‘We don’t got no stinkin’ education. We don’t need no stinkin’ education!’

October 12, 2008

My family’s heritages are migrant and education. By that I mean that moving someplace else for a better life, and getting the kids into better schools, has been a tradition running back at least 6 generations. My paternal grandfather was a seaman in the British merchant marine. He married a woman in Guyana, then moved the family for a job in the stockyards in Kansas City, a better place to raise kids. His children became nurses, politicians, law enforcement officers, successful trucking magnates; his grandchildren are doctors, lawyers, nurses, business executives, and teachers — one Rhodes Scholar. I am second-generation American on my father’s side.

My maternal grandfather was a farmer of great skill. He moved from Provo, Utah, to the frontier town of Manila, Utah, then to Delta, then to Salt Lake City, in a quest for riches from farming. Deciding that wouldn’t work, he took a job with Utah Oil Co., a company that was eventually merged into Standard of Indiana and now, British Petroleum. His children all graduated from high school, except for the daughter lost in infancy. Several went on to college. They became construction company owners, contractors and engineers, railroad engineers, small company entrepreneurs and retailers. His grandchildren are physicians, lawyers, business executives, successful salesman, investors — and a couple of good old boys who scrape by (every family has some). My grandfather was second-generation from pioneers, people who moved their families west in wagons, or if necessary, on foot and pushcart. They were people who fought Indians sometimes, and died in those fights and in the migrations. They left legacies in the towns named after them, and in their records as educators — both my maternal grandparents were schoolteachers early on, many of their cousins were college professors, one a college president.

Education in our family was always viewed as a ladder to personal success, to a good life, if not always a key to economic well-being. Especially in the case of my maternal grandparents, there was great assistance from the Latter-day Saint emphasis on education.

If I had to typify their version of the American dream, certainly a huge part of that dream involved the kids getting educated well beyond their parents, and getting a better life as a result.

Education was a part of the American dream from pre-Revolution days. Foreign visitors often commented that in America the crudest of men read the newspapers and discussed politics with vigor and earnestness absent in other nations. Education was the cornerstone of freedom, in the view of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and as demonstrated by Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington.

Sometime in the 1980s, I think, the tide changed. Certainly the Reagan Revolution had something to do with it. Cuts in Pell Grants, the grants that got thousands of kids into college, were a signal that education was no longer valued as it once was. One by one the federal government stripped away some of the most important building blocks of our modern society, things like the GI Bill, which had provided America with a highly-trained, highly-skilled corps of engineers in the 1950s. Those engineers invented the infrastructure to our nation that now crumbles, and they invented the industrial processes, and sometimes the industries, that we now use daily. Transistors, which make computers possible on the scale we have today, were invented and developed into powerful “cogs” for machines that do what had not even been dreamed of 40 years earlier.

I can’t tell you exactly when the tide turned, but I can tell you when I first realized it had. After staffing the Senate Labor Committee for most of a decade, I escaped to the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, a good place for a budding environmental lawyer to work, I thought at the time. The chairman of the commission was Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander (now senator from Tennessee). Lamar had two big projects in Tennessee that he pinned his hopes for the state upon. Both were influenced in no small part by his work trying to recruit auto manufacturers to build production facilities in Tennessee.

Nissan and Toyota had levelled with him: Tennessee looked good, but for two things. First, there were few good ways to get products like automobiles out of the state to markets they needed to be sold in. Second, Tennessee’s education system wasn’t providing the highly-educated workers the car makers needed to run highly-sophisticated machinery in a fast-moving, just-in-time inventory system that produced high quality products at lowest cost.

Alexander responded with one initiative to build good roads out of Tennessee to major markets. He called that initiative “Good Roads.” He responded to the education needs with a program designed to plug money and support into Tennessee schools to improve education, bolstered by the report of the Excellence in Education Committee in 1983. He called that initiative “Good Schools.” In retrospect, those were good places to focus development efforts. Tennessee got at least one Japanese company to locate a plant there, and snagged the much-desired Saturn production plant of General Motors.

The Commission had some hearings in Tennessee. I was along on one of those hearings, and I was with Alexander when he was met by a Tennessee constituent who just wanted to talk to the governor. Alexander, being from Tennessee, hoping to keep his election chances good, and being a good governor, agreed to give the man and his wife a few minutes — I watched. The constituent complained about all the changes coming to Tennessee. He complained about the costs of the roads, and the costs of improving the schools. He worried about taxes, because, he said, he didn’t make a lot of money. Alexander assured him that his taxes would not rise much if any at all, and that especially the education part of the program would benefit all Tennesseans. “Do you have children?” Alexander asked the man.

He responded that he had two kids, both in their early teens. And then he said something that just stunned me: “You know, I’ve gotten by pretty good with my 8th grade education all these years, and I don’t see why my kids need to have any more than that. I’m not sure we need Good Schools.”

To Lamar Alexander’s everlasting credit — or shame, if you’re very cynical — he didn’t strike the man down. Alexander spent a few more minutes explaining the benefits the man’s children would have from better education, and he closed off telling about his meetings with car company executives who made it clear that they wanted to hire only good students who had graduated from good high schools, and maybe who had enough college that they could do the complex mathematics to run big machines. Alexander asked the man for his name and address, said his opinion was very important to him, and promised to get back in touch.

I suspect Alexander did contact the man later. His office tended to work very well on such matters as constituent contacts.

But I’ll wager he didn’t change the man’s opinion about education.

Sometime in the mid-1980s many Americans began to look on education as unnecessary, as expensive, and as “elitist” in a new, derogatory sense. Instead of education being something blue-collar workers hoped their children would earn, it became something blue collar workers felt oppressed by, somehow.

From that commission, I moved to the U.S. Department of Education, in Bill Bennett’s regime. Over the next few months I observed the same anti-education phenomenon playing out in debates about school reform in dozens of states. Then I got out of government and into private business, where education was demanded, and I only occasionally worried about the drama I had seen.

