Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pollyanna -- commentary

Sometimes life’s experiences and a good book complement each other. So it was for me as I finished reading my mother’s favorite book from her childhood: “Pollyanna.” Mother is 91-years-old and lives in an assisted living home. In spite of being blind, diabetic, and wheel chair bound, she maintains an optimistic view on life.

For you who have never read Pollyanna, the main character, after whom the book is titled, is orphaned and sent off to live with an aunt. The aunt takes in the orphan only out of a sense of duty and does little to make her feel at home.

Pollyanna has a game she loves to play which she learned from her Pastor father. Whenever she encounters negative circumstances, she looks for something in them that she can be glad about. She calls it the glad game.

She is talkative and gregarious to a fault and so positive she makes Norman Vincent Peale look like a Sunday school kid. (It was Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking” that helped shape me as a boy.) She has soon befriended every miserable, negative person in town and has them playing her glad game. Of course it transforms the community. The book was written a century ago, and over time, her name has become a synonym for optimism.

No philosophy is worth much until it has been tested.
For Pollyanna, the test comes when she is hit by a car and paralyzed from the waist down. Can she still play the game?

As I write this, it is the anniversary of my own collision with a car which left me in the hospital for 60 days and unable to walk. Can I play the glad game?

To begin with, I’m glad God made bodies that can heal themselves and, though a bit lame, I can now walk a mile and a half fairly comfortably, ride a bicycle much longer distances, and carefully wade in Spring River to fly fish.

I’m glad the need to rehabilitate my legs has gotten me back into a regular exercise routine. Over the years, I had paid attention to my physical health, but when I retired from the Army National Guard seven years ago, at age 60, I no longer had the need to pass the annual Army physical test. My motivation had disappeared and I had quit all regular physical exercise, put on weight, and was no longer in top physical condition. I am now back to regular physical exercise and again in good physical health. Sometimes we need an external motivator to help us do what we know is good for us.

One thing President Obama stresses as he campaigns for health care reform is the need for prevention. He is right about this. One of the best things any of us can do for our health is routine exercise.

I had a pastor friend one time who did much pastoral counseling. However, he would not counsel anybody long term who would not get involved in regular exercise. He claimed the evidence is conclusive that people who exercise regularly respond better in counseling. Since he did not charge for his counseling services, he felt exercising was the least a person could do on their own behalf.

Doctors tell us one of the best things we can do for our health is to walk 30 to 45 minutes three times a week. My grandfather took this advice and was still walking two miles a day well into his 90’s. There have been studies done that show if you add a little weight lifting to the regime, even for those in their 70’s and 80’s, the body will respond positively.

I wish our President well in this wellness endeavor, but what will he use for an external motivator for those who won’t exercise? The more we can individually do to reduce the cost of health care, the better.

There is a lesser thing for which I am glad. Before my accident I was on Cymbalta to control a neuropathy that caused severe pain in my right foot toes. After the accident, the pain never reappeared and I no longer take the Cymbalta. Anytime I can quit taking a pill, I’m glad, and I’m now down to just one prescription.

So, did Pollyanna’s philosophy pass the test? Even though it is nearing its hundredth birthday, it is still a good read, so I’ll let you find the answer. Though it will probably not appear on anybody’s best seller list anytime soon, you can still find copies. If your local library doesn’t have it, Google “free e-books” and download it from one of the websites listed. I’m positive you will enjoy it and maybe you too can get in the glad game.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sacred Words -- commentary

School board members must take six hours of continuing education each year, so there I was at the annual school board members’ conference where once again I heard those currently in vogue, sacred words being intoned by the then Commissioner of Education Dr. Ken James: “research based.”

I’m cynical about these words in that the educational landscape is cluttered by research based programs that didn’t live up to their promise; so much so, that many veteran teachers, when a new program is announced, just roll their eyes and think, “here we go again.” What happens between the research and the promise is a guess, but here’s mine.

Research works well in the hard sciences. You set up your experiment and repeat it many times. If you keep getting the same results, you have proved your hypothesis. It does not work so well in the soft sciences. When doing research on human behavior, there are too many variables that can change between the research and the real classroom. Is it even possible to set up exactly the same experiment time after time?

The educational experts doing research in our graduate schools of education are the people to whom law makers turn when making decisions about our public schools, but does their research really tell them more about what needs to be done and how to do it than classroom teachers who work daily with a given set of students?

I’ve never studied in a school of education so I’m going to validate my opinion with the insights of one who has and who teaches in such a school. Here are some notes from “The Classroom Crucible,” by Edward Pauly of Yale University. He’s quoting his colleague Harvey Averch of the Florida International University: “The literature contains numerous examples of educational practices that seem to have affected students’ outcomes. The problem is that there are invariably studies … that find the same educational practices ineffective. … Research has found nothing that consistently and unambiguously makes a difference in students’ outcomes.”

Pauly writes, “When a prescriptive policy tells teachers and students what to do and how to do it, the important differences among classrooms are ignored and even suppressed.”

He gives the following as the First Law of Education Policy: “Policies that prescribe teachers’ and students’ classroom activities do not produce sustain improvements in students’ achievement. To be effective education policies must give up the attempt to prescribe teachers’ and students’ actions.”

His second law states, “Policies applied to classroom activities are thoroughly reformulated by the actions of teachers and students in each classroom.”

Finally he writes, “Prescriptive policies record of failure suggests the need for a Third Law of Education Policy: Education policies should be designed to achieve their effects despite being changed by the choices and responses of teachers and students.”

So, if research doesn’t guarantee much, what are we to do? Years ago, I read an article on psychological counseling and what modality was most appropriate. The writer said that when you subtract the amount of harm done in counseling from the good done, you are lucky if you wind up with at least a zero.

However, he said without these three don’t even begin: total integrity, accurate empathy, and non-possessive warmth. He concluded that if counselors have these three attributes, their modality won’t make much difference.

I suspect the same is true with teaching. Students appreciate and respect a teacher who has total integrity and they trust her. Trust between the teacher and student is essential to learning.

Accurate empathy is also a critical aspect of teacher and student respect. Empathy plays a role in how a teacher relates to students from day to day. Many times I have had teachers tell me that when they saw what a student’s home life was like, it changed how they related to that student. They did not let the student get away with more, but if the student came to school grouchy, for instance, they would understand and maybe avoid a confrontation or respond with some understanding.

Finally, non-possessive warmth means you have nothing personally at stake in your students’ success so you are warm toward them when they are doing well and when they are doing poorly. A student who knows he is cared for will respond more positively than one who feels the teacher would rather he weren’t there or only cares for him when he is doing what she wants.

If a teacher possesses these attributes, it will not make much difference whether her methods are research based or not. Her classroom will be a secure environment where students will learn. Without these three, the teacher’s style or the program used will make little difference.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

What Profits? -- commentary

This headline in the October 26 edition of The Jonesboro Sun grabbed my attention: “Health insurer profits not so fat.” I wondered how long it would be before some aspiring reporter discovered this fact. It was an AP story.

I have stayed out of this health care debate, mostly because I have a lot of opinions but no answers. But, the afore mentioned article brings back some memories that do have some bearing on the debate.

When working as an insurance agent, I sold a rather large group health insurance plan to one of the Alaska Native Corporations. Because I sold the plan, I got to sit with the insurance executive as the plan was being put together. To my amazement, he began his model by assuming a two per cent profit. As part of the plan, the company insured itself against any catastrophic claims. In effect, all the underwriting company did was shuffle paperwork for their two per cent profit and assume the minor risk of routine claims which they paid out of premium dollars. Even at that, though, they lost money on the contract since there was no fat.

There is money to be made in insurance, but not health insurance. The public assumes the insurance companies are making huge profits because premiums keep rising. However, premiums are always a reflection of claims. As claims go up, premiums must follow. The key to controlling insurance costs is to find out what is driving up the costs of health care and reverse the trend if possible.

As a side note, one might ask why an Alaska Native Corporation wanted to pay thousands of dollars a month for a health insurance contract when they were all covered free under the Public Health Service, a government plan.

Health insurance companies are too often portrayed in this debate as making obscene profits. What is an obscene profit? When talking to students about capitalism and profits, I often set up the following scenario: If you had a million dollars of capital setting in a secure investment and paying you five per cent annually, which would be $50,000 a year, how much profit would you have to make to take it out and invest it in a business? Remember, once you invest it in a business, you have put it all at risk. Would you do it for 6 per cent profit? For 8per cent?

Before you answer, remember that while the money was setting in your secure investment, you did not have to do anything. It made that money whether you slept all day or didn’t. You didn’t have to be responsible for employees, put up with people who were incompetent, wanted the day off, called in sick, and so on. Also, you did not have to put up with government inspectors, regulators, and tons of paper work, and nothing was at risk. You didn’t need to hire a CPA or a tax lawyer. So, how much profit are you going to have to make before you will take your money out of that secure investment and risk it in a business?

