Friday, November 30, 2007

No Dentist Left Behind

Note: Visit my education blog, The Green Cup.

Cavities: that's what it comes down to, right? Shouldn't dentists be rated (Excellent, Average, & Unsatisfactory) based on cavities in their client? Okay, it's humor...

No Dentist Left Behind is making the email rounds. Again. The story has been around for a number of years - since before No Child Left Behind became law. It was originally meant to ridicule a South Carolina state law designed to "bring accountability" to public schools. The parody, originally titled Absolutely the Best Dentists, was sent to every legislator and newspaper in that state when it was composed by a retired school superintendent.

Think about it. Shouldn't someone be telling us whether dentists are doing a good job or not? Shouldn't we have the right to compare dentists based on the only thing that really matters in dentistry: cavities? And if we're going to a dentist that's only "above average" (and not improving that rating every year), we should have the right to move our business to a practice where the dentist has at least an "outstanding" or "excellent" rating. Dentists who don't manage to prevent cavities should lose their licenses, don't you think...?

Some of the parody's comparisons have teeth (no pun intended). The idea that one day we'll rate all schools based on a single, statewide measure of mastery -- regardless of the different educational levels of individual communities, regardless of the value those individual communities places on education, regardless of the resources available to parents during the preschool years -- seems at least as ludicrous as rating dentists based on the average number of cavities their clients have regardless of whether a dentist's clients have access to fluoride in their water or understand how diet impacts their dental health.

On the other hand, dentists exist largely in private practice while schools are public agencies. And the sense of government intrusion that so offends the dentist in the parody is probably misapplied to in a school system setting because, well, schools (mostly) are government.

Is the parody a fair look at No Child Left Behind? I'll leave that to you, the reader...

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Republican Know-Nothings...

I think it is hilarious, the extent to the GOP employs the "fear and loathing" approach to political support. The idea is simple: talk about something the public is afraid of, feed their fear (reasonable or unreasonable), and the offer to fix it. No sincerity is required.

When Tim Kaine ran for Governor of Virginia I would hear radio ads for his opponent, Jerry Kilgore. In my neck of the woods, Kilgore seems to be playing a fiddle with just two strings. On the one string his ads would tell us that we shouldn't vote for Kaine because, why, Kaine was a Catholic and the Pope wouldn't let people be executed in Virginia while Kaine was governor. (Kilgore assumed I'd think this was bad.) The other string played a note about illegal immigrants and how the state could save thousands over dollars by identifying them and being sure they weren't paying in-state tuition at Virginia Tech. I thought, "They got in to Tech? Jezz, leave them alone!"

Kilgore lost, even though he started out as the frontrunner. I'd like to think his racist rhetoric and the manner in which he patronized voters had something to do with that...

Now we are getting the same thing from presidential candidates. Romney and Giuliani want to out do each other with who can be the most hard line on immigration. The irony is that neither of them were hard line on immigration until they began running for president. But they know that fear and loathing plays well with rednecks in rural Idaho and old white ladies in Florida. So they've all become a bunch of know nothings.

The Know Nothings were a political movement in the 1850's. They were scared of what the Irish might do to America. And they played the fear and loathing card to get elected.

There's a good piece in the Boston Globe about Romney and Giuliani and the Know Nothings.

Immigration is a much more complicated issue than the GOP wants you to believe. Don't let fear and loathing determine how you vote...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

How Metaphors Make for Oversimplification (and Bad Propaganda)

I got an entertaining email the other day. It was a political story, a metaphor that was intended to give me a new way to think about why Republicans are right in their approach to taxes and money and why Democrats are wrong about those things.

Father/Daughter Talk

A young woman was about to finish her first year of college. Like so many others her age, she considered herself to be a very liberal Democrat, and was very much in favor of 'the redistribution of wealth.'

She was deeply ashamed that her father was a rather staunch Republican, a feeling she openly expressed. Based on the lectures that she had participated in, and the occasional chat with a professor, she felt that her father had for years harbored an evil, selfish desire to keep what he thought should be his.

One day she was challenging her father on his opposition to higher taxes on the rich and the addition of more government welfare programs. The self-professed objectivity proclaimed by her professors had to be the truth and she indicated so to her father. He responded by asking how she was doing in school.

Taken aback, she answered rather haughtily that she had a 4.0 GPA, and let him know that it was tough to maintain, insisting that she was taking a very difficult course load and was constantly studying, which left her no time to go out and party like other people she knew. She didn't even have time for a boyfriend, and didn't really have many college friends because she spent all her time studying.

Her father listened and then asked, 'How is your friend Audrey doing?'

She replied, 'Audrey is barely getting by. All she takes are easy classes, she never studies, and she barely has a 2.0 GPA. She is so popular on campus; college for her is a blast. She's always invited to all the parties, and lots of times she doesn't even show up for classes because she's too hung over.'