The past few weeks, especially since the nomination of Sarah Palin, have heightened my fears about the loss of the shared dream of better education for our children. It was part of the American psyche, woven into the fabric of our government from the “Old Deluder Satan” law in Massachusetts, which required towns of any size to set up some kind of school, through the Northwest Ordinances, which set aside sections of every township to be used for the benefit of public education, through the settlement of the west where nearly every town with a kid in it built a school — schools were built in Utah before many pioneers had houses to get them through the winter — through the dramatic rise of public education that helped knock out child labor, and that provided us with truly American armies and navies to get us out on top of two world wars.

Now comes conservative columnist David Brooks to explain how this process has been aided and abetted, if not intended, by the Republican Party, “The Class War Before Palin.”

In 1976, in a close election, Gerald Ford won the entire West Coast along with northeastern states like New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine. In 1984, Reagan won every state but Minnesota.

But over the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. This expulsion has had many causes. But the big one is this: Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare. Democrats kept nominating coastal pointy-heads like Michael Dukakis so Republicans attacked coastal pointy-heads.

Over the past 15 years, the same argument has been heard from a thousand politicians and a hundred television and talk-radio jocks. The nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts.

What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.

It’s a sobering piece. Please read it.

We remain a nation of migrants, a nation that migrates. We remain a nation that desires economic success and is willing to move to get it. Have we lost the good sense to remember that education improves our chances at success? Does Brooks explain the entire motivation for the War on Education?

What do you think?


Let your students blog

September 22, 2008

One way to get better use out of technology is to let your students use it.  How about having students make posts to a blog, for credit?  They learn how to write, they learn technology, and they learn the class material.

Here’s a great example of a classroom-driven blog, where the students do most of the work: Extreme Biology. Miss Baker’s Biology Class holds forth from a school in the northeast, with 9th grade and AP biology students doing most of the work.

Here’s another good example, from another biology class (in Appleton, Wisconsin — close to you, James!):  Endless Forms Most Beautiful (every biologist will recognize the title from biology literature).

The idea is attracting some attention in science circles, especially with an idea that working scientists ought to drop by from time to time to discuss things with students.

How do your students use technology to boost their learning?


Hitting the virtual midways

September 11, 2008

It’s State Fair time in several states — Minnesota’s fair is in full swing, Texas’s fair is gearing up, for example — time to take a look at various carnivals and think about midway rides, no?

Where’s the new fried food pavilion?


Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska on education

September 7, 2008

What is Sarah Palin’s record on education as Governor of Alaska?  One place to look would be her two State of the State addresses to the Alaska legislature, in which she laid out her plans for education.  These speeches do not indicate what was actually enacted into law in the following legislative session, but they offer a glimpse of what Palin hoped to do.

So here are the education sections of her speeches, without comment – except that at the end of the post, I include her office’s release of Alaska’s educational acheivement on standards measures, as recorded in 2008.

Alaskans?  How did she do?  Comments are open.

I especially invite comments on the contrasts between Sen. McCain’s acceptance speech and Gov. Palin’s speeches.

Alaska’s Gov. Sarah Palin on education in her 2007 State of the State address:

. . . First, my philosophy: More government is not the answer. But we all know government’s proper role is to help change the conditions to improve lives and economically stimulate communities. Government can’t make you happy, it can’t make you healthy, it can’t make you a productive member of society. Government’s role is to provide the tools.

One such tool is education. My commitment to education is unwavering.

My budget includes fully funding the “K through 12” foundation formula. In addition, I’ve included more than $200 million in new dollars to cover the increased retirement costs for local school districts, so that more local school district dollars get into the classroom, where the money belongs.

Remember, we’re facing a potential $10 billion dollar PERS / TRS retirement plan shortfall that affects local schools. Our $200 million dollar line item for school districts is part of the half BILLION dollar proposal to help the districts, local governments and the state alleviate the pension plan burden while we work with the Legislature on a long-term solution.

I’ve also committed to help provide local school districts with more predictability, for better planning by supporting “early funding of education.” So I’ll introduce a separate education appropriation bill and ask the Legislature to begin work on it immediately and ask that it’s passed within the first 60 days of the session. Our local school districts deserve to know what they have to work with early enough for them to create efficiencies through planning. They shouldn’t have to “pink slip” teachers in the spring, and make “last minute” rehire attempts in the fall.

But my vision for education is NOT only about funding – it’s about changing the way we think about, and operate our schools. It’s not the amount of money we pour into each child, but how we spend the money that counts.

We’ll look at successful education programs statewide and Outside that can be replicated, and we’ll look at new approaches! We’ve got to do something different. Our high school graduation rate is 61%. That’s unacceptable! Our vo-tech opportunities need to grow so that our kids stay in school and then fill the voids in our industries. And at the same time, we need to make sure those who want to go to college are ready.

We know that we need more mechanics, technicians, teachers, doctors, and nurses. We shouldn’t have to import our workforce when it’s growing up before us.

And so a centerpiece of my administration IS our commitment to a “world class education” system. Let’s take education and move beyond No Child Left Behind to ensure that “no ALASKAN is left behind.”

We’ll work with our Congressional delegation to ADAPT federal mandates to fit Alaska. I’m so thankful Sen. Lisa Murkowski is also committed to changing federal requirements so they make sense for the uniqueness here. Flexibility is needed, for rural schools, especially.

To meet our challenges, I’ve asked our departments to bring together the private sector, the Department of Labor, postsecondary institutions, and our wonderful alternative education choices, including home schools, to ensure that students have the skills to meet Alaska’s workforce needs. And, I will continue to ask families and individuals to take more responsibility.

You’ll hopefully find this theme consistent throughout my administration – cooperative efforts and personal accountability.  . . .

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin delivering her 2008 State of the State address, January 15, 2008 - Photo from Palins official website

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin delivering her 2008 State of the State address, January 15, 2008 - Photo from Palin's official website

Gov. Palin’s remarks on education in her 2008 State of the State Address, January 15, 2008:

. . . Challenges lie ahead, but let’s look back at the last year and at some accomplishments. In Education, we are shaping a three-year funding plan to finally shift the school debate from perpetual “money talk” to accountability and achievement! We are focusing on foundational skills needed in the “real-world” workplace and in college.  . . .