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t do it for 10 or even 15 per cent. The sad truth is; however, very few small business people make a ten per cent return on their investment. The article said that even of these big health insurers “profit margins typically run about 6 per cent, give or take a point or two.” However, ... “Profits barely exceeded 2 per cent of revenues in the latest annual measure.”

One step that ought to be taken in the health care debate is to quit using the term insurance. We are not talking about insurance; we are really talking about prepaid health care. Insurance is a financial instrument that helps people manage catastrophic risk. When we start talking about low deductibles or first dollar payments, we are no longer talking insurance.

People, who readily accept $500 deductibles for auto or homeowner’s insurance, want $50 deductible for health coverage with no co-payments. They insist on maternity coverage even though maternity costs can be planned and budgeted for. Many people run to the doctor for little things that they would not bother with if it weren’t for the insurance or if they had a co-payment. Others wake up sick on Thursday, but don’t go to the doctor. By Saturday, when the doctor’s office is closed, their problem has escalated and they run off to the emergency room. These things create unnecessary costs which in turn drive up the premiums.

Consumers of health care could do a lot to control costs if they would use common sense. Admittedly, claims are also higher because of some real positive things such as technology and modern drugs. I don’t think any of us want to go back to the health care of 50 years ago.

We already have close to universal health care, but it has been put together piece meal because it has been done incrementally by those who couldn’t get the whole package passed into law. Though I do not favor government health care, it looks like we are going to get it, and it would be better if it were carefully planned rather than done piece meal. It now looks, though, like there may be too many cooks preparing this broth.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Opposing Forces -- commentary

Teachers who truly want to teach, especially core academic subjects, must overcome often two opposing forces, one from educational elitists who affect educational policy and the other from students who resist the work necessary for genuine learning.

Professor George Cunningham says in his article "Teaching Teachers How Not to Teach:" "… the great problem is that most of the American public holds to one view of the role of schools, while most of the education elite ... hold a very different view. The public overwhelming believes that the function of schools should be mainly academic ... If you accept that view, then schools succeed only if their students graduate with a high degree of literacy, with proficiency in mathematics, with a good working knowledge of science, history, our social institutions, and so forth.”

"On the other hand, the dominant view among those who run and teach in our education schools is that the key role of schooling is to achieve various social objectives. In their opinion, it's more important for teachers to properly adjust students' outlook on life and society than to instruct them in 'mere' knowledge and facts."

These elitists see the public schools as places of cultural adjustment, places for shifting from the failed cultures of the home to one envisioned by them. As a result, schools now provide food services to ensure acceptable nutrition, health screenings of all types, values clarification, driver's education, instruction in how to raise a family, sex education, career guidance, sensitivity training, self esteem development, anger management, and on, and on. The public schools have become the providers of many social services.

An ex-teacher called into a talk show recently and expressed how this elitist thinking effected his life as a New York City public school English teacher. He said he was reprimanded for correcting students’ grammar on the grounds that doing so leads to lower self esteem.

The elitists who influence educational policy have an agenda different than that of the general public. How else do you explain the following comment in an article discussing experiments being done with smaller schools using military style discipline. Though the academic grades were showing marked improvement, a professor was quoted as saying, "It is setting education back thirty years."

So, how are you going to evaluate the success of teachers? Say I'm an English teacher and my students are well adjusted, can work co-operatively, and have great self esteem but can't write a decent paragraph. Am I a failure or a success? What if my students are maladjusted but write great prose? Am I a success or a failure?

Not only is the teacher who truly wants to teach core academics up against the opposing influence of the elitists, he faces students who come with a very different outlook. In a different article, another professor points out that there is a drastic difference between the way the teacher and the average student look at education. The teacher actually wants to teach students something and help them achieve mastery of the subject. The student, on the other hand, sees education as a game. Their main interest is one of scoring a grade. I was in Duluth, Minnesota, visiting old friends from Alaska. A college professor friend of theirs joined us. In the conversation, he related how a student who had not made it to a single class the entire semester, showed up in his office a couple of weeks before the end of the semester and explained to him how she just had to have an A in the class because she needed a four point average to get into the graduate school she wanted to attend.

Okay, so this example is a bit extreme, it does illustrate the point. Another extreme example happened a few years back when a group of Asian students went on strike for the right to cheat. While our students haven’t yet gone on strike for that right, all too many of them feel cheating is justified if it helps you score the desired grades. There is a commercial out by the Mormon Church where a girl’s mother catches her copying another student’s paper. The girl explains that it is sharing, not cheating. Though most students don’t cheat, at least not regularly, most of them see the end goal as scoring grades, not learning.

So, if a student has learned how to score an A in my class, but has only mastered the facts long enough to pass the test, can I really feel good about my work as a teacher?

When I look at these kinds of problems in education, I can’t imagine anything politicians might do that will help, mostly because so few of them really understand the problems. The solutions are found in the attitudes and expectations of those involved in the process, not in politics.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Generational Despair -- commentary

It seems that every generation despairs for the one that will follow. Yet, the one that follows always seems to move the ball forward. Up to now, I have resisted the temptation to despair, but for the generation now growing into young adulthood, I wonder.

I began to have my doubts when going back into the classroom after several years of retirement. I was hit with a barrage of run on sentences and comma splices in student writing. There has always been some of this, but nothing like what I am now seeing. While at a recent workshop, this subject came up and I asked, “Where is this was coming from?” The immediate and emphatic answer was “text messaging.” No surprise here. The increased frequency of text messaging among teen agers is staggering, and it corrupts the language because they use a sort of written pidgin English.

I doubt that a culture can withstand the total denigration of its written and spoken language. Remember Goerge Orwell’s novel “1984?” The corruption of the language was key in subjugating the masses. The fight to maintain an acceptable language standard can become too great for the language arts teacher to win, and we are approaching a tipping point.

A thing that makes teaching our language so difficult is that all students come to school with a language structure already in place. They don’t come to school with a math, social studies, or science structure already in place, just language. The English teacher is in the business of breaking bad habits which are already in place and replacing them with standard language patterns, the patterns used in business and academia.

Over the past half a century or so, the general usage of language in America has been in a decline, and we live in a time when technology is speeding most things up exponentially, including the depreciation of language. I predict the decline will leave us with a generation unable to communicate in any intelligible, accurate way. It will be a post literate society with the return of an elite class of scribes who will provide the written communication for business and government.

By far the majority of kids today text message, using self created forms of shorthand that do not lend themselves to exactness such as ”LOL” which could mean lots of love, lots of luck, or lots of laughs. The quantity of texting is incomprehensible to people of my generation. One father told me that his daughter, sitting in the front passenger’s seat, was busily texting the girl sitting in the back seat. I had a student tell me recently that her phone plan only allowed 400 text messages a month, but she kept going over that. I was substituting in a class a couple of years ago when a girl let out a groan of frustration. She had been checking her text messaging bill and it had exceeded $485, and she knew she was in trouble when she got home. These examples are not extreme, but rather close to the norm. When kids spend this much time with a debased language structure, there is little a language arts teacher can do to keep the ball moving down field.

There are those who argue that technology will solve this problem with such things as spell check and grammar check. The problem with spell check and grammar check is that they only flag what might be a problem. It is still up the writer to make the judgment as to whether a problem really exists. This requires an adequate working knowledge of the language and the desire to write correctly, two things that are missing.

The problem is further exacerbated by the purposeful actions of advertisers and political spin: things like lite for light, kidz for kids, and politicians calling expenditures investments. One of my pet peeves every school year is the red ribbon, drug free campaign. During that week, all the students and faculty who are drug free are suppose to wear a red ribbon which has “I’m Drug Free” emblazoned on it. It seems innocent enough, except the language is inexact. The principal at one such school told me close to 50 per cent of her students were on some type of prescribed drug. Are they drug free? I know the message is suppose to communicate that the student is free of drug abuse or free from the illegitimate use of drugs, but that is not what the ribbon says. If language is important, then school is the one place where it ought to be used correctly.

What is a parent to do if they want their kids to be among the literate elite when they grow up? An obvious response is to quit funding your kid’s phone. It costs money to text message and rarely is anything being communicated that is worth the cost. Maybe by the time the kids can afford the toy on their own, their language structure will be secure. Your kids are lucky to live in a time when it is not hard to be above average, so help them capitalize on this opportunity by saying no to their every wish.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Obama Speaks to Kids -- commentary

President Obama announced he was going to address the school students nationally during their school day. The predictable outrage materialized. If I remember right, President George Bush did a similar thing and a similar outrage materialized from the other side. No matter the President, I would oppose his/her addressing the school students in school time.

First, let me say I will not impugn President Obama’s motives. I take him at his word that there was nothing political involved. The message he delivered needs to be given to students, though it might be more effective coming from their parents. Though, if the President had ever spent much time in a modern classroom, he wouldn’t have made his speech so long and boring.

