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Saturday, January 08, 2005


American Education

The phrase "government school" has ominous overtones, calling to mind an oppressive, gray cinder-block room where young minds are dulled, ground up, and processed into fodder for the ruling elite. It's the sort of place you connect with the old Soviet Russia, or maybe North Korea.

It's time we realize that the involuntary shudder at the sound of that phrase is our better judgment trying to tell us something.

I am no expert on education. I do, however, have a little insight into human nature. Those in power tend to consolidate power. Controlling the system of education is a goal of every despotic regime; if you lead them while they're young, they'll willingly follow you as adults.

Now, I don't necessarily accuse this president of being a despot. I do think it's telling, however, that the Republican Party, which 20 years ago called for the elimination of the unconstitutional Department of Education, has pushed through Congress the biggest expansion of federal control over public education in the nation's history. Republicans don't even pretend to favor a smaller federal government any more; in fact, they look a lot like the Democrats of my grandfather's day.

The Democrats--well, they're lost. The Republican drift to the left has pushed Democrats somewhere to the far side of George McGovern.

Obviously, not every public school is a factory for turning out happy little worker bees for the New World Order. Some of the friends I admire most teach in public schools, and our daughter has attended the local schools since kindergarten. I assure you, though, that we've been very aware of what's been taught, especially in the early grades. My wife used to volunteer at the school during the day and was on a first-name basis with the principals of the elementary and middle school.

Not every parent has that opportunity, and that's too bad. Coupled with the National Education Association's power as the union representing about 2/3 of America's public school teachers, we have what amounts to a federally mandated monopoly of education. It's a cozy arrangement in which government and the teachers union have little incentive to buck the status quo. Parents can yell, but the biggest threat to the sweet deal enjoyed by legislators and educators are engaged, informed voters who are able and willing to think critically.

In other words, it's not in the best interests of the entrenched political class to truly educate our children. It's why we see more tax money flow to Washington every year with no real improvement in how our kids are taught.

It's why parents need to be aware of the real purpose of government schools.

Thursday, January 06, 2005


The Fissures in Americas Education System

As with most issues that are part of Americana, education is a very difficult thing to quantify. What should be focused on? What should be ignored? I’ll leave most of that for others. What I’ll focus on this week is where reality checks and just plain common sense need to be inserted.

Common sense is not so common. Voltaire

Integrated class rooms:
The logic and sentiment behind these is that they do help with socialization. The belief is that if you can get children to realize that even though other kids may be more advanced in a subject than they are, they will be better able to understand other people. Which is an idea with merit, in some cases. However, having sixth graders who breeze through Shakespeare shackled to the pace of the children who are reading at grade level, much less the ones who still struggle with “Little Golden Books”? It makes no sense, and is a lose – lose situation for the children, the students and America as a whole.

  • The kids working at the highest proficiency rates get bored and either become disinterested in education and cause problems or begin slacking off and become mediocre.
  • The kids in the middle who might only need a bit of attention be it someone to restate an oddly phrased sentence, or just a definition of an unfamiliar word will not get the right level of attention most often.
  • The children with serious problems either actual disabilities (and no I won’t use the term ‘differently abled’) or who have been poorly educated thus far, end up either monopolizing the attention of the teacher through genuine need, through frustration because the teacher is paying attention to the other children trying to get the lesson across to as many children as possible.

Not good for anyone involved.

Next is the lack of integrated teaching. If one teacher is teaching a class all their lessons, why don’t they do sensible things with their time? Instead of assigning one project for composition that is nothing more than make work, and another for history or literature/reading, make the paper the child hands in count for both grades and allow the child to focus more time and energy on the assignment instead of fragmenting their attention to do a lesser job on more work. This will also allow teachers, and parents to give better feedback on each assignment as the teacher will spend less time grading papers.

The above two would work greatly towards helping the third problem. Homework overload. I know of children who are good students who test out at well above grade level but are still spending four, five and six hours a night doing homework. Homework is supposed reinforce the classroom lesson, not the other way around. It should also be meaning full to the lessons, and tests on a consistent basis. Having the children (or adults for that matter) read something that is never going to be touched on is asinine, and demonstrates that there are assignments and assignments.

