Monday, December 31, 2007

A new World Book Blogger's Encyclopedia of debunked pundit blather: Today's letter is W.

No, not that Dubya, although much can be done with him!

Today's honoree is nationally syndicated disinformation disseminator Walter Williams. I am writing in response to his
Academic Slums article published 12-19-07 at

Since our public schools are so often portrayed as evil dens of secular humanism, and as brainwashing centers by various ideologues, including Williams, it seems fair and appropriate to me that I should preface at least some posts with Bible verses. While I have no idea what Dr. Williams' spiritual beliefs are, when it comes to his attributing the alleged "failure" of public schools to incompetent teachers, it seems to me that the following verse is applicable, regardless of one's religious persuasion:

Matthew 23:24 "You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel."

Our nation's public schools are increasingly inundated with hurting children - children of poverty, children who are abused and/or neglected, angry children with behavior problems, children who are hungry and malnourished, children who live amid violence, children born to parents who are drug/alcohol addicted, children without adequate healthcare or housing, children whose sense of self-worth is at rock bottom in a corporate-controlled world of materialism and superficial values, where appearances, performance and silly comparisons reign supreme.

Waves of children are entering kindergarten who, developmentally-speaking, are only two- and three-year-olds. And in the name of so-called failing public schools, these babies are being pushed mercilessly to perform at the same level and rate as their more advantaged peers.

And you, Sir Williams, fret over international test score comparisons.

And simplistically equate students' standardized test scores with the quality of teaching and learning.

And feign outrage that achievement gaps exist between disadvantaged children and their more fortunate peers. Duh.

I would say when it comes to our nation's concern and priorities for children, we are indeed straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.

Williams attributes what he calls our apparently mediocre results on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to "the quality of the people teaching our children". When it comes to the many factors that impact student achievement, it is my view that Dr. Williams is again straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel, which is not to diminish the importance of teacher quality. Here is an excerpt from his article:

American education will never be improved until we address one of the problems
seen as too delicate to discuss. That problem is the overall quality of people
teaching our children. Students who have chosen education as their major have
the lowest SAT scores of any other major. Students who have graduated with an
education degree earn lower scores than any other major on graduate school
admissions tests such as the GRE, MCAT or LSAT. Schools of education, either
graduate or undergraduate, represent the academic slums of most any university.
As such, they are home to the least able students and professors with the lowest
academic respect. Were we serious about eforts to improve public education, one
of the first things we would do is eliminate schools of education.

I'm a teacher Dr. Williams, and I don't mind disussing this 'delicate' problem at all, thank you. First, I think you and other ideologues who love to disparage us place far too much credence in international test score comparisons and standardized test performance in general but that's another topic.

Before actually addressing the disinformation about teachers in your latest piece, let me (a mere teacher) say a few things to you since you deem yourself qualified to judge our quality. First, I do agree with the contention that the quality of a classroom teacher is the number one IN SCHOOL factor affecting academic achievement. Therefore, I do not want to diminish the importance of teacher quality. It's critical. However, when it comes to factors impacting academic achievement, especially the achievement of disadvantaged children, we know that factors outside the classroom over which educators have no control dwarf what takes place in the classroom.

And let us put the whole situation in some context, shall we? The United States, the richest nation on earth, has the highest rate of childhood poverty among all the wealthy nations. And under the corporate-serving, compassionate conservatism of market worship, which wrongly and arrogantly assumes (without proof) that anything private is superior to anything public, we know that the gap between the haves and the have nots is growing and that the middle class is shrinking. We know that poverty alone, with its many deprivations, has an enormous impact on childhood development -cognitively, socially, and behaviorally. The strong link between poverty and poor academic achievement remains the strongest, most consistent finding in the realm of educational research.

And we who teach really do not need another study proving this because we witness the impact of poverty and a whole host of societal ills every day, firsthand, as we work with these children. Nevertheless, if you are intereseted in the latest such study, Mr. Williams, please go
here. This study was buried in the Parenting section of the New York Times. Had it shown that the greatest factor impacting low academic performance among disadvantaged children was the quality of the teacher, you can bet your britches it would've been front page news. All over the country.