We certainly have to give the President credit for taking on this complex task. After all, we do have to take into account the fact that the speech must traverse at least five time zones, maybe six if you want to include Hawaii. You want to avoid first period because the students are not awake yet and the speech might really zonk them out. It is bound to be first period somewhere. Nor do you want it right after lunch as the students are usually too hyper to listen to much of anything. And it is bound to be lunchtime, somewhere. Give the man credit for tackling a truly presidential challenge.

My opposition to any president intruding himself into the public school classroom comes from a belief that the federal government has inserted itself too deeply into public education. The President’s speech to the students symbolizes this reality which is counterproductive to what schools should be in a free society. Remember, originally this speech was also going to include lesson plans from the Federal Department of Education.

Throughout most of the last century, public schools were truly local schools, controlled by local school boards and they reflected the communities they served. With the development of a Federal Department of Education, along with increasingly more powerful state Departments of Education, most local control has been lost. Our public education has become more and more bureaucratized and centralized. It is still public, but not local.

Though local school boards still exist, there is little they can do that is of significance beyond hiring or firing a superintendent and even this was threatened in a recent legislative session. The most meaningful thing school boards can still do is to build buildings, but the what and the why of that is controlled elsewhere. Because of mandated testing schedules, even the school calendar is controlled by the bureaucrats

Of course the curriculum is also controlled by the various departments of education and must be followed whether it makes sense for a community or not. So, all kids in Arkansas are required to have four years of math and four years of English among their academic classes in order to graduate. The bureaucrats, who are always fussing about the high school dropout rate seem oblivious to the fact that their mandated curriculum guarantees it.

If you are a student approaching your 18th birthday and you have flunked a year of math or a year of English and can’t make it up by the end of your senior year, what are you going to do? Dropout! This student has probably used up most of his electives making up other math and English classes which he failed. Having missed electives that might have meant something to him, he has sat bored through required classes he will probably never use.

The most important thing a student is going to take from his English classes is the ability to write well. If he hasn’t mastered that skill by his senior year, sitting through another year of English isn’t going to help much. And though math might teach him reasoning skills, does he really need four years of it? The bureaucratic answer seems to be, “it depends on what he might do, so he’d better take it just in case.” And so, it becomes a part of the curriculum for them all.

The justification for this intrusion is that Federal monies are used to fund education so the federal government has the right to set the rules. Let’s not kid ourselves; federal money is just a euphemism. The federal government takes its money from local economies and in turn sends it back. All federal money is really local money that has been diluted by the politicians. Should they have the right to make the rules just for having diluted and redistributed the funds? Should they have taken the money out of the local economies to begin with?

Though I applaud the President for wanting to give a positive pep talk to the students of America, I see his doing it as symbolic of a destructive Federal intrusion into local, public education, which is rapidly losing its local flavor and context. The power to make meaningful decisions has been taken out of the hands of local school boards and transferred to far away bureaucrats.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Don't investigate - commentary

It appears the Obama administration is not going to leave the issue of the interrogation of terrorists alone and with Attorney General Holder’s decision to investigate this issue, I feel compelled to speak out. Let me begin with some disclosure. I am retired military: four years active duty Air Force, six years U.S. Navy Reserve and 10 years Army National Guard Combat Engineers.

I respect the position of thoughtful people who declare themselves conscientious objectors. However, I also respect those who are thoughtful participants in the military. I am not a U.S. patriot, but rather a patriot for freedom wherever it can be found. I believe war is a terrible thing, but too often necessary to protect that freedom.

I understand Mark Twain’s sentiments expressed in his “War Prayer,” (It’s on the internet and worth the read.) and for this reason, I don’t pray about the outcome of war. If God is going to protect combatants on my side, it usually means some mother or father somewhere else is going to have to suffer.

I became opposed to the Viet Nam War when six presidential candidates in the late 70’s all declared our being there a mistake. If our leadership did not believe in the cause, then it was not right to take yet another life for it. The logic of the candidates escaped me, for they all went on to say that since being there was a mistake, we must pursue it with a greater effort to get it over with. If we really didn’t belong there, then the only ethical choice would have been immediate withdrawal instead of letting it linger on for 10 years.

Because of the destructive nature of war, it should not be entered into lightly. However, when our leaders do decide an issue is serious enough to go to war over, they have also decided that our end goal is of such magnitude that it is worth killing and maiming human beings over and that doing so is presumably is ethical.

This is pretty serious stuff. Once we have decided the issue is serious enough to kill and maim for, by what logic do we then deduce it is unethical to make life miserable for a prisoner of war (POW) for a brief period, as some would have us believe. When the POW was on the battlefield, it was ethical to kill or maim him, but when he is in captivity, there are those who declare we are criminal if we inflict any pain on him or make his life miserable in any way.

From all that I have read, our interrogators didn’t even come close to maiming or killing the POW’s they questioned. They might have made their lives miserable for a time or instilled fear in them momentarily, but that is no more than the POW would have experienced if he had still been on the battlefield. And remember, our decision to go to war was a decision that killing and maiming was ethical in order to meet our aims.

We should use any means necessary short of killing or maiming a POW to get information that will help end a war as soon as possible. The immoral thing would be to let the war linger on at the expense of more deaths and more misery because we didn’t want to torture a prisoner.

I feel the same way about the rules of warfare. Rules of warfare simply dress a very barbaric act in a cloak of civility. This is war, not a football game, but rules help us feel right about ourselves when we really ought to feel badly for being pressured into doing this dastardly thing called war. If we felt badly enough, we would do whatever it takes to get it over with. This idea of limited warfare born out of the Korean Conflict has succeeded only in insuring that conflicts will linger on for years. This was true in Viet Nam, and the Iraq war came about because of the limited war policy followed in the Persian Gulf War.

You could argue, as those who oppose torture do, that information obtained through torture is not reliable. I’m sure this is often true, but I’m just as sure that the argument is often wrong. You could argue that our enemies are even more ruthless with their POW’s, and at times I’m sure that is true. But both arguments miss the point: if we have POW’s it means we are at war and have already decided our end game is important enough to justify killing and maiming humans to achieve, and the sooner we get it done, whatever it takes, the quicker we will be out this moral morass.

I wish the Obama administration would drop this issue as no good can come of it and no lives will be saved. It may have some value as political grandstanding and salve a few bleeding hearts, but it will do nothing for the security and freedom of our country.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Letterman and Humor - commentary

This column will contain a couple of generalizations, and, yes, I know all generalizations are false including this one. However, most generalizations include a modicum of observable truth and that is why we use them.

I suppose every sophomore college newspaper columnist wants to write humor but soon discovers there is no more difficult writing task and soon abandons the effort. I believe Dave Letterman must have hired some of these humor writing drop outs as his gag writers when he referred to Governor Sarah Palin as looking like a “slutty airline hostess” and her daughter getting “knocked up” during the seventh inning by a well known baseball player.

This brings me to one of my generalizations: The further left of center one’s politics the more difficult it is to make jokes about those to the right of center without getting very nasty, crude, and mean spirited. I first noticed this phenomenon when I attended a gathering in Anchorage back in the 70’s of environmentalists, gay activists, animal rights people, etc. The evening was a toast of sorts and as long as the speakers focused on their own movements and foibles, they were very funny, but when they began to focus on those to the right of the political spectrum they became nasty and crude, much as Letterman did in the Palin joke. I have watched this over the years and when it comes to poking fun at their opposition, comedians on the left lose all sense of appropriateness.

A very recent example was Stephen Colbert’s appearance at the 06 White House Correspondents Dinner. His humor was miles over the line and President George W. Bush, being polite, sat there and took it. However, to their credit, the crowd did not honor the comedian with loud laughter and applause. Another recent example would be Whoppi Goldberg using Bush’s last name while making sexual jokes.

Just as disturbing as Letterman’s joke was the reaction over the next couple of days by pundits such as Keith Olberman and Chris Matthews and analysts they brought on to discuss Letterman’s remarks. Their general consensus seemed to be that it was all in good fun and that the Governor was just being a little sensitive, that she just has trouble taking a joke. Never mind that he had also insulted airline hostesses, a famous baseball player, and the Governor’s daughters. And by using the crudity “knocked up” he insulted every pregnant woman in the country.

Though Colbert told his jokes with Bush present, I imagine Letterman would have thought twice about telling his joke if he’d been on an Alaskan moose hunting trip with the Governor’s husband present.

This brings me to my next generalization: The further you go to the right of the spectrum, the less humor you find. Those people are very serious, often deadly serious as we have seen in recent days with the shooting of doctor Tiller. I was one time invited to be the emcee at a gathering of Baptists. I very carefully selected my jokes from a book of Reader’s Digest jokes, feeling they would be safe as I too have a problem of coming up with acceptable jokes. They weren’t safe and the group had no sense of humor. I was never invited to fill that role again.

