Archive for June, 2011

Getting down to basics.

Try to imagine, if you would, a professional football team having budget problems, and management’s solution is to lay off players but hang on to the front-office staff. As a result, they can field only a 10-man team. How would that work out? Does it make sense if their purpose is to win games? How could they win a game?

No professional football team in its right mind would attempt to pull off a stunt like that, but school systems seem not to give it much thought at all. Laying off teachers is no different from laying off players in this scenario.

Compare the impact on children and on the quality of instruction between laying off 50 administrators and laying off 50 teachers. Lay off teachers, increase class sizes and complain when kids don’t learn? Oh, then test the kids and, presto, you have a self-fulfilling scenario in which you can now declare that schools are failing. Got it?

I learned in the Air Force as a strategic air command combat crew officer that the mission must always come first. Those who carry out the mission are the priority, which means functionality outranks administrative services. On a SAC base the base commander was subordinate to the wing commander and nothing was allowed to trump the combat crews and their equipment – in other words, mission first.

Translating this to schools would properly mean teaching and learning are the mission and teachers, as the “mission” personnel, would have priority. Ideally, teachers would set the school’s priorities and establish the operational policies.

The administration would be subordinate to the needs and priorities of the teachers. Parents would be held responsible for both the physical and the mental attendance of their little darlings.

We can imagine a flat organization in which teachers and administrators are at the same level but with different responsibilities and functions. Regardless of the formal arrangements, the administration’s only reason for being must always be to support the mission of the school – that being educating children, which means providing teachers with what they need to carry out their responsibilities to the children.

The hierarchy would be defined by the mission and not by a person. Could this work? Of course it could, if people would set aside their ego issues and subordinate themselves to the mission. Administrators would have to get over their “front office” syndrome, work cooperatively and put teachers and children first.

This essay first appeared on nmPolitics.net

Belief Systems and the Social Contract – Preface

“When will that shore appear from which at

last we see

How all this came to pass and for what

Reason?”

Czeslaw Milosz

“Stop believing in anything and you may find that which is truth itself.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

Historically belief systems arose from a need to explain the otherwise inexplicable, to effectuate a causality where none could be demonstrated concretely. Thunder, for example, has often been believed to be an expression of power by unknowable forces (e.g., the gods) which control the natural world. That the mind naturally seeks explanations is indisputable. It is not difficult then to accept that “early people” who had no scientific understanding of the forces of nature needed some systematic explanation of the world they were immersed in and so sought such explanations as they could imagine and usually anthropomorphic in nature. If they had no systematic understanding of the dynamics of weather how else could they cope with rain, thunder, and lightning but to ascribe these to mysterious powers higher than their own? The violence of these natural phenomena must have been frightening and awesome (agonistic). Cause and effect are commonplace in human experience and it would have required no great leap of intelligence and imagination to reason backwards: first – I do this and that happens …. and in reverse – that happens therefore someone or something must have done this or that to make all of this (rain, thunder, lightning) happen. What other conclusions could people have come to other than powers beyond theirs? Certainly the hypotheses were not testable and people tend readily to believe ideas which are not testable especially when motivated by fear.

§

Belief systems, explicit or not, offer a practical means of satisfying self-interest in social settings and as such inevitably underlie social contracts. In this sense I use “belief system” as defined by Philip E. Converse: a collection of ideas connected by function. (Philip E. Converse, The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics – Ideology and Discontent, 1964) The establishment of government and government services is an example of this. Fire departments exist because within a community there is a self-interest which can be met, it is believed, by joining in what may be properly called a social contract with others who have the same interests in protecting their own property. Of course the matter of self-interest can often scale out to dimensions not thought of initially but rather to fit the times and escalating interests of larger and larger organizations and groups outside an immediate or face-to-face community. However the proposition evolves, self-interest generally precedes mutual interest. This dynamic is seldom acknowledged as most people seem to believe identification of their self-interest with a group’s interest is preferable and more acceptable than appearing to be selfish or having to go it alone.

From these dynamics arise what we call the social contracts which organize the world(s) outside ourselves. Social contracts have ranged over the course of time from the base and primitive (food, shelter, protection from predators, territory, and so forth) to the sophisticated and complex (codes of honor and conduct, social class, community-funded education, international treaties, etc.). Out of these interests arose ritual, superstition,  religion, nations, and the various forms of government to mention but a few.

