Go ahead and teach Shakespeare

Dana Dusbiber, a Sacramento high school English teacher, thinks teaching William Shakespeare to her students is a waste of time. She blogs her reasoning in the Washington Post.

I do not believe that I am “cheating” my students because we do not read Shakespeare. I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. I do not believe that not viewing “Romeo and Juliet” or any other modern adaptation of a Shakespeare play will make my students less able to go out into the world and understand language or human behavior…

Look, let’s put this right out here: Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t fly if he wrote them today. There are asides to the audience, soliloquies and monologues, and other conventions that just don’t work for modern viewers. If Hamlet debuted this weekend it wouldn’t go over at a dinner theater in the Poconos, much less Broadway. The language is in an centuries-old dialect of English. And the context for the stories are dated.

So yes, if your reason for studying literature is to learn about the “human condition,” there are easier and more relatable sources. Yet the study of the human condition is not the only reason for the study of literature – that’s a big reason we have sociology. Narrative structures, plot devices, and other technical aspects of a story are important too – not just for understanding one piece of literature, but to give students the tools they need to understand other pieces as needed. This is the reason we study so many works that weren’t written within the past ten years.

I am sad that so many of my colleagues teach a canon that some white people decided upon so long ago and do it without question.

Cheer up and think about this: Shakespeare’s works are among the most influential in all of literature. That decision wasn’t made by English teachers in 1920, but by the people creating content today. Look at the parallels between Macbeth and House of Cards, or between Hamlet and The Lion King. Have you ever teased a male friend who was popular with the ladies by calling him “Romeo”? Have you ever heard someone accused of having blood on their hands?

Incidentally, this is the same reason schools ought to study the Bible as a piece of literature: It is such a common source for cultural references that ignoring it leaves an awfully wide cognitive gap. (Heck, they can’t even make a Superman movie anymore without packing in imagery likening the Man of Steel to Jesus Christ.)

I am sad that we don’t reach beyond our own often narrow beliefs about how young people become literate to incorporate new research on how teenagers learn, and a belief that our students should be excited about what they read — and that may often mean that we need to find the time to let them choose their own literature.

You’re the teacher. If students were equipped to “choose their own literature” and understand the context and what to look for, English class would be a waste of time and they could spend more time getting those math scores up where they need to be.

So I ask, why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior? Why not teach translations of early writings or oral storytelling from Latin America or Southeast Asia other parts of the world? Many, many of our students come from these languages and traditions. Why do our students not deserve to study these “other” literatures with equal time and value?

The obvious response would be, “Because it’s English class.” But that’s not the right answer, because Dusbiber is onto something here. Why not include those things? It’s more of a comparative lit track than something you’d see in a high school English class, but that’s just nitpicking. There’s no reason to exclude the works she’s talking about, and if it means a little less Shakespeare, it’s ok. What might be especially relevant are the similarities between themes. Without knowing much about the oral traditions in the places she cites, it’s still a pretty fair bet that they include stories about corruption, ambition, greed, envy, and all the other delightful corners of humanity that Shakespeare liked to explore.

Exploring those similarities might make Shakespeare’s work even more familiar and relevant to students. After all, what better way to show the universal themes of the human condition than to point to similar subject matter explored in plays from Elizabethan England and stories passed down through generations in southeast Asia?

Ignoring the Bard puts students at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding modern cultural references and context, the same way ignoring long division might put students at a disadvantage when they try to understand higher forms of math. Hopefully for Dusbiber’s students, she can find a blend of old and new which does right by her students.

We don’t teach kids about financial democracy

An article in the Economist says that activist investors are good for a public company. In making the case, it frames publicly traded companies as organs of democracy:

AS INVENTIONS go, the public company is one of capitalism’s greatest. Initial public offerings promote innovation, by providing an exit route for entrepreneurs; being listed makes a firm open to scrutiny; and ordinary people have a chance to invest in capitalism’s wealth-creating machines.  …Activist hedge funds take small stakes in firms and act like political campaigners, trying to win other shareholders’ support for their demands: representation on companies’ boards, cost-cutting, spin-offs and returning cash to shareholders.

These are good points, specifically the idea that average people have access to big business. Naturally, the problem is that any stock purchase is a gamble, and that the “ordinary people” referenced above might not understand the risk and would lose savings.