One time I was standing on Temple Square in Salt Lake City and noticed that the Angel Maroni way up on the very tip of the temple spiral was a very shiny gold while everything else up there was drab and dirty. So, I asked one of the older elders posted on the square to answer tourist’s questions about it. He answered that the angel was coated with gold leaf and they had just finished putting new leaf on it. “I guess you might call it angel relief,” I replied. No sense of humor. I didn’t even get a smile. To the right I say, “loosen up a little bit. None of us are going to get out of this life alive anyway.” I’m told, and I wish someone would confirm it for me, that the Koran says paradise has a special place for those who make their brothers laugh. I’ve read the Koran, but I must have missed that part, though I hope it is true.

The problem with humor is that it almost has to be about serious subjects: sex, religion, race, politics, or tragedy. For me, it just makes life run more smoothly except when I tell the wrong joke in the wrong environment. Kids and I kept each other energized in the classroom and interested in the topic with humor. Teachers who have no sense of humor have bigger problems in the classroom that those who do. A student asked me once, “Do you know what I got sent to the office for.”


“I asked the teacher what the fish said when it swam into a concrete wall.”



Either that teacher was too anal retentive or she didn’t get the pun. We need humor, but we need to be careful with it. Good humor is usually about serious subjects, but it is very easy to cross the line into crudity, mean spiritedness and personal insults.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Stress Free - commentary

Stress, strESS, STRESS!!! We rarely heard this word when I was a kid more than half a century ago. Now, however, it seems to be a plague upon modern society and its snake oil cures are exceeded only by those for weight loss.

When I think of stress relief, I think of my childhood and Jim Maconya’s cow. We lived in Roslyn, Washington, a little coal mining town in the foothills of the Cascade mountain range populated with Eastern European immigrants, Czechs and Slovaks, who worked the mines. Those of you who remember the TV series “Northern Exposure” are familiar with the town as the program was filmed there, though it was called Sicily, Alaska.

Our house sat high on a hillside on the very edge of town. Out the back door, across the alley and we were in a fragrant pine forest. Jim Maconya and his family lived next door. The only two things I remember about Jim are that he had a daughter named Lucy, and a cow I’ll call Bessie.

As best I recall, Bessie was a petite, brown Jersey. (Probably not, but I prefer petite and Jersey.) Jim kept Bessie in some kind of old shed in his back yard, maybe a garage or a coal shed. Since our houses were in town, she stayed in the shed all day, while Jim worked at the mine.

When Jim came home late afternoons, he took Bessie off to the woods for a couple of hours of grazing on the wild grasses. She had a bell around her neck so Jim could relax, stretched out under a tree on cushy pine needles. As long as he could hear Bessie’s bell, all was well.

When Bessie was full and Jim’s stress had pretty much dissipated for the day, he took her back to the shed, fed her a scoop of grain, and milked her. He squirted any residual stress into the milk pail and then went to the house for supper. Jim got rid of stress, the family got milk, and when there was any left over, they sold it to us for a little extra cash: fabulous, rich with cream, straight from the cow, never been pasteurized, raw milk. Soooo good!!

I suppose we all can see where the stress went. I sometimes think of getting a cow of my own. But hey, I live in Jonesboro with a small back yard. Also, I think there is some kind of ordinance against keeping farm animals in town. Besides, who’s going to care for her while I’m roaming about, camping and trout fishing? It’s hard enough to find a kid who will mow a lawn anymore, let alone one who will or can milk a cow twice a day.

We’ve got to think this through a bit further. Was the cow really the heart of the matter, or was there something else? I don’t think it was the cow so much as the ritual of caring for the cow. For two hours everyday, Jim was separated from his stressors. He could have just sat under a tree, but he would have been thought lazy. By turning his sitting under a tree into a chore, it was okay.

Fishing and hunting serve the same purpose. Go sit on the riverbank for an hour or two everyday and you’re lazy. Put a fishing pole in your hands and you’re a sportsman. Sit in the sun every day and you're lazy, but plant, weed, and water and you’re a gardener.

These all become simple rituals, opportunities for our minds to go blank. They give us an excuse to divorce ourselves from the stressful realities of life. There are many more such activities. One of my favorite, until recently, was motorcycle maintenance. Certain things have to be done on a motorcycle over and over again. I turned them into a ritual. My mind could go blank; I would go through the motion, divorced from the stresses of life.

All these stress reducers are ours for the taking, free of charge, if we don’t mess them up with our modern technology. When Jim and his cow went to the woods, they went alone, just Jim, the cow and Jim’s private thoughts. No cell phone, no handheld computer, and no Ipod (they hadn’t yet been invented). I have seen fellows standing in the middle of a stream, trout fishing, and talking on a cell phone. I hope I never become so important that I can’t just leave my cell phone in the car or at home when trout fishing. Why contaminate the ritual by taking a stressor with you?

Because I have so many fond, early memories of milking cows (It’s how I made my spending money as a teenager.), I favor Jim’s ritual, but I know it could never work for me. I’ll be happy with a fishing pole. You are free to join me or to find a ritual of your own.

Sometimes the Teacher Wins - personal essay

Kids love stories which pit students against teachers and the kids win. But, once in a while, the teacher has to win, and it is not hard to do when it involves the jocks.

I arrived at school early one April Fool’s day at Grubbs public school. It was my first year of teaching. I also drove a school bus and wanted to get my classroom ready before leaving on my route.

As I grabbed my classroom door knob in the dimly lit hallway, I felt something gooey and sticky on my hands. It was a grease of some kind. (As it turned out, this was also my introduction to Icy Hot, a minty smelling balm used by athletes on their sore muscles.) A quick check up and down the hall disclosed the same greasy stuff on all the door knobs except one: the weight room door where the ball players worked out.

I wiped the slippery mess off all the door knobs with some old rags and then rushed to the bus garage, got some thick, yucky axle grease and slathered it all over the barbell bar resting on the lifting bench in the weight room.

As the jocks arrived at school that morning, they did not get any reaction from the teachers, and so they begin to ask them if they had found anything on their door knobs that morning. Since they had not, the teachers were puzzled by the question. I alone had any idea what had gone on.

However, when the jocks went to the weight room and grabbed their barbell bar, they discovered they had been the biggest fools of all. This was one April Fool’s day where the teacher scored and the jocks “got schooled” as my students would say.

My Lucky Day - commentry

I swear it was my lucky day. An article in the Nov. 7, issue of the New York Times, reporting on research published in the American Medical Association Journal says being overweight extends my mortality. Of course this is contrary to everything we’ve been told for the past many years, but it is enough to keep me from ever going on a diet again. Do you ever wonder whose research to believe? I do too. It doesn’t just happen in health issues, it also happens in education.

"The Great Tech Worker Divide," an article in the October 10, issue of Business Week reports that people like Bill Gates are lobbying congress to pass immigration laws to make it easier to import foreign scientists and engineers to fill a shortage in this country. Yet an article that appeared in the October 26 issue of Business Week, "The Science Education Myth," claims our colleges are turning out a surplus of scientists and engineers, that we have more than enough students enrolled in science, math, and engineering courses, and that our secondary students are out performing those from most other countries in the world. Sounds a bit contrary to what you’ve been hearing, doesn’t it?

Statistics, like a picture, freeze a subject in time. That picture of yourself that you don't like is just a representation of you for 1/125th of a second. Had it been snapped a second earlier or later, it would have been a different picture. The same thing happens with statistics. While a statistic freezes reality, time rapidly moves on. Meanwhile, bureaucracies which respond to problems disclosed by the statistics move excruciatingly slow. By the time a huge bureaucracy responds, reality has changed and the response is often all wrong. Do you remember the panic in the 1970's over the supposed teacher shortage? The government put a massive program in place and by the time it got rolling, all it accomplished was to produce a huge surplus of teachers with dozens applying for every available job. In many districts, the only way you could get a teaching job was to substitute for two or three years first.

Consider also that what researchers choose to plug into a statistic can alter the nature of a problem. For example, we had been told for years that test scores are declining. Because of this, we have spent billions trying to boost them and have succeeded to a very modest extent. However, I think researchers are analyzing the wrong data. What I want to know is whether there has been a decline over the years in the test scores of the top 30 to 40 per cent of those tested. If so, then we have a problem. The reality is that we only need so many doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, and other professionals.

As late as the 1950's, we were only educating about half of our young people much beyond the eighth grade. Now, we try to leave no child behind through grade 12, so it is not surprising that the average test score has declined. And, it is not that I want to ignore the bottom 25 or 30 per cent; it’s just that I wonder why we insist that they get an academic education.

If some researcher will answer the question about the test scores of the top 30 or 40 per cent, please let me know. Until then, let's look at some of the conclusions of Urban Institute's Hal Salzman and Georgetown University professor Lindsay Lowell in the afore mentioned article, "The Science and Education Myth."

The article talks about separate incidences in which both Bill Gates and President Bush stated the U.S. is falling behind in knowledge workers and we need to encourage more students to enroll in math and science courses.

Salzman and Lowell found the reverse to be true. They found both the number of students taking math and science courses and the number of units taken per student has increased steadily since 1982. They also found increases in math and science scores in the SAT and the ACT over the past two decades.

