Words To Ponder

Ulysses S. Grant was a truly remarkable general during the Civil War. After several of his generals failed to win a single battle in the first years of the war, Lincoln heard about a general in the West who was winning in stunning fashion. He considered bringing the general East and putting him in charge of the Army of the Potomac which was gun-shy and had a habit of losing. He was warned that the man was a drinker and he famously said, “Find out what he is drinking and give some to the rest of my generals.” The rest, as they say, is history. Grant went on to defeat the man whom many regard as an even greater general than he was.

In the event, Grant became President of the United States. As is often the case with the “Peter Principle” it happened that a person who was good in one position demonstrated after promotion that he was not very good at another. In a word, his presidency was repleat with scandals and Grant was at best a fair and middling president, great general though he was.

But he was brilliant and a wordsmith whose battle-field commands to his troops were written with remarkable clarity and who was able late in life, at the urging of his good friend Mark Twain, to write his Personal Memoirs which are regarded as an example of the highest expression of the writer’s craft. His words not only sounded and read well, they made sense. Unlike a president whose name will not be mentioned, the man could make his ideas crystal clear and his ideas were worth pondering.

A good friend of mine is currently reading a biography of Grant written by Ron Chernow and he was so impressed by a passage in the biography he sent it to me and I would like to share it with you. If nothing else, it provides a sharp contrast to the outpourings of words that comes forth from the Oval Office these days. But it provides a great deal more. It provides ideas worth pondering.

Note that when Grant talks about “free schools” he is talking about public education which has lately come under fire and is blamed by many for the growing number of shortcomings this country has experienced. Indeed, there are those on the right of the political spectrum who would eliminate public education altogether and insist that the government subsidize private schools.  Many of those are of the “spiritually certain” persuasion who insist upon melding in mysterious ways church and state. Grant opposed both. Chernow begins with a quote from Grant:

“‘The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation.’ He affirmed that in the near future, ‘the dividing line will not be Mason & Dixon but between patriotism, & intelligence on the one side & superstition, ambition & ignorance on the other.’ He wound up with an eloquent appeal for separating church and state: ‘Encourage free schools and resolve that not one dollar of money appropriated to their support no matter how raised, shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school … Leave the matter of religion to the family circle, the church & the private school support[ed] entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and the state forever separate.’”

Let’s focus on the initial comment: “The free [public] school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation.” This strikes me as a penetrating observation as it brings together two ideas that are often found far apart: the preservation of a free society and the education of the young. The founders knew, as did Grant, that these two must be bound together and protected against erosion from special interests, greed, and the lust for power. The latter forces are taking over in this country as we find increasing evidence that our young people are not intelligent (on the whole) and the schools are failing while defending themselves from demands that they be all things to all people — and do so for little or no money.

It is time for us to face the fact that this country will not survive as a Republic if the education system is not radically overhauled. This will require at the very least that the teachers who are overworked and under-compensated be paid an attractive salary and at the same time that the Education Establishment (smilingly referred to as the “Blob”) acknowledges that the system is not working. Compared with tiny Finland, for example, the United States is failing its children. Period. Full stop. The teachers in Finland are rewarded for their efforts and the best and brightest college graduates seek jobs in the classroom whereas in this country we attract the students from the lower third of the student population in our public colleges and universities. Teaching doesn’t pay in America and it lacks prestige. This is not a formula for success.

Education must be a top priority in a country where athletes earn obscene amounts of money and teachers must work in the Summers simply to make ends meet. There is no question that were the priorities of this government different a great deal of money might be spent healing the wounds in public education instead of, say, building a wall separating this country from Mexico. The money is there. We simply choose to spend it on wall-building and what we like to call “defense.” But we need to defend ourselves against ignorance which is the greater threat to this country and to the ideals that have made it great.

Let us, indeed, make America great again. Let us inject lifeblood into a sick and weakened education system which we require to “preserve us as a nation.”




The Blind Leading

I strongly opposed the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She is obviously unqualified since she has no experience whatever with American public education.  (And I hasten to note in passing that I attended public schools for the requisite 12 years.) In any event, my blogging buddy Jill was spot on when she noted in a recent post that the DeVos appointment appears to be a determined effort on the part of this Administration to dumb down America even further.

