disapproving kitty

Sunday, December 14, 2014

It's Just a Matter of Trust

We are coming to that time of year when the kids are amped up to 11 and little gifts and handmade cards start appearing on teachers' desks and everyone is counting down the days to something. I don't make a big deal out of it, but I love those little gifts, and especially the cards that say "Thank you for teching me about tichnology becase i think it is relly intersting and I want to be a computer spechulist." Those are the best.  They make me feel loved and valued and trusted.
It's a big thing, to be trusted by a child.  Trusted that I am doing the best I can to help them become the best they can.  All of us, I hope, can remember a teacher like that.  Hopefully we can all remember more than one.  Teachers we loved, and some we didn't like so much but they did teach us something and, yes, probably a handful who weren't so hot.  Maybe they were at a bad point in their lives or were just marking time till retirement, or one who'd been pulled just three months earlier from 20 years of teaching Driver's Ed and told he'd be leading College Prep 10th grade history since they'd cut his program.  Poor bastard.  I can feel for him now, though I couldn't when I was 15 and didn't know any better.

Those lousy apples, they were few and far between, and in truth, I knew no teachers who were truly awful.  And even if I didn't like them, for the most part, I trusted them.  So did my parents.  So did the community.  We trusted teachers to teach us, and grade us on what we'd learned, and honestly decide if we should move on to the next grade.  Not an infallible system, to be sure, but one that relied on professional people doing what they'd been trained to do, with both the objectivity of the professional lens and the subjectivity of humanity to know when maybe the test wasn't going to cut it.

Teachers knew that when parents came in at conferences and said "We're getting a divorce" that the best anyone could hope for was that their child would be upright and breathing at the end of the year and the learning would have to come later.  They knew that the 15 year old sobbing in the back of the room because her boyfriend had just dumped her might have known every answer 20 minutes ago, but would know nothing now.  They knew that two and a half hours on a single test in a single sitting was way too long for anyone under the age of 15, and maybe even then, so they wouldn't even think of doing such a thing. They knew all this, and so much more. And we trusted them.

When was it that we stopped trusting teachers?

Sure, I suppose you could point to the few bad apples and say they're to blame, but I'd defy you to find me a profession, ANY profession without its slackers, incompetents and just plain jerks.  Find me a profession where those people aren't in the ranks of power, protected by connections, or just lost in the noise of the big corporation.  Tearing a profession to pieces on the basis of a few poor performers defies logic.  Refusing to trust any teacher because one might be bad defies reason.  That isn't it.

When did we stop trusting teachers?

Perhaps it was when "A Nation at Risk" came out, pummeling America's educational system, showing with facts and charts and impressive statistics that we ranked near the bottom of, well, everywhere in the known universe educationally and couldn't think our way out of a wet paper sack. Maybe that's where it began.  Only, it wasn't true.  Just like "The Bell Curve," which proved beyond doubt that white people were smarter than black people wasn't true. In the case of the latter, the authors had forgotten to sort for poverty.*  Minorities are over-represented at the low end of the socio-economic-scale, you see.  When all of Murray's results were sorted out by economic levels, it turned out that black kids were as or more intelligent than their white counterparts.  Like "The Bell Curve," "A Nation at Risk" was comparing apples to kumquats, and when you sort for poverty, US kids, and US schools hold their own.  We don't have an education crisis in America.  We have a poverty crisis.  Education is part of that crisis, to be sure, and as long as we fund schools through property taxes, it's going to continue.

So why did we stop trusting teachers?

Was it because legislators looked at poverty and knew there was no way to sell it?  There's no way to tell constituents that we need to fix poverty and we don't know how, so let's see who else we can blame?  Or was it because legislators looked at public schools, the places that could be a magic bullet against poverty, and decided instead that they could become a means to funnel ungodly amounts of money to their private donors?  Testing is BIG business.†  Testing costs a fortune. Private companies make the tests.  They grade the tests, they compile the reports, they keep ALL of it a secret.  Teachers, they send the tests home.  They grade them and send them home for parents to see for themselves what it is their children can do.  But test companies, those same companies who fund campaigns, do not.

So why do we not trust teachers?