"...the report found that the U.S. is one of only a few nations that has consistently shown improvement over time," the article said.

"There isn't a problem with the capability of American children....Science and engineering graduates just don't see enough opportunity in these professions to continue further study or to take employment."

The article also states, "Proposals to increase the supply of scientists and engineers rapidly, without any objective evidence of comparably rapid growth in attractive career opportunities for such professionals, might actually be doing harm." As with the teachers, it would create a surplus and drive wages down. Some in the high tech industries believe that is actually what people like Gates are trying to do by lobbying for less restrictive immigration for scientists and engineers.

Well, I guess my question about how things are going with our top tier students has been answered. So, who benefits from all the negativity that gets thrown at us constantly? Remember, education is a $500 billion business and as long as it appears to be failing, those who profit from it can insist on our government spending even more. Serious problems need solutions and solutions need money.

Valorization of the Trades - commentary

Persistent problems require radical solutions and public education has proven to be a persistent problem. So, let’s look at some radical solutions.

Camille Paglia, libertarian feminist and college professor, in a recent essay, says "I call for a valorization of the trades and for national investment in vocational schools to help salvage the disaster zone of urban public education."

We glorify a college education, mostly through economic comparisons: college graduates make X amount of money more than high school graduates. Why not compile statistics in other ways? Let's compare the incomes of skilled steel workers or pipeline welders against incomes of mediocre liberal arts graduates.

Why not compare life in an office cubicle against the open air work place of an oil field well driller? Whose life is most interesting, the worker who built the building or the paper shuffler who occupies it?

It is time to recognize trades for the grand opportunities they afford young people and make preparation for them on par with college preparation. A high school principal once told me that he did a study of his students and found that only thirty per cent of the students in the school went to college and only thirteen per cent completed a degree. Yet, ninety percent of the budget is spent on the thirteen percent. His school is not unique, yet the standard response is to try and persuade more students to go to college rather than fund preparation for the trades. Those who make such decisions need to read again Walt Whitman’s poem "I Hear America Singing." A career in the trades is every bit as glamorous as being a college educated, expendable part of some multinational corporation.

Professor Edward G. Rozycki, Ed.D, of Widener University, argues for another radical solution: do away with grades eleven and twelve. He suggests those two grades are kept for social and cultural reasons rather than any academic need, things like the prom, the graduation walk, or a fourth year of football. He says, "Let's just stop pretending that the senior year in high school is all that important for the education of all seniors."

Rozycki says the GED test is based on a tenth grade level and that it is good enough to get you into most colleges. So, why not chop off those two grades and spend the money saved to upgrade the education in the first ten?

My contention is that the most important work of the educator is done in the first eight or nine years anyway. If a good job is done and the student can read, write, and cipher, he can pursue an education with or without a good teacher.

Rozycki also says we should drop any notion of "fullest potential," because we have no idea what it means and even if someone created a definition, you'd never get political agreement on it. "We cannot guarantee success with every child, no matter how imploringly that child's parents beseech us, no matter how ominously that child's parents threaten us."

A prestigious panel calling itself the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce calls for similar action. They want to see a rigorous test given at the end of the tenth grade. Those who pass it leave high school at that point. The only students remaining after that would be those taking remediation so they can pass the test or those involved in challenging academic study so as to get in the elite universities.

In 1997, Leon Botstein, then president of Bard College, in his book Jefferson’s Children, proposed we do away with high school, kind of. He says we should start school a year earlier, say at four years instead of five and end it at age sixteen. After that he says young people should be moved into learning environments more appropriate to their individual interests and life goals.

He says our attempt to educate all children, those who are ready for serious academics and those who are not, creates a serious problem starting in the mid-teens: “The behavior of sixteen-year-olds is influenced by that of other sixteen-year-olds as perceived through popular fashion and trends…. In terms of educational performance, this translates into a powerful dynamic within the high school. The best are influenced by the weakest.”

As to college, he says, “…if a young person comes to college at age eighteen without a serious love of reading, without a reasonable comfort level with mathematics, and without a basic concept of science or history, it is usually too late to fix all this.”

Most students have decided by their tenth grade year whether they are scholars, and even if they have not, their performance speaks for them.

We know that most people are not going to go to college. Also, most people only have so many years they will devote to school of any kind. When we force these kids to spend all those years in academic classes rather than providing vocational training, we condemn them to lower end service industry jobs instead of better paying technical jobs or the trades.

And then there is a seldom mentioned aspect about keeping students around for two or three years after they are through learning: it demoralizes teachers. When you daily face students who have no interest, you too lose interest. We often refer to it as teacher burnout. All too often, when teachers burn out, they don't quit their jobs, they just quit being the best they can be. Interested students keep teachers sharp and both do better.

Reading is Fundamental - commentary

Futurists tell us children today are preparing for jobs that don't yet exist. So how do we prepare our kids for something we know nothing about? We do it by emphasizing skills that are transferable from job to job. Among those skills, reading tops the list. Reading is fundamental, or could we say fun(damental), yet it amazes me how many kids want no part of it. If you are a parent, you would do well to insure that your child reads well and enjoys it. One of my "aha" moments as a young man was that given the right book, I could do anything, whether it was building a boat or figuring the time value of money.

Arkansas is spending millions of dollars on programs to make readers out of our kids. One of the most exciting programs I was privileged to attend was Literacy Lab taught by Ken Stamatis, professor at Harding University. It is a pleasure when I get to substitute for a teacher who has been literacy lab trained. But it is difficult for schools alone to make readers out of kids. They need help from the home.

When children don’t like to read, you can usually trace the problem to the home. Parents, to begin with it is hard to make readers of kids if they never see you read books for pleasure. Fathers, your children need to see you read, especially your sons. It is very difficult to get boys to read because their male role models seldom sit down and read for pleasure. I'm not talking about magazines or professional journals. I'm talking about what the kids call "chapter books" for pleasure reading. (Kids' first books are short and are not divided into chapters. A sign of progress or a badge of honor is when they are reading chapter books.) If you are already a reader or when you become one, the next step is to read to your kids. They will love it and so will you. Dads, if you need some help go to Moms and dads, you will find help at

If you have not yet discovered the books being written for young people, you are in for a real treat. I think the number of books written for our kids and then made into movies underscores that statement: Holes, Hoot, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, Bridge Over Terabithia, Charlotte's Webb, Harry Potter, Fellowship of the Ring, Summer of the Monkeys, and others. Many of the books will not only appeal to your kids, they will hook you as well. If your kids think they are too old to be read to, then read the same books they are reading and discuss them.

There are some things good readers do naturally that you can help your young readers do as you discuss what you are reading. Good readers visualize; they see pictures in their heads. Remember, a good writer is an artist who uses words to create images. Help your young reader see pictures. Tell him what you see and what the writer said to help you see it. Get them to tell you what they see.

Good readers make connections. There are three basic types. One type of connection is a text to self connection where the reader sees something in the story that reminds him of a personal experience. A second type of connection is a text to text connection. This is when something in your book reminds you of something you have read in another book or something you have seen in a movie or on TV, or something you have heard in a song. A third type of connection is a text to world connection. This is when something in your book connects with something you know about in the world at large.

Good readers also make predictions as they read along. They try to figure out where the story is going and how things are going to work out. Stop at appropriate places and ask your child what he thinks is going to happen and tell him what you think might happen.

With this background you now have things to discuss. Ask your student what they're reading this week. If they say “nothing,” have a suggestion ready, something you have read and enjoyed. If they are reading something, ask what kind of pictures they see, what the setting looks like, or what they imagine the characters look like. Ask them what kind of connections they are making or what they predict is going to happen. All of these things improve comprehension and make real readers out of children.

Remember, reading is a learned skill and like other learned skills, you get better at it the more you do it. One of the reasons kids don't like to read is because they are not very good at it. One of the reasons they are not very good at it is because they don't do it. When students would tell me they didn’t like to read because they weren’t very good at it, I would ask how they got good at shooting free throws or hitting home runs. I asked if they told the coach they were not going to shoot at the basket anymore because they were not very good at it and didn’t like to do it. Parents need to help them break this cycle and encourage them until they get good at it. Reading is one of those skills that will transfer to any job, even those that do not yet exist. Students who don't like to read, who won't read, or who are not very good at it are drastically limiting their future. Any job worth taking is going to require good reading skills.

Myth of the Drop Out - commentary

The year was 1968; I wrote a column for the Coeur d’ Alene Press in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, concerning the high school drop out rate which was at 25 per cent. Forty years later I read in the Jonesboro Sun that, “One in four children is still dropping out of high school.” Forty years of campaign promises, forty years of increased education budgets, forty years of making education more interesting, more exciting and more fun, the creation of a federal Department of Education and the introduction of technology at a cost of billions and we haven’t put a dent in the problem.