§

We are immersed from birth in social contracts: social covenants, spoken and unspoken; agreements with friends, family, and strangers; social arrangements tacit and explicit; and all of these being extensions of belief systems themselves implicit and explicit. These constructs have been with us in one form or another, one can imagine, since (and perhaps prior to) the time when our proto-human ancestors banded together to down larger and larger prey to be shared for sustenance. And for as long as these social arrangements have existed so have they been betrayed – that is to say altered without the explicit agreement of all parties. To understand social contracts it is necessary to understand that they are regularly betrayed and that this betrayal often serves to define and redefine them.

“We owe a definite homage to the reality around us and we are obliged, at certain times, to say what things are and to give them their right name.” Thomas Merton

In a New York Times review of a book detailing the horrific experiences of people who occupied the World Trade Center towers which were destroyed ( by people acting on their own religious belief system) on September 11th, 2001, the collapse of the building was cited among other factors as the cause of many if not most of the casualties. According to the review, “The towers had been built under a New York City building code that was quietly modified in the 1960’s in order to make such steel and glass boxes economically feasible. This was a betrayal of the city’s longtime social covenant [emphasis added], stretching back to another of its most tragic moments, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which dozens of teenage girls ended up jumping to their deaths because they were caught beyond hope of rescue by fire in a tall building.” Following the Shirtwaist fire a social covenant to prevent such tragedy arose which was expressed as a New York City building code. From 1911 until the 1960’s this code served its intended purpose – that is until economic interests prevailed not as a result of community consensus but rather as a matter of “quiet” modification of that part of the social contract pertaining to building codes which specified structural requirements for tall buildings – so quiet apparently as to escape public notice or concern. The potential for such a disaster as occurred on September 11th, 2001 was of lesser concern to the decision makers than the economics for those who developed the buildings and whose economic interests prevailed.

§

People know and have known what the structural requirements are to keep tall buildings standing and relatively safe under stress. Those concrete requirements called out in the social contracts as expressed in building codes were, however, believed to be of less importance than economic development, another form of social contract which is popular politically but which contract does not necessarily include all affected parties. One could conclude from this that facilitating economic development took priority over safety for those involved and, since the decisions taken concerned building codes the public trust invested in the government policy makers was betrayed and absolutely so. Expressed as a belief system it is held in some circles that government resources and policies should be directed towards those who would use them to “create” economic development. During the administration of Ronald Reagan this belief system gained wide popularity known in some circles as “trickle-down” economics.

§

Over centuries of recorded history, unscrupulous and self-serving politicians have often created notional belief systems and social contracts by playing up the fears of the general population to gain advantage. To control public opinion, information is withheld, dissenting voices are suppressed or marginalized or sometimes put to death or “disappeared”, truth is misrepresented or distorted. Once people are made to or choose      to believe an idea their fears can easily be manipulated into the political power necessary to carry out any manner of outrage from the persecution of Infidels, Christians, Jews (and currently, Muslims) or any other religious or political group to the conduct of war. It is also helpful to remember that religious belief systems trump social contracts every time. After nearly fifty years of researching these matters of belief and social contracts it is my opinion that it is absolutely that what people choose to believe matters more than what they “know.

§

In the US public education has long been a part of the social contract in spite of the fact that it began as a means of providing industry a stable and properly disciplined work force. Nevertheless, if one analyzes trends in the expenditure of public money it would appear that this contract has been expiring for some time. Expressed merely in the form of public school teacher salaries as compared to, for example, professional athletes or entertainers, it is apparent that the day-to-day belief systems which underlie the belief in the social value of public education have changed. Public school drop-out rates have soared as class sizes have increased; also the perceived value of finishing public schooling much less going on to higher education has diminished. And for those who would seek a college education the situation has been further exacerbated by the costs of higher education which have become out of reach for a great many. Consider the following from a 1994 report given by the Commission on National Investment in Higher Education which outlined a 20-year projection of the health of higher education in America:

“What we found was a time bomb ticking under the nation’s social and economic foundations: At a time when the level of education needed for productive employment is increasing, the opportunity to go to college will be denied to millions of Americans unless sweeping changes are made to control costs, halt sharp increases in tuition, and increase other sources of revenue.” [emphasis added]

