reaction of the school authorities to the Chinese immersion charter proposal? If you’re new to this sort of thing you probably think that they welcomed still one more choice of schools for their children. For isn’t the Mandarin Immersion school really another magnet school within the public school system? In fact the Amherst school officials had hoped to start their own Chinese and Spanish immersion language programs but couldn’t afford to do so. Why wouldn’t they welcome the people who were ready to do so on their own initiative?

Well, those of you who are familiar with this sort of thing probably know what in fact was the response of the school authorities. Charters, they said, like many of their ilk are saying throughout the country, are taking away important educational qualities from the district. For one, diversity. Fewer of those young girls, for example, whose parents had gone to China to adopt them, will remain in the district school. And overall an important part of the Asian share of the district’s diversity will now attend the new charter school.

For two, money. The students who leave the district schools take their money with them, and given the fact that the charter schools will eventually serve some 300 students from as many as 40 different towns and cities, there would probably be little or no cost savings for the district schools affected.

Things could have been different. (We didn’t have to go to war.) Charters, this charter in particular, could have been welcomed by the local school authorities, and helped and encouraged to provide the additional choices to kids and their parents.

Why didn’t this happen? It’s not as if the district school were a place where everyone, rich and poor, Latino and African-American, disabled and gifted, sat together in the same classroom, where all the existing disparities and differences between kids somehow magically disappeared, and all kids learned to live with one another overlooking the differences. And it’s not as if they all became better citizens of our democracy as a result.

We know, Helas!, that this didn’t/doesn’t happen. Also, as we’ve pointed out above, there are all kinds of district schools, not just one school, one melting pot, for all. And furthermore even within the different schools kids are tracked, whether or not the word tracked is used. The common school ideal was probably never realized except, perhaps, in the original one room school house that may have served every child in the village. But that’s no longer the case, if it ever was.

For me the Mandarin Immersion Charter School is one more excellent example of the power we still possess in our country (such a school would not be possible in France where I am at present) to improve our lives, and the lives of our children, by our own actions. Furthermore, one need not defend providing an additional opportunity to learn the Chinese language.  This is clearly a good thing.

The organizers tell us that their Chinese Immersion school, if approved as expected,** would open this fall with about 42 students in kindergarten and first grade, and would expand slowly to eighth grade, adding about one grade each year. What a great thing if it happens! Don’t you agree?

**On Tuesday February 27th the Massachusetts Board
of Education approved the application of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion
Charter School (PVCI) and gave the school the go-ahead to open in the fall of
2007.

 

What’s Next after Left and Right?

The editors of Prospect Magazine have asked 100 writers and thinkers to answer the question, “Left and right defined the 20th. century. What’s next?”

As you might expect the 100 respondents had no trouble coming up with their own answers to the question.

What I found interesting were the sheer number of opposing idea pairs replacing that of the left and right.

There is general agreement, and there probably always has been since the Greeks gave us Apollo and Dionysus, that our world is alive by the tension of opposites. Take away that tension and what is left? Utopia? Communism? Totalitarianism? China of the Song, Yuan and Ming Dynasties?

In any case we are not there yet, not yet in a world without tension. We still live very much within the tension of opposite pairs. In education there is public and private. In democracy there is liberty and equality. In economics there is state control and the free exchange in the market of goods and ideas.

Here are just a very few of the replacements proposed for the “left vs. right” of the century just passed:

Global vs. local, the vested interests of governmental incompetence on the one hand and the democratic urge for reform on the other, nation state vs. market state, the reality based community and the ideologically-based community, open vs. closed, liberalism vs. authoritarianism, youth vs. age, technocracy against democracy, … and there are even those who hold onto the left right opposition, (and I think I’m probably one of them).

Perhaps there is at bottom a single opposition that keeps us all alive, and perhaps the 100 pairings are only different names for the same underlying human condition. The interesting question for me is why we’re not all in the middle, seeing the truth of both sides, while only occasionally and temporarily leaning to the one side or the other.

Why instead are so many of us so much on one side or the other, even to the point of blowing oneself up in pursuit of one’s belief? Why can’t we all learn to live between opposing forces, keeping them at a distance, not allowing the one or the other to consume us with a destructive singleness of purpose and vision?

The enemy’s thinking

We read about this attack in today’s New York Times:

“The suicide bombers who attacked today timed their assault to inflict maximum damage, witnesses said. Shortly before dawn, two of them drove their vehicles into the outer perimeter of the station and detonated them, tearing a huge hole in the walls. Then, as American soldiers gathered at the breach to assess the damage, a third bomberdrove his car up and detonated it.”

It’s pretty clear the enemy is thinking. It’s not so clear we are.

