31 January 2012

The Value of All the Things that Aren't "School"

What was your favorite part of school? Homework? Maybe it was going to the same classes over and over every day. Perhaps you loved the high quality government supported lunch. What, none of these got you out of bed every morning during the heat of late summer or the darkness of those long winter months? What was it then? Why were you going to school?

Maybe you were part of a team. If you skipped, you didn't practice or play. Perhaps you were in the band, or a star on the stage. Again, you had to go to school during the day to participate in the afternoon. Perhaps you were in a club. Those meet at school too. Maybe you went for your friends. Where had you made those friends? Sure, some of them were from "Mommy and Me" classes, but I bet some of them were friends you met at an extra curricular activity of some sort.

These have been the long-standing defenses of sports and clubs; that they keep kids coming to school, and that they give students an opportunity to participate in groups that they wouldn't have during the day, and that they showcased student talents. They are great defenses, but they don't always stand up to the modern education reformer, with test results in one hand and the scissors for cutting the budget in the other.

These "reformers" will decry many of these activities. They especially hate two kinds of groups: performing arts groups and sports teams. Critics will point out that schools place a high value on athletics, and spend small (and sometimes immense) fortunes on equipment, coaches and facilities for teams. The gnash their teeth and rend their garments that performance groups will have to travel and worry that the content in the plays they are performing is out of the depth of mere high school students. 

What these critics miss (yes, even the ones who have so many salient points about the cost of sports in an educational world defined by spending cuts) is the vast, nearly unmeasurable impact these programs, especially sports, have on students. Athletes are different students when they are on a team. An adult holds them accountable, and if they can't pass they can't play. That is a strong motivator. Listen, I don't want to say that this is a better motivation that somehow building a love of learning, because it isn't. But some kids aren't ready to love learning yet. If they learn anyway, so that they can play on Friday night, that's a win

Critics of extra curriculars also miss the great socialization good they do. I've spent some time with two pretty massive groups of not normally socialized students. That's right, I yell at marching bands (a vast topic which will get roughly 73 posts someday) (also, yeah, I just sent you to myspace for a minute. Admit it, it's the first time you've been back in a long time, right?) and have sponsored the Dungeons and Dragons club at a high school. I don't want to play into stereotypes, but a lot of those kids weren't getting a ton of face to face interaction in high school. They tend to be good students without a ton of physical prowess. They don't join teams. Generally, they don't volunteer in class, and they don't have a lot of friends. 

However, you put them in a group of people where they know they won't be judged, a group of people who have a lot in common with them, and they blossom. They make new friends. They interact with a teacher without it being about homework. This is valuable stuff that critics of the spending miss. 

It isn't just critics that attack extra curricular activities. There are more and more home schoolers and small charters that are "academic only". They have built themselves on a model of educating academic subjects, and academic subjects only. They feel that schools have become bloated societies, and that you need to cut the fat of these extra activities to save some money. These people miss all of the value which is added to a student's life by offering varied co-curricular activities.     

I don't think it will surprise you to find out that I believe I am a big thinker (not Newt Gingrich big, but big picture nonetheless) I think that extra curricular activities provide us an opportunity to peer more deeply at education in America. In fact, extra-curricular activities get at the root of what I see as the division in education today. On the one hand, you have those who bow at the alter of almighty data. On the other, you have "whole child" educators. 

(It should be noted that your humble author was never really driven when he was preparing to be a teacher because he wanted to educate the whole child. In fact, I would say that I spent most of my free time thinking about history, and how much I was going to fill their heads with. However, within 3 weeks of beginning my student teaching, I had been sucked in. I had a 1st hour Senior Economics class. I'm sure none of them remember me, but when I look back, I think that they irrevocably shaped my career. 

While we were studying small businesses and I was following the book, and trying to get them to apply their knowledge. To see if they had learned anything,  I had them propose small businesses. One of the businesses they proposed was selling Ice Cream Sundaes during lunch. In hindsight, I have no idea how I got it approved and what world I was living in where you could sell something that unhealthy to a high school student in a school. But we did. They sold piles of sundaes, and I figured out that kids wanted to learn in ways that were more "real" than the book. It turns out that they engage by doing (like most of the rest of us). That was a valuable lesson that really shaped how I've been teaching for the last 10 years)

Ok, now that we're back from a two-paragraph jaunt down memory lane that probably deserves to be its own post, we should probably get back to talking about the issue at hand: the mission of schools. I know you thought that the issue at hand was the value of extra-curicular activities. It was, but then I realized that the people who assault these clubs and teams differ on a fundamental level from me about what schools are intended to do. 

