Category Archives: Education

Structural barriers to poverty

An interesting column on Poverty by economist Bradley Schiller contends that for the vast majority of impoverished Americans their condition is short term. Schiller pointed to a study by the University of Michigan which found that only 5% of poor Americans stayed poor for ten years out of the 13 years they were studied. That means that 19 out of 20 poor people were able to escape extreme poverty most of the time.

Democrats would be well advised to pay attention to this because it helps explain why America continues to be a place where optimism sells. In many ways the Democrats are too steeped in the Era and ethos of the Depression.

Schiller suggests that the best thing to do is to work on eliminating the structural barriers which make it difficult for people to escape poverty. One of those is a very Republican barrier. Usurious interest rates of short term loan business like title loans have become widespread as they left the Republicans Deep South in search of new customers in Republican leaning states. They are very much like the company stores of the coal fields or tenant farming which replaced the plantations after the Civil War.

In Republican eyes if a good ole boy can get rich by earning a 100 or 150% return on a loan to some poor desperate person so be it. Not exactly a family value – usury. Apparently it doesn’t make any difference how you make a buck so long as the law allows it and keeping it legal is what the Republicans want.

Yet a ruinous loan is a structural barrier. It should also be noted that Republicans have also  become the primary champions for gambling which provides a sin tax for government. Gaming in America reminds me of the failing Soviet Russian’s dependence in the late 1980’s on revenues from vodka sales which helped to keep the population in a compliant stupor.

Schiller also mentions the 5 million low achieving students who drop out of school every year. This is another critical barrier because poorly funded school systems drive kids out before they can get the tools to help them achieve success. This too is an outcome of Republican politics because Republicans champion “local control” of schools which all too often means localalized financing of schools.

I’ve thought for years that Congress should withold federal education revenue from states which refuse to implement some financial equity between their rich and poor school districts. I suggested this to Paul Wellstone a few months before he died. The Senator didn’t disagree with me but told me that too many Congressmen would fight such a plan.

Damn Speech

One of the things I have managed to upload and which has stayed intact through all the messing around is my “Damn Speech.” I took the Lord’s name in vain.

It’s perhaps the best example I have of my composing a speech on the fly. Its a bit long but I was pretty charged up when I gave it. I had been planning for two years to support a referendum to raise more property taxes for the Schools. Minnesota had slid from fifth place to the middle of the pack where per pupil spending was concerned and it was worse for property tax poor Duluth. We’d been cutting the school budget for years and I was desperate to fill our coffers back up again. Then on the eve of our decision about whether to offer an excess levy referendum Nine-Eleven happened.

That pretty well made a hash of any drive to raise taxes. Certainly a levy referendum seemed a lot less important. Nonetheless, I felt I had a duty to press for the referendum and when one of the other school board members made light of the few parents who had showed up to suport the levy it really stuck in my craw.

Take a look

Another sign that the Duluth School District is on the right path

I recently heard a story which confirmed a long held belief. People who are being watched are more likely to behave. This has also been confirmed by video cameras placed in cars and directed at drivers. People behind the wheel correct their careless behavior rather than let it be captured on camera.

Of course, doing what is right because it is right rather than doing right because you’ll stay out of trouble is not particularly honorable but just tell that to the person whose gotten hit by a wreckless driver or mugged, raped and cheated because no one was watching.

When I was on the Duluth School Board one of the more troubling incidents involved a rape in a Denfeld High stairwell. The Board talked about getting cameras but was stymied due to their prohibitive expense. Apparently this roadblock has been lifted. Way to go Duluth Schools!

Merit Pay Melee

I’ve been waiting for something worthy to blog about for a couple days and I just found it. I didn’t read the news that inspired today’s DNT’s editorial but the editorial tells the story.

As someone who has never been very motivated by money I’ve always been extremely skeptical of the GOP’s insistence that financial incentives are the best way to make our schools better. Its not just that there is a long tradition of teacher collegiality that is threatened by paying teachers for performance. Its also that performance is a very tricky thing to measure making such pay potentially arbitrary. Teachers recognize this and resent being paid differential amounts based on faulty cause and affect associations.

Should an inner city teacher who takes emotionally abandoned kids from a dropout status to D’s be paid more or less than a suburban teacher who raises his students from B’s to A’s? 

The teachers that students remember fondly for years after they’ve graduated are not the ones who followed the Republican prescription of constant testing. Rather they are the teachers who lifted kids minds. Unfortunately, inspiration is a very hard quality to measure. The civil war in Waseca’s schools after merit pay was put in place doesn’t surprise me. Sometimes Republicans sound and act like the pointy haired boss in the cubiclized world of Dilbert.