Her wise father asked his daughter, 'Why don't you go to the Dean's office and ask him to deduct a 1.0 off your GPA and give it to your friend who only has a 2.0. That way you will both have a 3.0 GPA and certainly that would be a fair and equal distribution of GPA.'

The daughter, visibly shocked by her father's suggestion, angrily fired back, 'That wouldn't be fair! I have worked really hard for my grades! I've invested a lot of time, and a lot of hard work! Audrey has done next to nothing toward her degree. She played while I worked my tail off!'
The father slowly smiled, winked and said gently, 'Welcome to the Republican party.'
In the box to the right is a copy of an email. It's making the rounds, posted on a few blogs. And there are problems with it...

The story equates academic achievement at college with people's financial place in life. You have the daughter who has a 4.0 GPA because she works hard; and you have Audrey, who is on the verge of flunking out because she "played" instead of working.

If the message was about college I'd have no problem saying that at the college level you should get the grades you earn. I'd have no problem agreeing that you have to work for your grades. I have three degrees and what amounts to about 11 years of college. But the message isn't about college; it's about wealth...

The idea that all wealth is the result of hard work on the part of the wealthy is ludicrous. The majority of truly wealthy people are born wealthy. I remember a quote from the era of the senior president Bush; someone said that George Bush thought he'd hit a triple when in fact he was born on third base. Wealth is largely inherited.

The corollary assumption of this little email tidbit is also flawed. If grades in the story are supposed to make us think of money in real life, we're suppose to draw the conclusion that people are poor because they "play" too much. Poverty comes from being lazy and immoral. But I teach at a school where more than nine out of ten kids qualify, technically, as "poor." And in kindergarten, I don't think it's their fault. I work in a county where 56% of the adults between 18 and 65 don't have jobs. Maybe a few dozen of them could run out and get jobs tomorrow; they haven't because, well, they're lazy and immoral. But there's no way that all of them could find jobs this week, or this year, without leaving the place where generations of their family has lived. And because they don't have jobs, they don't really have the resources to just up and move, anyway.

The truth is that poverty, like wealth, is more or less heredity. Grades in college might have to be earned, but poverty is something you get free from your mom and dad...

There are additional flaws in the story. It talks about redistribution of wealth as though that is an end in itself in the Democratic Party. I'm a pretty active Democrat. And I don't think redistribution of wealth is really the goal any more. I'm not sure it has been for a long while now. I think the goal now is redistribution of opportunity. Heck, it's probably not even a case of redistributing opportunities. We don't want to take anyone's opportunities away, no matter how rich they are; we want to expand the opportunities that are out there and make them more available to people who haven't had opportunities in the past.

There's some misdirection in the story, as well. I have daughters. Sometimes they believe things that are wrong - and think I'm stupid. I know how that feels. This story wants you to think of that feeling (it happens to all parents), and to feel something about Democrats instead of thinking about the arguments.

The email talks about "fairness." I've never heard that term adequately defined. But I pay seven and some odd percent of every penny I make to the payroll tax. Many rich people don't. How is that fair? I'd like to make life fair by having people who make several million dollars a year pay that same seven and some odd percent of their income to payroll tax to help support the social security system. If I pay seven percent or so, why shouldn't they? But Republicans scream and moan and call me a communist when I talk about it.

Since we're talking about fairness, let me ask this question. My wife and I pay 28 percent or so in taxes on our relatively piddly income as educators. My sister and my sister-in-law, both registered nurses, pay about the same I suspect. And yet someone who makes most of their income by trusting a stockbroker to invest their money for them pays a lower rate and calls it capital gains tax. How is that fair? I get up and leave the house at 7am, spend the day trying to figure out new ways to get fourth and fifth graders who live in poverty to actually understand what they read, go home a worry about lesson plans and such, and pay 28% while the guy who writes his stockbroker a check and then goes home to watch TV pays a lowewr rate. I can't see how that's fair. I've heard people argue about how it's somehow "good" for society. But it's still not fair.

I'd like to live in a society where kids don't go hungry, even if their parents as drug addicts. I'd like to live in a society where kids can go to college even if their parents can't read. I'd like to live in a society where military veterans with PTSD don't end up homeless. And (call me a communist) I'd like to live in a society where anyone can afford to see a doctor (and take their kids to the doctor) whether they have a job or not.

So anyway, spliting your grades with someone isn't the same thing as paying your taxes. And it was a Republican named Oliver Wendall Homes who said that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Getting Cut On (And a Few Other Personal Notes)...

I went under the knife today. Dr. E. Khuri removed a lipoma from the left side of my back. The procedure took about 30 minutes. He used a local anesthetic (I think he said it was Xylocaine) mixed with epinephrine to reduce bleeding. It felt like a mild bee sting, then it got warm, then it went away. I could feel pressure as he worked on me, but no real tactile sensation. I left with five stitches and he showed me how the lipoma floated in water and explained how that meant it was mostly fat (and thus benign).