You see, those who judge and plan schools based on data are only looking at numbers. I realize that it seems like a logical thing. You can draw so many conclusions from data. Data doesn't lie. (Never mind what Stalin said about statistics, which are an older version of "data") I also realize that you cringe when I talk about "the whole child". It seems like something hippies in a commune would say. But it's more than that. By saying we want to educate the whole child, we say that we believe that schools should exist to do more than just prepare students for testing. 

I think, and believe that many of you agree with me, that schools are intended to not just fill heads with knowledge and facts but rather to create young people who can function in society. Society wants people who can work in groups, who can lead (and be led), finish assignments and overcome difficulty. Society wants graduates to be people who can, in short, function. 

We serve this purpose when we offer students the opportunity to be in a club, to be on a team, to connect with teachers outside of the academic setting. When we take that opportunity away from them, we are reducing school to a place where you learn facts so that you can pass a test. That was not, and should not be, the goal of education. After all, Plato wasn't trying to get the students of the Academy to pass a test. He was trying to get them prepared to be functioning citizens in Athens. Our Athens in the world.  

23 January 2012

On being a professional

I have often complained about parents. Parents who take no stake in their child's education, or only blame teachers, or don't know what's going on at school. Parents who aren't, to my view, very good at it. Today, I bring you the story of a proactive parent.

You are rightfully confused. You know what the BlazeBlog is about. The BlazeBlog is about fighting the man, about rants, about making fun of misspelled words. What could I be writing a blog about a proactive parent on? Well, I'll let you in on a secret: it's not about the parent. It's about the person the parent hired.

First, some backstory.

I have a freshman who, for most of the first semester, was not passing. The causes were pretty standard for freshmen: work not turned in, poor quality, not taking advantage of test re-take policies. In short, the student didn't put in the necessary work to be successful. She's hardly the first (nor will she be the last, I suspect) to fall victim to a school where their hands are not held nearly as much as they have been in the past.

So, this student's mother decided to take action. She hired a tutor. I'm on board. This is great. The tutor comes in and meets with me and three other teachers of classes where aforementioned student is failing. We discuss. An action plan is formulated. I add to the tutor to my weekly "hey here's what's going on in Geography this week" email. (It's a real page turner. This week, conquistadors! Next week? Brazil and deforestation!)

So far I've given you 1,000 words and none of it has been anything out of the ordinary. So far, this seems like a success story.  It is for the kid - kind of. She's still not coming to retake tests or turning work in. But I email her tutor 3 or 4 times a week. 

And that's where I start to get spun up. Not about the communication. She's polite and we're on the same page about student responsibility. In fact, I suspect that if all parents were as active as this tutor, there would be far fewer failing students nationwide. 

No, my complaint is that this woman; a woman who has a master's degree (I know because it's on her business card. Fancy!), a woman who is a for-hire education professional and advocate, a woman who is communicating with clients and teachers has terrible email habits. The two that make me the maddest? She hasn't capitalized her name in the "sent from" field and she has a lack of grammar / punctuation that makes me want to stab myself in the ear with a pencil until I hit my brain.
You know what? Let's take a look at an edited screen shot to see what has me seething.

You know what? This deserves a list of things I would point out if I had this open at an establishment that served beverages made of hops and barley. If you know me, read the following in my "worked up pounding a table mode". If you don't know that mode, I encourage you to watch Lewis Black, and imagine him with a goatee. That's what we're going for here. Alright, enough preamble. Let's get it on!

See up there at the top? Lower case j and lower case m. I've taught freshmen not to do this in email addresses. It's right up there with having the actual address be something like sexxybuttzinsweatpantz@gmail.com. When this shows up in my inbox, I'm judging you. Not just a little bit either.I've pretty much formed my entire opinion of you. You're in a hole, "j[redacted] m[redacted]".

OK, now I'm into your message. I'm not going to begrudge you the pleasantries, even though I think you hate me and don't hope I am doing great. I'll let that go, this is a societal thing. However, that lack of a capital letter? Well, now I think we have a larger problem. Oh, also, I don't care for your use of an exclamation point there. You know better. Don't waste that mark.

Now - "just checking if E[redacted] retake the test...". 

1. Shift+j is the key combination you were looking for.
2. Retook - that's the past tense. 

"please let me know...." - Again, you want the shift key. That and I think that a read receipt is the more polite way to do this. Or, since I've replied to basically every email you ever sent me that warranted an email, you could trust me, as an education professional, to reply to you with the answer you requested in the line about this one.