It is our energy development that pays for essential services, like education. Victor Hugo said, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” It’s a privileged obligation we have to “open education doors.” Every child, of every ability, is to be cherished and loved and taught. Every child provides this world hope. They are the most beautiful ingredient in our sometimes muddied up world. I am committed to our children and their education. Stepping through “the door” is about more than passing a standardized test. We need kids prepared to pass life’s tests – like getting a job and valuing a strong work ethic. Our Three-year Education Plan invests more than a billion dollars each year. We must forward-fund education, letting schools plan ahead. We must stop pink-slipping teachers, and then struggle to recruit and retain them the next year.

We will enable schools to finally focus on innovation and accountability to see superior results. We’re asking lawmakers to pass a new K-12 funding plan early this year. This is a significant investment that is needed to increase the base student allocation, district cost factors and intensive needs students. It includes $100 million in school construction and deferred maintenance. There is awesome potential to improve education, respect good teachers, and embrace choice for parents. This potential will prime Alaska to compete in a global economy that is so competitive it will blow us away if we are not prepared. Beyond high school, we will boost job training and University options. We are proposing more than $10 million in new funding for apprenticeship programs, expansion of construction, engineering and health care degrees to meet demands. But it must be about more than funds, it must be a change in philosophy. It is time to shift focus, from just dollars and cents to “caliyulriit,” which is Yupik for “people who want to work.” Work for pride in supporting our families, in and out of the home. Work for purpose and for action, and ultimately destiny fulfilled by being fruitful. It’s about results and getting kids excited about their future – whether it is college, trade school or military. The Lieutenant Governor and I are working on a plan to make attending Alaska’s universities and trade schools a reality for more Alaskans through merit scholarships.

Education achievement statistics from the Governor’s Office, 2008:

spacer Education


McCain offers to sacrifice American education

September 6, 2008

John McCain’s campaign suggests the remaining weeks of the presidential campaign should concentrate on personalities rather than issues.  Why?

McCain’s issues sound like the failed policies of the George Bush administration, so it should be obvious why he doesn’t want to talk about them.

We have a higher duty, especially on the issues of education.  We need to live up to the challenge of young Dalton Sherman (who gave a more substantial speech than Sarah Palin, I think:  “‘Do you believe in me?’  5th grader Dalton Sherman inspires Dallas teachers.”)

In his acceptance speech Thursday night, McCain promised to continue the War on Education, hurling bolts — okay, aiming sparks — at much of the education establishment, but promising nothing that might actually improve education and help out great kids like Dalton Sherman.

Here I’ve taken the text of McCain’s speech as delivered (from the interactive site at The New York Times) and offer commentary.  For McCain’s sake, and because it reveals the threat to education, I’ve left in the applause indicators.

McCain said:

Education — education is the civil rights issue of this century.

(APPLAUSE)
Equal access to public education has been gained, but what is the value of access to a failing school? We need…

(APPLAUSE) We need to shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition, empower parents with choice.
(APPLAUSE)

Competition has never been demonstrated to improve education.  In state after state where it’s been tried, we’ve found corruption tends to squander the education dollars, and the education dollars themselves are diluted and diverted from struggling public schools.  If John McCain promised to help New Orleans by diverting money from the Army Corps of Engineers to “competition in the levee building business,” people would scoff.  If he promised to divert money from the Pentagon to offer “competition” in the national security business, he’d be tarred and feathered by his fellow veterans.

We need to make schools work, period.  Taking money away from struggling schools won’t help, and taking money from successful schools would be unjust, and a sin – in addition to failing to help.  40 years of malign neglect of education in inner cities and minority areas should not be the excuse to dismantle America’s education system which remains the envy of the rest of the world despite all its problems, chiefly because it offers access to all regardless of income, birth status, color or location.

Millions of people fight to get to the U.S. because of the opportunities offered by education here.  McCain offers to snuff out that beacon of liberty.  If his position differs from George W. Bush’s, I don’t know where. If his position differs from that of the anti-U.S. government secessionists and dominionists, it’s difficult to tell how.

Let’s remove barriers to qualified instructors, attract and reward good teachers, and help bad teachers find another line of work.
(APPLAUSE)

The No Child Left Behind Act prompted states to develop brand new, impenetrable bureacracies to grant teaching certificates to people who do not go through state-approved schools of education.  These bureacracies often are unaccountable to elected officials, or to appointed officials.  They were quickly thrown together to regulate a brand new industry of training programs designed to meet the technical requirements of state enabling legislation, and often deaf to the needs and requirements of local schools.

The chief barriers to qualified instructors are low pay, entrenched administration, and a slew of paperwork designed to “expose” teachers in their work rather than aid students in education, which all too often keep qualified teachers from getting teaching done, and discourage qualified people from other professions from getting into the business.  Who could afford to get into telephone soliciting if every phone call had to be documented by hand, with evaluations that take longer than the phone calls?  That’s what teachers in “failing” schools face daily, and it’s a chief factor in the exodus of highly qualified teachers from public schools over the last six years (a trend that may be accelerating).

This proposal would make sense if there were a backlog of qualified and highly-effective teachers trying to get into teaching — but quite the opposite, we have a shortage of teachers nationwide (check out the debates in Utah last year on their poorly-planned voucher program, which sounds a lot like what McCain is proposing).

Has McCain had any serious experience public schools in the last 22 years?  (I’m wondering here; I don’t know.)

When a public school fails to meet its obligations to students, parent — when it fails to meet its obligations to students, parents deserve a choice in the education of their children. And I intend to give it to them.
(APPLAUSE)
Some may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private one. Many will choose a charter school. But they will have the choice, and their children will have that opportunity.
(APPLAUSE)

Of course, with McCain taking money from the public schools, it will be difficult to find a “better” public school, ultimately.  Here in Texas we’ve experimented for more than a decade with a statewide plan to shuffle money from “rich” school districts to poorer districts, under a plan generally and cleverly called “the Robin Hood plan.”  We still have good and excellent schools in districts across the state, but an increasing number of the designated-rich districts have smashed into tax rate ceilings, and are cutting programs from school curricula, and extra-curricular activities.