Maybe it is time to drop the myth of the high school drop out which goes something like this: High school drop outs make $271,000 less than high school graduates over a lifetime therefore we must do everything possible to keep kids in school. The success or failure of each student after high school has little to do with a diploma; you have to look somewhere else.

To begin with, the statistic used is the wrong one. Averaged in with the high school graduates are the college graduates, any millionaires, and the billionaires who have a high school diploma.

Here is the way I want to see the statistic averaged: what is the life time income of those with a C average or less verses those who make a B average or more. We expend a lot of effort cajoling at risk students to stay in school. The would be drop out hangs around to practically be given D's and C's just to get them through. But, I think the statistic done my way would show that it makes little difference that they were awarded a diploma.

The success or failure of the high school drop out will depend on why he did it. I think you will find a constellation of problems around the average drop out that leads to his dropping out. It might be drugs, anger management, authority issues, unstable home situation, lack of self discipline, laziness, or any number of others. If these problems are dealt with constructively, the drop out will find a place in the working world and do fine. If these issues are not dealt with, the mere acquisition of a diploma will not mean a thing.

There is also the myth of the high school diploma; because I have one, I'm on my way to success. The value of the high school diploma rests on the honest answer to the question, what is behind my diploma?

I had several students argue with me recently that just getting the diploma was all that mattered. It didn't really make any difference whether they had learned anything. When my son was processing to take his GED, he was reading an article while in the waiting room. He reported that the author, an employer, stated that all other things being equal, he would hire a person with a GED diploma over a regular high school diploma. Why? Because, the author said, you were guaranteed the GED applicant had to have proven a certain knowledge base.

Recently I was lucky enough to get to attend a workshop in Monticello put on by the forestry industry. Part of the workshop included trips to a logging site and to a saw mill. It had been more than 40 years since I had been on a logging site or in a saw mill.

Now, Instead of a half dozen or more men on the logging site, there were only two with two high tech machines. In the saw mill there also were few workers and lots of automation. When I asked the tour guide about the need for a high school diploma to work in the mill or the woods, he said, “even if they have a high school diploma, we're going to test them to see what they know before we hire them.” It is not the diploma that matters, it is what is behind it. Again, the absence or presence of a high school diploma, or even a college degree is no indicator of success.

Do you want to succeed? Forget about diplomas and concentrate on actually learning something. Learn to get up in the morning and get to where you are suppose to be on time. Learn to be responsible and dependable. Learn to be on the job when your employer expects you to be there, and make yourself so valuable to your employer that he cannot afford to let you go. Commit to being a life time learner, whether a diploma is involved or not. These are the important things. But, to continue to spend billions to cajole kids into staying in school when they don’t want to be there appears to be a waste of money.

Military Public Schools - commentary

The next two sentences should be read in a shouting voice. "Hup, two, three, four! Hup, two, three, four! Platoon halt! Report!"

"First platoon all present or accounted for, sir."

Is this the way the school day will begin for your child in the future? As I write this, five public schools in Chicago are now operated by the military and a sixth one will open in '09. When this happens, Chicago will be the only city in the United States to have at least one school operated by each branch of the military.

Students attend these academies by choice and according to a Nov. 2, Associate Press report, 7,500 students applied for the 500 freshman vacancies this school year. The students have to enroll in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. This means uniforms, inspections, drills and lessons in military history. These are college prep academies with an emphasis on leadership training, discipline and character-building.

The academies are built in the poorer parts of the city with large minority populations. Statistics show attendance rate at 94 per cent compared to 84 per cent for neighboring schools. One academy, created out of one of the lowest-performing schools in Chicago, saw graduation rates climb from 55 to 71 per cent in 2006. So far test results have been mixed.

However, when the Brits, who are having education woes similar to ours, sent some observers over here to look at possible solutions, they didn't come to observe our public military academies. They came to observe what some call "extreme education: 10 hour days, parental contracts and zero tolerance behavior policies in small, 200 pupil academies," according to The Guardian, a British newspaper.

The schools they visited are Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools. KIPP schools are small public charter schools being sponsored by the KIPP Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These schools, built in some of the most impoverished areas of our inner cities, boast of 100 per cent college acceptance, test scores to match private schools and students who play classical music like their uptown neighbors.

The KIPP school principal in Newark, America's second poorest city, told The Guardian, "We have established a school culture which is very distinct from the attitude they walk in the door with. It's a college-bound culture."

If you want your child to go to one of these schools you will have to enter into a three way contract between the principal, you, and your child, each of you agreeing to carry your weight. If your student doesn't have his/her homework in by 8 a.m., you will be called and a meeting set up. Miss the meeting and your child will be sent home and not allowed to return until you show up. Students are tested every six weeks and the school motto is "No Excuses."

Who goes to these schools? The Newark school is 85 per cent African American and 90 per cent of them get free school meals.

What do the critics of these two approaches have to say? Some say the military schools are just recruiting tools for the military and should not be allowed. I guess they figure it is better for kids to be poorly educated and spend a life in poverty than run the risk that a few of them might actually want a career in the military.

The small school movement has been accused of "undoing decades of progressive education," according to The Guardian. This puzzles me. From what I have been reading in the news for at least the last four decades, American education has been in trouble. How could a successful experiment set back progress when there seems to have been so little of it? Those who make such an argument must have some agenda other than just educating our youth.

It is my philosophy that persistent problems need radical solutions. These academies work for several reasons. They work because young people need structure, especially if internal discipline was not established in the home. They work because accountability is required from all participants, the parents, the students, and the teachers. They work because they are small. This is a topic I will address in another column, but I am a believer in small schools.

However, the most significant reason they work is because all the students are there by choice. The unmotivated and the disruptive students are not welcome. These schools demonstrate there are just as many bright kids in the poor areas as in the middle and upper class areas and they will learn if they can go to decent schools populated by others who also want to be there.

We will know in time whether either of these experiments will become widespread. The military approach can certainly provide some much needed discipline, but we are not a militaristic people. I doubt that it will succeed much beyond a few inner city neighborhoods. The KIPP program requires a tremendous amount of energy on the part of the faculty, the kind of energy that resides mostly in young idealists. For this reason, it too is a self limiting reform.

However, maybe we can learn from these experiments about the benefits that come with offering choice and with spending our energy on students who want to learn.

Needed: Male Teachers - commentary

As retirement became reality, I wondered how to spend all my newly acquired free time. One idea was to start a crusade to recruit more men to the teaching profession. I looked back on my fourteen years of teaching as the happiest work years of my life and felt a need to share the experience.

I got involved in other things and put that idea aside. But, a MSN headline last week brought it to my attention once again: "Percentage of Male Teachers Hits 40-Year Low." According to this article, males make up 24.4 per cent of teachers nationally. Arkansas comes in last place at 17.5 per cent (2006 statistics).

Schools need male role models, especially in the lower grades. I have had high school students tell me, "You are the first man teacher I've had." With so many kids coming from single parent families headed by the mother, the need is obvious. Men create a different ambience in the classroom, an ambience that contrasts with the maternal ambience women often create.

Why don't more men teach? The article says, "...low status and pay, the perception that teaching is 'women's work,' and the fear of accusations of child abuse."

Let me rebut each of these. In the eyes of those who count (your students), you have status and that is part of the joy. And, yes there is always the possibility of being wrongly accused, but this will serve to help you remain cautious in your dealing with students. If you create an atmosphere of mutual respect with your students, this is not likely to happen. As to it being women’s work, at the turn of last century, there were many more men teachers than women. The work is gender neutral.

Now let's put the pay in perspective. The article says the average teacher's pay is $49,000 a year. The teacher gets paid for 190 days of work per year or $258 per day. An ad adjacent to the article says the average bachelor's degree is worth $52,000 a year. The average worker puts in 240 work days a year for $216 a day.

When I first came to Arkansas, I was amused by a Lewis Grizzard column in which he said, and I paraphrase, that every Southern good old boy knows there is only one reason to work: to have enough money to go fishing and hunting. As a teacher, you have both the money and the time. Your non-teaching counter part has a little more money, but you have a lot more time.

Here's my list of ten reasons to teach if you are a man:

1. You are needed and wanted. You can't say that about many jobs.

2. You will make a difference in the lives of a lot of kids. Yes, there are some discipline problems and there are kids who don't want to be there, but there are many more who are willing to learn and need you to teach them. Remember, dedicated teachers taught those who fill the careers that are so admired.

3. It is more fun working with kids than adults, especially if there is still a little kid left in you.

4. If things are not going well with this year's students, you don't have to fret; you will get a whole new bunch next year. Every year it is a different job.

5. While pundits, politicians, and the public fuss about the state of American education, you just close your classroom door and go to work. Most of the fuss isn't going to affect you or the kids you are teaching very much anyway.

6. No two days are the same.

7. If you don't like your employer, you can find a new one without having to change your pension plan.

8. When you see students in Wal-Mart years after you've had them in class, they give you a big hug and tell you how much you meant to them.