Where there was once the Morrill Act of 1862 which created land grant universities for the benefit of all, we now have constrained university budgets often caused not just by lack of available state funds or public unhappiness with taxation but by political factions unhappy with a perceived political and social liberality on the part of faculty. Here is a  belief system operating to undermine a well-established social contract created for the common good, benefiting all both liberal and, one must imagine, illiberal. Once again a notional belief system, in this instance targeting perceived liberality, is being used to subvert a social contract predicated on equal access to higher education for all, liberal or conservative, for the benefit of all. Case in point, The Center for the Study of Popular Culture has been actively lobbying several state legislatures to pass an “Academic Bill of Rights”. The president of this organization has stated publicly that his effort is fueled by the fact that there are generally more professors who are Democrats than Republicans. One statistic cited is that in anthropology, professors who identify themselves as Democrats outnumber those who identify as Republican at a ratio of 40 to 1. These same types of organizations favor closing national borders and requiring universal national identification documents. The same dynamic is also seen in current political attempts to define individuals as “Christian” and therefore most suitable for public office, employment, and so forth. Given these kinds of ideas and their popularity it wouldn’t be surprising to see a rebirth of the “Know Nothing Party” of the 1850s and its “Secret Order of the Star Spangled Banner”.

§

As stated earlier, it is more a case of what people believe that moves them to action than what they know. For example, they may know individuals of a different race or religious group as being honest, decent, patriotic, and so forth and still believe people in that group to be quite the opposite if not a threat. Cognitive dissonance, perhaps. Stupid, perhaps. But that is for each to decide. It is all around. The important idea to take away is that whatever discourse occurs between oneself and others is underlain with vast networks of belief systems that are not always logical, not always made apparent, not always articulated. They may exist completely below the horizons of consciousness.

The principles of democracy as expressed in the US Constitution, Declaration of Independence, etc., constitute a social contract. They are not innate but learned. They may rightly be “inalienable” but only for those who understand that these are theirs to have. These principles constitute a belief system which is acquired through experience and each succeeding generation acquires an evolved version of these not as eternal verities but fungible “rules of the road”. As an example, expectations for such principles as freedom of expression or the right to privacy can be diminished by executive fiat, publicly or secretly, without majority exception in exchange for a presumed greater safety from, for example, “terrorism”. The process of “rendition” of “suspected” terrorists used by the Bush administration is a good example of this. Since the terrorist attacks of September 2001 government powers of eavesdropping on American citizens have been greatly expanded in contradiction of the US Constitution. The entire democratic belief system thus becomes undermined because it rests not on immutable principles but expediency and cynical use of political power.

Lampedusa had it right as he described the Prince, following the Garibaldi “revolution” in Sicily in 1860. When his small town’s dissenting votes were not counted, he came to understand this process of undermining a belief system, ” … now he knew who had been killed at Donnafugata, at a hundred other places, in the course of that night of dirty wind: a new born babe: good faith; just the very child who should have been cared for most; whose strengthening would have justified the silly vandalism’s.” He goes on to say that recognizing the nays would have had the net effect of strengthening the win but now, instead, created an undercurrent, a constituency of resistance. He called it a “… stupid annulment of the first expression of liberty ever offered them.”

This cynical deception Lampedusa describes created a disengagement from a purported democratic process. A nascent belief system was cut off at the knees by another and entrenched belief system. This kind of cynicism has been the mother seed of decadence and of social devolution throughout history as it undermines belief in social justice and thus the civil society and its attendant social contracts. We have witnessed this same phenomenon in national elections in the US. The United States of America will not ultimately, in my opinion, be an exception to the forces of history.

§

A civil society is, among other things, a collection of individuals who are not less than the totality of their beliefs, conflicting and often divergent, but who are always seeking safety: physical, economic, emotional. This explains how people can live, and sometimes relatively comfortably, under oppressive political regimes – within societies which require proclaimed allegiances which are antithetical to internal individual belief systems. The societies,are the externalization of the need to be “safe”, a contract among the many who form that particular civil society to create an expressed (but not necessarily internalized nor fool-proof) system of beliefs – a social contract which permits and promotes social action, perceived social good.

