Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Costs of Turnaround

Ed Week has an article out worth a read: "Private Sector Competes for Share of Stimulus Pie."
It talks about consulting firms and "turnaround experts" that are now working with school districts for Race to the Top.

I guess I'm just skeptical about spending money on outsiders who don't know local conditions. I'm also skeptical because as far as I know, there's a serious lack of research on effective turnarounds.

Some of the firm's names Ed Week listed rang a bell.

The one that jumped out at me most was Alvarez & Marsal, who are making quite a buck dismantling Lehman Brothers when they're not saving schools. These are the same folks that were down in New Orleans, hired just before Katrina struck, actually. They've also worked in St. Louis and NYC. For a lot of these groups, the results seemed at best, mixed (for a pretty high price tag). Especially considering a lot of these firms get no-bid contracts with questionable "expertise."

Saturday, February 13, 2010


This morning, I read the story about the 73-year-old man who stole $600 each from 3 banks, because he was trying to keep his family in their home, and couldn't afford their mortgage.

No gun, no violence. He walked in, passed the teller a note demanding the money, and walked out. Later, he told detectives he intended upon paying them back.

Now he's in jail, bail set at $22,500.
That's what happens when you rob banks, said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. No matter who you are.
I thought about that old moral dilemma about the man who needs a certain medicine for his dying wife. He asks the pharmacist who tells him he could get the medicine, but for a very high price that the man cannot afford. So the man breaks into the pharmacy and steals the medicine to save his wife. The moral question then is, was the man right or wrong?

I remember reading one time, where I can't recall, someone who rightly pointed out that maybe we're asking the wrong question, that we should focus not on the man, but on the system. Indeed, in what world is it okay to put a price on someone's life, where only those who can pay are deserving? That's not just or moral. Of course, it's also not just an imaginary situation.

I suppose I'm struggling today with how to teach (if it's even possible to do so) morality to children in a society that appears to stop at the second level of Kohlberg's three levels of morality, the law-and-order phase of conventional morality. Now, I don't know how this 73-year-old man's case will resolve, but perhaps this is the beauty of a jury system. Juries are meant to decide, impartially, whether someone is guilty or not guilty, on the very basis of facts and law. In reality though, juries are really only the sum of their human parts, and I would think it impossible for a group of human beings not to take into consideration the circumstances and these higher moral questions.

Finally, I think there's a certain great irony to the fact that two of the banks he robbed were Bank of America branches. The Bank of America that took billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars (an exact sum is surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, hard to pin down) because of shady practices so they could pay execs insane amounts of money. And it would appear no one will be going to jail for this.

Hard to reconcile those two stories. That's what happens when you rob banks, as the lady says. And apparently, that's also what happens when the banks rob you.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


There's a new documentary coming out that looks quite fascinating, exploring the issues surrounding AP classes in high schools.

Most of my thinking about schools centers on elementary school practices, reforms and possibilities, of course, that's my chosen field. But sometimes my mind wanders to what could be done to reform high schools, and in many ways, I think it's a much more challenging prospect. The fragmented nature of high schools, from daily schedules to certification processes for high school teachers are so entrenched that instituting things like integrated curricula, project based learning, and so on seems much harder.

I've been watching my stepsister finish out her senior year of high school, and from my view, it seems not much has changed since my own high school days. She still stays up late answering the questions at the end of the chapter, memorizes vocabulary that is rarely used outside of textbooks, and writing papers on something for which I have to stretch my mind to see the utility of. In some ways, things are even worse - whether from difference in time or geography (she attends high school in an affluent Connecticut suburb, I attended a not-quite-as-affluent Western Pa suburb 10 years ago). The emphasis seems much greater on things like AP courses (motivated by weighted grades and college credit, not actual learning!), the SATs and college app process (it is the norm for these 16 and 17-year-olds to have tutors/prep classes/admission advisors that cost in the thousands), and attending prestigious private universities (State school? Ew.).

Throughout my professional experience, I've seen nine-year-olds so anxious over taking a test (which I thought failed to actually measure anything meaningful) that he couldn't function. I've seen four-year-olds so anxious about making a mistake in reading (Yes! Reading at 4!), she'd end up crying.

All this is summed up by a quote from the documentary's trailer, "Our students are pressured to perform...they're not necessarily pressured to learn, especially learn deeply and conceptually."