But, then, I reflected on one basic question: is the American public education system already beyond repair? Can it be saved? And that question took me to some very sad truths (not alternative facts, but actual facts). To begin with is the “Blob.” This is the name one theorist has given to the huge bureaucracy that controls public education in this country. I have first-hand experience with such a bureaucracy on a smaller scale in my years in public higher education in Minnesota. When I started teaching in this state in 1968 there were six state universities and one Chancellor who, with his secretary, oversaw the system from his office in St. Paul. By the time I retired 37 years later his office took an entire city block in St. Paul and was peopled by hundreds of drones who scurried back and forth issuing directives that necessitated more and more administrative positions at the (now seven) universities simply to keep up and issue their countless reports.

In the public schools the same situation can be found. In spades. There are innumerable functionaries at all levels who are paid large salaries out of money that ought to go to the teachers. Their job is to issue directives and determine policy, including curriculum, for the many schools in the various state systems. This is the Blob. The system as it now stands is top-heavy. There are far too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

Moreover, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions, teachers are paid slave-wages and this leads to the fact (as shown by several studies) that our teaching force in the public primary and secondary education system is drawn from the lower 1/3rd or lower 1/4th (depending on which study you refer to) of our college students. The lower salaries make teaching unattractive for many students, as do the “methods courses” prospective teachers are required to take. The pupils have been raised to think that successful people make large salaries and since these people make very little they must all be losers. They tend not to respect their teachers. And given that parents are too busy these days to raise their children, the schools are expected to do so — except that the teachers must discipline their charges with hands tied behind their backs by countless regulations laid down by the bureaucrats mentioned above who worry about possible law suits and not about the pupils or the teachers. Teaching and the pupils are lost in the shuffle.

There are good teachers who have taken the required vow of poverty. No doubt about it. But studies all show that American public education is in a shambles and the question how it can be saved is a profound and perplexing one. It must start at the top, but at the top we find people who control the purse strings and who seem to regard their own positions as sacrosanct. Since they are at the top they are first in line to receive funding. In my state the State University Board takes their portion after the legislative allocation comes down and then doles out what is left to the several universities who are all told that since budgets are tight they will have to make draconian cuts — usually in the humanities and arts faculty. (Never in sports. But that’s another topic.)

The international comparisons with schools in other countries strongly suggest that things seem to have gone from bad to worse. And a new start may not be a terrible thing. I realize that DeVos is not the brightest bulb on the tree and has no credentials whatever (which seems to be a trait among Trump’s appointments), but perhaps she will bring some new ideas to the job. If, for example, she were to eradicate, or even seriously injure, the Blob and dispense with certification requirements (including “methods” courses) while making it possible for young people to attend schools with bright, well-paid teachers this may not be a bad thing. She is known to favor charter schools, for example, which are not in all cases a bad thing. Two of my grandchildren attend a charter school in the Twin Cities that teaches latin and Greek along with logic, mathematics, and science. The curriculum is built around the original seven liberal arts and the kids love the challenge and are getting a very good, free education — complete with homework, can you imagine?

In any event, it will be interesting to see what happens. I am much more worried, I confess, about what this president is doing to the E.P.A. and other regulating agencies than I am with this particular appointment, given the current state of public education. It could turn out to be a good thing if it results in a fundamental shake-up of a system that seems to be tottering and about fall under its own weight.

Waste and Abuse

I read with interest a recent post by Mindful Stew in which the author made the outrageous suggestion that teachers be paid what they are worth. Well, actually he suggested they be paid $100,000 to start, but that was to get our attention. And he did get readers’ attention! The comments were numerous and many of them insightful, though others a bit spiteful. The most frequent objection to the notion that we should pay more taxes to support public education is that there is waste and lack of accountability in the public sector. This is true.

I worked for nearly four decades in the public sector, teaching at a small Midwestern public university where I saw countless examples of waste and downright stupidity. As coach of the women’s tennis team, for example, I was expected to order supplies from approved vendors whose names were on a list provided to all coaches when I could buy a gross of tennis balls from Wal-Mart for 35% less than I would have to pay the “approved” vendor — which I did. The women’s basketball team would climb on a bus and travel five hours to Duluth to play a game on the same night the Duluth men’s team came to our campus! Eventually this stopped, but the objection at the time was that if the men and women played in the same place on the same night the men would get a larger audience. So for that reason the practice went on for years. Needless to say, the athletic teams — even at this small university  — stayed in expensive motels. And then there was the time-honored budgetary practice of punishing frugal employees. If the budget was not spent at the end of the fiscal year next year’s budget would be cut by that amount. And there are countless other examples of waste and stupidity. I dare say my readers who work or have worked in the public sector could add many of their own.