Social contracts can and often do require the subordination of individual belief systems and, sometimes, they transcend them but not always. I had the great privilege to work in Poland immediately following the fall of Communism. I worked there over a period of five years and was able to witness, from the perspective of working people, the rebirth of long-suppressed belief systems as represented by religion, democracy, free enterprise, and social equality. It was not easy then and it remains an ongoing process.

§

 During an undergraduate class in what amounted to rhetoric (although I no longer recall what it was formally titled) the professor at one point undertook to provide each student with an evaluation of his style of argument. “Ah, and you, Mr. Corso,” I recall him saying, “… you are exactly like a heaved brick coming through a plate glass window!” What a vivid image that conjured and I can remember little else of the moment save a kind of pride and amusement. Since then we have come far in our ability to visualize the event of a brick’s passage through that conjured window. High-speed photography shows us not just the “main event” as the professor was wanting to convey but also the multitude of subtleties that accompany the brick in its passage through the glass – how, for example, following the initial impact, some glass follows the missile, how some glass seems to fall rearward. Explosive and at the same time subtle and fine grained.

Such too is the effect of ideas as they pass through the walls of individual consciousness. Teachers, charlatans, politicians, religious gurus and preachers, advertisers, messiahs all heave their bricks through the glass of individuation seeking impact, seeking the shattering of the personal belief system and hoping some of their message will follow the trajectory of what is being pitched – whether that be happiness, status, redemption, salvation, security, twenty virgins in the after-life – at whatever insecurities exist behind the glass. Freedom from fear and isolation, to be one with the others, or even better, to be “better” than others. But, no matter which of the above is the “message” there must exist a level of susceptibility, a vulnerability based in insecurity.

Life behind that glass is characterized by loneliness, isolation, and most importantly, fear. In his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, Richard Hofstadter similarly made the case that in politics “… [style] has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content.”

A certain paranoia seems to accompany life in this contemporary American society at the start of the 21st century. An individual can do little to deal with international terrorism hence the need to seek apparent safety in numbers, to join in, becomes paramount – the primal need for safety. To give it its name, fear. This need can be satisfied, it is believed, by joining and/or voting for a particular political party or group and a particular political party or group can insure its success by appealing to and stoking this fear. This is the “marketing” of politics in our time. Also, no matter at what level of awareness they are operating, people seek some level of connectedness, to be with others, to be to whatever degree necessary, indistinguishable, and in a seeming contradiction, just different enough – a kind of balancing act, if you will, between a comfortable enough innocuousness and a comfortable enough sense of preservation of self. Such is the stuff of social contracts.

One reason, in my opinion, why so many Americans can so easily give away their rights in exchange for an illusory sense of security is that the majority of them have never been made to make sacrifices for it. No personal price for freedom has been paid by the average American today but has been paid for them by others, they have had no active part in forming the social contract. Also democracy itself as a living thing has little or no intrinsic value to many people nor do they feel any personal responsibility for maintaining it. Few bother to understand issues or to qualify political candidates. To quote a 1999 article on Salon.com “Is Voter Ignorance Killing Democracy”, by Christopher Shea, “On a typical election day, 56% of Americans can’t name a single candidate in their own district for any office.” [emphasis added]. Recall, if you will, the founders’ concept of an “informed electorate” and what this means to Americans today.

In a culture defined by fear and insecurity and so susceptible to the marketing of the illusion of security, security will be paid for at the price of once cherished freedoms. There are very many groups organized to fragment the social contract, to play groups off on one another. These groups support politicians, television personalities, and other celebrities in general. Political parties have been and are instruments of social fragmentation. Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party accomplished stigmatization of “welfare mothers” which meant blacks during his presidential campaign. Now “illegal immigrants” are a target, this term referring to Hispanics, as are “terrorists”, referring to middle eastern people especially those of Muslim faith. We are devolving at an everyday level to less and less of a civil society as competing groups scramble and scream for attention. The so-called “Birther Movement” is a perfect example of this fragmentation. Take a walk through a suburban mall and read the “messages” on t-shirts. Lewdness is commonplace, crude and rude have become the norm. Drive around town and observe the nearly absolute absence of courtesy as people cut one another off, give each other the one-finger salute, and are generally inconsiderate. Not of least consideration is the absolute obsession with the “life-styles of the rich and famous”, with celebrities and their antics. Keeping in mind that each individual is a constellation of beliefs acquired throughout life all of which are brought to bear on the social contract many of which are often contradictory, the prospect of reversing current social trends is not exactly hopeful.