And then we finish up with your sign-off, "Jm". Really? These are your initials. Let's give the M the credit it's due. It represents your entire last name. I think it deserves equal billing along with your first initial. 

I can hear you now dear readers. You're saying "give her a break, she probably sent it from her phone". I don't care. Your phone has a way to make capital letters. Maybe you think it's OK because it's only email. I certainly have worked with people who sent far worse emails that this one. That doesn't make this one OK, because those weren't OK either. Email is quickly becoming our primary means of written (and recorded) communication. Just because you compose it quickly or on a keyboard doesn't mean it should be slovenly.  

Moreover, she's a tutor writing to a teacher. I would never send this to a parent. I would be embarrassed. I hope she is better with the parents she emails, but then again, if she can't be bothered to go back and capitalize her OWN NAME in the "sent from" she probably isn't.

21 January 2012

Just because you say it........

I think that as teachers, we have a duty to teach more than basic facts to our students. We have to teach them valuable life lessons. 

Believe me when I say I have a lot of life lessons I want to teach students. I want to teach them about using a professional email tone and address. I want to teach them about the value of doing something on time. I want to teach them to use deodorant.

Since I want to teach them these things, and have taught many of them some of these things, I'm going to start running a series of posts that expand upon my ideas of what, outside of academic content, schools should be teaching. Think of it as the alternative to the discontinued U-boats series. 

Today, start the list with teaching students that just because they say something, it doesn't make it true. This is a HUGE pet-peeve of mine. For example, kid walks into the classroom after the bell has rung, and says "I'm not tardy". I generally respond with a sarcastic "No, you are. You see, that sound that comes over the speakers indicates to me (and the rest of humanity which can hear) that if you are not in the classroom you are tardy. Simply claiming that you are "not tardy" does not make it true." Kids are sometimes shocked that after saying that I still mark them tardy. They genuinely believe that they aren't tardy.

At one point I wondered where kids had learned that simply saying something and believing it to be true would make that belief fact. I realized they had been looking at public figures for their entire lives who did just that. So, I'm getting this made for the front of my classroom, once I get a classroom:

I know they won't get the joke, but I'll chuckle every time I get to point at it and mark a kid tardy. Enjoy your weekend!

20 January 2012

Ben Franklin Had Something to Say about this......

Friends, the BlazeBlog is an avid consumer of news. I read the Interwebs, watch the TV news and even manage to subscribe to a couple of news magazines. One of these is the insanely good The Week which offers summaries of the week's major news stories and editorials. The other magazine that we take at the house is the old stand-by TIME.

You can say what you want about the media (I, for one, refuse to call it the "mainstream" media. It's not the mainstream media. It is the media. FoxNews, you count in this too. Liberal or conservative, well written or trite garbage, it all counts as media. If you want to call it "well-funded" media, I can support that, but MSM just gets me riled up) but TIME is a classic standard; well researched, reasoned and balanced. This week, they feature an interview and article with/about Warren Buffet. Besides liking ice cream and living in Omaha, Mr. Buffet is famous for being really really really rich. Oh, he also thinks that really really really rich people such as himself should pay more taxes and he sent all of his kids to Omaha public schools. Needless to say, this guy and I are basically in ideological  harmony.

Midway through the story, Mr. Buffet mentions the need to raise the top tax rate. He says that taxes are near an all time low, and unemployment isn't changing. This made me wonder if he was right. I mean, I think that we realize that in this country there is an ideological divide between the left and the right, and that in hard economic times like these, that divide seems to mostly be about taxes.
On the left stand people like Mr. Buffet who think that by raising taxes, we could afford more education and social programs which would help to boost employment by making a better educated work force, who would earn more money and then spend it, and then you would have started an economic recovery.

On the right stand people like Mitt Romney who believe in something Ronald Reagan called "trickle-down" economics. They believe that if you cut taxes for the rich, the rich will spend more of that money investing in companies (hence a low corporate gains tax rate), and then those companies will expand and employ more people, and at this point you're at the same place as the Buffet-ites and those people are spending money and that's helping the economy.

(bitter aside: I'm not touching the fact that the system is so broken that both Romney and Buffet make substantially more money than I do and pay a tax rate about half of the tax rate I pay. Someday, but not this day)

Both sides love to say that they're right, but neither of them ever seems to ever produce numbers to back up what they're saying. So, since I had the need for speed data about tax rates and their correlation to unemployment rates, I went ahead and did what I had yet to see a politician do: I crunched some numbers. Sure, a quick Google search turned up some loaded articles and some dense economics dissertations, but I wanted to figure it out for myself. I took the BLS statistics for yearly unemployment and the National Taxpayers' Union's statistics for the top income tax rate by year.

