To the Presidential Candidates: Q & A’s We Should Hear

No Stone Unturned

I cringe when I watch the Presidential debates.  My heart rate elevates slightly.   I keep waiting for questions and answers that nobody wants to hear, questions and answers that we should hear, but they never come.  Below, I imagine some questions and answers that, unfortunately, we’ll never see or hear:

While the 20th Century provided seemingly limitless opportunities for economic growth, resource extraction, and technological development, it seems we need to shift the paradigm–I care about the future, and I wonder how you can justify pushing for a reckless economic growth model?

“Thanks for the question.  I get it, and I don’t justify it.  It’s absurd that we both talk about how to grow the economy in a no-holds barred free market sense, because it simply isn’t sustainable.  Look at world population trends.   Look at emerging economies in Asia, a rising middle-class in China.  Look at increased meat consumption across the world and it’s environmental impact.  We all need to shift gears, and understand that in the 21st Century, progress shouldn’t mean more cars, more gadgets, and more consumption.  I think about 100 years down the road, and any sane politician or citizen should admit to you that there simply isn’t enough land, water, and fossil fuels to continue on our current course.  We need to continue to embrace a global economy, but we also need to shift back to more regional and local economic models–especially in the area of food and energy production–in order to create more jobs and a healthy dependence on our neighbors and immediate locales.”

With Frankenstorm bearing down on the East Coast, what do you say to those who deny that Climate Change is a real threat?

“Thank you for finally bringing up Climate Change in a debate!  First of all, it’s absurd to continue to play Russian Roulette with our collective future by denying the impact humans have on the environment.  We can either continue to deny and pay the consequences, or we can take major action to try and mitigate the ongoing threat that man-influenced weather events will continue to have on our lives.”

Some people say our schools and teachers are failing.  What say you?

“Thank you for providing an opportunity to respond to this crucial topic.  Schools and teachers are not failing.  Society, and most strikingly, parents, are failing our youth.  Think about the number of single-parent homes.  I’ve talked to many school teachers who exclaim how often parents blame schools and teachers for their students’ troubles, rather than working through issues at home.

Think about the constant media barrage that our young people ingest every day.  Popular culture is not helping.   Where is school and knowledge being emphasized?

What are your feelings about Super PACS?  Should uber-wealthy partisan groups have such influence on the airways?

“By the time I answer your question, millions of Americans will be bombarded by negative campaign ads by Super PACs from both parties.  Thanks to the Supreme Court decision in the 2010 case  SpeechNow.org v. FEC,  corporations and individuals no longer are limited by $5,000 dollar contributions to PACs, which gave more power to folks like Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, to give over 50 million dollars! to conservative Super PACS in 2012.  That’s an incredible amount of money.  Imagine if that money was given to charity or invested in local enterprise.  I don’t like the influence of big money in this election.  Quite frankly, it seems antithetical to democracy to allow so much money to pour into elections, and we need major campaign finance reform.”

It’s deeply troubling to continue to see violence around the world seemingly spawned by hatred of American Values.  What do you say to those who find American/Western values to be so problematic and incendiary?

“Tough question.  Let me make it clear that I understand that Freedom in some places, due to historic and religious traditions dating back thousands of years, is not a universal value.  I will not impose American values on places, and there’s no doubt we will continue to see difficult and lengthy transitions to democratic institutions in the Middle East and around the world.  It may never work.  That said,  I’m not about moral relativism.  There are certain cultures and attitudes that are better for humanity and the stability of our modern world.  To kill people because of a cheap YouTube video is beyond pathetic, as is the judgement the film’s producer made in exercising his first amendment rights to a reckless degree.”

What questions and answers do you wish you would hear from the candidates?

Why $100,000 Teacher Salaries Make Sense

No Stone Unturned

Many American educators–myself included–often remind ourselves and others that we didn’t enter education for the money.  I certainly don’t teach to become wealthy, but as I see outstanding educator colleagues and friends leave the classroom for higher-paying, often lower-stress jobs in education, I wonder what it would take to increase the tenure of experienced, skilled teachers.

