Saturday, November 23, 2013

Another Education Rant: Complexity is not a Disease

“Life's hard. It's even harder when you're stupid.”
                                                ― John Wayne

            Being a teacher, I have plenty to say about this idea.  Of course, there are different kinds of stupid I need to acknowledge so you know where I stand on such things.  Stupid ranges all the way from simple ignorance of the facts or life skills due to lack of exposure, all the way to the willful ignorance and idiotic behavior regardless of training and as a result of willful disobedience to natural law.  The latter of these has natural consequences often summed up by facial tattoos featuring cartoon characters or misspelled affirmations, the inability to string five words together without the crutch of profanity, or a perpetual blank stare in response to any question requiring the smallest amount of critical thinking or curiosity.  However, the first kind of stupid, that of simple ignorance, has a marvelous cure, and that is a basic education provided by the state free of charge if one so desires.  I am writing in defense of that free education.  After all, I am a teacher in a public school and I have an instinct for self preservation, right?  Unfortunately there is a war underway against a fair and adequate public option regarding the education of our citizenry which compels me to speak up above and beyond the threshold of self preservation.  Part of what I am going to say will be an attempt to dispel what I think to be a myth about education and part will be an attempt to point to what I feel is the real problem facing education.  At no time will I claim anything research related other than to point at problems of perceptions.  Everything you read will simply be my own ideas.

            I was educated in the 1970's and 1980's.  As such, some people might be tempted to think I am going to tout how stringent my education was compared to that of public schools today, that the students today do not care as much about their education as I did when I was in school.  Well, I am not going to go down that road.  It might surprise you to learn that contemporaries of the great Greek philosophers make the same complaints you hear today: That the youth of Athens no longer cared about their educations, that the standards of education have slipped.  It has been something every generation laments and a common complaint for more than 3,000 years, so I doubt that's the problem with education.  I mention my age to highlight the transitional place I hold within recent education trends.  I was in high school when computers were new, and before the advent of cell phones.  And while I teach now, with the inundation of personal technology, I have to tell you it is my firm belief the students have not changed, but rather it is the world which has changed around them and that those changes have created false impressions by those who are in a position to make changes regarding education. 

            You can't swing a dead cat without hitting a study, a parent, or a legislator claiming some fundamental flaw in education exists, which if left to its own devices, will destroy the United States of America.  "Test scores are down, internationally."  "Our children lack real-world skills!" "Teacher unions are choking our economy and schools."  "My child cannot pray in school."  "Children don't care anymore!" "We need to step in!"  "The federal government needs to butt out!"  "Charter schools are the answer!"  "Charter schools are not the answer!" Take your pick or add your favorite to the list.  They say admitting a problem exists is the first step in solving the problem.  Well, what if the problem is that too many people think the answer to fixing education boils down to fixing one issue?  What if the problem is too many people are only willing to look at the issue from their myopic perspective?  What if the problem is that our culture is the victim of it's own education system and is no longer interested in accepting some issues are too complex for a 10 minute solution?

            You see, that's what my point is.  I think we have forgotten as a culture that there is more than one perspective.  We have become polarized beyond the point of seeing the complexity of an issue.  We want the simple fix.  We want something or someone to come along and tell us everything can be fixed with a single program or shift in procedure.  Well, it can't.  Let me make this easy for you:

·         Many foreign nations only test and publish the results of their best students.

·         Many foreign nations do not even offer education to all of the population.

·         No profession with an average starting salary of 36K/year has the potential to strangle the economy.

·         When it comes to bad teachers remember this: You rarely hear stories about good teachers because they don't make for entertaining stories on your local news.

·         If you feel the one flaw in your child's school is that your child is being deprived of religious freedom in the school because of a lack of mandated prayer, please tell me which prayer is appropriate in a pluralistic nation.

·         Do you really think children in the U.S. are so different than those in other nations?  They do care, but they just care about different things than those who are observing them.  They have real world skills, but again, those skills are different than the ones we learned at their age.

·         The Federal government is problematic, but necessary to ensure there is an equity and fairness regarding education.  Without it, very few states or communities would enforce equal employment standards or pesky laws like Title IX.

·         If you object to the money being spent by the DOE, there is of course evidence which suggests money doesn't make a difference, but then again, not all investments can be measured in dollars.

·         Charter schools, when run well, can offer an excellent alternative for both parents and students, but in many cases do not perform any better than district run public schools. 

There is no simple and straightforward truth to be had in the realm of education.  Nothing you point to can fix everything in education with one, sweeping reform.  No Child Left Behind was based on cooked books from the Dallas, Texas School District.  Common Core runs on the incorrect assumption that all students have the ability to learn concepts at the same pace. 