Thinking Enemy

I read this in today’s New York Times,

“Maj. Gen. James E. Simmons, a deputy commander of the American-led multinational force in Iraq and an Army aviator, told reporters this week that multiple weapons systems had been used against American troops before, in attacks south of Baghdad last year. ‘This is not a new tactic,’ he said. ‘But it is the first time that we have seen it employed in several months.'”

“”We are engaged with a thinking enemy,’ he added. ‘This enemy understands based on the reporting and everything else that we are in the process of executing the prime minister’s new plan for the security of Baghdad. And they understand the strategic implications of shooting down an aircraft.'”

It was his words, “We are engaged with a thinking enemy,” that startled me. What could he have meant? That usually our enemies don’t think? Sometimes the wind is our enemy, and the wind doesn’t think. Sometimes the oceans are terrible enemies, and they too don’t think. But animate enemies, and in particular ones of our own species, do they ever not think? Well wouldn’t you love that to be so. Wouldn’t you love to go to war with an enemy that didn’t think, or play chess with a non thinking  opponent? But so far we have never encoutered either one. Has the General?

What our schools are up against.

Two small items in today’s news remind us what we’re up against in the struggle to render our public (and private) schools more substantial and more relevant in the lives of the young.  For the schools, other than confining children in groups of 20 to 30 in classrooms directed by a teacher, do not occupy substantial and relevant places in children’s lives.

The first item, from the London Telegraph gives teacher responses to the Education Secretary Alan Johnson’s list of "untouchable" authors. Johnson’s ruling was that Charles Dickens and George Eliot could not be removed from the middle school curriculum.

The teachers say that both authors are much too difficult to be read by 11 to 14 year olds and that the attempt to do so would most likely put children off great literature for life.

Ian McNeilly, the director of National Association of the Teaching of English, said that the Education Secretary was out to win favour with "Middle England". In McNeilly’s exact words,  "The guy’s a bird brain, forcing children to study texts that are inappropriate puts them off the text, the author and the subject."

So if we can’t have them read the classics, fearing that thereby they will be turned off good literature for life, what can we have them read? No one has come up with a satisfactory answer to this question, except perhaps

J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter books, which still seem to have some attraction for the young. But they’re not Charles Dickens, let alone George Eliot.

The other item, from the Paris Figaro, tells us what in fact is probably most relevant and substantial in children’s lives, the possession of portable electronic devices. We learn that 8 out of 10 adolescents have their own cell phones, and that now, with the latest versions of these phones, their use is not limited to calls and text messaging but can also be used to access the internet, where they might, among many other things, upload their pictures and videos to My Space and uTube.

Obscene images, violent videos, and games that may combine both are common, all too common in the lives of children. How can the teacher in the lycée compete for her students’ interest, not to mention holding her attention? She can’t.

So far an interdiction of cell phones by the school authorities has not been possible because of the parents who want to have their children within their direct call range.

What may we conclude from these items? That popular culture is probably a much more powerful force in the lives of our children than anything else, certainly more powerful than the teacher’s words in the classroom. And, furthermore, that it’s now painfully obvious we’re not going to get them back by having them read great works of literature, let alone by even well conceived math, history, and science lessons.

The race is to….

There are fast learners and slow learners. There are bright kids and dull kids. There were those who could run faster and throw the spear further and who as a result found themselves at the head of the class. And there were those who struggled and ultimately failed to run fast and throw far and found themselves left behind.

Things have always been so. However, in past ages we heard only about the strong, those at the head of their class. Their stories were told and celebrated. No one wrote about the stragglers, nor was anyone troubled by their not being in the race, let alone their not sharing in the benefits that went to the winners.

In the modern world things are different. First Christianity and then democracy have brought the needs of the slow and the weak to the foreground. Now developed nations are intensely preoccupied with how the advantages of the few and the strong might be extended to the many and the weak. And the primary means, probably the only means, of doing so has been and is still to take from the former and give to the latter. One might even say that the redistribution of wealth is what governing is now all about.

On the face of it, good democrats and good Christians that we are, we could not disagree with this new strategy. For we recognize the intrinsic worth of each individual life and it therefore becoming incumbent upon us to create the conditions in which all lives, not just those of the strong, can flourish. Not easily done of course.

Our public schools, at their beginning in the 19th century as well as during the present epoch of No Child Left Behind, were and are an heroic attempt to have everyone in the race and have everyone finish. Of course this hasn’t yet happened. Large numbers of our children are still dropping out of  school altogether, and even larger numbers, although they may have “finished,” or graduated, have acquired in the process few of the skills and only bits of the knowledge they will need to succeed in their endeavors.

For 100 years or more reformers have been asking what is to be done and there have been at least as many answers as reformers. But up until now the answer is what it has always been. Those who run fastest and throw furthest are still at the head of the class, and ultimately go on to occupy the positions of authority and power in the nation. Too many others are still far behind and we don’t yet have the answer.

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité