Tag Archives: United States

The Education War – Who is winning?

TrenchThe word “quagmire” gets thrown around pretty casually these days.

Civil unrest.  “Nation building.” Revolutions. Economic crisis. Natural disasters.  The Q-word has been used repeatedly for so many of the dangerous, sticky situations we find ourselves as a society.

Yet does the education war—the clash of “reformers” that has stretched over a decade—deserve the dreaded label?

It depends on what you hear.

Many news outlets, in print and online, picture the education reform movement as clearly on the defensive.  Attacks on charter schools have increased as never before, viewed as undemocratic, tyrannical and ultimately ineffective.  The latest report on how Eva Moskowitz’ Success Academy charter schools were caught on record attempting to push out a special-needs student is particularly galling.

New tests based on the Common Core Learning Standards showed massive drops in scores, giving a giant raspberry to all earlier reform attempts.  Companies cashing in on the testing craze—Pearson, McGraw-Hill, etc.—are under the microscope for botched questions and poor scoring in state after state.  The Common Core itself is under attack, as state after state elects to opt out of the supposedly nationwide initiative—regardless of the DOE carrot-and-stick policy about Common Core adoption.

Even reform stalwarts like Teach for America, Michelle Rhee and the Gates Foundation find themselves under siege as critics wail on their status and perceived impact on public education.

Yet if you look at actual policy, it paints a very different picture.

Education reformers, backed bipartisanly, have pushed standardized testing into almost every classroom in America.  Teacher evaluation systems across the country are aligning teacher effectiveness with student scores on state tests, with unions knuckling under in the process.  The Common Core, though embattled, is now the rule in reform strongholds like New York, California and Massachusetts.  Governors from both parties are backing more draconian measures to shut down failing schools.

Even worse, the media machine of education reform has recently launched a counter-offensive.  Long criticized for not developing effective veteran teachers, TFA and other reform movements are now saying it is BETTER to have short-term teachers who won’t become veterans because their enthusiasm, their innate intelligence and God’s good graces are enough to provide a quality education for children.

This conflict looks like it qualifies as a quagmire… and part of fault lies with the opposition.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of standardized tests, TFA, charters, etc.  Most readers here already know that.  However, I am a very big fan of improving teacher selection and preparation, which is high on the education reform agenda.   I don’t like that it’s relatively easy access into our profession, and it hurts our reputation in the process.

I have feet in two very different parts of the swamp.  They shouldn’t be.  Both sides should be having real, meaningful policymaking sessions by now.  Why aren’t they?

The education reform movement does not take the opposition seriously.

This is a similar problem with the Occupy Wall Street movement.  It was a grassroots movement, to be sure, but there was no definition of victory: no goals, no leadership, no direction.  It “started a dialogue”, and you know how much J.P. Morgan and the like shake in their wingtips over that.

Occupy Wall Street failed because Wall Street itself never saw them as a threat.  They didn’t become an electoral force, backing candidates allied to them for Congress and Senate.  They didn’t become a fundraising power, soliciting funds so that candidates from both parties kowtow to them in alternating order.  They didn’t become a lobby, oiling and adjusting the rusty gears of the filthy gearbox called legislative politics.

The Tea Party, on the other hand, though still disorganized nationally, managed to become a force because it knew how to monopolize the conversation and the ballot box.  It wasn’t just Koch Brothers money that put the Tea Party boot on the throat of the Republican Party.  The Tea Party quickly moved from “starting a dialogue” to “kicking the shit out of anyone in their way.” Moderate republicans fell like dominoes.  Their candidates, whether they won or lost, made sure the Tea Party was firmly at the big boys table in the RNC.

The Tea Party became a threat.  They became feared.  Occupy Wall Street didn’t…and the education reform opposition isn’t much of a fear either.

As much as the opposition boasts numerous media outlets, a lightning-rod leader in Diane Ravitch, and numerous movements like Save Our Schools, etc., there is little to show for their efforts other than scathing editorials, page after page of incendiary blogs, reams of online petitions and packed comments on Facebook pages.