Can there be anymore a universal social contract? Probably not. Was there ever? Perhaps not but maybe something close to it. In modern times World War II was most likely the last great period of near unanimity in the body politic of the United States. There are no guarantees this society, this 21st century culture known as the United States of America, is going to endure in the manner envisioned by its founders. In fact it is a ready guarantee that it will not. What exactly it will evolve into is uncertain but given the state of the world as it is now one must be, I am sure, prepared for far fewer personal freedoms sad though that may be.

The purpose of this book will be explore the history of social contracts and beliefs. I will show how these two vital human activities interact and how they influence each other both for good and for bad. Beliefs can be and frequently are dangerous most often because they are irrational and based on fear. I will discuss the contemporary issues within the social contract and the various agendas at work. Ultimately I will show how the social contract is being subjected to the destructive forces of power-seeking and greed. I will cast these in a contemporary context and, so far as possible, with examples from my own experiences.

Americans who think what happened to Europe during the Nazi reign couldn’t happen in this country would do well to think about this quotation made by Pastor Martin Niemöller after they came for him. He was arrested and spent the war in various concentration camps. He was certain it wouldn’t “happen to him”. :

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out–

because I was not a communist;

Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out–

because I was not a socialist;

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out–

because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–

because I was not a Jew;

Then they came for me–

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

School reform? First we need parenting reform.

School reform? First we need parenting reform.

We are presently witnessing an historical moment of truth as one state government after another begins a budget massacre. Getting the axe first will be the softest target of them all – public education. Aside from the obvious, immediate damage this does to public education, it shows how deep the belief in education goes in contemporary American society. The “real” social value of education to the public and to politicians these days is revealed – when budget cutting is the current issue, education gets it in the neck first. The only reasonably intelligent question that can be asked is, “Why?”

One possibility is that education is no longer as valued a part of the national belief system as it once was. Education seems to no longer be held as an investment in the future, but more of a fungible line item in a strained budget. Why should it be this way? Here are some of the arguments being expressed:

– Has education made getting a job easier or even possible?

– Teachers are merely putting in their time to retirement.

– Teachers have too much prep time.

– Schools have too much vacation time.

– Teachers are paid too much and there are too many of them.

– Kids aren’t learning how to read as well or as quickly as the new “experts” tell us they should, and that is, no doubt, the fault of teachers.

Schools, we are told, need the guidance of “experts” like Jeb Bush of Florida and Hanna Skandera in New Mexico, neither of whom has a background in education. Apparently they don’t need experience or background. I suppose we could all be grateful they aren’t interested in doing brain surgery.

Easier to pick on teachers

Why have public schools and teachers become the soft target of the moment? One reason, I believe, is because schools are simply vulnerable to this sort of attack; they are easy to criticize and difficult to defend. Not all kids learn at the same rate nor do they all have the same motivations to learn – they are not production-line widgets; hence, their achievement progress is not uniform. Children too often come from homes where parents are more interested in big screen TVs, sports, recreational activities – anything but learning. Research has shown that many children come from homes where there are scant if any reading materials at hand. Oh, and let me suggest one more reason – parents’ lack of interest in assuming responsibility for their kids’ performance in school.

If politicians and the new educational experts were to pick on parents the way they pick on teachers, it would be a parlous situation for their political ambitions. If the new self-anointed experts spoke up about curriculum and instruction, it would be too obvious that they don’t know what they are talking about. So, the response is to require more testing and pick on teachers – much easier. Imagine, if you can, one of these politicians standing up before an audience of parents and saying, “These are your children, dammit, and you are responsible for them.” Not in this lifetime, I assure you.

Parenting reform

Where can we go from here? We cannot even begin to discuss school reform until we deal with parenting reform. How can we convince parents that they are the front lines of education? I would suggest one first step would be to stop the politically motivated rhetoric. Next, stop the eye-wash and propaganda about testing. Seriously, folks there is no better indication that you don’t know what you are talking about when you promote more testing as educational reform. An experienced classroom teacher is never not testing. Never!