But on with putting things in perspective. As societal problems and complexities have increased, as the inequities among our nation's children have increased, this nation's leadership has very conveniently dumped a rising and unrealistic tide of expectations on our nation's public schools while politicians and critics like yourself simultaneously point your fingers and cry "FAILING!"


Quite frankly, our nation's teachers and schools are overwhelmed with the needs and expectations thrust upon us. And we are so freaking busy being ACCOUNTABLE that we hardly have any time for meaningful interaction with these children you're so concerned about. Looking good on paper doesn't mean squat if we don't have time for those kids.

Accountability indeed.

For a list of some of the added expectations placed on the backs of public educators over the years, take a look
here. It's longer than the number of sheets on a roll of Charmin. The rest of the nation is basically off the hook of course. And I have not even mentioned the challeneges presented by our being the most diverse nation on earth have I? Nor the impact on our schools of years of unfettered immigration, which has provided a steady stream of cheap labor for our corporations to exploit.

Why don't any of you self-annointed education experts who are so concerned about test scores demand that our policymakers do something about the fact that there are likely many thousands of urban poor children being poisoined by lead paint in old housing projects? Lead poisoning not only has a major impact on cognitive development, it also causes aggressive and violent behavior. Some will doubt the significance and magnitude of the problem, but at the very least it should be vigoriously investigated don't you think? How about a little RIGOR on that front? Please go
here for a real eye opener Dr. Williams.

Suppose only a handful of children were being poisoned, sir? Aren't they worth ameliorating the problem? After all, how can all of our public schools reach that glorious, well-intended aim of 100% proficiency (on standardized tests) if one single child is being poisoined by lead? I say we should demand NCLP - No Child Lead Poisoned.

But I've digressed. Time to depart from these moral priorities and simply address the disinformation you've dissemminated about the quality of our nation's teachers. As researcher Gerald Bracey notes,

It is true that those who say they are going to major in educatio have lower
scores than most (but not all) other intended majors. But, for Williams'
statement to be even close to true, two things must hold and they do not---1).
all those who say they are going to major in education do and 2). no one who
says they are ot going to major in education become teachers. But, in fact, most
who become teachers major in something other than education.

Bracey also noted a study by the U. S. Depjartment of Education a few years back which found that teachers headed for middle school and high school classrooms had college GPAs as high as other majors and SATs as high as other majors.

Dr. Williams, due to information gleaned from a listserv to which I belong, I'm aware that Bracey sent you an email wherein he suggested that you actually read the research on teacher competence. He sent you a link to this
study, first published online 12/14/07. You in turn asked him to check out SAT scores by major at; LSAT scores by major at; and GRE scores by major at

He did. And he noted with amazement that all three tables that you sent him prove your statement that education majors have the lowest test scores is wrong.

It is wrong whether you're dealing with the SAT, the LSAT or the GRE. What would
Freud say?

More importantly, he noted that you missed his major point: most people who become teachers do not major in education.

And none of this, Dr. Williams, even addresses the simplistic and unwarranted credence being placed in standardized test scores to judge the quality of teaching, learning, and human potential for making positive and meaningful contributions to society.

Personally, I think you need a lesson in humility. Your article smacks not only of elitism and arrogance, but ignorance as well. Yes, we do need competent teachers. Obviously, teachers should be highly competent and knowledgable about the subjects they teach.

Beyond that, however, you completely overlook that it is precisely those qualities which cannot be measured by tests which separate competent teachers from truly great ones. And in the long run, when it comes to making a meaningful difference in the life of a student, I'd daresay those immeasurable qualities are far more to be prized.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

A warm Christmas howdy do at church...for some

Sure wish I had a recording of the preacher man's welcome because I really can't do it justice by memory here.

'Twas one week ago, the 23rd of December, and I had both my children home together for the holidays. We went to church, back to the same one my girls were baptized in some years ago. At that time we had a jewel of a minister when it comes to exemplifying the love of Christ in his own life. No religious pretense, no pompous and judgmental air of moral superiority, despite his deeply held beliefs. A very humble man. No wavering from his beliefs but at the same time respecting and loving those who disagree or hold other beliefs, which is their right. And he just plain loves people. People of all sorts. My girls have loved him since they were little.