Victory is not “opening a dialogue.”  It is when the policies of the state and nation are changed.  That does not happen with a spirited debate.

If the opposition wants a seat at the education table, rightly placed across from the reformers, it has to fight for it.

Like Wall Street, the only thing many of these reformers will listen to is their wallet and the ballot box.  The opposition needs to attack both, ferociously and brutally.

It must out-Koch the Koch brothers and out-Gates the Gates Foundation.  It must attain its own billionaire allies to fund PACs, lobbies, and candidates to state and national office.  It must push their agenda by any means necessary.

It has to turn the media conversation forcefully, repeatedly and effectively to counter the sound-bites of the reformers.   The phrase “for the children”, co-opted by both sides, is both tired and unrealistic.  It ceased to be about children a long time ago, unfortunately.  This fight is about the adults, and hopefully the policies will serve children best.  But to say that each side is exclusively serving the children is to be in an extreme state of delusion.

More than anything, however, the opposition needs to get its hands dirty with the business of politics.  I know many in the opposition, and they are smart, savvy, earnest people who genuinely want to make a difference.  They want to “maintain the moral high ground” and not stoop to the level of the Broads, Kochs, Gates and the rest.  Their methods, frankly, will do nothing but create coffee-house chatter.

To change policy is a filthy, brutal, demoralizing and demeaning business.  Only by beating the reformers at their own game can the opposition sit with them and negotiate as rivals to pound out the policies that best serve everyone.

As for maintaining the moral high ground…that only works when your opponent has morals to maintain.

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Cool Link for the Classroom: The Periodic Table of the Presidents

Periodic Table of the Presidents, courtesy of Periodicpresidents.com

Periodic Table of the Presidents, courtesy of Periodicpresidents.com

A huge thanks to P.J. Creek for sharing his amazing work here at the Neighborhood.

P.J. is an eighth grade social studies teacher and came up with a fun new tool to look at the American Presidency.  Noticing that the traditional flashcards and reference pages didn’t give a complete picture, he decided to borrow from the science department and create a tool that isn’t simply to look at inert gases and carcinogenic radioactive compounds that last a split second.

The Periodic Table of the Presidents is just that: an ordered, logical snapshot of the last two centuries of the executive branch.  It’s numbered 1 to 44, and I don’t have to tell you who’s 1 and who’s 44 (do I really?).  Like the other periodic table, the PTOTP gives each president a two-letter designation, color based on political party, years in office, number of times elected, and other info such as assassinations, resignations, etc.

(Again, do we need to go over who got shot and who quit before they did?)

If it were simply a table, the PTOTP would be a nifty little poster for the classroom.  Thankfully, P.J.’s website includes information on each president, links to further information, electoral maps, a portrait gallery and even his own articles on interesting tales such as “Tecumseh’s curse“, or the death in office of any President elected in a year with a zero at the end (probably since debunked by Reagan and George W. Bush).

You can order the poster for your classroom for 10 dollars–but buy before July 11 and get 2 posters for one.  The PTOTP is a really neat way to explore the American presidency.  It shows the flow of parties, terms in office, important facts and especially how the transfer of power has endured pretty smoothly for two centuries.

At the very least, you can fool all those folks in the STEM departments into thinking you’re teaching science…hey, anything to save a good social studies teacher their job!

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Review of Khan Academy’s “American History Overview Part 1: Jamestown to Civil War”


I had not been a huge fan of Khan Academy.

Even before I started working with one of its competitors, I generally took a dim view of anyone that thought they could do better than a teacher with just a computer and a voice recorder.

However, Salman Khan’s little creation, originally meant to help his own cousin in math, has been a founding father of today’s explosion in virtual pedagogy. Practically everyone, including my own kin at LearnZillion, has a patch in the virtual quilt—from reading to math and even science and social studies.

When I heard that Khan Academy had ventured into history, again, I was skeptical. His approach seemed to work in math, and somewhat with language. History, however, is a massive, multi-headed monster that can go very wrong very fast if not handled properly.

Its just natural that I had to see if Salman went off the rails in his history videos.