Certainly, the most controversial is politics in the classroom. They don’t belong there. Whether it’s college professors who constantly prattle on about the idiocy of one religion or another, or school boards being pressured into putting labels on books that say things like “Evolution is just a theory.”, because some group of ‘concerned parents’ are worried their children might see some other view of the world. I’ve seen a few science text books that state evolution is a theory. It is however backed by research, further it is presented as theory. Outside of a Religions focused course, there is not much place for religious discourse in public schools unless it falls into the realm of historical or literary analysis perspective. Passing along the values of a family or religious institution are the jobs of those two social edifices, not the public schools. This does extend to the area of sexual education. I personally wish that it were (physically) safe for society as a whole to leave this topic strictly to parents. Unfortunately, it is not. Some religions are virulently against pre-marital sex. Which is fine; but expecting people to abstain from sex simply because it displeases you is at best naïve, and at worst a colossal megalomania. People behave in a contrary manner all the time. Sex education classes should present all the issues with having sex, for which ever configuration of participants. They should also present the real dangers of disease, pregnancy, and death along with the measures one can take against the repercussions. Presenting “Abstinence only” or “Just pregnancy prevention” is silly, absurd and a disservice to the children as well as a waste of tax payer money.

Expectations. Despite nearly every parents avowed belief that their little angel is the brightest, most talented child on the face of the planet: this just can’t be true in all or even most cases. Changing curriculums so that more children get high grades is vulgar, not all children are capable of earning a slot on the Deans List. It’s a simple and unavoidable fact of life that not only are some people smarter than others are, some people work hard to make up for the intelligence gap.

Finally, there is the matter of presentation. A teacher job is to get the information across to the children as fully as possible. To do this they should engage the children in their lesson. Pure lectures are fine for college level chemistry classes, but to get the message across to a younger audience so that they retain the information past when ever the test is requires more. This means teachers will occasionally have to make jokes, possibly even of themselves, they will have to be creative and reach out to and get to know their students as much as possible.

Despite the serious faults I see in the American education system, we have a huge well of strength in the field. Despite huge inflows of immigrants, and transient students we have a literacy rate of ninety seven percent. That’s over ninety seven percent and our education system is open to anyone without discrimination. We have men, women and children coming from all over the world to use our education system. Some of them stay here and settle permanently, some of them go home with very good memories of their time in America and that is public relations you just can’t buy.

The Casual Observer, future educator.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


Thank you to David

David of Hawkenblog has been our guest blogger this week and we want to thank him for his unique viewpoint and unswerving belief in what he says. Hopefully we'll get him to come back in the near future for more dynamic conversation.


Week 2: Response to David (#2)

1) a·nal·o·gy
n. pl. a·nal·o·gies

    1. a) Similarity in some respects between things that are otherwise dissimilar.
      b) A comparison based on such similarity. See Synonyms at likeness.
    2. Biology. Correspondence in function or position between organs of dissimilar evolutionary origin or structure.
    3. A form of logical inference or an instance of it, based on the assumption that if two things are known to be alike in some respects, then they must be alike in other respects.
    4. Linguistics. The process by which words or morphemes are re-formed or created on the model of existing grammatical patterns in a language, often leading to greater regularity in paradigms, as evidenced by helped replacing holp and holpen as the past tense and past participle of help on the model of verbs such as yelp, yelped, yelped.
Analogies are also used by the higher intelligence brackets to explain concepts, beyond the reach of those being talked to, in terms more likely to be understood. I proposed an analogy (hence the word “like”, did you miss that fourth grade English class?) of the Presidential election being akin to a pizza party. A non-sequitur (an inference or conclusion that does not follow from the premises or evidence) would have been to suddenly say the sky is purple.

2) In 1960, John F. Kennedy won 303 Electoral College votes, as well as 34, 227, 096 (49.7%) of the popular vote.

Richard Nixon won 219 E.C. votes, and 34,107,646 (49.5%) of the popular vote.

The “other party”/third candidates won a whopping total of .8% of the popular vote. Less than 1%. (1)

Tell me again what the problem is here?

Oh, yes. Voter fraud. Again, something actually more damaging to the popular vote system than the Electoral College system. In this particular case, all the E.C. votes did was mimic the “popular” vote. The political scientists and historians who have studied the issue can’t even agree how many votes were really cast, and thus, cannot determine what the “real” result could was. (2) Fraudulent results will always be fraudulent results. Remind me what significance this has to the current debate?