There's a different preacher there now. With it being Christmas-time, he began his talk with a welcome that was supposed to be funny and clever I suppose. He said he wanted to wish EVERYONE a Merry Christmas, that he was determined not to exclude ANYONE, that he was set on delivering a Merry Christmas welcome that would offend NO ONE, a message that no one could say was politically incorrect.

At first, I honestly thought he was going to poke some good-natured fun at both Democrats and Republicans for human failings which are, let us be honest, universal. However, it soon became evident that this was not an impartial welcome at all and that he was linking God to a particular political party, the Republicans. Good grief, had he learned nothing in the past eight years?

He began issuing a litany of stereotypical assumptions about liberals/Democrats using "politically correct" language in a mocking fashion that smacked of sarcasm. I cannot remember the entire list of issues he mocked liberals about. He did put up a power point presentation. He included the environment and global warming, the removal of prayer from our schools, the attacks on the pledge of allegiance, the attacks on the words "in God we trust" on our currency, and so on.

Finished at last with his smug mocking of Democrats, he said it was now time to deliver his welcome to the Republicans. He said he had but two simple words for them......Merry Christmas! There was some laughter.

Partly I wanted to walk out - my statement to him and the whole riduculous notion that God is on the side of the Republicans (or the Democrats, or any other political party for that matter). Partly I wanted to stand up and say, "Is Christ divided?" Partly I wanted to ask him if he finds it somewhat ironic that an administration that used family values and the Christian faith to gain political power turns out to be perhaps the most corrupt, divisive, secretive, dishonest, destructive, greed-driven, incompetent administrations in our nation's history?

And I wanted to ask him if he did not find it ironic that insofar as the scriptures record, Jesus never appears so angry as when confronting the leading religious rulers and zealots of his day with their religious pretense and hypocrisy.

And I would like to have taken just ONE of the issues he raised - school prayer for instance, and asked him how it is possible for prayer to be removed from public schools. No one on earth can stop a child or teacher from praying at school or anywhere else. Unless, of course, you mean the out-loud-in-front-of-everybody-else kind of prayer that might be uttered over a PA system, or some other organized venue.

From the scriptures, it seems apparent that Jesus made it a practice to go off by himself to a solitary place to pray. Sometimes he prayed all night long, alone.

And there are his words:

Matthew 6:5-6 "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

I'm not saying I think Jesus or his apostles forbade public prayer, not at all. It is at times completely appropriate and the scriptures seem to indicate that as well. I think the issue is one of motive and sincerity.

I wanted to tell the preacher that in the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions, school prayer was in fact NOT officially (by law) removed from public schools. Students have always had the legal right to pray and hold meetings and devotions voluntarily during their free time and they continue to have that right. The justices simply (and very wisely) ruled that OFFICIAL STATE-SANCTIONED prayer had no place in public education. Personally, I suspect that God honors voluntary prayer many times over any officially induced type of prayer, although I'm certainly not saying that I think all organized prayer is insincere.

With the landscape of our nation having changed dramatically since its founding in 1787, our nation's public schools face unprecedented challenges as they open their doors to the most diverse population of students on earth. Given the incredible diversity of beliefs in American society, and given the need for our country to be united and strong despite our differences, the wisdom of the idea of a wall of separation between church and state seems greater than ever.

Nationally known pundits, some of whom are paid zillions to spout their opinions, often lecture us that the specific words "separation of church and state" are not found in the Constitution. No, they're not. But as we increasingly witness the divisions and the hostilities and the hypocrisies that ensue when faith is politicized, I'd say maybe it would be a darn good idea for us to put those words in there.

Without that wall, I think we're in a heap of trouble as a nation.

In my mind, it is not just that democracy is undermined. Faith itself (in this case the Christian faith) is cheapened and discredited in the minds of many when they see Jesus being used to advance a particular political ideology. I think the vast majority of Christians would agree that what Jesus taught transcends all political parties, all forms of government, all nations.

These are my views. Comments and insights from those who agree, those who disagree, and anything in between welcome.