There were quite a few to choose from, but I decided to start on American History overview Part 1, Jamestown to the Civil War. This is a typical spread for the first year of a two-year cycle in US history, and such an intro film made perfect sense.

Let’s start with the video itself.

Virtual production has come a long way since the first Khan videos. Yet here, they still stick with the crude visible cursor and neon handwriting reminiscent of a specials menu in a Chinese takeout restaurant. At least they’re consistent in their design—not thrilling, but consistent.

The voice, while familiar and somewhat relatable, doesn’t give me confidence. He doesn’t sound like he knows what he’s talking about. It feels like grad school when I basically corrected the poor adjunct they threw at me for two hours at a stretch.

Now for the facts. Honestly, Khan is not half bad here, since it is an overview. Just some notes as you use this video:

  • The first successful settlement in North America was St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, not Jamestown in 1607.
  • Jamestown was not originally settled as a commercial colony. They wanted to find gold like the Spanish in Mexico and Peru. When there was nothing but oysters and rebellious natives, then they decided to make money with tobacco.
  • The original Spanish and Portuguese settlements in the Americas are mentioned. Yet the Dutch are absent. Never mind that they founded one of the largest cities in the hemisphere.
  • The period between 1620 and 1754 is fast-forwarded. Fair enough, but what happened in between included slave rebellions, wars against natives, the French, the Dutch and the Spanish, the Navigation Acts that tied the knot between colonies and mother country, several popular revolts against colonial government, and religious hysteria not once, but twice.
  • 1754 is really the wrong date for the French and Indian Wars (YES, I mean Wars, plural). They really begin in 1689, and continue off and on until 1763. All these wars (between Spain, France, and Britain mostly) were European conflicts that spilled into the colonies. The last war, the “real” French and Indian War, was a colonial war that spilled into Europe, as the Seven Years War.
  • Speaking of “Indians”, why does the narrator still use the now-defunct term Indian or American Indian to refer to native people of North America? As a descendant of “real” Indians from the subcontinent, Khan should know better.
  • The narrator jumps straight into the Stamp Act without mentioning neither the Navigation Acts nor the 1764 Sugar Act—an act which actually affected the colonial and British economy on a much wider level.
  • The company was the British East India Company, not the East India Tea Company. Believe me, tea was only one of their many rackets.
  • Revolutionary War coverage – not bad, but should’ve highlighted 1777 Battles of Saratoga (Freeman’s Farm and Bemis Heights) as an important turning point bringing France into the war.
  • Constitution, new government and Louisiana Purchase – not bad. Louisiana mentioned the Haiti problem, which is surprisingly comprehensive.
  • The War of 1812 is dismissed entirely too casually. It had major implications for the United States. The last hope for Canada joining the Union died—from then on Canada developed its own identity. The US Navy established itself as a formidable opponent to the great powers. Native Americans would lose their last ally on the western frontier as the British troops withdrew from the Mississippi and Ohio valleys. Lastly, it established American sovereignty to the world once and for all.
  • The war did NOT end with the Battle of New Orleans. It ended in 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent months before. New Orleans happened after the fact.
  • The Texas Revolution is pretty much spot on, although the first President of the Republic of Texas was Stephen J. Burnet, not Sam Houston.
  • The explanation of the Mexican War wasn’t bad either, although the gap from 1848 to 1860 is dismissed a little too casually.
  • The slavery issue was summed up well, and it culminated in Lincoln’s election of 1860.
  • Lastly, the Emancipation Proclamation was mentioned without the little fact that it only declared those slaves in rebel states to be freed—in actuality not freeing a single slave until the 13th Amendment of 1865.

Apart from that, it’s not a terrible summation of the early years of the republic. I wouldn’t base a final report on this, but it’s a good introduction to the year, provided some of the gaps are covered in better detail.

In coming weeks, especially after my summer break begins, I’ll be looking at other Khan videos—as well as their competitors—to see how useful they can really be to serious history students.

By the way…the constant use of the word “Indian”, by a company named after an actual one, is really inexcusable.

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