3) My original argument has remained the same: The Electoral College is, was, and shall remain the most fair to the entire country because large population centers are inherently more likely to vote as blocks. That’s why up until the 1960s (when the parties changed to the primary system) the political machines were so effective. Because those in charge of the political machines could bring entire cities together to vote as more-or-less the same thing, whether by just extremely good propaganda, or other methods. A purely popular vote destroys the chances of those in rural areas to have their voices heard, if they’re the slightest bit not in tune with the big cities. Again, it was the political machine that Daley controlled in the largest population center of Illinois which caused the problems with the 1960 election. Now, stretch your brain, and contemplate what a similar thing would do, if a purely popular voting system occurred. Wouldn’t it be terribly easy to distort – country wide – the results of the election?

Let me let you in on a little secret:

I live in Texas, which will, no matter which system, popular vote or Electoral College, the voting system ever is using, will remain a large demographic area, and isn’t really affected either way by the issue. In 2000, I voted for Bush all right … I voted for him to stay Governor. I consider myself to be an independent with democratic leanings on most issues. But I’m also a rural girl, a farm girl, have been for over half my life, although I started out as a city kid. And I know, first hand, how the stuff that affects Houston Metro normally screws us over, because it’s what everyone in the city wants, whether or not it is logical.

This argument is not a hypothetical one, for me. It is daily life, the stuff I deal with day in and day out. I learned quickly to not trust what the larger demographics want, because it often means the smaller demographics are about to get shafted. And, on a national scale, for the only two elected offices which are national offices, the only way to ensure that the President and Vice President represent the largest spread of people and the interests of those people possible is to ensure that the packing behavior large cities encourage doesn’t run roughshod over the interests of the little guys too.

Quite frankly, the only way anyone can support a purely popular vote for the only two national offices, is because they have not understood the purpose, nor spirit, behind the Electoral College.

4) You have yet to show any documentation or relevant links to support your arguments. I have looked at statistics, crunched numbers, and done fact checking. Links to your personal blog do not count, and until you bother to read the BlogSpectrum rules regarding citing sources for facts and manage to find some hard numbers, I am not going to bother to attempt to continue this debate, no matter how much you snivel.

5) Oh yes. And John Kerry is an acquired taste. But I for one cringe at the idea of eating a fish whole, and can’t help but think your analogy of him being something gross and icky is entirely accurate. Thank you for pointing that out! :) (*Note: My distaste for Kerry is purely for personal reasons, and involves the family members of mine who were in Vietnam. One of who now lives in France, because the French treated him better than Kerry-and-Co.) Fungi beat whole fish hands down. Waiter! Extra mushrooms on that pizza!

Monday, January 03, 2005


Questions for weeks three and four

Why do two weeks questions at once? It's a two part question, on education.

Week Three is:

What in school changes need to be made to our current education system?

Week Four is:

What is the case for or against charter and or home schools? Are home schools just a way for parents to rubber stamp their child’s education? Are charter schools just a way for parents to practice intolerance in whom their children go to school with? Does either or both actually work?


Whip-cracking can be so tiring ...

... So I'm going to bed. I have an interview this afternoon, January 3rd, for a programming position. I've only got 13 hours and 22 minutes before I have it, I'm a nervous wreck, and I haven't slept.

But at least now the posts are mostly readable in the FireFox browser, as well as perfect in Internet Explorer. I will be breaking out the whip again once I'm home from my interview, and trying to whip the template into complete shape. (I hate DIV overruns. And browsers which don't support CSS properly. *coughMozillacough*)

So, for the next day or two, expect it to be randomly having problems. I'm still tweaking and fussing. And it's all TheCO's fault, 'cause I said so.

Your Friendly Web Dominatrix,

Sidial the TechnoPest

Sunday, January 02, 2005


Education the Issue

I want to quote the questions our CO, our esteemed and acrobatic convener of bloggedness, posed, because I want to be clear about that we’re up to here:

(1) “What in school changes need to be made to our current educational system?” (2) “What is the case for or against charter schools? Are home schools just a way for parents to rubber stamp their children’s education? Are charter schools just a way for parents to practice intolerance in whom their children go to school with? Does either or both actually work?”