Charter schools in Texas are numerous, but in trouble.  Few of them, if any, have been able to create the extra capital investment required to build good school buildings, or especially to provide things like good laboratory classrooms for science classes, auditoriums with well-equipped stages for drama, literature, and general sessions of the entire school, or adequate facilities for physical education and recreation — let alone extracurricular athletics.

Charter schools and private schools often short science education.  A coalition of private schools sued the University of California system to require the universities to accept inferior science education, rather than provide good science education.  (A judge tossed the suit out; the coalition is appealing the decision.) Worse, this coalition includes some of the nation’s best private, religious schools.  When a group claimed as the best plead for acceptance of mediocrity, it’s time to re-examine whether resort to that group is prudent.  When the “best” private schools plead to lower the standards in science, it’s time to beef up the public schools instead.

Worse, many charter schools in Texas and elsewhere are riddled with incompetence, and a few riddled with corruption.  The Dallas Morning News this morning carries a story about a group running two charter schools, one in the Dallas area and one in the Houston area, both in trouble for failing to measure up to any standards of accountability, in testing, in other achievement, in teaching, or in financial accounting.  Economists note that free markets mean waste in some areas (ugly shoes don’t sell — the shoe maker will stop making ugly shoes, but those already made cannot be recalled).  Administration appears to be one area of enormous waste in “school choice.”

Several American urban districts have tried a variety of private corporations to operate schools on a contract basis.  If there is a successful experiment, it has yet to be revealed.  These experiments crashed in San Francisco, Dallas, Philadelphia and Baltimore, from sea to shining sea. Continued hammering at the foundations of good education, calling it “competition” or “peeing in the soup,” isn’t going to produce the results that American students, and parents, and employers, deserve.

Choice between a failing public school and a corrupt or inept charter school, is not a choice.  Why not invest the money where we know it works, in reducing class size and improving resources?  That costs money, but there is no cheap solution to excellence.

Senator Obama wants our schools to answer to unions and entrenched bureaucrats. I want schools to answer to parents and students.
(APPLAUSE)
And when I’m president, they will.
(APPLAUSE)
My fellow Americans, when I’m president, we’re going to embark on the most ambitious national project in decades.

Here we see how out of touch with America John McCain really is.  Does he think that any school system in the nation “answers to unions and entrenched bureaucrats?”  Seriously?  Does he realize the “entrenched bureaucrats” are anti-union?

Seriously.  Think about this.  Texas is the nation’s second largest state.  There is no teacher’s union here worth the name.  State law forbids using strike as a tool for bargaining or negotiation.  Teachers here generally are opposed to unions anyway (don’t ask me to explain — most of them voted for George Bush, before he showed his stripes — but there is no pro-union bias among Texas teachers).  Teachers unions are either much reduced in power in those cities where they used to be able to muster strikes, like Detroit or New York City, or they have agreed to cooperate with the anti-union proposals that offer any hope of improving education.  Read that again:  I’m saying unions have agreed to give up power to help education.

So what is the real problem?  The bureaucracy choking schools today is not the fault of teachers.  Significantly, it’s required by the No Child Left Behind Act.  But even that is not the chief problem in schools, and those problems are not from teachers.

Teachers did not move auto manufacturing out of Detroit.  GM did that.  Fighting the teachers union won’t bring back Detroit’s schools.  Charter schools aren’t going to do it, either.  Teachers didn’t drown New Orleans.  The failure of the levees after Hurricane Katrina did that.  Busting the unions in New Orleans has done nothing to improve education, as all of New Orleans struggles, and as former Big Easy residents resist going back so long as the schools are a mess.  Our schools in Texas have taken on thousands of students from New Orleans and other areas hammered by storms — public schools, not charter schools.  In many cases, parents are choosing public schools John McCain wants to push kids out of.  Go figure.

Hard economic times hammer schools.  Teachers didn’t create the housing bubble, and it’s certain that teachers were not the ones who failed to regulate the mortgage brokers adequately.  We can’t improve education if we don’t have the necessary clues about what the problems really are.

Public education is an essential pillar of American republican democracy.  Public education is the chief driver of our economy. McCain appears wholly unaware of the conditions in America’s schools, and he appears unwilling to push for excellence.  Instead, to drowning schools, McCain promises to through a bucket of water, and maybe an anchor to keep them in place.  He’s urging a road to mediocre schools.  Mediocrity to promote political conservatism, or just to get elected, is a sin.

McCain’s running mate brutalized the public library in her term as mayor of Wassilla.  If she has a better record on education since becoming governor, I’d like to hear about it.

Teachers, did you listen to McCain’s speech?  How are you going to vote?


Texas AG rules: Bible classes not required

August 29, 2008

Texas school districts are not compelled to offer classes studying the Bible under a new law, according to a ruling from the Texas State Attorney General, Greg Abbott.

State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, proposed a bill to require the classes, in the 2007 legislative session.  Though the bill passed, it was amended several times and in the final form the language was ambiguous as to whether districts would be required to offer the class.

Earlier this year the State Board of Education refused to issue standards for a Bible class, and so the AG’s ruling took on additional urgency:  School districts are left to their own devices on creating a Bible class that would pass scrutiny under the 1st Amendment.  Several districts in Texas have offered such classes, but when challenged on constitutional grounds, the classes have been modified to avoid advocacy of religion.  Most of Texas’s more than 200 school districts are anxious to avoid going to court over courses that they are required to offer.

Now we know the Bible classes are not required.

But if a district does offer the classes, neither the SBOE nor the Attorney General has provided guidance to school districts on how to keep the classes legal.  In the absence of clear guidance, individual districts offer Bible classes at their own peril.  The districts would bear all litigation costs.

“Local school boards can now breathe a sigh of relief,” Miller said. “The State Board of Education threw them under the bus last month by refusing to adopt the clear, specific standards schools need to give the Bible the respect it deserves and help them stay out of court. Now, schools won’t be required to maneuver through a legal minefield without a map.”