When I was in high school, my senior year I signed up to take 3 AP classes: psych, bio, and English. At the beginning of the year, I switched from AP English to "regular" "academic English." The AP teacher had a reputation for being deadly boring, frequently compared to Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller. I didn't think I could handle that for a year, so my best friend and I switched into 9th period English with one of the most awesome teachers I ever had.

He was a little crazy. Animated, enthusiastic, and demanding. I think he was one of those teachers you either love or hate. Or maybe both, as I didn't realize till later how wonderful he was. Because of that class, The Canterbury Tales remains on my list of treasured favorites. Many people tell me I'm insane when I say that.

My two brothers took him after me as well. My youngest brother also switched from AP to "academic" after I shared my infinite wisdom with him. ;)

My other brother, however, was already slated to be in this teacher's class. He had never considered himself a reader. (Despite the fact that he could name every bug, animal or plant we encountered in the woods after poring over nature manuals.) After taking that English class, Beowulf became one of his favorites. I've never met anyone else who loved Beowulf - though I'm sure you're out there. But for my brother, having a teacher who encouraged and helped him to access (among other things) literature like that: ancient, epic, thick and often difficult...changed his view of himself as a reader.

I don't know what grade he got in the class, or what grade I did for that matter. But I do know that a B in that class (aka 3.0) meant much more than an A (aka 4.8) in the AP class.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Prescriptive Grammar and Crapspeak

I had this discussion with a literacy professor of mine some time ago, and a recent article on the new language arts standards got me thinking about it again. Grammar. How to teach it. Why to teach it. And when to break the rules.

When I was student teaching, the kids were learning about predicates. It struck me that I hadn't even heard the phrases "simple predicate" or "complete predicate" since my own days in school. I ended up giving myself a quick refresher on the lingo of grammarians.

Now don't get me wrong. Improper (of lack of!) punctuation really bothers me, as do adults who mix up they're/their/there. I'm a little more forgiving in elementary school, obviously, that's what they're there for.

I think that some grammatical rules should be taught explicitly. But I prefer to teach grammar as much as possible through writing. If that means my students never learn the word predicate, is that so terrible?

Funny - when I mention teaching writing to my parents, they always, always thinking I'm talking about either the actual act of writing (printing/cursive) or grammar & spelling. I have to explain that I mean writing-as-in-putting-cohesive-thoughts-on-paper. That's interesting to me.

Anyway, I digress.

So. My big question. At what point is it acceptable to teach kids to break the rules? What if a piece of writing sacrifices conventional grammar at places for a stronger sense of voice?

This is not okay: using emoticons or Internet slang (PDF) in academic papers and appeals! I would cry if someone handed me a paper with "LOL" in it. A friend of mine calls this type of language use "crap-speak." Now, I'm not big on the acronyms, but I can understand the use of them for something like text messaging (especially while driving, apparently also known as "TWD"). I can even kind of see using them in online conversations, where the pace of discussion is often rapid, so the use of abbreviations becomes an attempt at maintaining a tempo that resembles actually speaking to the person. But this kind of slang should never make it into formal papers, college applications, and so on.

(Side note. I do use emoticons and either LOL/haha because I think it's a way of alleviating the communication problems that arise from not being able to see body language or hear voice tone. Sometimes the only way to identify teasing or sarcasm is from the presence of a winking emoticon. Also, if someone says something hilarious, I want them to know I'm laughing! And yes, people do fake laugh online - just as they do in person.)

So is the problem that kids aren't learning grammar and spelling at all? Must we resort to sentence diagramming again? (Which was always kind of fun in a brain-teaser kind of way, but which didn't really teach me anything lasting or meaningful about writing.)

Or is it that they aren't being taught when it's okay to use Internet slang, or when to use formal vs. less formal language? A kind of code switching, or something like it. It also strikes me that anyone using "LOL!!!" or "cuz" in a letter to a college appeal board has little concept of audience. Thinking about my own writing, I switch styles all the time. I think (hope?) most adults do this almost without thinking about it. I think this is why it's important to encourage breadth in the type of writing students do - letters to the editor, to politicians, to friends; book reports vs. reviews, journalistic writing, poetry writing, blogging and on and on. Then you build in the opportunity to discuss why (or if) it's okay to use slang in a letter to a friend but not to the President.

I was going to end this post with a dare to diagram some of Sarah Palin's sentences, but it appears someone has beaten me to it.