Cheryl drove me to the appointment and waited in the waiting room for me. I'm supposed to wait until Friday before I stand under a shower and get it wet...

I received word yesterday that I passed the three GACE tests I took in October. My understanding now is that all I have to do is submit the paperwork to be fully certified in Georgia in Early Childhood Education (PreK-5), Middle Grades Math, and Special Education for High School Social Studies. I take the early childhood special education test in January.

Seems like weekends are disappearing. This Saturday I have a workshop with all the Title I and Special Ed people in our county to talk about the intervention components of our new reading series. We're supposed to bring an intervention portfolio on every child that's been in intervention along with the schedule of ever teacher at our school. My guess is that the meeting will be somewhat more pleasant than having a boil lanced, but not as much fun as getting a tooth filled. I plan on leaving at 3pm because the Tennessee Volunteers play for the Southeastern Conference title at 4pm.

The following Saturday, December 8, I get to attend the first of four Saturday workshops on autism - a subject I'm very interested in.

Time to make another pot...

Finally, I bought a new coffee pot today. The old one was a good soldier. It's about two years old now, and at two pots a day I figure it brewed about 1400 pots of coffee. It's slowed in its old age and now takes almost 25 minutes to spit a pot out. And that's unacceptable. So out it goes.

Well, I need to go figure out how to use the new pot...

When it Comes to It, Electability is the REAL Issue for Dems

Reuters is reporting that if the 2008 presidential election were held today and Hilary Clinton was the Democratic nominee, Rudy Giuliani could beat her.

So could Mitt Romney.

And John McCain. And Fred Thompson. And even Mike Huckabee.

I the same poll in July, people were unfamiliar enough with the most of the GOP candidates that Hilary would have won by a small margin. Not as big as the margin that Barack Obama or John Edwards would have won by, but she would have won. But people have had time to think about it.

The campaign for the Democratic Party's nomination has been about influence and money until now. Many Democratic women want a woman to be president. And Hilary is easily the most well connected of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination. Hillary has led until now. She still leads the other Democratic candidates in polls that ask Democrats who they plan to vote for.

There is a danger for the Democrats, a danger that they could lose sight of the real goal of the nominating process. The goal is not to find out who is most popular with other Democrats. The goal is to nominate a candidate who can become President. The concern has consistently been that Hillary Clinton may not be that person, regardless of her influence and popularity with the party.

The choices are really at the party level:

  • Almost every Democrat wants universal health care administered by the Federal government; almost every Republican believes that it can be left in the hands of private insurance companies and employers.
  • Almost every Democrat wants to get out of Iraq; almost every Republican want to stay in Iraq.
  • Almost every Republican wants to privatize social security and reduce benefits for future generations; almost every Democrat wants to extend the payroll tax so that the wealthiest one or two percent of Americans pay that tax on all (or at least most) of their incomes (like the rest of us) so that we can fund the system as it currently exists in the future.
  • Almost all Democrats are pro-choice; almost all Republicans are pro-life.
  • Almost all Republicans want to take our education system toward government financed private education; almost all Democrats want to strengthen public education and repeal many aspects of the disastrous No Child Left Behind law.
  • Almost all Democrats want to simplify the tax code and make it more progressive; almost all Republicans want to simplify the tax code and make it less progressive (or do away with it and replace it with a federal sales tax).

So take your pick. Do you want a Republican or a Democrat in the White House in 2008. If your answer is that you want a Democrat, that person is probably not Hillary. And if we nominate her, there's a good chance that we will end up with eight more years of George Bush's policies and a President name Mitt or Fred....

Monday, November 26, 2007

Why Teach About Blogs and Blogging?

Note: Visit my education blog, The Green Cup.

Blogging is a literary form. It has become very much a genre in its own right. It’s a growing genre, an influential genre, and it is genre that we need to acquaint students with at an early age.

The word “blog” is a shortened for of the word weblog. The “we” gets amputated from the front of the word. That word formation process is just one example of the new level of creativity that online writing brings to our language.

Blogging has become for literature today something like what keeping a diary was in the 18th and 19th centuries. But not exactly. On the one hand, a blog can be private and personal. On the other hand, it can be designed to promote an opinion, a perspective, or to give advice – to the point of being commercial. It can be closed, accessible only to people you allow to see it. Or it can be very public, easily accessible.

Because blogs have become so numerous and influential, it’s important that students be aware of them and have some understanding of how to evaluate a blog. The skill of discerning fact from opinion is more important now than it has ever been. It’s important that students have some idea of how to find a blog if they want to look at one. Google, for example, has a special search engine that only searches websites it classifies as blogs. And, finally, it is important that students know how to create a blog for themselves if they want to – and that they understand the privacy issues and the liabilities that come with setting themselves up with a blog at a site like MySpace or FaceBook.

I personally think that digital self-expression is a wave of the future that could revive and regenerate the skill of composition in our language. Blogs have a profound impact on literacy in America and we need to be sure our kids are positively impacted by that…