And I wonder how long I will last, with increased financial responsibility coming with marriage and my own family down the line.

So what would it take to start attracting more talent into the teaching pool in the States?  It might boil down to greenbacks.  According to Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence Director Stu Silberman, dramatically increasing compensation could eventually lead to dramatically improved schools.

How about a starting salary for teachers of  $100,000?

Those numbers might seem ridiculous, especially for first-year professionals with a wild range of educational attainment and ability, yet Silberman argues that the idea is feasible in a recent blog post at Education Week:

…if the entry-level salary is $100,000 (this is possible within current budgets), what could we expect to happen? First, many top students who want to teach but now choose a different profession for financial reasons would bring their skills into the classroom for the benefit of our students. The appeal of higher salaries would allow universities to become more selective about the candidates they allow into their teacher preparation programs. As stronger talent entered the teaching workforce, student achievement would rise. The Center for Public Education reports, “There is research that has shown that students of teachers who have greater academic ability–be it measured through SAT or ACT scores, GPA, IQ, tests of verbal ability, or selectivity of the college attended–perform better.” As achievement levels rise, we would have a stronger pool of future educators, thus continuing the upward spiral.

I agree with Silberman’s general premise, but I doubt we have the political will to undergo such a dramatic transformation of the profession.

And it is true that the talent pool of teacher candidates is currently diluted.  According to numbers released by Education Testing Services (ETS), education majors score well below average on the GRE compared to students in other fields.  The exception is secondary education majors, who score slightly above average.  American schools aren’t going to dramatically improve with–let’s face it–such a wild range of abilities standing in front of 30 tired, eager, excited, or belligerent students in schools across the land.  Test scores aren’t everything, but the numbers are a strong indicator of where teaching falls on a career prestige scale.

Speaking of prestige, Finland’s education system has recently received a bounty of praise, and it’s no surprise that the best and brightest there desire to become educators.  What do we have?  A glut of Teach for America applicants from our top colleges and universities, but many of these students aren’t looking into education long-term.  Just look at retention rates.

It’s a tough sell to drastically increase teacher salaries and increase qualification requirements.  But I’m sick and tired of politicians and citizens lamenting the fact that our public schools are a mess, when recruiting, training, and compensation systems are not set up to create and retain widespread teacher excellence.

Big challenges require bold solutions.  What do you think?

The Will to Teach Black Males

No Stone Unturned

We’ve got to teach them to be men, what manhood is all about.  How did we go from Medgar Evers, Frederick Douglass, and Langston Hughes to Lil’ Wayne, Drake, and Lebron James as the only models of success for our black males?  Do you have the will to do what it takes to help these young men succeed?

Currently at a the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) Conference in New Orleans, I saw Principal Baruti Kafele speak this morning.  I’ve paraphrased some of his words above.  He held us captive with his energetic, engaging speech about how to get through to black males in school.

LIl’ Wayne
Langston Hughes

It’s a helluva challenge.

To answer Mr. Kafele, yes, I do have the will.

I agree with his assertions that culturally relevant teaching, improved classroom environments, and the exposure to more male role models can facilitate a narrowing of the attitude gap.  Get students, especially black males, to take off the mask they wear to school to hide their struggles.  Show them more models of positive manhood.

But I’m not a superhero, even though I have the will.  I do believe in my own power to transform lives in a positive way, but I have a lot of other responsibilities and duties.  Plus, I strive for a work/life balance.  If I don’t take care of myself and “turn off” work at some point every day, I won’t be effective from 7:00-3:00.

And right now, one of the biggest problems in urban education is the fact that nobody seems to have the will to admit and act on the fact that within current school structures, class sizes, and course loads, it takes herculean efforts to get large groups of disadvantaged black males to succeed academically and socially.

It takes a lot more effort, manpower, and strategic planning to give black males a shot at success versus other demographic groups.  How many schools are actually employing tactics that treat black males much differently in order to buck dropout and prison trends?

Not many.  It isn’t politically correct to single out groups of students, but any sane and reflective educator knows that certain groups of students need to be treated differently in some regards.  Some students need a longer school day.  Some students probably need counseling instead of biology.  Other students need a safe place to hang out after school.