I don’t oppose the idea of merit pay in principal. One of these days we may be able to implant silicon chips surgically in teacher’s brains. Of course, when that happens we may be able to program them to be so content that they won’t even require pay raises.

Apes and Pigs

Its in the book. A Saudi 4th Grade text book. On NPR this morning.
 Saudi Text

“The center’s report cites numerous examples. It quotes a fourth-grade text as telling students to ‘love for the sake of God and to hate for the sake of God.’ The report says that textbooks instruct students that Christians and Jews are ‘apes and pigs’ and warns students not to ‘greet,’ ‘befriend’ or ‘respect’ non-believers.”

Saudi officials say it takes a while to change a school system. Tell us about it! Ever hear of: No Infidel Left Behind?

 

The Irish Model

As I was looking for a suitable reference to America’s long history of prejudice against the Catholics I found this interesting web page. It debunks the NINA memories of American Irish. (No Irish Need Apply) Regardless of the truth of the NINA signs anti-Catholic prejudice flourished until even after John Kennedy. Perhaps our current Da Vinci Code mania is a little echo of this past.

The comment on the page which intrigued me the most was about the resistance to doing well in school. Well Duh, any boy knows this. The boy who knows all the answers is likely to be unpopular with his less academic fellows who would rather get their play and aggressions out on the playground than in text books which are the preserve of the people who look down their noses at you.

This attitude is crippling. Its particulary devastating in the black inner city and it could become a problem with the growing Hispanic population. It is exacerbated by unequal school finance.

“This was part of the most sickening aspect of Irish-American life in those days: the assumption that if you rose above an acceptable level of mediocrity, you were guilty of the sin of pride. You were to accept your place and stay in it for the rest of your life; the true rewards would be given to you in heaven, after you were dead. There was ferocious pressure to conform, to avoid breaking out of the pack; self-denial was the supreme virtue…it was arrogant, a sin of pride, to conceive of a life beyond the certainties, rhythms, and traditions of the Neighborhood. Sometimes the attitude was expressed directlyMore often, it was implied. But the Neighborhood view of the world had fierce power. Who did I think I was?”

Our nation’s unwillingness to fully integrate and inspire newcomers when they are young and maleable will have unfortunate repercussions long into the future. Just look at western Europe and their unhappy and only partially assimilated young Muslims.

Soda Schmoda

Another interesting item in school news. ExPrez Bill Clinton has brokered a deal with the soft drinks industry to pull soda pop out of the nation’s schools by 2009-10.

Here’s a little Duluth backstory to this:

Last night I was talking to a former high school principal and he mentioned this in regards to our efforts to raise money for the Duluth Public Schools Endowment.

While he and I were with the District we were always scrambling for funds. Former Board member Pati Rolf, a strong advocate for healthy living, once pushed to have soda pop vending machines removed from the schools and for good reason. Soda pop (along with other high sugar and high fat foods) is leading to an epidemic of obesity in children with a resultant spike in diabetes, heart disease etc, etc, etc.

Some people may shrug this off as liberal whining but there’s no question that our government subsidized agricultural and food processing industries are plying us with food so that we are stuffing it down our faces like never before.

The talk of banning vending machines raised the hackles of all three of our high school principals. They discourage in the strongest terms from doing this. All our high schools have arrangements with soft drinks suppliers to split soda sales with the schools. The School Board’s concern about our children’s health threatened their ability to give children after school programs. What a two edged sword! (For crying out loud speech and debate has all but disappeared in the Duluth Schools!)

Our local bottler Bernicks set up a ten-year deal to supply soda to the schools in return for $30,000 to help furnish and equip Public School Stadium. How can we renege on that deal?

Time will tell what will happen locally or even nationally but I can’t help but think this is a good and worthwhile effort. Believe it or not when I went to High School we only had an apple and milk vending machine if memory serves me correctly. But then, my memory isn’t what it used to be.

Tech Schmeck

One consequence of the Minnesota’s fall from 5th in per-pupil spending to 23rd has been a lack of funds to keep our state’s schools up to date in technical training. Even now Duluth Denfeld is asking its grads for money to pay for something called “smart books” which must be some kind of technological gizmo. In the short run this may not be a problem as this story in the Minneapolist Trib reports:

“the report says nothing about a link between technology and student achievement. In fact, the report’s authors acknowledge that many of the lowest-scoring states on this list have some of the highest student test scores.

And some of the top-scoring technology states — such as West Virginia and Arkansas — have a tradition of struggling schools.”

Still, over time, lapses like this will have an impact. Repeat the Republican mantra after me, “No new taxes, no new taxes, know gnu Texas.”