So let’s agree that there is waste and abuse of the money we send the state or the federal government to help provide services. There should be accountability, clearly. And employees should be rewarded when they save the taxpayers money, not punished — as should departments and agencies. But none of this really addresses the central issue which is that our teachers are horribly underpaid — barely above poverty levels in many states. For many teachers there needs to be another wage-earner in the family and it is a rare example of a teacher who can even think of buying a home, especially in the first years.

As a consequence of these low salaries, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of young people in this country who steer away from teaching because they know they will struggle. It shouldn’t be about money, but money is essential. Anyone who denies that is purblind or downright stupid. Many of the comments on “Stew’s” blog were from people who went another direction because of the low salaries in teaching. As a consequence, numerous studies suggest that nationwide we are now drawing from the bottom third or in some cases the bottom fourth of the college pool: our teachers were not among the highest achievers in our colleges — as a rule. I have heard from and read blogs by teachers who are sharp and very committed (including “mindful stew”), and while teaching at the college level for forty years I had a number of advisees who became outstanding teachers. But these people are the exception, sad to say.  In most cases around the country our kids are not getting the best teachers and it is not a huge leap to conclude that much of this is due to low salaries which bring with them low self-esteem and low-expectations. I have even read a couple of comments that pointed out that the kids themselves have a low opinion of their teachers because they know they are poorly paid. I dare say they hear this at home. In our culture, like it or not, money speaks volumes.

In any case, while I might blanch at starting teachers at $100,000 a year, a salary of $50,000 does seem reasonable. We can all certainly afford to pay a few hundred dollars more a year to support education. But in the meantime, if the school districts have a problem finding the money to pay the teachers they could save a considerable amount of money by reducing the number of administrators and support staff by 50-60% There’s a bunch of money going to waste there! A couple of well-organized administrators and two or three efficient secretaries could run a school of several thousand easily. It is done in business all the time, though I hate to suggest that we borrow from the business model. Or (and I hesitate to say this) we could reduce the inordinate number of athletic teams at the high school and college levels and concentrate on the few that truly benefit the students and contribute to the goal of educating young minds. But this borders on heresy.

Parental Choice

In a recent article in USA Today following up Mitt  Romney’s political gaffe in Philadelphia — sitting in a classroom in a charter school that stresses small classes insisting that smaller classes don’t help the kids — the writer makes the broader point that Parental choice is the mantra of politicians who try to deflect attention from the failure of states to provide all schoolchildren with an equal educational opportunity. It’s the alternative many Republicans hawk in response to demands for a stepped up campaign to fix, not abandon, failing public schools. It’s the code words of politicians who offer some children an escape hatch out of troubled schools, while leaving many others behind.

Readers of my blogs know how concerned I am about improving education in this country at all levels. I take a back seat to no one who is throwing stones at a system that is clearly failing our kids while so many of those who try to teach in and administer the schools pretend there is no problem. But my stone-throwing is an attempt to get someone’s attention, not to bring down the house. I have repeatedly listed the steps we should take to remedy the situation, knowing while I do this that my faint, small voice will not be heard — but also knowing that hope springs eternal.

In any event, the attempts by Republicans like Romney to, in effect, abandon the public schools in the name of “parental choice” is simply making things worse. The answer is not home-schooling, or vouchers, or private schools, or charter schools. The answer is to address the problem head-on. And this means that those in education must stop pretending there is no problem, dismissing the fact that Finland has superb schools on the grounds that they don’t teach minorities (not true, by the way), or insisting that standardized tests prove nothing because the student populations these days include greater proportions of minority students than fifty years ago (also not true), or whatever. I have heard all the excuses, and they are lame. The fact remains that American public schools are failing the children they are supposed to teach. As was determined in Massachusetts not long ago, many of the teachers themselves cannot pass the eighth-grade-level tests devised to determine whether their students are learning. And that’s the heart of the matter.