To answer these questions, we have to take at least one step back and ask two prior questions. What are the goals of education as such? In view of those goals, what is the best education we can provide to the most people?

And before answering, we should remind ourselves that the educational system as we know it, from kindergarten to college, appeared only about a century ago. Its appearance was yet another symptom--and attempted cure--of the failure of the family at the end of the 19th century. Education as we now know it supplies most of what families did in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly the content of what we still call morality and character. That is why our debates about the obligations and purposes of students and teachers—about public education--always sound like arguments about the functions of families. When we talk about schools, we’re talking about what we can and should do for our children. No wonder it sounds personal. Also political.

Failure is perhaps too strong a word. But right around the 1890s, the family stopped doing everything it was supposed to do, according to the expectations inherited from the 18th and 19th centuries. Let me quote Jessie Taft, whose 1915 dissertation was published by the University of Chicago Press as “The Woman Movement for the Point of View of Social Consciousness,” to illustrate the point:

“Its [the family’s] center of gravity has been shifted to the factory, the brewery, the bakery, the delicatessen shop, the school, the kindergarten, the department store, the municipal department of health and sanitation, the hospital, the library, the social centers and playgrounds, and dozens of similar institutions.”

There weren’t a whole lot of people who denied this basic fact back then. In fact the story of the family’s collapse became a popular genre, in fiction as well as in social science, ca. 1890-1930. But there were a lot of people, then as now, who want(ed) to reinstate the inherited expectations—that is, to treat the family as if it could, as if it can, serve all those purposes, personal and political, listed by Taft in her gravitational peroration.

That is why, once again, the personal is political. That is why we talk about something supposedly private, families, when we talk about something supposedly public--education.

So let’s get serious when we talk about it, let's ask the questions that are ultimately unavoidable. What are the goals of education? And what’s the best education we can offer our children, and the world?

Historically speaking, the goals of education in this country are to (1) equip everyone with the skills necessary to appropriate the texts once decipherable only to the literate minority; (2) offer everyone the possibility of social mobility by virtue of their access to education [in the 19th century, this meant that “mechanics’ institutes” and apprenticeship programs gave way to public schools]; (3) teach everyone that the only thing we have in common as Americans is our ability to argue about what it means to be American. In our own time, we have also tried to give students “emotional intelligence” as well as test-taking skills. This has taken a lot of time and effort. But then we have the summers off.

If you agree with me on the GOALS of education, you cannot believe that the way to fix public schools is to introduce “market competition” in the form of charter schools. If you want to “privatize” education in view of these goals, you are demented. Because the only way to accomplish all three goals is through public education, top to bottom.

You want to send your kid to private school, OK. I did, too, when he was flunking out of the high-rent public school a mile away, and I paid the higher rent because I thought it would cure him. But don’t tell me that this alternative is anything more than a stopgap—except for the very wealthy, of course.

The best education we can offer our children, I’m afraid, is the education they, and the rest of the world, now get. That is why higher education in this country is still the most amazing bargain available, and why Europeans and Asians keep sending their kids here (the top ten from their standpoint includes Cal Tech, MIT, and Stanford, and it excludes Yale, but we’re not engineers of computers or, for that matter, bridges).

But you will say, what about secondary education, what about what happens before everybody goes off to the college of their choice, more or less, and stumbles upon those brilliant bastards, those unassuming professors, who have been just standing around, waiting for them?

And I will say, take a look. At the before. I know three people who teach and observe closely at this level—in high schools—and they do things that are unimaginable to me. They spend the kind of time with students which comes with a sense of mission, or with a diagnosis of obsession.

OK, two of the three are my brother and my sister-in-law. The third is an old friend I don’t talk to anymore, but I’ve read his books (it’s true, I don’t like him, but his book entitled The Call to Teach is worth reading by anyone who has taught or who has considered a career in this strange field).

These people are teachers. You won’t find them in a private school because they believe in public education. They believe in diversity—hell, my sister-in-law teaches in the public high school from which I graduated, a place that, back then, was 99% white and all managerial except for those pesky working-class punks who beat the shit out of us, and is now about 35% Asian, still managerial but with a nice postmodern twist—and they believe in their students, and they believe in their capacity to shape the curriculum.

