Monday, November 22, 2010

Glenn Beck, George Soros, FOX News, Florida, and Education

The other day, after my regular softball game, I heard two of the people I play with discussing George Soros. This was astonishing to say the least, because the people I play softball with are very unlikely to have ever heard of George Soros. I live in Florida where discussions of political issues are simplistic to say the least. But there it was. The issue was how Soros was undermining the country. I found this weird. I thought this was guy who tried to do good with his money.

It all became clearer when I heard that Glenn Beck had made one of his weird rants, and then I realized that the guys I had overheard were simply parroting what Beck had said and, more importantly, believing it word for word.

When you think about education, think about this. We have made people so stupid through our absurd system of memorizing nonsense and repeating it back on a multiple choice tests that we have set the stage for FOX News to simply say what it wants to say, and having millions of people believe it, because no one ever taught them how to construct or refute an argument.

We are creating a nation of people who can't think and who simply believe what they are told.

Yet we continue to obsess about test scores.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tom Friedman; wrong again, this time about education

I guess it wasn't bad enough that Friedman promoted the Iraq War in his New York Times column and then had to admit he was wrong. He actually is supposed to know something about the Middle East.

Now he espousing the nonsense theme of the day, that the problem in education is the teachers. I guess he saw "Waiting for Superman" and wanted to jump on the bandwagon.

So one more time for Tom: the problem is that school is boring and irrelevant and all the kids know it. They know they will never need algebra, or trigonometry. They know they will never need to balance chemical equations and they know they won't need random historical myths promoted by the school system. When all this stuff was mandated in 1892 it was for a different time and a different kind of student.

Change the curriculum to something relevant to modern life and you won't need to look for teachers. Teachers will rush to the opportunity to teach kids who actually want to be there.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

How to build a culture of illiteracy

I was visiting my 5 year old grandson this week and he showed me the two books he had been assigned to read by his kindergarten teacher. Milo reads fairly well for a five year old, but this had nothing to do with his two months of kindergarten. I was surprised to see that they are teaching kindergarten kids to read. I guess the obsession with test scores has made New York City push the kids harder and faster. I would rather see him be doing other things in school but there is no harm in teaching him to read. Or so I thought, until I had him read these two books to me.

The first was about a nonsensical creature called a jiggeridoo. All the sentences were of the sort "jiggeridoos like to play." Each page had a picture and a sentence like that. I was bored and so was he. What happened to the idea that reading should be fun and even remotely educational. What was he learning from reading this nonsense?

The second book made me long for the first one.

The second was about a character named Eddy, who like to eat things based on their shape apparently. So Milo was busy sounding out words like square or triangle because pizza is triangular in shape. This book was both boring and annoying. It obviously was trying to teach shapes which is a dull, and rather unimportant task, and was doing so through a ridiculous book.

From this Milo is learning that books are boring and tedious. He will survive this because his parents are literate and will be his real teachers. But I started worrying about kids who have parents who don't encourage reading at home. The message the school is sending is that reading is a useless experience teaching nothing worth knowing. No wonder illiteracy is such an issue these days.

Perhaps we should stop worrying about test scores and start worrying about whether kids like to read. Just a thought.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Bloom Is Off The Rose

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's stewardship of his city's education system has taken a troubling turn. The resignation of New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein precipitated an incredibly secretive process to name his replacement -- Cathleen Black, chairwoman of Hearst Magazines (you know, Cosmo, Esquire, Oprah) and former publisher of that beacon of journalism, USA Today. Black has absolutely no education experience nor has she ever sent her children to public schools or herself attended public schools. In fact, Black is so unqualified for the job (she does not have three years teaching experience and did not complete graduate work in education) that a waiver from David Steiner, the state education commissioner, will be required in order for her to actually work as NYC Schools Chancellor. (A Wednesday New York Times editorial calls on Steiner to "thoroughly vet" Black "to determine if she is up to the job.") Of course, Klein himself needed such a waiver, although he came to the job having been educated in the city's schools and having been a teacher for a short period of time.

To me, the clear message that Bloomberg has sent to New York City educators and veterans of the New York City Department of Education -- and other potentially qualified candidates across the nation -- is that a complete outsider with no experience in education and no record of public service is preferable to any candidate with experience as a teacher or school administrator. The more galling fact is that no search was undertaken to fill the Chancellor vacancy. The New York Times reports that no one else was "seriously vetted or considered -- and few of the usual suspects ... were even consulted." It appears that Black was tapped to run New York City schools primarily because of her business experience and because she travels in the same social circles as the Mayor. As Black herself said, the job offer "came out of left field."

I'm not some corn-pone, but I'm just left shaking my head here. Is this really the best process to select the leader of the nation's largest school system? Would Black have risen to the top if a true search had been conducted? Is this the type of executive management that voters had in mind when they elected Bloomberg mayor?

