Sunday, May 22, 2011

Spinning Education

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I'm not going to act like an economist and claim to be "surprised" that folks are spinning various education pieces today. No, I am not at all surprised that it is happening, but I am a little frustrated when I see something like this from today's (Sunday May 22) NY Times where the headline uses "grassroots" and "Bill Gates" together. The idea of anything funded from the coffers of a billionaire being considered "grass roots" is beyond ludicrous. But then, we are talking about a TradMed that willfully overlooks the funding of folks like the Koch Brothers and Dick Armey to proclaim various astro-turf organizations as "grass roots."

To be fair, the Times article does point out a few of the problems:

INDIANAPOLIS — A handful of outspoken teachers helped persuade state lawmakers this spring to eliminate seniority-based layoff policies. They testified before the legislature, wrote briefing papers and published an op-ed article in The Indianapolis Star.

They described themselves simply as local teachers who favored school reform — one sympathetic state representative, Mary Ann Sullivan, said, “They seemed like genuine, real people versus the teachers’ union lobbyists.” They were, but they were also recruits in a national organization, Teach Plus, financed significantly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.


In some cases, Mr. Gates is creating entirely new advocacy groups. The foundation is also paying Harvard-trained data specialists to work inside school districts, not only to crunch numbers but also to change practices. It is bankrolling many of the Washington analysts who interpret education issues for journalists and giving grants to some media organizations.


Given the scale and scope of the largess, some worry that the foundation’s assertive philanthropy is squelching independent thought, while others express concerns about transparency. Few policy makers, reporters or members of the public who encounter advocates like Teach Plus or pundits like Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute realize they are underwritten by the foundation.
Leave it to the Washington Post, of all places to counter some of the anti-teacher/anti-teachers unions noise today with Five myths about America's schools:
1. Our schools are failing.
2. Unions defend bad teachers.
3. Billionaires know best.
4. Charter schools are the answer.
5. More effective teachers are the answer.
Yes. The Washington Post has actually published something that recognizes that all five of those points are myths. This from the same paper that pushes the myth of Social Security being the cause of the Federal deficit so maybe there is something else going on here that I'm not seeing, but I do have to give them a small bit of credit. The fifth item listed above is especially apropos in describing why it is a myth:
Former D.C. Schools chief Michelle Rhee and other big-city superintendents called for more effective teachers in a reform “manifesto” published in The Washington Post last fall. Well, sure. Who doesn’t want more effective teachers? While we’re at it, let’s get more effective superintendents, curriculum specialists and principals, too.

Let’s be realistic: Teachers aren’t miracle workers. There’s only so much they can do to address problems that troubled students bring to class every day, including neglect, abuse, and unaddressed medical and mental health issues. The obvious and subtle ways that poverty inhibits a child’s ability to learn — from hearing, visual and dental problems to higher asthma rates to diminished verbal interaction in the home — have been well-documented.

So let’s seek to improve the state of families. Attacking schools and teachers makes everyone feel like a reformer, but the problems begin long before a child steps through the schoolhouse door.
I'm sure I've mentioned all the teachers on both sides of my family before, from my mother to my aunts, to all my cousins who teach from all levels starting with first grade and continuing on through college, so I do tend to lean in favor of the teacher against all the attacks.

While not directly about teaching, I found this opinion piece by Michael Roth, President of Weleyan College (via CNN) offering some strong points about Liberal Arts education in general:
A well-rounded education gave graduates more tools with which to solve problems, broader perspectives through which to see opportunities and a deeper capacity to build a more humane society.

In recent years university leaders in Asia, the Mideast and even Europe have sought to organize curricula more like those of our liberal art schools. How, they want to know, can we combine rigorous expectations of learning with the development of critical thinking and creativity that are the hallmarks of the best American colleges?

But in our own land we are running away from the promise of liberal education. We are frightened by economic competition, and many seem to have lost confidence in our ability to draw from the resources of a broadly based education. Instead, they hope that technical training or professional expertise on their own will somehow invigorate our culture and society.

Many seem to think that by narrowing our focus to just science and engineering, we will become more competitive. This is a serious mistake.
I was a Sociology major my first time through college and still find the topic fascinating, even though I eventually got a Computer Science degree. As part of the general education requirements for a BA in Sociology, I had to take 12 hours of Math and Science (I took Basic Math, Physical Geology, Meteorology, and never got the fourth course), 9 hours of English, composition writing, and poetry/literature, six hours of US History and various electives in Social Studies (Psych 101, Art Appreciation, Drama) and various other courses. I was in ROTC so did not have to take any PE courses. I'll always remember my US History professor. He gave us credit for getting within ten years of the date of historical events but if we really wanted credit on tests, we had to explain why the historical events had occurred. The "critical thinking" Mr. Roth discusses.

I'm not quite willing to impugn the motives of Bill Gates and his allies but there are all sorts of articles always floating around, mocking some of the Liberal Arts course offerings as "why ever would a 'serious' student want to take such a course." One of my courses in Sociology that at first blush sounds "why bother" in this fashion was a class on Games and Simulations. Yet this was a quite valuable class for me. One of the first games we played was a dice based game on settlement where we set up teams and "settled a new town along the river." What wound up happening was as teams, we re-created most all of the problems found as towns became cities, original land became industrialized, and folks moved further away from their origins. Just like when we play Monopoly, it is really easy for folks to get into "Robber Baron" mode

I believe Mr Gates would prefer to have nothing but engineers and scientists marching out of colleges each spring but is this really a world of automatons? This might sound surprising to some folks but having worked in the technology industry since 1982, some of the best computer programmers I've ever known had been music majors for their undergrad degree. But they understood structure and syntax for programming which made it easier for them to see the conceptual "big picture." Other folks with liberal arts backgrounds are seemingly better able to perceive how the latest and greatest techno toys and widgets will be both used by non-technical people and how best to present those changes to people.

We need the engineers and scientists but we also need the people who provide the artistic and the people who have the broad-based education who have dabbled in a variety of disciplines.

And the teachers. After all, which teacher was it that inspired you as a student? Was it the one that presented all the dry facts and asked for them to be regurgitated from rote memory or was it the person who opened the world of thought and universes not yet discovered?

And because I can:

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