When was it that we decided that the evaluation system we have built and have kept improving upon since schools began wasn't good enough to determine if teachers were doing their jobs?  How was it determined that looking at how a group of 9-year-olds can do on a single test, given over 2 1/2 hours in a one day, can determine not only the sum total of what knowledge they gained in a year, but also whether or not the teacher was the one responsible for it?  A teacher can be judged adequate or no based upon a test given to fewer than 10 of her students.  Through the magic of statistical manipulation, the test results from a tiny number of students can be used to determine just how good she is or isn't. We have put our faith into numbers, but as Mark Twain once said "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."  This is where we have put our trust.

When did we stop trusting teachers to know when a child wasn't ready to move forward?  Failing one of these tests can mean a child is held back an entire grade.  A test the teacher doesn't see.  A test the parents don't even get to see.  All the faith we used to put into teachers is now in the hands of these testing companies, who are paid through public funds, and who heavily lobby (read: fund) legislators.
Most of you are saying right now "I DO trust my children's teachers."  And, in fact, you do.  I would even bet that you trust most of them a lot more than you trust your representatives at the State Capitol and in our Nation's Capitol?**  You trust teachers to do right by your child, and you should be asking asking their leaders, and their leaders' leaders, all they way to the Statehouse-- "Why do you not trust teachers?  Why are we testing our children like this?  Who does it benefit? What does this testing tell us that we couldn't know from having our teachers simply doing their jobs as we trust them to do?"

There is a parable about a frog in a pot of cool water.  If the water warms gradually, he stays put.  Were it to heat suddenly, he'd spring out to freedom. But with a slow heat creeping about him, he would complacently stay until it was too late, cooking to death when the water began to boil.

It used to be that testing days in Ohio -- those days of immense stress and anxiety -- was only two days long for 3rd grade. Now it has jumped to eight.  Eight days.  From three days for 4th and 5th graders to ten.  TEN days spent on high-stakes testing.  The water is beginning to boil.

Why are we doing this?

Is it because you don't trust teachers?

Is it because you trust politicians more than you trust teachers?

I don't think so.

It's time to start asking the hard questions, and deciding whom you trust.

*They'd also used a lot of data from questionable sources. To read more, you can start here.
**To find out who your State Representatives are, you can go here.  For National ones, try here and here.
†To find out more about testing, try here.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Reason for the Season