9. You get more positive feed-back from students and parents than you will ever get from co-workers outside of school.

10. The job is less stressful than most other jobs people with college degrees hold down. I know, teachers who have done nothing other than teach will disagree, but then, what do they have to compare it to?

Men, if you have been slugging it out in the corporate world for 25 or 30 years, your kids are grown and gone, and you no longer need that big income, maybe it is time for a mid-life career change. Or, maybe you're younger but already burnt out on the corporate treadmill.

If you're thinking you would have to go back to college and that would make it difficult if not impossible, maybe not. The Arkansas non-traditional approach to teacher certification may be for you.

To qualify, you need a college degree and enough course work to qualify to teach in a particular subject area. For example, I have a bachelor's degree in journalism, but I have enough course work in writing and literature to be certified to teach secondary language arts. It can often be done without going back to college.

When I was a teen-ager working on local dairy farms to finance the wrecks I called cars, I learned several of life's important lessons. One of them was there is milk and manure with every job. The trick is to maximize the milk and minimize the other. Teaching is one of those jobs where that happens.

Freedom Writers - commentary

"Freedom Writers Diary," by Erin Gruwell: It's a book worth reading. It inspires. It makes you sad. It opens our eyes to a world most of us would rather ignore. The book was first published in 1999 and has since been made into a movie. I missed it in its first wave of popularity but it is a good read anytime.
Gruwell, a young white woman from the privileged class, takes her first teaching job in the Los Angeles school district. Being new, she gets the worst class, the class of at risk students, the worst discipline problems, the ones on whom others have given up.

Most of her students come from the "hood" or the "barrio." Though the school is touted as the most racially diverse in LA, inside it remains segregated by student choice.

Gruwell withstands student attempts to drive her from the profession and hooks them on reading and writing through the diaries of Anne Frank, "Zlata's Diary" and other readings which touches the students where they live. She challenges the students to write diaries of their own. Though Gruwell would probably not put it this way, she formed a gang which had positive guidance for positive ends.

Freedom Writers became the family most of the students never had. In her classroom they found safety, security, and a sense of belonging. They took an oath to pursue education and tolerance and sealed it with a toast.

The book is a compilation of selected student diary entries. A Gruwell entry introduces each section. Most of us have read or heard about homes where children are sexually, physically or mentally molested. Of neighborhoods where people are shot to death because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of people being evicted from their homes with no place to go. Of neighborhoods where education is held up to ridicule and where children are often made fun of for doing well. Of the fear that comes with knowing your parents are illegal immigrants. Of contending with parents who are drug addicts.

It is one thing to hear about these things, but quite another to read about them in the students’ own words as they share their inner feelings about their struggles and their hopes. They reflect a maturity beyond their years in both their ability to express themselves and their depth of understanding. Here are a couple of excerpts:

“…It’s funny how material things mean so much to adolescents. The problem is people grow up thinking that material things are what make them worthwhile. Which is very untrue and causes them to be very shallow. Now as a young adult I’ve realized that love is more important than material things. Material things can’t love you like a father can!”

And, “…Handouts are like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, but John Tu does not give people handouts, he gives people hope. Not even in my wildest dreams did I think that I would meet a millionaire, especially a millionaire that cared about my well-being. John Tu helps people through education, financial support, and high moral standards. I thank God for sending him into my life. He has given so much to me, and because of his actions I want to give to others, and hopefully someone will follow after me and the cycle of hope will continue.”

John Tu is one of the businessmen Gruwell gets involved in her projects. She has a fertile mind for things that will inspire her students and stimulate interest and hope. She works extra jobs to help fund some of these ideas but she also has a way of selling her ideas to people and businesses that can help. Because of this, she is able to get her Freedom Writers out of their neighborhoods to experience a much larger world. She stretches their hopes and dreams with field trips as far afield as Washington D.C. and Europe.

Gruewell has since formed a foundation for the purpose of training other teachers in her approaches to education. The book will inspire individual teachers to make a difference in their own approach, but will it ever have any real impact on education? Consider what this woman did to accomplish the fantastic results she experienced: She worked two jobs so she could help fund her efforts. She created a much needed sense of family for her students. She became mom to 150 kids who needed one. She often tutored kids in their homes and it wasn’t unusual for her to be working with groups of students until 10 o’clock in the evening at the school. One can’t help but admire her and be inspired by her attitude and accomplishments, but if that is what it takes to reach the at risk kids, their cause is lost. Most teachers have families of their own and they are already doing double duty as both parent and teacher. Gruwell has both an unusual work ethic and unusual compassion. Absent from her account was any mention of a husband and kids of her own. To do as she did is to take on responsibilities for society’s problems that are outside a school’s primary mission of educating children.

What can teachers learn from Gruwell? They can learn to adjust priorities. I remember attending a workshop where the presenter commented that the at risk kids were his primary concern. “The other kids are going to make it alright,” he said. The teacher can let the kids’ diaries evoke a new empathy for them and where they are coming from and communicate to the kids that she really cares. And these diaries can inspire teachers to a renewed effort on behalf of the kids at risk. These kids have a lot to offer but all too often their hopes are dashed before they get a chance to cash in on their dreams.

I Won't Accept the Blame - commentary

I’ve noticed a recent trend among idealist educators. They stand ready to accept the blame for educational failures and say we will accept no excuses. We can educate every child, whether they want it or not.

I refuse to share in their self flagellation or their whistling in the dark optimism, though I am by nature pretty optimistic. I’m going to relate a recent experience that will explain why.

I read Soldier Mom, by Alice Mead, to my seventh grade students. In this story, the mother is an Army Reservist who gets called to active duty during the Persian Gulf War. She leaves behind a boy friend, Jake, and their toddler son, Andrew. She also leaves in Jake’s care her eleven year old daughter by a previous marriage, Jasmyn.

Jasmyn, who is the main character, plays on the school basketball team and is the captain. Were she to give up the captain spot, it would go to the girl she and her friends dislike the most. Now that mother is gone, someone has to pick up Andrew from the day care before it closes. Unfortunately, it closes before Jake gets off work. This means Jasmyn will have to leave basketball practice 15 minutes early to get the child.

The problem is, she cannot leave practice 15 minutes early and still be captain of the team. Remember, the biggest problem isn’t that she would no longer be captain, but that the position would go to a girl she dislikes. Since the family dynamic has drastically changed, sacrifices will have to be made. The boyfriend has to make some of them, but he expects the girl to make some too. I asked the kids if it was expecting too much, under the circumstances, to ask the girl to make a sacrifice. The overwhelming response was that a teenager should not have to make any sacrifices.

I went around the room, hoping to find at least one of the kids that would recognize that tough times require sacrifices on the part of each family member. Not a one. Not from the Christian kids, not from those I would consider more mature, not from a boy, nor from a girl. Not a one.

The prevailing attitude among my students was that teenagers should never have to do anything unpleasant or difficult. And, you don’t have to be in the system very long to realize this attitude, though not stated as bluntly, is fostered by a generation of modern parents.

This attitude carries into the educational process itself. As long as the process can be fun and exciting, they will participate, but if it becomes unpleasant, they’re through. I talk to a lot of teachers who agree that the number of kids who simply do nothing is growing each year. I’m talking here about the numbers who are not willing to do even the minimum amount needed to pass. In way too many families, the consequences of doing nothing are now easier to deal with than the unpleasantness of doing the school work.

I think if you talked to coaches, you would also find the number of kids willing to do the truly hard work of excelling at sports is also diminishing.

This attitude is working its way up the system, so I was not surprised to read in the April 8, 2005, edition of the Jonesboro Sun, that, “A new study by three professors at Arkansas State University at Jonesboro suggests that time spent studying for class may be declining at an alarming rate.

“Today, college students spend less than half the time that faculty members believe is required to learn and academically succeed.”

Deep down, politicians, school administrators, and even idealistic educators know the problem doesn’t lie with teachers, who are as good as they have ever been. However, they can’t put pressure on the public, so they keep doing the one thing they can do: put pressure on the teachers. As a teacher from an earlier generation, I have this word of warning for educational policy makers. You may find that when teaching for a new generation of teachers becomes more unpleasant than the alternatives, they too will quit.

A Contrarian View - commentary

They gathered in the living room again as they often did, my son and a few of his friends: all of them high school drop outs. As I listened to their chatter my thoughts drifted back to my own teenage years. I had finally badgered my mother long enough that she had agreed to let me drop out of high school. I was seventeen and a junior. I had a job promised working for a local dairy farmer at $200 a month plus room and board. It was good money for a teenager in 1959, and the room and board would get me out of the house.

As it turned out, I didn’t quit, though I had mentally quit long before. Not dropping out is one of the few regrets I have in life as I was little more than a nuisance for the next year and a half to my teachers and fellow students who actually wanted to learn.