After reading Abbott’s opinion, however, Jonathan Saenz of the Free Market Foundation said it was clear “Texas schools are required to have some type of instruction in the Bible, which is the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament.”

“Schools are not required to offer a particular type of course in order to meet the requirement of having some type of instruction in the Bible, but they have to offer something,” Saenz said.

The Free Market Foundation promotes families, churches and freedom.

Abbott’s office referred inquires to the last sentence in the opinion summary:

“If a school district or charter school chooses to offer a course authorized by section 28.011 and fewer than fifteen students at a campus register to enroll in the course, the district or charter school is not required to provide the course at that campus for that semester, but that does not mean that the school is not required to comply with the curriculum requirements in subsection 28.002 (a)(2).”

According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Bible classes are not popular among Texas teenagers anyway.  Maybe the students have more common sense and a greater drive to achieve in education than do the state legislators.

Most Texas high schools offer studies on parts of the Bible, in either in Advanced Placement literature and history courses, or in regular academic English courses.  Rep. Warren Chisum and the state legislature appear to have ignored this offering.

Controversy is expected to continue.

Resources:


“Do you believe in me?” 5th grader Dalton Sherman inspires Dallas teachers

August 26, 2008

Update, September 19, 2008: Dalton was scheduled to appear on Ellen Degeneres’s program on Thursday, September 18; did you see it? What do you think?

Taylor Mali is one of my usual suspects for inspiring teachers. He does a great job, with just a tinge of profanity (appropriately placed, many teachers argue – if they ask for it, you have to give it to them).

This year’s inspiration for Dallas teachers comes from Dalton Sherman, a fifth grader at Charles Rice Learning Center. Here’s a YouTube video of the presentation about 20,000 of us watched last Wednesday, a small point that redeemed the annual “convocation” exercise, for 2008:

Sherman’s presentation rescued what had been shaping up as another day of rah-rah imprecations to teachers who badly wanted, and in my case needed, to be spending time putting classrooms together.

(By the way, at the start of his presentation, you can see several people leap to their feet in the first row — Mom, Dad, and older brother. Nice built-in cheering section.)

Staff at DISD headquarters put the speech together for Dalton to memorize, and he worked over the summer to get it down. This background is wonderfully encouraging.

First, it makes a statement that DISD officials learn from mistakes. Last year the keynote was given by a speaker out of central casting’s “classic motivational speaker” reserves. As one teacher described it to me before the fete last Wednesday, “It was a real beating.”

Second, DISD’s planning ahead to pull this off suggests someone is looking a little bit down the road. This was a four or five month exercise for a less-than-10 minute presentation. It’s nice to know someone’s looking ahead at all.

Third, the cynical teachers gave Dalton Sherman a warm standing ovation. That it was delivered by a 10-year-old kids from DISD made a strong symbol. But the content was what hooked the teachers. Superintendent Michael Hinojosa provided a death-by-PowerPoint presentation leading up to the speech, one that was probably not designed solely as contrasting lead in. In other words, Dalton Sherman’s speech demonstrated as nothing else the district has done lately that someone downtown understands that the teachers count, the foot soldiers in our war on ignorance and jihad for progress.

The kids came back Monday, bless ‘em. School’s in session, to anyone paying attention.

Resources:

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Read this: Teaching science is hard, made harder by religious claptrap

August 24, 2008

Page A1 of the New York Times on Sunday, August 24, 2008: “A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash.

Read it, and consider these questions:

  1. Would your local paper have the guts to report on this issue, for your local schools? (The Times went to Florida; heaven knows few Florida papers could cover the issue in Florida so well.)
  2. What is your local school board doing to support science education, especially for evolution, in your town? Or is your local school board making it harder for teachers to do their jobs?
  3. What is your state education authority doing to support science education, especially in evolution, in your state? Or is your state school board working to make it harder for teachers to do their jobs, and working to dumb down America’s kids?
  4. Do your school authorities know that they bet against your students when they short evolution, because knowledge about evolution is required for 25% of the AP biology test, and is useful for boosting scores on the SAT and ACT?
  5. Does your state science test test evolution?
  6. Do your school authorities understand they are throwing away taxpayer dollars when they encourage the teaching of voodoo science, like intelligent design?

It takes a good paper like the Times to lay it on the line:

The Dover decision in December of that year [2005] dealt a blow to “intelligent design,” which posits that life is too complex to be explained by evolution alone, and has been widely promoted by religious advocates since the Supreme Court’s 1987 ban on creationism in public schools. The federal judge in the case called the doctrine “creationism re-labeled,” and found the Dover school board had violated the constitutional separation of church and state by requiring teachers to mention it. The school district paid $1 million in legal costs.

That hasn’t slowed the Texas State Board of Education’s rush to get the state entangled in litigation over putting religious dogma in place of science. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) is already embroiled in one suit, brought by the science-promoting science curriculum expert they fired for noting in an e-mail that science historian Barbara Forrest was speaking in a public event in Austin. TEA may well lose this case, and their side is not helped when State Board Chairman Don McLeroy cavorts with creationists in a session teaching illegal classroom tactics to teachers. Clearly Texas education officials are not reading the newspapers, the court decisions, or the science books.

Here’s one of the charts accompanied the article. While you read it, consider these items: The top 10% of science students in China outnumber all the science students in the U.S.; the U.S. last year graduated more engineers from foreign countries than from the U.S.; the largest portion were from China. China graduated several times the number of engineers the U.S. did, and almost all of them were from China.

Copyright 2008 by the New York Times

Copyright 2008 by the New York Times

Can we afford to dumb down any part of our science curriculum, for any reason? Is it unfair to consider creationism advocates, including intelligent design advocates, as “surrender monkeys in the trade and education wars with China?”

Update: 10:00 p.m. Central, this story is the most e-mailed from the New York Times site today; list below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »


Northern Ireland creationists push ID for schools

August 11, 2008

Ireland’s economy makes a bright spot on the Emerald Isle.  Ireland no longer appears the backward, backwater it was for much of the 20th century, producing people angry enough to write fantastically.