Duluth tenth graders can right rite

The top story in the DNT’s local section showed that 93 percent of Duluth’s tenth graders can write passably. On a scale from 1 to 6, 3 being passing, all but seven percent pass muster.

This is not to suggest that writing at level 3 is anything special. You wouldn’t want to read a blog written at level 3 but a person can survive in our literate world at this rate.

The NCLB law is not the first effort aimed at pushing low functioning kids to higher levels. Its only innovation is being the first nationalized effort to do so. As a teacher a couple decades ago it began to dawn on me that I had lots of barely literate kids in my social studies classes. Rather than do all my testing with multiple choice tests I began testing my kids with essays. Its one thing to ask kids what caused the civil war in an essay than to offer them the alternatives of A.slavery, B.sectional economic differences, B.Kansas Nebraska Act, D.the banana boycott; to see if kids have learned their history. Many couldn’t and many wouldn’t write anything. Blank answers weren’t necessarily eividence of ignorance of the subject. It was just as likely an indication of their unwillingness to demonstrate their poor writing skills. How far would a kid go to hide such a failing?

Today’s Dear Abby has a letter from a young woman whose 33 year-old boyfriend refuses to do anything about his illiteracy. It raises the age old question of how a child can spend ten or twelve years in school without learning how to do the single most requiement of an education.

Whatever else its flaws NCLB testing is one way to keep a school district focused on student progress so that they don’t fall between the cracks.

It didn’t take passing NCLB to get this done. Fifteen years ago Minnesota adopted a process called “outcome based education” or OBE for short. The idea was simple. Schools would pay more attention to the outcome of a child’s schooling i.e. getting them educated than it would keeping trakc of their seat time (time spent in class). Ironically it was killed by Republicans and their allies for doing exactly what the NCLB is nnow attempting to do – make sure no child falls too far behind his classmates. But the outrage that killed OBE had more to do with the fear that schools would spend all their resources on the worst students by shafting gifted and ambitious kids. This complaint lives on with the Republican inspired NLCB.

OBE was followed by Minnesota’s even more ambitious “Profiles of Learning.”  It had too many cooks, hundreds and thousands of designers made it so complicated that it was almost beyond the public’s comprehension. Again state Republicans led the charge to kill another ed reform. Now Republicans are beginning to rebel anainst President Bush’s NCLB.

Why is it that 7 out of ten Duluth tenth graders can’t write? Some may be newly enrolled foreign students still learning English. Others may be special education students with limited intellectual abilities. Some may have gotten their education in other school districts so that Duluth shouldn’t have to be tagged with their failure. Whatever the reason it should remain a reason and not an excuse. An excuse is one step away from a justification.

800 Schools left behind

In an earlier post I complained about the Left Behind policies of the Bush Administration and how Duluth Schools could be listed as failing their students starting next year.

Tom Boman, UMD’s Ed professor and a regular contributor to the Tribune, explained it so well that even I understand how stupid this is.

Better read it quick. The Trib only keeps stuff on their site for seven days unless it ends up being cached somewhere.

Will Duluth have failing schools courtesy of NCLB?

As I was leaving town for Texas I caught a story in the Strib. It was in the DTrib too. It suggested that because Minnesota allows schools not to count the test scores of lower performing special education students when they number fewer than 40 to a school the NCLB cops would come in and clean house. As a result Minnesota (and possibly Duluth) will likely see a lot more of its schools labeled as “underperformers.”

NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is the Bush brainchild based on his Texas education reforms. The NCLB has irritated his Republican base which has balked at having the Federal Government to override state standards. Utah is among the more resistant.

On the plus side NCLB pushes states to pay attention to the academic progress of their poor children. On the minus side there is nothing in NCLB which requires states to equalize funding for impoverished school districts. Rather, it pushes state’s to implement cheap mind deadening “drill and kill” rote memorization and expensive mass testing.

Bush’s Texas miracle has led a lot of desperate school districts in that state to cheat. That’s not very encouraging.

Failing Schools

The Strib had a story today about the likelihood that more Minnesota Schools would be singled out as schools of failure thanks to No Child Left Behind.  This Bush brainchild was based on the corruption riddled reforms he instituted in Texas. Its punishments were so draconian that schools all across Texas cheated to make their scores look better.

Several Republican controlled legislatures balked at NCLB and have ignored it. New rules from the Federal government now threaten to designate hundredsof Minnesota schools as failures. I know Minnesota’s Republic legislators will welcome this development. 

Algebra

The Trib has a story about the small number of Minnesota junior high students taking Algebra 1 and 2. Seems to be that too many elementary teachers are more focused on language arts than math. Understanding this and reacting accordingly makes a lot more sense than rampaging around pointing fingers.