Is the selection of someone like Black good or bad for education? Klein argued on NPR that it doesn't matter because she will be surrounded by "extraordinary lifetime career educators.... The problem with public education is it's not operated effectively. It's operated as a political organization." I imagine that it may be freeing in some sense to not be tied down by prevailing orthodoxies, but it is troubling to me to think of a leader of such a complicated system and enterprise lacking any frame of reference whatsoever, let alone any detailed knowledge.

Here are some other takes:

Foodie Finds

Last week we covered the blue. This week we cover the red.

This week's Foodie Finds features restaurants in Red States (although not necessarily red cities). Bon appetit. Wait a minute. That's French. Can't say that in Red States. Ahem. Good eatin'.

Buz and Ned's Real Barbecue - The real deal - Richmond, Virginia

Hansen's Sno-Bliz - A magical combo of shaved ice and homemade syrup - New Orleans, Louisiana

House of Tricks - Contemporary American cooking in a charming atmosphere - Tempe, Arizona

McCrady's - Sean Brock won 2010 James Beard Best Chef Southeast - Charleston, South Carolina

Salt Lick Bar-B-Que - Authentic Texas BBQ - Austin, Texas

Friday, November 5, 2010

Foodie Finds

This week's culinary offerings include some fabulous restaurants safely ensconced in Blue States and one in Canada (in case anyone is thinking of fleeing after Tuesday's results):

Delfina - Stellar neighborhood trattoria - San Francisco, California

Flour Bakery - Delicious sandwiches and to-die-for baked goods - Boston, Massachusetts

Passionfish - A focus on sustainable seafood and local ingredients - Pacific Grove, California

Saucebox - Pan-Asian dishes and cool cocktails since 1995 - Portland, Oregon

Soif Wine Bar - Surprisingly good food for a casual wine bar - Santa Cruz, California

Toro - Sorry, Jose Andres. The tapas here (not at DC's Jaleo) are transcendente - Boston, Massachusetts

Vij's - Best Indian in North America? - Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Sorry for the long hiatus. Life and work have taken over in the past several weeks and it's been hard to find time to put pen to paper put fingers to keypad.

Today is Election Day. And I am not hopeful for America.

I am fearful for our democracy and our unraveling social fabric. America's dark underbelly is exposed this election year. Fear, bigotry, and lack of empathy are rampant -- and constitute the entirety of some candidates' platforms and rationales for running for public office.

I think we should be represented by the best among our ranks, not the worst. I think we should look to leaders willing to offer solutions, not just cast aspersions and look for scapegoats ... whether the President who inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression, immigrants who are trying to do the best they can for the families, or those of Muslim faith who all are branded with the terrorist label.

Sadly, this will not be the outcome or result of this election. Some true leaders, statesmen and free thinkers such as Wisconsin U.S. Senator Russ Feingold will
likely fall to defeat ... to a plastics manufacturer whose main platform appears to be that the details of policy don't matter. (In its endorsement of Feingold, the right-leaning Madison paper, the Wisconsin State Journal, said "Though likeable and impressive on business issues, Johnson was sketchy on most everything else.") Apparently, obfuscation and distraction will win the day -- and then obstruction can prevail for another two years at which point the right will be aiming for full control of the reins of government by ousting President Obama.

There has been little discussion and no serious consideration of critical issues such as historic levels of income inequality or honest assessments of the expansion of access to and improved consumer protections achieved through the health care legislation. And many of the bomb throwers and Tea Partiers who will be elected don't know and don't care about any of these issues.

What does this election mean for education? At the federal level -- possibly no significant policy action at all in the upcoming Congress; unsuccessful calls for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education; almost no new money at all, including a third round of Race to the Top (unless it can be pushed through during the upcoming lame duck session), increases in Pell Grants, and other need-based and competitive programs. In the states -- more attacks on teachers and unions; the most thoughtless kind of performance pay proposals disconnected from instruction and teacher development; school vouchers as a wedge issue; growing religiosity in public schools; and more bowing to the altar of local control without an evidential basis and regardless of its effect on outcomes.

There will be a few political bright lights this Election Day, likely in governors races in states such as California, Massachusetts and Vermont. And the most comical, dangerous, embarassing and idiotic candidates for US Senate in states such as Delaware (Christine O'Donnell who isn't a witch don't ya know?) and Nevada (Sharron Angle who is apparently opposed to maternity leave, wants to eliminate the "unconstitutional" US Education Department, but is possibly in favor of "taking Harry Reid out" through an invocation of Second Amendment rights) will likely, hopefully fall short. But pay attention to races in bellwether states such as Colorado, Florida, Illinois and Ohio for signs of what is really going on. It's unlikely to be pretty. Optimistic? Nope. Not me. Not today.