Then, I fought with Excel for a while to make the graphs look like I wanted them to. Then, I started typing this blog post. I'm going to plop the graphs in here and talk about what I think I see for each of them. If you're interested in the raw data, you could click here and check out the Google docs spreadsheet. The charts are accessible by clicking on the tabs on the bottom.

Ok, let's start with the beginning, 1920-1938. This covers the initial implementation of the income tax (at 73%! Eat that Mitt!)(yes, I feel like I can use the familiar address at this point. It's not like anybody is reading anyway. Be honest. You're skimming) through the latter stages of the Great Depression.

Ok, what do should we see? (I fear my former econ students just had a collective seizure). Well, if we think that Warren is right, then we should perhaps see a drop in unemployment the year after a spike in taxes and the opposite (taxes down = unemployment up). In other words, the lines should form a series of X's. Well, we don't really see that. In fact, the data at the end of this graph tends to bear the Reaganites out. At taxes fall, there is an decrease in unemployment.

Obviously, job creation during the New Deal was driven by a lot of things other than just the income tax rate. All in all, I don't think that we can draw any real conclusions from just these numbers. Let's move on.

Up next is the period from 1950-1966. I skipped The War because at that point both jobs and taxes were determined by the needs of the nation as it killed Nazis. However, after the war the nation saw unprecedented private and public sector growth. Can we find some correlation between tax rates and this new-found prosperity?
If we can make any claims here it might be that a lower tax rate actually caused small spikes in unemployment. However, if we look between 1954-1964, the tax rate is unchanged, but we still see fluctuations in unemployment. 

So far, so inconclusive. Let's get down with some disco. That's right, we're headed to the Swingin' Seventies!
What do we see in this period of Nixon, Ford, and Carter? Well, in 1969 and 1970, tax rates fell, and unemployment climbed. After 1970, taxes stayed flat and there are substantial peaks and valleys in the unemployment numbers. However, if the cut-taxes people were right, these lower taxes should have at least caused steady declines in unemployment. That doesn't seem to have happened. 

Surely conservatives who have read this far will point out that a Democrat was in office and that the Arab Oil Embargo has a significant impact on joblessness in this country. I'm not going to try and refute that. However, I think that this graph starts to debunk the idea that low taxes = more jobs. How will I refute it? With a graph featuring the man who really brought this idea to the forefront: Ronald "Jelly Belly" Reagan.

The election of 1980 represents the first time that so called trickle-down economics were spread to the electorate nationwide. The Republican candidate, Ronald "the Gipper" Reagan advocated cutting taxes on the rich as a way to stimulate the economy. He also advocated deficit spending on military budgets (making him a bit of a "kloset Keynesian" if you ask me). However, the idea of trickle down has stuck with us. 

Well, did it work? Ronald "I do not recall" Reagan was in office from 1980-1988. It doesn't appear that his plan initially worked, but by the middle of his term, the jobless rate is sinking in tandem with the tax rate. Perhaps he was onto something. He was. He was cutting taxes and then borrowing money to spend not on social programs but on the military. The military developed new technologies, employed more civilians and in general spent piles of money. This stimulated the economy. It is also generally ignored at the Alter of Reagan.

The 12 years following his presidency were marked by stability as the nation adapted to a post Cold War world. Taxes and unemployment for most of the decade are largely unchanged.

2000 brought us the rise of the Neo-Con. These new conservatives had the Social beliefs of James Dobson and Pat Buchanan and the economic beliefs of Ronald Reagan. President George W "Mission Accomplished" Bush pushed a set of tax cuts through Congress with the express argument that they would stimulate the economy post 9/11. 

Did it work? Not really. There is a dip in the unemployment rate that one could attribute to the lower taxes, but the continuation of those taxes doesn't seem to have stopped unemployment from climbing since 2006. 

Listen, I'm not an economist, and I'm not all that bright, but I think I can draw two or three conclusions from all of these graphs.

1. Nobody is right if they think taxation will largely impact employment on a national level. Certainly taxation policies impact individual businesses, but nationally there is no evidence to support any claim of a strong correlation between a lower (or higher) tax rate and increased (or decreased) unemployment. 

2. Politicians are liars. 

3. It's fun to make up nicknames for Republicans. 

4. This is probably the only study of taxes and unemployment to ever reference a Quintin Tarantino movie. What, you didn't see it? Go back and search.