Next we need political leadership that instructs – yes, instructs – the public about their role in the process of educating their young. (See above.) We need public dialog that elevates teachers and teaching to the same level as firemen and cops. Have you ever heard a politician mouth-off about firemen and policemen on a par with what we hear about public schools and teachers? I doubt it. Teachers, for their part need to get their backs up and start educating the public – not just parents, but the body politic.

Teachers, weed out the deadwood

Teachers also need to clean up their profession and weed out the deadwood. Stop hunkering down and denying the obvious – there are ineffective, lazy people in the teaching profession, and teachers and their unions are the only ones who can properly get rid of them. Be proactive, get over the notion that protecting the deadwood protects you – it does not. In fact, you will all look better when you give those guys the boot.

When I was a member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, I never saw a bad carpenter protected by anyone. The best were separated from the good, the good from the bad, and the bad eliminated. It wasn’t the employers who enforced the standards either, it was the union.

The carpenters and joiners are a strong and respected union because they insist on excellence. If they can do it, so can the American Federation of Teachers. Come on Randi*, get with it!

* Randi Weingarten, AFT president.

This essay first appeared on nmPolitics.net

The Problem With Skandera

It seems obvious, given her complete lack of educational credentials and her political background, that Hanna Skandera is a foot soldier in an ideological war taking place right now against working people – teachers and other unionized workers. This is the national agenda of the organizations she is and has been affiliated with. The children of New Mexico ought not be used as pawns in a national political strategy.

Her political credentials and affiliations aside, Ms. Skandera can offer absolutely no professional qualifications to be New Mexico’s or any other state’s secretary of education.

She has no background in curriculum and instruction, yet she feels competent enough to suggest a policy of assigning letter grades to classroom teachers as a solution. Skandera has never had the day-to-day experience of being in charge of a classroom with elementary school children herself, yet she feels competent to evaluate trained, experienced teachers.

So, then, why is she being vetted as the New Mexico secretary of education? Most likely the answer is because she was recommended to our new governor by people outside the state who are fronting a national political agenda that is antithetical and indifferent to the needs of the people and children of New Mexico.

This national agenda played out in Wisconsin and, if those behind the movement have their way, New Mexico will not be far behind.

Not grounded in experience

It is not new information that coercive programs like “No Child Left Behind” and other similar “great ideas” put forth not by educators but by people with political agendas have failed and failed badly. Now here comes Ms. Skandera advocating the simplistic notions that holding children back in grade promotion or assigning teachers letter grades are the magic bullet. Apparently no informed thought has crossed her mind that socially stigmatizing children for things that may be beyond a child’s ability serves no useful purpose, but only a destructive one.

Further, what possible rational train of thought could lead someone to believe that assigning teachers letter grades based on the achievement of their students will lead to a better educational outcome? No good purpose is served by humiliation – there are better ways to achieve educational goals.

Why do grand schemes such as these proposals fail? They fail because they are not grounded in informed educational experience and are not founded by educators but by politicians selling the public on easy answers to problems caused by “them.”

There are effective ways to deal with the teaching of reading, for example. One of these is based on a great deal of evidence that trying to teach reading to children who come from homes where parents do not read, where there are scant if any reading materials, where learning is not a family value is, at best, a futile endeavor.

In spite of parents’ desires to hold teachers responsible for their little darlings’ academic performance they, themselves, are the most responsible parties in the education of children. Blaming teachers is a convenient passing of the buck but is patently false. The valuing of education starts in the home, as does discipline.

A carpetbagger who is ignorant of our state

The people of New Mexico are being asked to hire a carpetbagger who is ignorant of our state, its history and its people. Why is this when we have plenty of qualified people residing here who could and would do an outstanding job if they could be assured their efforts would not be undermined or second-guessed for political purposes?

Teachers need community support and resources, and parents need to be held responsible for their children. It will take several years of concerted effort to bring everyone, children, parents and educators, on board with that idea.

Approving Ms Skandera’s appointment will be a step backwards in that endeavor. I will wager that this appointment would generate more resentment than reform, more heat than light.

It is always useful to recall  Governor Lew Wallace’s wisdom: “All efforts based on experience elsewhere fail in New Mexico.” It was as true then as it is true today. Relevant experience must be New Mexico, not California or Florida, based.

And individuals vetted for important positions ought to have at the very least minimal backgrounds, training and qualifications for the intended position.