There is a good online 'brochure' from Americans United for Separation of Church and State available about the role of religion in public schools. You can check it out
here .

Thursday, December 27, 2007

News Flash: Eli's a-comin'

A little satire on Eli Broad. Apparently having billions of dollars makes one an education expert, no matter how far removed said billionaire is from the realities on the ground. He has teamed up with Bill Gates for Ed in '08.

12-1-2007 (date I first posted this online)

Billionaire philanthropist, entrepreneur, and public education expert Eli Broad has teamed up with the International Star Registry to promote a provocative plan of action to raise individual student achievement (as measured by standardized test scores) and overall achievement in Title I schools across the nation.

Interviews conducted by the Education Trust's Kati Hiccup and the Education Sector's Andrew Rottenham confirm Broad's unyielding commitment to student achievement as the defining civil righs issue of our time. Asked to clarify his commitment to High Test Scores, Broad reiterated the business sector's no-nonsense approach to rigorous public school accountability:

"Every child is worthy, regardless of circumstancs in life - hunger, poverty,
abuse, neglect, lack of health care - you name it. However, a child can hardly
be expected to become a goodly contributor to the Global Economy unless our
failing public schools shape up and impart the essential skills that students
need to assume their roles in our rapidly changing world. All children deserve a
shot at the millions of high-paying jobs that await young people who are willing
to work hard, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and measure up on The
The International Star Registry of Achievement, with hefty funding from Broad, will award qualifying states grants to motivate poor student achievers to score proficiently on The Tests. Details are emerging but it is clear students who perform adequately on The Tests will have a star named after them. In addition, the Registry's Ultimate Package includes a beautiful 24" X 20" full color parchment certificate beautifully embossed with the child's name, their star's name, the child's test date, test score, and star coordinates. The elegant certificates are double-matted in gold metallic frames.

Children who do not meet proficiency on The Tests but who are deemed to be nearing proficiency will not have a star named after them until they reach proficiency. However, they will receive the Star Registry's Deluxe Package, which includes a beautiful, double-matted certificate in a silver metallilc frame, a refrigerator magnet, and a bumper sticker for the family car (My Child is Nearing Proficiency!).

The Broad Prize Extraordinaire is reserved for entire schools. A school that by 2014 manages to achieve the ultimate NCLB goal of every single student in the building scoring proficient, regardless of ability or circumstance, will be awarded a nationally televised space launch to be attended by Sally Ride and congressional dignitaries. A message commemorating the event and containing the names of each student and their test scores will be gloriously launched into the night sky on board a real spacecraft that orbits the Earth.

Asked about public schools which fail to meet the much-prized 2014 standard, Broad said they should probably lower their flags to half-mast and be taken over by private companies.

Educators are not exactly jumping on board. Many are questioning the plan as an ultimately useless scheme which tosses badly needed funds into a black hole and promotes extrinsic rewards over a deep and lasting love of real learning. Many question the assumption that paper and pencil standardized tests provide children with a fair opportunity to apply and demonstrate what they really know and are able to do. Teachers noted that many bored and disengaged students don't even bother to try on The Tests, much less read them. They would prefer teaching which encompasses real world projects and applications rather than the narrow kind of teaching and learning that high-stakes testing inevitably leads to.

Others have noted that corporate-driven policies are putting the cart before the horse. Claiming that the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their more fortunate peers is a symptom of other neglected societal gaps in our nation, rather than the cause, a number of activists have asked Broad if children wouldn't be much better served if he took on eradicating some of the known factors that contribute to low achievement, like lead-infested housing. Questioned about educators' misgivings, Broad dismissed the claims as the soft bigotry of low expectations. "It's about time teachers toughened up instead of whining. Low-performing corporate workers hardly utter a sniffle when their good-paying jobs are outsourced to China or rendered obsolete by technology."

Asked whether each student would receive a telescope where they could actually view their 'own' star, Broad replied that there are limitations to what philanthropists can and should do. "The whole point," he noted, "is that once schools have provided students with the necessary skills to get and retain good jobs, they will be able to buy their own telescopes. That's the beauty of my plan."

Tauna Rogers