16 January 2012

I have a dream

I'm home from school today as the United States celebrates one of only two days dedicated to individuals, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (The other, incidentally, honors Christopher Columbus. Ah, the power of politics and special interests!) As I was spending my morning doing some reading about Dr. King and his legacy, I was struck by one of his most famous quotes
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I'm sure that the vast majority of you are familiar with these words from Dr. King. How could you have gotten through a high school history without at least being exposed to the famous "I have a dream" speech? He was of course talking about racial equality. However, as I look at it, I am (in my own special conspiratorial way) driven to thoughts about how we judge not people; but schools.

As I've talked about before, schools are living in a new reality. This new reality is one where parents, armed with the ability to shop between schools control where their children go for education. Many states, especially those where charter schools and school choice legislation has made it exceptionally easy for kids to move from school to school (I'm looking at you Colorado), have taken to issuing "school report cards" which give grades based primarily on test results and growth.

While I tend to be of the opinion that more information is better for everybody involved, I view these cards with trepidation. You see, they can go one of two ways. The first way, which seems to be more and more common, is to present every possible tidbit of data, and allow parents and community members to decide for themselves what it means and what is important. This is dangerous because even as a person who's been working in public schools for the entirety of No Child Left Behind, I still don't know what some of the numbers mean. Additionally, other numbers may seem skewed to the non-educator. The second path for these report cards is to have an outside company evaluate all of the data and issue letter grades. (This is a classic example. Look how pensive the kids in the pictures are! Drama!)

This second path is obviously more dangerous. What weight is given to what scores? How is the letter grade determined? Is there any value given to improvement? Are parents consulted? In short, what does that letter mean?

To be honest, I don't care for either of these forms of reporting. I think there must be some middle ground. Additionally, I think that reports in general are far too data-dependent. I realize that in the modern era of all-data-all-the-time this makes me a Luddite and a heretic. Bear with me. I will be more than willing to agree that using data to drive instruction is a key to improving test scores. I'll even grant that data can be used very effectively to shape instruction and actually help students to learn (which is not the same thing as improving test scores).

However, most of the data that schools have is only tangentially related to what a good job they are doing. For example, most school reports have information like attendance and expulsion rates, and how many teachers are "highly-qualified". They also are full of test scores from mandatory tests. However, most don't (for reasons of privacy and difficulty of obtaining) offer average SAT/ACT or AP test scores. Rarely will you see numbers of students engaged in extra-curicular events listed on a school report. I have yet to see one that measures school spirit or number of hours students spend in community service each year. Just like standardized testing these reports spell out those things which are easy to measure and quantify.

And that, to me, is the problem. Schools aren't like other businesses. There is more to what we make than those things which hard and fast numbers show. What data shows that a kid feels better about themselves? What data measures that a student learned to love science, and cured a disease? What number in a report tells us that more kids actually thought, or drew, or learned how to interact with an adult?

I feel like we, as a society, need to figure out what we want schools to produce, and then we need to measure that. Right now the way we evaluate schools indicates that we want schools to produce good multiple choice test takers, but I refuse to believe that this is the truth. I know that parents, teachers and the nation as a whole want us to keep producing that which has made America preeminent in the world; hard-working, creative, well-rounded young people. Also, they should probably be good citizens who believe that they can make a difference.

And that, my friends readers brings us back to Dr. King's quote. He wanted his children not to be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of the character. He wanted them to be judged based on what they did, not what they looked like. And so I'll take a risk and spell out my dream that we would do the same thing for schools.

I have a dream that one day, schools will be judged not on the content of their standardized test results, but on the content of the minds of their graduates.

I have a dream that one day, we won't focus on rote memorization of facts for a test, but we'll focus on learning skills like analytical thought.

I have a dream that one day, we won't dread the release of a report of numbers from a small sample size, but will celebrate the release of an accurate picture of what we're doing

I have a dream that one day, reports won't be created by faceless number crunchers, but by the experiences of students and parents.

I have a dream that one day, schools will be stop being judged on the test results of their freshmen and sophomores and will start being judged based on the critical thinking skills and work ethic of their graduates.

That one day schools will be recognized as the most important key to the future success of the nation.

That one day schools will do what is best to serve students, not the interests of testing companies.

That one day, we as a society can stop doing what is easy, and start doing what is right.
I'm not saying it will happen. But on a day when we remember a man who led a movement that dared to dream that hate could end, that the races could live side by side, that America could change; I'll hold out hope.