            For a moment, let's look at the current trend.  Some people look at the Common Core standards as an encroachment upon local communities to decide what is best for their kids, and from what I just said, one might incorrectly assume I said the same thing just now.  Well, I didn't.  There is a huge difference between the political agenda of  centralized authority and decentralized government control of education and that of an assumption regarding the abilities of students.  Common Core is not flawed because it seeks to bring up what has been popularly coined as "rigor" into the schools, nor is it a sin to try and require that all U.S. schools maintain certain minimum standards for teaching critical thinking skills, core subjects and assessments.   The problem with Common Core is that it robs in part the true professional his or her ability to determine what should be taught to a particular student or group of students regarding a specific concept or skill.  It limits the very creativity it proclaims to instill through its methods. 

            Again, the problem as far as I can see, is perspective.  Too many people who are not educators have too much say and control regarding education.  Legislators who have not spent more than an hour in a classroom since their own primary/secondary educations look at the situation from their limited perspective, colored by their political agenda, and make decisions regarding how best to educate students they will neither know or even meet.  Another argument against the Department of Education?  No.  Without the DOE, urban and rural students would be shortchanged funds vital to providing a well rounded education, and in some places any kind of basic education. 

            But before you think I am simply going to turn myself into some Education vigilante and this short essay into a manifesto, teachers need to let go of their tunnel vision, too.  They need to get off the cross they have nailed themselves to and donate the wood to Habitat for Humanity.  Teachers need to realize that just because they are professionals caught in a widely derided profession, it isn't an excuse to ignore the concerns of those who are not educators.  Of course there will always be parents who unfairly threaten to bring lawsuits against the school district if their precious snowflake of a child fails a class, but that is not a product of the education system.  It' a product of that second kind of stupidity, and if one believes in science, then the problem is usually self correcting.  Teachers need to recognize new programs like Common Core and NCLB are born out of a misplaced frustrations.  If teachers are real educators, they need to be willing to teach people (not just the students on their roll sheets) that complexity is not something to be feared.  And while it begins in the classroom, it is not a single front issue.  Teachers need to be willing to discuss complex issues whenever and wherever it arises.  Teachers need to abandon the "it's not my job" attitude which allows people to continue perpetrating so many harmful myths about education.

            Summation:  Education is too complex an issue to be solved by any one issue.  Everyone involved in the education process needs to own up to their responsibilities and needs to recognize there are far too many perspectives for single issue solutions.  Parents, do you want your kids to learn more?  Demand more from them.  Hold them accountable for their poor decisions regarding education.  Demand more from teachers while understanding teachers have been given rules and regulations which increasingly limit the flexibility sometimes needed to meet the needs of any one student.  Understand that when you treat a teacher like a babysitter and expect the teacher to shoulder all of the responsibility in your child's education, it's like asking a stool to stand on one leg.  Teachers, do you want parents and students to take the education process more seriously?  Demand more from them but understand that parents do not understand education the way you understand it.  They view education like a patron/client relationship because so many other aspects of our culture fall into that structure and they do not see the value of education as something which may not manifest itself for decades.  Parents want measurable results, and students will seek the easiest path you give them.  Don't pretend to be shocked when they pull out the stereotypical 'bad teacher'  narrative to try and get their way.  Legislators, do you want to improve education in a genuine and meaningful way?  Stop pretending to be the "Education Candidate."  Everyone knows you are full of bullshit.  Remember this:  Almost every South American dictator  in the 20th Century had a two item platform---educating the children and getting the trains to run on time.  Stop pretending that legislation can fix education.  Stop pretending you can fix education by bullying teachers, parents and students.  Make legislation which protects rights and creates opportunities. 

            Everyone, want to fix education?  Stop pretending there is only one perspective or values system with merit.  Start looking and listening to each other.  Stop thinking there is virtue in willful ignorance of the realities which face us regarding education.  There are some genuine, honest-to-god problems in education which need to be solved, but none of them will get solved if we don't first accept complexity as a constant, and our own ignorance as the real variable.  Remember what Truman Capote said.  "It is no shame to have a dirty face. The shame comes when you keep it dirty."  It's time to wash our faces.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Spreading the Word: Veterans and Cancer Treatment

I received an e-mail asking that as a veteran, I help spread the word about Mesothelioma and how it relates to veteran's health and is affected by the ACA. 

If you are or know a veteran, please pass along the link to this article

Thank you for your time.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What appears to be a cover design

I was just contacted by my editor with several cover design options, and this is the one I chose.  For those of you in the know, you will probably recognize a connection between the cover image and the content of the book.  I am really pleased with the design and I wanted to share it with you.  File it under: Things are getting serious.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What being on a break from writing means, exactly

It means all of the new calls for submissions will go unanswered from me.

It means I become insanely jealous when I read about acceptances to journals I respect and admire.

It means I have to pretend I would rather be doing other things when I know that isn't true.

It means I write poems by accident and not design.

It means I am on the prowl for ideas which might lead me to my next book.

It means I get a bit testy with those who do not understand the need to take a break from poetry.

It means all the books of poetry I own begin to mock me.

It means forgetting all of my old, stupid writing habits.

It means beginning again the process of watching the world.

It means prose becomes more appealing by the hour, sweet, awful prose.