Treating kids with equity–giving them a more equal chance of a successful educational outcome-requires will from politicians and education leaders to change course.

Give me a class with 10 struggling black males (or any struggling student, for that matter) instead of 25-30.  Then I can truly invest the time and energy as a role model, teacher, and mentor for the students who need it most.  Let those kids meet for an hour, once a week, with a respected community member.  During the school day.  Kafele promoted his own model this morning of bringing in community mentors, both male and female, on a regular basis.

As I wrote in a previous post, I can’t save all souls.  If we finally acknowledged that treating students equally (with regards to school structures, systems, course requirements, etc.) isn’t doing the job, I might have a fighting chance to reach more black males.  Right now, we don’t have the collective will.


A Narrative Vision for Schooling in the 21st Century

No Stone Unturned

A narrative vision for schooling in the 21st Century, according to the 2012 Republican Party of Texas Platform:

Soviet Classroom, 1969, from University of Delaware Professor Eugene Matusov’s website.

Every morning, little Timmy and his 4th grade classmates pledge to the Texas flag and American flag.  Mrs. Wilson has arranged the desks in straight rows, and there is a curious dearth of technology in the class–no computer stations for students.  A large, bold-colored poster hangs on the wall above Timmy’s assigned seat.  It reads Only English Spoken Here–We Encourage a Full Transition from Other Languages Within Three Years.  After lessons in the basics–reading, writing, and arithmetic, Timmy is feeling drowsy, but he doesn’t dare put his head down at the desk.  Last week, he saw Mrs. Wilson snap her wooden ruler across Danny’s knuckles when he nodded off in class, leaving a few drops of blood on his desk.  

Timmy enjoys the 10-minute snack break of peanut butter crackers and chocolate milk, but he gets confused during science, when Mrs. Wilson leads a discussion about evolution and climate change, saying that they are weak scientific theories.  Timmy doesn’t know what is to be trusted as scientific truth, and he senses that some adults–his parents included–get very angry if scientific proof clashes with their belief systems.  

Timmy is a strong reader and likes to ask questions, but he doesn’t ever seem to get any answers.   During silent reading time, he peruses an article about the environmental pollution and harsh treatment of cattle at some West Texas feedlot operations.  Mrs. Wilson, upon noticing the article, frowns.  Timmy gets the courage to ask, “Why does it have to be this way?” but Mrs. Wilson doesn’t answer the question.  After all, she knows she shouldn’t be teaching Higher Order Thinking Skills, because expanding Timmy and his classmates ability to think might undermine parental authority.

Timmy is lucky to be such a strong reader.  After all, he didn’t attend pre-school or kindergarten.  His parents did a lot to help him prepare for school, reading aloud with him, bringing him to the local library once a week, and even going to Dallas to the museums once in a while.  Timmy notices, however, that many of his classmates are struggling when they are asked to read aloud in class.  They stumble over such easy words as constitution, abstinence, no multiculturalism, corporal punishment, and abolishing the Department of Education.

When Timmy returns home from school after his short bus ride, he gives his dog Frank a scratch behind the ear, says hi to his parents.  “What did you learn at school today, Timmy?” his mother asks.  

Ever the thoughtful and precocious boy, he responds, “Not much.  I’ve learned that some people have a horribly anti-progressive, anti-realistic, anti-thinking, and anti-excitement vision for how school should be.  And I’m suffering because of it.”  

Luckily for Timmy, his parents allow him a few hours on the computer each night, where he voraciously reads articles on everything he’s not supposed to know and think about in the confines of Mrs. Wilson’s room.  He’s even teaching himself some photo and video editing skills on his laptop.  This is when his real learning is taking place.  He’s exciting doing this work, and time flies by.  He and some of his friends have even started collaborating–using Google Docs–on a short story about students who start a tutoring business after school to make up for the lack of education they are receiving from 7:00 am to 3:00 pm.

Thanks to Liana Heitin over at Education Week Teacher online, who noticed some curious–and disturbing–education platforms in the 2012 Republican Party of Texas platform in her recent blog post.