Northern Ireland?  How can one small island contain such contradictions?  Today, when religiously-fueled backwardness rears its head, it’s more often from the counties of Northern Ireland, the counties England still rules.  It seems that religionists in the northern counties want to keep their area away from the economic success of the south, fighting against almost all advances in economics, technology, and thinking.

That’s the case with the most recent outbreak of creationist tom foolery.

In a recent eruption, Democratic Unionist Party called for intelligent design to be given equal time in public schools.  Better, one guy says, get rid of evolution in science classes altogether, according to a story in The Irish Times (the good reporting and writing still comes from the southern counties).  Heck, he’d probably be happy to get rid of science classes altogether.

Mervyn Storey, who chairs the Stormont education committee, said his “ideal” would be the removal of evolutionary teaching from the curriculum altogether.

“This is not about removing anything from the classroom, although that would probably be the ideal for me, but this is about us having equality of access to other views as to how the world came into existence and that I think is a very, very important issue for many parents in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Storey has also challenged education minister Caitríona Ruane to apply her principles of “equality” to the issue.

“She tells us she’s all for equality; surely if that is the case, you can’t have one set of interpretations being taught at the expense of others,” he told the Belfast News Letter.

Creationists take a position that even the radical Sinn Fein disavows.  When your advocacy is outside the bounds of the radicals, it’s time to reevaluate.

Northern Ireland is already riven by religiously-driven strife.  Creationism wants to throw gasoline on that fire.  Pray for the peacemakers and scholars to win.

(Full text of The Irish Times story below the fold.)

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That shudder was Texas thinking about really teaching the Bible in public schools

August 8, 2008

Among other issues I’ve not followed closely on the blog due to a way too-busy summer is the issue of teaching the Bible in Texas public schools. The Texas Lege, failing to get a contract with Comedy Central, passed a law that says every public school district in Texas “may” teach a course in the Bible if kids petition for it.

The bill had fancier, slightly more legal language, but was just about that ambiguous (having drafted my first federal law <cough>34</cough> years ago, and having written many amendments to state, federal and local laws, and having survived the rigorous legislative drafting course at George Washington, I feel qualified to complain about the problems in the law’s language).

Left hanging were answers to these questions:

  • Who or what determines the curriculum for such a course?
  • Does the law require the district to offer the class, when a request is made? For one student? For ten?
  • Will the state provide money to offer the class, since every district in the state is under-funded?
  • Will the State School Board authorize texts for the class, so individual districts don’t have to spring to buy the texts, even though the state fund is grossly underfunded and text purchases in core areas like mathematics, science and English go begging?

The question about whether the law requires a course to be offered was bucked over to the Texas Attorney General’s office, but so far they have ducked the issue (if Greg Abbott were alive today, I’m sure they would have given a quicker answer so schools could prepare).

The question on whether the SBOE would offer guidance on curriculum was also answered in July. No.

About three dozen school districts in Texas’s 254 counties already offer courses in the Bible. Some have been sued for offering more of a Sunday school class, and they lost, or settled, by requiring real academic rigor.

What are the stakes?

Well, consider that Texas also has among the highest teen-age, school-girl pregnancy rates in the nation, which contributes mightily to a staggering drop out rate. Shouldn’t Texans be happy that kids can get instruction on Biblical history and its use as literature?

Well, have you read the Bible?

Christian Beyer, who blogs at Sharp Iron, noted in comments at John Shore’s blog, Suddenly Christian, in a thread about whether God cares if one is married or unmarried:

You know, I think you just might be right.

Anita over on her blog [Grace Unfolding] wrote an interesting article related to what you are saying, and she surprised the heck out of me with a new Biblical revelation (for me, anyway). The dude and the chick in Song of Songs (Song of Solomon?), even though they ended up in the sack, were NOT MARRIED! [bolding and link added]

http://www.sisterfriends-together.org/gay-okay-sex-no-way/

I never really cared for the Song of Songs before – too many Christian guys quoting it to me when they bragged about how ‘Godly’ their marriage was and how the Holy Spirit was giving their sex life a boost. Puh-leese! Breasts like fawns? What’s next – thigh’s like calves? (Wait a minute… )

How will this play in Crawford, Beaumont, Pleasant Grove, Crockett or Paris? Oh, my.

So far the SBOE has gone with a “teach the controversy” philosophy in science. Turnabout is fair play, no?

Additional resources:


Fred Flintstone waded here: Hoaxsters ready to teach creationism to Texas kids

August 5, 2008

Creationists in Texas claim to have found a stone with footprints of a human and a dinosaur.

No, I’m not kidding.

Hoax dinosaur and human foot prints, claimed to be found near Glen Rose, Texas

Could you make this stuff up? Well, yeah, I guess some people think you could. Somebody did make this stuff up.

According to a report in the too-gullible Mineral Wells Index, long-time hoaxster and faux doctorate Carl Baugh’s Creation Evidence Museum announced the rock was found just outside Dinosaur Valley State Park. The area has been the site of more than one creationist hoax since 1960, and was an area rife with hoax dinosaur prints dating back to the 1930s. (See these notes on the warning signs of science hoaxes and history hoaxes.)

The estimated 140-pound stone was recovered in July 2000 from the bank of a creek that feeds the Paluxy River near Glen Rose, Texas, located about 53 miles south of Fort Worth. The find was made just outside Dinosaur Valley State Park, a popular destination for tourists known for its well-preserved dinosaur tracks and other fossils.

The limestone contains two distinct prints – one of a human footprint and one belonging to a dinosaur. The significance of the cement-hard fossil is that it shows the dinosaur print partially over and intersecting the human print.

In other words, the stone’s impressions indicate that the human stepped first, the dinosaur second. If proven genuine, the artifact would provide evidence that man and dinosaur roamed the Earth at the same time, according to those associated with the find and with its safekeeping. It could potentially toss out the window many commonly held scientific theories on evolution and the history of the world.

Except, as you can see, Dear Reader and Viewer, it’s a hoax. No dinosaur has a footprint exactly resembling the print of Fred Flintstone’s pet Dino, as the rock shows; nor do human footprints left in mud look like the print shown.