To make such beliefs effective, they have joined and led unions, and they’ve gone on strike, and they’ve lost jobs.

So I would insist that the best education available to American kids is the one made available by teachers who know that they should control the point of production—who have enough confidence, and courage, to say that the interests of teachers and students converge more often than not, to say that tests are necessary but not sufficient to the measurement of effort or achievement, to say, finally, that I am here to show these kids how to think, not what to think.


Week 2: Response to Sidial

My, how quickly your argument has descended into a) non sequitors, b) repeating what I say but suggesting it’s evidence for your argument, and c) defending the EC’s unfair favoritism of small states without explaining why that is good for the country or even good for those states. At the risk of being kicked off your blog (or you just disliking me personally), it’s going to be impossible for me to not ridicule your pizza party analogy… right now:

The anchovies stand for what now, abortion rights is it? And whether the person who doesn’t like anchovies can eat an entire pizza symbolizes that they have a large number of electoral votes, right? Or does it mean that the person is actually several small states banded together like individual pieces of mozzarella cheese melt together with themselves and the taste of subsequently removed anchovies? Are you simply implying that Sen. Kerry is an acquired taste, like anchovies? I couldn’t help myself. I’m sorry. Your analogy makes no sense.

Back to the serious issues at hand…. You wrote: “The only two people in the entire country to be voted on by the entire country are the President and the Vice President. They should be more the representative of the ENTIRE country, instead of a select few areas.” I couldn’t agree more, but that’s my argument, and you have no right to it. I define the “entire country” as every eligible voter in all 50 states. The system you advocate favors a select few areas, which are the dozen or so swing states in any given election.

Speaking of the president being decided in a select few areas…. I'm sorry you didn't understand the point I was making about Ohio, so I'll make it again. I was saying that many liberals and Democrats in this country seem to be upset specifically with Ohioans who voted for Bush, or at so-called “Red States” in general, which to me is a divisive way of thinking. Nonetheless, due to the EC, the election did ultimately come down to the result in Ohio. You’re correct, a direct system would not have prevented any fraud that may have happened in Ohio. But the point is that people wouldn’t be upset specifically with Ohioans (or because their vote in California or Wyoming didn’t mean anything); people would feel that the majority’s will resulted in the outcome, and hence the direct system would reduce divisiveness and encourage unity. Why, in your estimation, does it make less sense to have the election decided largely, although by no means entirely, in the major population centers all across the country as opposed to in an arbitrarily selected few areas, which in 2004 were various places in Ohio?

Your first link doesn’t address the 1960 or 2000 results. The second link addresses 2000, but concludes that it was okay on the basis that 30 of the 50 states voted for Bush, therefore he should have won the election. This argument is basically that electoral votes should be apportioned one to each state (like when the House determines a winner when a majority of EVs are not reached) so that whoever wins a greater number of states wins overall. The author writes: “To decide the election purely on the basis of the popular vote would place many of these small states at the mercy of the more populated urban areas, thus issues of a local importance would likely be ignored.” Therefore, the minority (defined, apparently, as small states and nothing more) should win on the basis that if they didn’t, their issues would likely be ignored, unlike what would happen to the issues important to large population centers if they lost. That is illogical.

In a popular vote system, the minority has a chance to give their input. In fact, their input is better registered under a direct system, because EV outcomes tend to distort the outcome of an election by making it look like the winner won by a much greater percentage than (s)he actually did in the popular vote. But, if the voters for a particular candidate are in the minority, their candidate doesn’t win. In your system, you say the minority can overrule the majority? What determines when they should do that? Why is the current weighting the correct weighting? Why can’t you explain why it makes more sense to unfairly weight small states than it would to unfairly weight rural votes? The latter makes ten times more sense to me, although anything times zero is still zero.

I ask you again, what is it about small states that make their interests more important than those of all other states? What is it that bands the small states together to create a critical, unified interest that the majority would just as soon bury? And, why is it in the interest of small states to support the EC, when under a direct system they, on the whole, would receive far more attention from the candidates in terms of visits and advertising? The sole aspect of your original argument that you are still defending is that small states require special rights when voting for president. Yet, you have not clearly put forth a single reason why this is the case. You’ll see when the smallest states ratify the pending Amendment (assuming the major parties will let it get that far) that this is because there simply is no such reason.