A few weeks ago, my school's principal made a blog post (He communicates staff info via blog post.  It was 3 weeks into the school year when I discovered this and realized I'd been missing the weekly updates because of it. I am not with the times.) about not leaving the non-Christians out of our annual December celebrations.  Between this and the edict that holiday parties were to be no longer than an hour (plus a recent dearth in the number of room-parents to put the parties together) there has been some grumbly talk in the staff room about the true meaning and all.
 My first thought was that it a pretty cool message for him to post, so I shared with the staff how I saw "Christmas" celebrated in both India and Turkey, both decidedly non-Christian-dominant countries.
In both cases, Christmas was a fairly secular affair, with a parade in Delhi featuring both Santa Claus and a Charlie Chaplin impersonator as the main attractions of a giant parade.  They threw candy to the onlookers, and I have to say, in all fairness, that it was the most disgusting candy I've ever tasted.  If this had been my childhood experience with Christmas, I'd have boarded up the fireplace at an early age.  But the local children seemed pretty happy with it, so maybe it's a cultural thing. In Turkey, Christmas had been conflated with New Year's, and was celebrated on the 31st, with feasting and merrymaking at restaurants or private parties in people's homes. In neither case, unsurprisingly, was the birth of Jesus ever mentioned.
This was unsurprising because one country is predominantly Hindu and the other Muslim. Besides which, December 25th has absolutely no relation to the birthdate of Jesus anyways, so it really shouldn't bother anybody.  (If you don't believe me, Google it.  Biblical scholars are abundant on this topic.)
So if it's not Jesus' birthday, what's the Reason for the Season?
It's the same reason that Hindus and Muslims are celebrating the primary holiday for a religion they don't believe in:  it's cold and dark out.
It's December.  This far north it's cold, even in India.  It gets dark around 5 pm and doesn't get light again till way to late in the morning.  Skies are grey, it rains and snows a lot, the wind is harsh and people are grumpy.
It has been like this for a long time.  4000 years ago when the people in the fledgling stages of what would become civilization developed calendars, they knew that these were the shortest days of the year.  The last of the harvests were in, the fatted animals were all slaughtered, dried and salted, wine and beer were finally fermented, the ground was cold and covered with snow and there was nothing to do but wait it out till the days grew longer again.  Food stores were full, days were short, and I can imagine many huts full of women sick to death of bickering children who could not run around outside and play enough.  So why not have a celebration?  On the 22nd of December or so, something truly wonderful happens.  The days start to get longer again.  The sun begins its long, slow return.
So why not have a celebration?  Without something to look forward to, Winter is a time of unmitigated cold, hunger, misery and depression.  (This would be the month of February in Ohio.  We really need some kind of festival come the end of February. Someone needs to start a petition.)
The early druids knew this and celebrated Solstice.  So did the Chinese and members of other East Asian cultures.  The Romans had Saturnalia, and I'd be willing to bet that there are equivalent celebrations in the histories of every Northern Hemisphere culture settled far enough above the equator to notice the cold and shortness of days, and every Southern Hemisphere culture mid-June.
We celebrate in December because we need to.
In 336 C.E., Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor declared Jesus' birthday to be December 25 and co-opted the Solstice holiday from every other religion around.  Everyone was celebrating then anyway, so why not give the feasts a spin that gave a boost to his reign?
Today, in America, Christmas is a largely secular and commercial affair, with stores putting out Christmas displays along with back-to-school sale items, playing holiday music before Halloween and starting sales on Thanksgiving when everyone knows the only people who should be working are the police, fire department, hospital workers and movie theater employees.
It's about being festive on the darkest days of the year and knowing that good things will eventually come again.  That's something we should be able to celebrate in schools without anybody getting offended unless they want to be.
Food. Light. Friendliness. Giving. A little time off.
I can get behind that.
Whatever is *your* Reason for the Season, may it be celebrated with warmth, love and peace.
But seriously, I'm not kidding about that February thing.

Monday, March 31, 2014

No Bears Were Harmed as a Result of This Post*

Dear Legislature,

It's time for your annual evaluation as protectors of the public good!

We, the People, have determined that the best way to evaluate your ability to protect our general welfare is to see how well you can defend yourselves against angry bears.  We'll be loosing the bears upon the Statehouse during the first week of May, and will be carefully examining all your responses to gauge your effectiveness as a legislative body.

As you are well aware, last August we presented you with a multitude of Bear Defense coursework, intended to hone your protective skills, as provided by the now well-funded Angry Bear Aficionados of America.  The millions of dollars these courses cost, along with the cost of providing bears for your examinations, as well as graders for these exams has been well spent.  The ABAA is extremely happy with the money in its coffers, and supports this effort in full.

What's that?  Training exclusively for bear defense takes away time spent doing more important aspects of your job?  What could be more important than protecting your public against angry bears?  While this may only be a portion of what you do, without this objective measure, we'll have no way of determining how effective a legislature you are, and how well you are protecting the interests of those who voted for you!  If you have to spend all your time teaching to the test, to the detriment of your other duties, well, that's your problem.  You should find a solution to that, shouldn't you?  Perhaps you should work harder instead of taking so much time off.

Beg pardon?  You say that basing our judgement of your ability to govern entirely upon how well you defend against angry bears isn't reliable or valid, and maybe we shouldn't be loosing angry bears on anybody as a measure of anything?   Let me tell you that the ABAA assures us that this is a very fine measure indeed, and we demand accountability!

Excuse me?  Did I just hear you say that letting angry bears rampage around in order to test the ability of people to do anything other than fight angry bears is absurd at best and has the potential to cause real, serious and lasting harm?   And it won't accurately assess anything at all -- it's just a way to funnel taxpayer money into private hands?

Well.  Imagine that.

Sincerely Yours,
The Good Citizens You're Supposed to be Protecting

*nor was anyone else.  For the humor-impaired, this is satire, not an actual threat.