Dear God, save us from such tom-foolery, please.

To the newspaper’s credit, they consulted with an expert who knows better. The expert gave a conservative, scientific answer, however, when the rock deserved a chorus of derisive hoots:

However, Dr. Phillip Murry, a vertebrate paleontology instructor in the Geoscience department of Tarleton State University at Stephenville, Texas, stated in his response to an interview request: “There has never been a proven association of dinosaur (prints) with human footprints.”

The longtime amateur archeologist who found the fossil thinks that statement is now proven untrue.

“It is unbelievable, that’s what it is,” Alvis Delk, 72, said of what could be not only the find of a lifetime, but of mankind.

Delk is a current Stephenville and former Mineral Wells resident (1950-69) who said he found the rock eight years ago while on a hunt with a friend, James Bishop, also of Stephenville, and friend and current fiancee Elizabeth Harris.

Yes, it’s unbelievable.

For comparison, real hominid footprints look much different — the print below was left in a thin-layer of volcanic ash about 4 million years ago, 61 million years after dinosaurs went extinct, according to timelines corroborated by geologists, paleontologists, astronomers, nuclear physicists and biologists:

Print of a hominid, found at Laetoli, Africa; image from Stanford University

Print of a hominid, found at Laetoli, Tanzania, Africa; image from Stanford University

With luck, serious scientists will get a chance to analyze the prints soon, and note that they are hoaxes. If history is any guide, however, Baugh and his comrades will keep the rock from scientific analysis, claiming that scientists refuse to analyze it.

The rock is approximately 30 inches by 24 inches. The human footprint, with a deep big toe impression, measures 11 inches in length. Baugh said the theropod track was made by an Acrocanthosaurus. Baugh said this particular track was likely made by a juvenile Acrocanthosaurus, one he said was probably about 20 feet long, stood about 8 feet tall and walked stooped over, weighing a few tons.

Its tracks common in the Glen Rose area, the Acrocanthosaurus is a dinosaur that many experts believe existed primarily in North America during the mid-Cretaceous Period, approximately 125 million to 100 million years ago.

Baugh said Delk’s discovery casts doubts on that theory. Baugh said he believes both sets of prints were made “within minutes, or no more than hours of each other” about 4,500 years ago, around the time of Noah’s Flood. He said the clay-like material that the human and dinosaur stepped in soon hardened, becoming thick, dense limestone common in North Texas.

He said the human print matches seven others found in the same area, stating the museum has performed excavations since 1982 in the area Baugh has dubbed the “Alvis Delk Cretaceous Footprint” discovery.

This “find” comes as the State Board of Education begins rewriting science standards for Texas schools. The chairman of the SBOE is a committed creationist who publicly says he hopes to get creationism into the standards and textbooks in Texas, miseducating Texas students that creationism has a scientific basis.

Delk’s own daughter, Kristi Delk, is a geology major at Tarleton State University in Stephenville and holds different beliefs from her dad about the creation of Earth and the origins of man.

She said she wants to see data from more tests before jumping to any conclusions.

“I haven’t come to terms with it,” she said. “I am skeptical, actually.”

Listen to your daughter, Mr. Delk.

In a story Texas educators hope to keep completely unrelated to the foot prints hoax, Mineral Wells area schools showed gains in academic achievement on the Texas state test program.

Additional resources:

________________________

Gary Hurd at Stones and Bones, who Is a bit of an expert in this stuff, calls “fake.

Here is how to fake a patina that will look like this fake fossil: Brush the surface with vinegar, and then sprinkle with baking powder followed by baking soda, and let dry. Repeat until you are happy with the results. This is not the only way, or even the best way. But it is simple, and will fool the average fool. Especially easy if they want to be fooled.

So, having spent a little bit more time on the photo of this fake, I feel that I understand a bit more about how it was produced. A legitimate dinosaur track was found and removed. Incompetent, unprofessional “Cleaning” damaged it. An parital overprint, or simple erosion depression was “improved” by adding “toes.” The faked surfaces were smothed over with a simple kitchen concoction to make a “patina.” Artifact fabricators next bury the fake for a year or two, or they smear it with fertilizer and leave it exposed. This helps weather the object and obscure tool marks.

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Power of education

July 20, 2008

Thought provoking post at beauty and depravity, taking note of education achievements in South Korea in the past 50 years or so, and then looking at education world wide:

The education system is what made United States the most influential nation and may be the very thing that will lead to its demise. Unequal access to education – even at the most elementary levels – and the rising costs of college education is a debilitating concern.

If you have the time and the energy, UNESCO’s Global Education Digest [190+ pages] is a great read about the trends and voids in education throughout the world. The UIS Global Education Digest monitors the flows of students moving from the primary to secondary level of education across the world. In Africa, only 62% of pupils complete primary education and are therefore ready to pursue their studies, compared to an average completion rate of 94% in North America and 88% in Asia. According to the latest figures in the Digest:

  • Africa has the lowest primary completion ratios in the world (see Figure 1). In Europe, almost all countries have ratios exceeding 90%. Out of 45 African countries, only eight reach this level: Algeria, Botswana, Cape Verde, Egypt, Mauritius, Seychelles, South Africa and Tunisia.
  • In 19 African countries, the ratios are 50% or lower, meaning that at least every second child does not complete primary school.
  • Only about one in three children will complete primary education in six countries: Niger (21%), Guinea-Bissau (27%), Burkina Faso (27%), Chad (32%), Burundi (32%) and Mali (33%).
  • 69% adults of tertiary age are enrolled in tertiary education programmes in North America and Europe, but only 5% in sub-Saharan Africa and 10% in South and West Asia. [Tertiary age = post secondary].

This is why EDUCATION is so important in the battle against global poverty. Another reason is I can’t think of anything more sustainable that empowering, equipping, and enabling children through education.

I’m inclined to agree with much of what this fellow, Eugene Cho says about education (he’s a preacher; his politics, especially what appears to be his association with Republicanism, is troubling, but adds piquance to his education views).