We now draw our public school teachers from the bottom of the college populations because we don’t pay them what they are worth and teachers’ colleges that require outside certification insist on methods courses that turn off the brighter students. In saying this, I note quickly that there are exceptions, outstanding teachers who made it through those colleges and who do a masterful job with little pay and no support from their administrators — or the kids’ parents. There are always exceptions to generalizations, but this generalization stands anyway. The current condition of our public education system is a national embarrassment. We must start by reforming teacher-preparation and allow that if we are to entice the brighter young people (who desperately need work) into teaching we need to pay them well and support them in what they try to do. As parents we must pay the piper and we cannot expect teachers to raise our children; their job is to teach them how to use their minds and they should be paid well for a difficult job.

As I say, I have developed these suggestions (and many more) in earlier blogs and anyone who wants to know what I have said can simply search my blog pages for “education” and find much more than they probably want to read! But the point is that we can still rescue the public schools if we make a concerted effort to deal with the situation honestly, realizing that it will cost money and will also require major changes in the way we now do things. But under the guise of “parental choice,” the alternative of abandoning public schools altogether, which is clearly Romney’s alternative, is unacceptable: there are many successful adults who have been schooled in our nation’s public schools — and there can still be more in the future.

Feel-Good Schooling

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I want to return briefly to the problem in our public schools. I have addressed this problem in previous blogs and even suggested remedies for the problems. But I know full well that any suggestions I might make will fall on deaf ears. And that is the issue I want to address.

Until or unless the education establishment admits there is a problem in America’s  public schools, it goes without saying that the problem will go unsolved. There can be no solution if those who are involved see no problem in the first place. And that is clearly the case. I have been in contact with a number of teachers and without exception their posture is one of defense: excuses and rationalizations come tumbling out. I read these same excuses in the articles defending the status quo. There are none so blind as those who will not see, as the saying goes.

Those, like me, who are “outside” the establishment are dismissed because we simply don’t know what’s going on. The fact that I taught for a year at the elementary level and 41 years at the collegiate level and have read any number of books on the subject, in addition to writing one of my own, is deemed irrelevant. I am one of “them.” And unless you are on the inside you simply don’t understand what is going on — what the teachers have to put up with daily, and how they struggle against insuperable odds to open young minds. But I do know these things. I visited enough public school classes to know I couldn’t teach in our public schools. I wouldn’t last a month. I also know there are dedicated teachers out there who perform miracles every day, and exceptional students who go on to lead exemplary lives. But I also know there is a larger problem and it needs to be addressed.

Sad to say, those who dare criticize from within the establishment are not heard, either. I have mentioned Maureen Stout, who wrote an excellent book about The Feel Good Curriculum, subtitled “The Dumbing Down of America’s kids in the name of Self-Esteem.” She taught for years in the public school system in California and now holds a teaching position in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at California State University in Northridge. Her book is a well argued attack on “the self-esteem” movement, which is described as “a radically child-centered, therapeutic model of schooling, which has transformed schools into clinics and teachers into counselors, creating a generation of self-righteous, self-absorbed, underachieving children.” Indeed so. But her book was never on the best-seller list and in the twelve years since its publication it has had no noticeable effect. The establishment simply refuses to listen to criticism.

The educational establishment resembles the A.M.A.in policing itself, a situation that is designed to breed corruption. But in many ways, the educational establishment is worse, because (so far as I know) teachers cannot be sued for malpractice — which is a way of curbing abuse, surely — and they have created a huge and powerful bureaucracy which protects them from political influence that might have meaningful results. The only thing parents can do, as they have done in Wisconsin, is to retaliate against the teachers themselves by reducing their public support. And that is cutting of one’s nose to spite the face. It is not the solution. Teachers need to be paid more, not less. That’s the only way to attract the best and brightest minds to a profession that now attracts students from the bottom third of the colleges and universities, nation-wide.

And, as I have written in an earlier blog, the only way to begin to solve the problem is to eliminate the certification process, thereby crippling the Blob that controls the education establishment, and return schooling to the best teachers, attracted to teaching by the expectation of greater prestige and higher salaries, and then given their heads. But this won’t happen. Indeed, nothing much will happen, unless the establishment, including the teachers themselves, admits there is a problem and opens itself to constructive criticism.