This essay first appeared at NMPolitics.net

What Does It Mean To Educate?

To be motivated to learn requires something to be “out there” that appeals to someone’s “in here” – something that holds promise and that, to achieve, requires interest, effort and personal discipline.

Certainly, among the tasks of public schools is to train children to become successful in the essential skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, but are schools also responsible to motivate children to learn? While some will argue that teachers are the principal source of motivation, this seems to me to be unreasonable and mainly a sloughing off of a responsibility proper to parents.

While the society as a whole certainly has a part, valuing learning is first and foremost a family matter, and children need to come to school with that sense.

I think it cynical, if not irresponsible, to foist onto teachers what is essentially a role of parenting. Parents must understand and agree that they have an essential participatory role in the education of their children.

Time to have a public dialogue about ‘educating’

Once in school, a child’s education does not rest solely upon acquiring the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. To teach only skills is not to educate but to train, and that is an issue schools and society must come to grips with. Education and training are not the same thing, and it is important to know and understand which of the two is going on; it is a matter of definition and of “first principles.”

What do we mean when we say “educate?” What does it mean to be “educated,” as differentiated from being “trained?” If we don’t have clearly defined first principles on this matter, we have no clear intellectual, moral or social compass. And this may explain why public education has been so long susceptible to pillar-to-post oscillations from one new great idea, reform, innovation to another and another over the past century and longer.

In fact, John Dewey raised this same issue in 1896! Perhaps the time has come to have a public dialog that is not about charter schools, vouchers, tax credits, magnet schools, free schools, grading schools and teachers, ending social promotion, corporal punishment, and so on. Perhaps the time has come to stop all of that and talk about what we mean when we say we want to “educate” children.

A contemporary ‘OK Corral’

More people experience public education than don’t in the United States, and its influence on social attitudes is pervasive. Common to that experience is the generally accepted organization and structure of curriculum and instruction that was pretty well laid down in modern times by Ralph Tyler in his widely influential 1950’s book, “Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction.”

According to Tyler, children are in school to be “developed,” teachers are the transmitters of development, and administrators determine if the transmission has taken place. Is this what we want education to mean?

Well, yes, with certain qualifications. This is the training-in-essential-skills component of a child’s education. Essential skills, however, cannot be said to be the whole of a child’s education. For government to prescribe public testing for discrete skill acquisition as its sole measurement of educational achievement is to betray a fundamental responsibility of any civilization worthy of the name – to properly educate, not merely to train, its young.

Today’s emphasis on public testing and grading of schools has no pedagogic justification – its intent is cynically political. When, in self-defense, schools must “teach the test,” the political agenda dehumanizes the educative process and robs it of meaning and any sense of intellectual purpose. And herein lies a contemporary “OK Corral,” where public education meets politics and where teachers and children generally lose.

The moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it this way: “If life is to be meaningful, it is necessary for us to be in possession of ourselves and not merely to be the creation of other people’s projects, intentions and desires.” (Alasdair MacIntyre, “After Virtue,” 3rd Ed., University of Notre Dame Press, 2007)

This essay first appeared on: nmPolitics.net

Despite Flaws, Public Education Shows Resilience

Public Education has long been a “soft” target for political opportunists on both sides of the aisle. Why? Because it is especially vulnerable, difficult if not impossible to properly quantify and defend. Anyone who thinks that test scores alone measure academic achievement is seriously misinformed.

Also, public attention to education manifests as either love or hate, bouncing between the two pillars usually in concert with the economy.

In a February 1980 article titled “Doomsday for Public Education,” political pundit James J. Kilpatrick cited yet another pundit (you could call this a “double dose” of punditry, I suppose), George Will, as predicting that, by 1990, “Public Education in the United States will have deteriorated beyond significant recovery.”

Kilpatrick went on to identify some of the causative factors contributing to the inevitable demise: the overblown structure of the “educational establishment,” the stifling influence of government (sound familiar?), and the U.S. Supreme Court. Both of the pundits identified incompetent teachers, teacher unions, court intervention in general and the educational bureaucracy.

