Monday, October 22, 2012

Politics Shmolitics

It's a mistake to think you can solve any major problems just with potatoes. -Douglas Adams

Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so. -also Douglas Adams

I'll be the first to admit that I don't really understand politics, or how the budget works, or why our government functions the way it does. I don't understand how we got to where we are today--how illogical our politicians are and how a lot of America believes them. Most of all, I don't understand how politicians can say they love our country but are clearly working towards easy fixes and short term gains (ie getting elected). If politicians truly loved and wanted what's best for America, well, education wouldn't have all these budget cuts. And teachers would be paid what they deserve.

But it's not just teaching, it's early childhood education, providing resources and materials to schools, hiring reading/math/art/science specialists, having enough staff to give every student the attention they need and deserve, providing professional development to improve teacher effectiveness, keeping class sizes down, and actually use the information research tells us will help raise test scores. (hint: it's not teaching to the test and eliminating art).

 I've now begun reading the news enough to realize that there are a couple of NY Times columnists who I repeatedly read and agree with. Nicholas Kristof is one, and nearly a year ago I bookmarked this column that he wrote, intending to address it in my blog in a more timely manner. Oops.

But he makes a good point about the long term returns of investing in schools/early education. It just makes sense:
"Maybe it seems absurd to propose expansion of early childhood education at a time when budgets are being slashed. Yet James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, has shown that investments in early childhood education pay for themselves. Indeed, he argues that they pay a return of 7 percent or more — better than many investments on Wall Street."
More recently, Kristof addressed the Chicago Teacher's Strike, bringing it back to early childhood education.
America’s education system has become less a ladder of opportunity than a structure to transmit inequity from one generation to the next. [...] The single most important step we could take has nothing to do with unions and everything to do with providing early-childhood education to at-risk kids. 
What I like about Kristof though, is he recognizes what our top priority should be: students. Unfortunately, politics often gets in the way. Yes, unions are important, but they get in the way sometimes too. You might remember the images from Waiting for Superman of the teachers who should be fired for ineffectiveness being sent to rubber rooms, where they are still paid because they are protected. That's not the way it should be. Judging teacher effectiveness is a whole other issue I'm not going to go into just now, but maybe if teachers were well paid and not expected to perform miracles in overcrowded, under-resourced schools--rather given plenty of professional development, we wouldn't have this issue. Teachers should definitely be held accountable for what they can be reasonably expected to do, and it should be easier to fire bad teachers, and hire good ones.

You can't just start giving students a test and claim some teacher is more or less effective based on the results. That's not fair. That's like giving an exam on the first day of a course, and basing your grade on that test before learning any of the information. The fact is, there are a lot of inequalities amongst schools, and it is unfair to judge two very different schools on the same test without first making sure both schools have the resources to reasonably have students at the same standard. So there's one reason why NCLB hasn't fixed our education system.

There is no easy solution, so politicians, journalists and the general population: stop pretending there is one. Stop pretending it's just teacher's unions, or the teacher's themselves who are solely at fault. They may play a small part, but so does access to resources, health, early elementary education, poverty, societal attitudes and a million other issues.

I don't have the answers, and I'm not sure anyone does right now. But we really need to start using the research that is out there, versus playing some stupid blame game. It's no one's fault, and it's all of our faults. Let's move on. I'm hopeful--every week I see more and more articles about what education can and should look like. But now we need to move from words on a paper to action. Yes we can!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Today I learned that Bill Clinton's middle name is Jefferson. So presidential.

"'We're all in this together' works better than 'You're on your own'" -Bill Clinton

"Education is more than a luxury; it is a responsibility that society owes to itself." -Robin Cook

It's not just about elementary education, though that is what is in my blog and on my mind on a daily basis. Today I thought a little more about higher education. At UCD today, 2 of our current Democratic congressmen--Garamendi and McNerney, 2 Democratic candidates--Bera and Hernandez, and our 42nd president Bill Clinton, came and spoke on the quad. It was pretty awesome, and I wish Hernandez was in my district because I want to vote for him! And not just because he was an astronaut. (Though how cool is that!? As the son of migrant farm workers, he saw on TV Americans walking on the moon and said, that's what I want to do---and then he did it!) 
I stole this picture from my sister, who brought a real camera this morning.
Anyway, while I still think that the key to turning our nation around is investing in elementary education, we can't forget about those for whom it's too late. And we need to continue offering quality education at all levels, and not just quality, but affordable. Clinton talked a bit about student loan reform this morning, and made a good point: if you set up student loan programs in a way where students are actually able to pay loans back, you're going to have a lot more students actually pay their loans back instead of defaulting them. 

I really believe that education is the solution, in so many ways. America has bizarre priorities sometimes. Why wouldn't you want to invest in counteracting poverty when it can lead to fewer people dependent on welfare, and fewer people in our jails? We spend more on prisons than we do on schools, when what we should really be spending money on is investing in children so that fewer of them drop out and end up in prison. 

One thing that really stuck with my from my Minnesota Reading Corps training over a year ago was a video we watched called "How Do You Spell Murder?" The takeaway I got from the short movie was that, when you heard these criminals' stories, their failures in school seemed intertwined with ending up in prison. In the movie, we see the power of literacy, how, even adult men in jail for murder, find hope and empowerment in learning to read. 

Imagine if that hope and empowerment were instilled in elementary school. Imagine if they were provided with proper resources and effective, dedicated teachers. Imagine if college were a realistic, feasible goal for ALL students. Imagine how that could have changed the direction of these prisoners' lives. Every single child in America has enormous potential, and it's time we recognize that, and give every last one of them the opportunity to quality education, and a positive future.

I'll leave you with this video of Malcolm X. London's poem "High School Training Ground", which won top individual performance at the "Louder Than A Bomb" poetry slam competition in Chicago. He's someone for whom the school system has failed. Or perhaps, as he puts it, the school systems are succeeding, with the goal prepare their students to carry on the status quo, to step into the roles society provides for them, good or bad. London eloquently tells it like he sees it. 
And remember, make sure to vote in November!