As I watched and listened to my son and his friends, I begin to wonder about our public educational system and why nearly thirty per cent of our students drop out. What is or is not being done to create this crisis, or is it even really a crisis? One evening, back in the late 1980’s, I was channel surfing and came across a panel discussion on PBS of leading educational experts. There were a couple of teachers of the year, a couple of professors from colleges of education, and other assorted, noted educators. I don’t remember much about the discussion, but I do remember being astonished by two things that were said: One panelist said that we know what is wrong with public education, but it will never be fixed because there is too much money and territory (political) involved in things the way they are. The moderator, surprised, asked each panelist in turn if that were true. Each agreed that it was. The second surprising comment was that teacher certification should be done away with.

Though much is often made in the media about the problems with American public education, it is usually by people on the outside looking in. Even the PBS panel only had a couple of teachers who were actually working in a public school setting. So, what would it look like from the inside looking out? This looked like a case for immersion journalism.

Since I had a college degree in journalism rather than education, I finagled my way into the classroom through the Arkansas alternative program for certifying teachers. After fifteen years in the public education system, I now have an answer to my question, though maybe not one very many Americans will accept.

An apt analogy of the problem might be the fellow who takes his car to the garage because he hears some ominous noises coming from deep down in the engine. It is apparent to the mechanic that the connecting rods are knocking and that the engine could fly apart at any time. Yet, the mechanic tries to solve the problem by adjusting the carburetor and the timing of the distributor. There is really only one thing to do: Overhaul the engine.

Our system of public education is faltering because of three false premises on which it has come to operate: People can be compelled to learn, education should be provided at absolutely no cost to the beneficiary, and education best takes place in a school setting. It’s not that these premises are written down or were even planned out in someway. They have just evolved over the years and are implied by the way we do school. So, today, when we have more research into how people learn and behave and better trained teachers, the bulk of our students are not nearly as well educated by grade twelve as their great grandparents were by the eighth grade, if their great grandparents went to school.

The system is broken way down deep and most of what we are doing (technology, more teacher training, more stringent curricula, more testing, more central control, etc.) simply amounts to adjusting the carburetor. If we spend enough, we might get a few years when test scores will rise a little, but until we are ready to overhaul the system, not much is going to change.

A Cost to the Beneficiary - commentry

It was a strange story. Prosecutors were considering filing negligent homicide charges against a father for an automobile accident his son had had in which two people were killed.

It seems the father had bought his son a new Corvette. The son promptly totaled the car in a one vehicle accident, so the father, having more money than good sense, replaced it with another new Corvette. This time when the son totaled the car, he also killed two people in the accident.

I’m sure we could all tell at least one story of a kid who has been given a significant gift, maybe a car or a bicycle, and trashed it in short order. Why? American Revolutionary patriot Thomas Paine put it this way in The American Crisis: “…that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” The reason for this is simple enough. People who are always given things have no way to judge value because they have not traded any of their own time, talent, or energy to obtain the items.

This brings us to one of the problems with American public schooling: there is no direct cost to the beneficiary or his/her parents and so it is not appreciated and not valued. It is generally known that students in private schools do better academically. When parents put out anywhere from $4,000 to $30,000 a year to educate a child, they make sure the student invests some time, talent, and energy into the process.

All too often, I read about some scheme to pay kids for doing well at school, as if the education itself were not enough. An article in the Jan. 22, 2008, edition of the Atlanta Journal reports that, “Forty students … will be the first to try the ‘Learn and Earn’ program, where students will get paid to attend after-school tutoring programs.” The article goes on to report that these students will be given eight dollars an hour to attend class. The purpose of the program is to see if “paying students to study will improve classroom attendance, grades and test scores.” I will predict the outcome based on an often quoted statement of an economist friend: “You will always get more of what you subsidize.” Very quickly there will be more students in need of tutoring. An Oct. 22, 2007, article in the Sun reports a pay the students program to be tried in twenty-one Arkansas high schools to attract more students to advanced placement classes.

I have even been guilty of proposing such schemes. When Dr. James Best, superintendent at Westside, was expressing concern over the increase in seniors who were dropping out before graduation, I proposed we do a raffle. I suggested we get a good, used Ford Mustang and raffle it off to a member of the senior class. Tickets would be given free to seniors, and the only way to get one would to be enrolled as a senior with no more than 10 absences for the school year. The probability of winning would be much greater than in most raffles as there would only be a hundred or so tickets. As a tribute to his good sense, Best did not buy into the idea, though not long after I proposed it, I read where a Phoenix, Arizona, school was doing a take off on the same idea.

Why should we reward kids for doing something for which they are the sole beneficiary? Do they value the free gift of education so little that we have to add material value to it just to give it away? Yes, there are many who do not value it and the solution is not to add superficial value but rather make it cost the beneficiary something.

Before you start screaming about how this would deny an education to the poor, let me assure you I am not talking about charging tuition to attend public schools. The following quote from Daily Celebration, by William Barclay, states well what I mean: "In getting knowledge, the price of the journey is work. If we are not prepared to work really hard, we only get a smattering of a subject, a superficial knowledge of it, a nodding acquaintance of it …. If we are prepared to pay the fare in the coin of work, we can travel far. No one can learn without paying the fare -- in sheer hard work!"

The price to students should be hard work and if they are not willing to pay the price, they should not be allowed to attend school until they are.

This may seem harsh, but my guess is as parents begin to lose their free custodial care and students begin to lose their primary social venue, they will begin to take school work more seriously. The first year, a school might have to send several away, but once students understand they are going to work or else, the number of students being sent away would dwindle to nearly nothing, and there would be a lot more good work being produced. Students would begin to value their education because it would truly cost them something.

Let 'em Drop Out - commentary

A reform, to be worth our time, must get at real problems. Most reforms stop short of this because they come in conflict with those who have a vested interest in things as they are. If we won't fix real problems, then all our reforms will be limited in the good they do. I am reluctant to even mention one of the real problems because of the hue and cry that will come from so many quarters.

Let me preface my observation with three quotes: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear -- an old Hindu proverb.

"The passion to teach is far more powerful and primitive than the passion to learn..." -- Eric Hoffer, unschooled author who was popular in the 70's and 80's.

And, an aphorism of my own, "Those who feel a need are not necessarily those who have the need."

Each of these quotes gives insight into one of the real problems that plague our schools: its compulsory nature. We spend too much time trying to teach students before they have an interest in learning. Compulsory education at the secondary level is destroying our system.

Compulsory education came about during the early 1900's through the work of child advocates and labor unions in an effort to curb child labor practices. These practices allowed children as young as 10 years of age to work in mines and factories six days a week, ten hours a day. These much needed laws compelled kids to be in school until age 14, which is about the ninth grade. However, these laws have been amended in most states to age 18, and this is a problem.

Certainly, we don't need 10-year-olds working in factories and mines. And, in a democracy, we do need a literate citizenry. Compulsory schooling helps in both instances. Basic literacy, however, should be achieved by the ninth grade, and by the ninth grade many students have already decided that school holds no interest for them and they shut down. The numbers who drop out mentally continues to grow with each ensuing grade.

Forcing these people to go to school is destroying our system. To really understand this you have to try teaching in a classroom with a handful of students who don't want to be there. It only takes a few such students to seriously disrupt the teaching and dilute the learning for those who want to be there. If parents who really desire a quality education for their children understood this, they would be up in arms.

You cannot force learning; you can only force schooling. Schooling does not equal learning; even fish run in schools. A 15, 16, 17, or 18 year old who doesn't want to be in school will not work, but he will keep others from working and will make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for the teacher to teach.

What is the justification for forcing these people to be in a classroom? They are too young to make such decision on their own and when they get older they will thank us for making them hang in there. They will take jobs away from grown men who need them to support families. They will flood the labor market with cheap labor. They will just hang around on street corners and in malls causing trouble and running away customers. We need an educated workforce if we are going attract industries that will bring good jobs.

As to the first argument, it would make more sense to structure our system of education so it would be more convenient for these people to drop back in when they are ready to learn. (I’m glad to see, according to a recent news report, some educators in Osceola are thinking in these terms.) This should be at no cost to them in that we were willing to pay for their education at a time when they weren't yet ready to learn. We could make this delayed education less expensive by requiring them to only complete the core curriculum for a diploma. A motivated student could complete the high school core curriculum in a couple of years rather than the customary four.

Did you notice that only the last argument has to do with education? I would say that the last argument alone would justify compulsory education if in fact it led to a better educated work force, but it doesn't. Because the forced students depreciate the learning environment, it leads to a less educated work force.

As to the other arguments, they each represent a social problem that may need solving, but solve them in some way that will not dilute the education of those who want to learn. To hear politicians argue that we can't have these young people hanging around on street corners causing trouble, so we'll force them to hang around in classrooms is incredulous. If they're getting in trouble on street corners, what do you think they will be doing in school?

I don't expect any in positions of power to buy into this argument and change the law, so we will continue operating with a system that is flawed at its roots. We will continue to spend ever increasing amounts on reforms, some of them quite exciting. And, we will continue to congratulate ourselves over every little gain in test scores when we could be experiencing real progress.