Interestingly, The Economist of March 19, 2011 seems to echo most of the two pundits’ theses. So we can take it, I suppose, that in some peoples’ eyes, from 1980 to the present, public education has suffered the same ills, the same causative factors that should have led to its inevitable deterioration. On evidence, public education is remarkably resilient in spite of its pronounced shortcomings, evading one doomsday after another. The monster is such that society seems to have no choice but to complain while, at the same time, paying for it.

Considering for a moment the sheer number of “magic bullets” that have been proposed (and dodged) to save public education from itself, we must conclude the monster is bullet-proof.

Persistently gullible

Among the magic bullets proposed over the years are vouchers, magnet schools, charter schools, free schools, teacher and school grading, and so on – all of which (Yes! Just say it!) have failed to produce any significant long-term perceived or measurable “improvement” in the education of America’s children.

What has always amazed me has been the persistent gullibility of politicians and the public as they whip-saw one another from pillar to post trying to tame the beast. Can it be the case, really, that public education is impervious to politically satisfactory (that is to say, measurable) improvement?

I have to come to believe it is and, for as long as it exists, public education will remain a natural “soft” target for political demagogues of all stripes.

In fact, until public educators and teacher unions stop being their own worst enemies and own up to a few inconvenient truths (that are some bad teachers and bad schools) they will always remain in the crosshairs of political opportunists. Well, they probably will no matter what actually happens, but so it goes.

A question

Let me end this essay with a question. If you were a typical youngster in New Mexico, why would you believe disciplining yourself and getting a “good” education would lead you to a happy and prosperous life? Looking around at the world as you see it, hear it, and live in it on a daily basis, what out there would sufficiently motivate you to discipline yourself to study and to achieve in school?

I believe the foregoing may be unanswerable; nevertheless, it is a valid question, and one that must be confronted because it speaks to what is without doubt the most fundamental single force in education and instruction: motivation.

This post appeared originally on NMPolitics.net

What Do Mastodons Have To Do With Education?

To instruct and teach the young has been a part of the human social contract since long before our ancestors swung down from their trees on the African savanna. And isn’t it just amazing that we are, in 2011, arguing about what education is and how best to go about it?

Survival was the initial motive, and the necessary skills having to do with food gathering, defense, procreation and so forth had to be passed on. While killing mastodons isn’t in the current curriculum, teaching children to survive remains critical. The requisite skills early on were obvious, the process and the necessity clear and certainly not contentious as such matters have now become.

Today’s necessities seem not to be so plainly indicated and are open to contention and to competing views. What isn’t? What skills and knowledge will  children starting school today need when they complete their public education? What exactly will they need to know to be successful, fully-functioning adults?

In April 1983, the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education stated the following:

“Our Nation is at risk. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

The June 2011 issue of Atlantic magazine reported on the tenure and experiences of Joel Klein as chancellor of the New York City Schools, who is lamenting exactly the same issues today. In fact he even went so far as to cite the above report. I think it fair to ask: What’s been going on in these past 28 years?

Our schools, schooling, and, consequently, our graduates are deficient. Here in New Mexico, according to an April 6th, 2011 article in the Santa Fe Reporter, 91 percent of local high school graduates entering Santa Fe Community College were determined to have “weak academic skills” and were assigned to remedial classes.

What gives? Do we, as a society, really care about education? Do we see any value in it other than keeping kids occupied from kindergarten through 12th grade? Is it the case that this is because we are no longer a cohesive society with a community of interests?

My educational beliefs

Obviously, the unanswerable question is, what will the world be when today’s children graduate? There remain, indisputably, certain basic skills that will always be useful, if not required. And here I wish to be clear that I am speaking about skills and proficiency in mathematics and computation, and reading and language, as opposed to factual knowledge.

However, children are not standardized, assembly-line putt-putts to which schooling attaches skills as though they were headlamps, bumpers, motors and so forth until the completed products, monitored by the quality control department, are ready to roll out onto the streets of adulthood.

At the top of my list of essential skills are critical thinking, along with the ability to reason and the ability to learn, all of which will carry children into any possible future.

My educational beliefs are not prescriptive and not about methods and techniques. They are about attitudes and values:

* Being educated is not a terminal condition.

* Human beings have an innate desire to learn.

* Critical thinking is the most subversive of all skills.

* Education is the fundamental method of social progress. (John Dewey)

* To prepare (children) for the future life means to give (them) command of (themselves) … that (they) will have full use of all of (their) capacities. (John Dewey)


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