How about you? Go read what he says; comment there, come back here and comment here, too.  Is he on the right track?


Thank God, and the Courts, for Charles Darwin

July 6, 2008

Rev. Michael Dowd has a book out, ThankGod for Evolution, and he wrote an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News on July 1 (as I understand it — wasn’t in Dallas that day).

I don’t vouch for the book — yet, at least. I’ve not read it. I find the study of science, and especially of evolution, offers no barrier to my faith, nor does my faith offer any barrier to my study of science. My faith, which requires an ethical life, offers barriers to creationism — a subject of other posts. But thank God for Charles Darwin? Sure.

We also need to thank the federal courts, where the First Amendment is enforced, keeping unreasonable fables from diluting science education in public schools.

Which gets us to this: Chris Comer, the former science curriculum expert for the Texas Education Agency (TEA) who was fired for sending out an e-mail seen as supportive of evolution, is suing TEA, to get her job back (it’s illegal to fire public employees for bad religious reasons).

Watch that suit.

Rev. Dowd’s essay, courtesy of Sam Hodges and the Dallas Morning News Religion Blog, below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »


Creationists win in Louisiana. What’s the prize?

June 27, 2008

According to the Associated Press, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal signed the latest creationism bill to come out of the Louisiana legislature “in the last few days.”

Discovery Institute operatives claimed credit for authoring the bill and provided close support to advocates of the bill in Louisiana.  Oddly, now that the bill has become law and is likely to be a litigation magnet, DI has backed off of supporting the bill.

That is an object lesson, which may be lost on Louisiana school boards.  The bill is a bit of a stealth creationism bill.  It doesn’t directly advocate creationism by name.  It adopts the creationist tactics of claiming that criticism of evolution is critical thinking, a confused statement of what critical thinking is if ever there was one.  Critical thinking should involve real information, real knowledge, and serious criticism of a topic.   The bill is designed to frustrate the teaching of evolution.  The part Louisiana school boards need to watch is this:  The bill passes the buck on litigation to the school boards.

In other words, the Louisiana legislature, Louisiana Family Forum, and Discovery Institute will not support any school district that allows a teacher to teach the religious dogma that commonly passes as creationism and intelligent design.

As part of the War on Education and the War on Science, this is effective tactics in action.  If any teacher in Louisiana seeks approval for anti-evolution materials as the law encourages, school boards are put on the spot.  If the school board approves the anti-evolution material, it is the school board’s action that will be the subject of the suit; if the board disapproves the material, but the teacher teaches it, the teacher can be fired and would be personally liable for any lawsuit.

But if a science teacher teaches evolution as the textbook has it, the Louisiana Family Forum will complain to the school board that “alternative materials” were not offered.

So to avoid trouble, evolution will be left out of the curriculum.  The kids are failing the tests anyway — who will notice, or care?  Not the Louisiana lege, not the Louisiana governor.

As America slips farther behind the rest of the industrialized world on education achievement in science, Louisiana’s legislature has sided with those who promote the “rising tide of mediocrity.”  If a foreign government had done this to us, we’d regard it as an act of war, the Excellence in Education Commission said in 1983.

So what is it when the Louisiana legislature and Gov. Jindal do it to us?  Treason?  Maybe Bill Dembski will ask Homeland Security to investigate this attack on America by Louisiana’s elected officials.


(Sex + Education) – Education = ?

June 25, 2008

From a blog called Teachers Count:

A middle-school health teacher (in a small, conservative [read that religious] community) was put on administrative leave for teaching details about sexuality. The original story inferred that she was holding forth on details on homosexuality, masturbation, and oral sex. The truth is that she had taught the regular curriculum and thereafter fielded student questions, which turned to these things.

On the one hand, the outraged and prolix parents had every right to wax eloquent, loud and long on the violation of their parental rights in teaching their offspring about sex. It is even possible that some of those innocent students were hearing details theretofore unimagined by them

On the other hand–probably not. I teach junior high students, the same age as the endangered middle school kids in question. My students know lots about sex, far more than I ever knew at that age. For sure, these students see very explicit material on prime-time TV, and they surely see plenty of sex in the movies they watch. From time to time we discuss cinema in art class, and I am often floored at the kinds of movies these young kids view, both for violence and for sexuality. Furthermore, they watch and rewatch very explicit music videos–and many of them use outright porn. And furthermore, walking around the art room as kids work and talk, I overhear that many of them are sexually active at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.

No wonder they have questions about sexual practices. I believe the young health teacher caught herself in a trap. Experienced teachers know that there are certain things you never say, never discuss, because of community reaction. Young teachers, hoping to help kids understand a sexual world they really are much too young for, can get tripped up on answering questions.

No doubt our Utah middle school health teacher will not have her contract renewed next year. I think that is a shame. Obviously, the offended parents have no clue about what their kids’ lives are really like. They do not realize the misinformation–and the pressure–these young students experience. I would not be surprised to find that these offended parents have not given their kids much information on sex. Maybe the teacher crossed a line–and maybe a few students pushed her there. Still, I’d rather see her keep her job and learn the hard lesson of staying very conservative on certain subjects, like sex.

Accusations included the charge that the teacher distributed a list of 101 ways to have sex.  In a heated meeting at the school, it turned out that the list was of 101 things to do instead of having sex.  Ooops.  And for this, parents want the woman fired?

Good analysis and background data in column by in the Salt Lake Tribune.

From that column, a list of what can and cannot be taught:


Careful what you say

What teachers can, and cannot, teach
as part of Utah’s human sexuality curriculum:
Teachers can:
* Stress the importance of abstinence from sexual activity before marriage and fidelity after marriage.
* Provide factual, unbiased information about contraception and condoms with prior written parental consent.
They cannot:
* Discuss the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation or erotic behavior.
* Advocate homosexuality.
* Advocate or encourage contraceptive methods or devices.
* Advocate sexual activity outside of marriage.

Source: Utah State Office of Education

Who knows what’s really going on? It will be interesting to see how this case is resolved.  It’s been hanging fire for a month now.

Other resources:


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