Our answer to that, culturally, has been to dissuade investment. We surrender the world of high finance to the images of Patrick Bateman and Gordon Gekko because they make convenient movie characters, while our schools do little to teach people how to build an investment portfolio over time.

When politicians express concern about America’s widening wealth gap, the answers always seem to be income-based: Proposals tend to include increasing the minimum wage or raising tax earners who make more than $250,000 per year. These are placebo solutions. Wealth isn’t about earnings, but savings and investment. Since lower-income earners have fewer opportunities to do that (with less money to save and invest), wouldn’t the smart policy solution be to help them maximize those opportunities?

Part of that is learning how publicly traded companies work, and understanding the shareholder’s rights and privileges. Civics classes teach us that we each have a vote and a right to speak out about our government – and that if we have some sort of beef, we can organize and change things with enough time and effort. Similar lessons about publicly traded companies are, unfortunately rare.

A Winter’s Tale, as told by Emails from Fairfax County Public Schools

“Now this could only happen …in a town like this.” – Frank Sinatra. 

Fairfax County’s Public Schools (FCPS) have had the kind of week usually reserved for an embattled politician who sticks his foot in his mouth. Poor decisions have led to explanations, and then to further explanations, over-corrections, still more explanations, and apologies. In three days, parents of Fairfax County schoolchildren received nine emails.

The first missive came bright and early on January 6, at 7:49 a.m. The simple message, in its entirety:

The inclement weather may result in your child’s bus being delayed this morning. Please be patient and safe if you are driving this morning.

There was no official delay, since the weather didn’t look like it was going to be that bad early in the day.

But as Beltway denizens know, the storm was stronger than expected. What was supposed to be a dusting of snow ended up as a couple of inches. Buses couldn’t get around. Neither could teachers. Outrage had its snow tires on, though, and it managed to reach the school district’s Facebook page. Because Fairfax County rests in the shadow of Your Nation’s Capital, the school district naturally had to reply with a public statement, which came via email at 10:15 a.m.:

Dear Parents:

We apologize for the difficulties the weather caused this morning. Please know that significant area government entities were coordinating at a very early hour. The decision was made with the best information we had very early this morning. Needless to say, the conditions were far worse than anticipated.

Weather conditions are expected to improve around midday. At this time, we are planning to dismiss schools at their normal dismissal time, however, we are continuing to closely monitor the situation and will keep parents apprised.

Just over an hour later, a follow-up email declared all evening activities and afternoon pre-school cancelled. (A neighbor whose child is in the afternoon preschool broke that news to a Fairfax County school bus driver, who had not been clued in.)

That must not have been enough for some parents. Just before 2:00 p.m. came a fourth email, entitled “Weather Update.” It was a second apology for the decision to open schools:

It is clear that our decision to keep schools open today was the wrong call given the intensity of this weather system. We are very sorry for that. We have heard from many of our families and we are listening. We thank you for your patience and working with us through this very difficult circumstance… Our focus now is to get our students and staff home safely this afternoon. Students who were unable to get to school today will be given excused absences.

Please know we will be going over our procedures and processes to make every improvement possible to avoid the situation we encountered this morning. We are closely monitoring the weather conditions and will make a decision with regard to schools opening tomorrow and will let families know, through our normal communication processes, as soon as possible.

“Going over our procedures” is, of course, complete bull meant to sound like deep introspection. “As soon as possible” was, predictably, quick. The follow-up email came at 6:12 p.m. As expected, there would be a two-hour delay on Wednesday.

For those in “real” America, Fairfax County surrounds Washington, D.C. and Arlington to the south and west. It covers lots of area, and it is common for one side of the county to have different weather from the other side. The school district covers all these areas, from communities around Alexandria banded with major roads to the more bucolic neighborhoods hugging the Potomac out by great falls. There were plenty of roads untreated; school buses would have had a hard time getting around on Wednesday.

Fairfax’s snow and ice removal system is solar-powered: they just let the stuff melt. While environmentally friendly, nasty side effects include re-frozen black ice spots lurking in the neighborhoods. As the sun set on Wednesday, FCPS sent out what was their only email of the day, alerting parents that the following day would see a second consecutive two-hour delay.

Less that 15 hours later – at 7:22 a.m. – Fairfax sent yet another email, cancelling school for Thursday. In the 48 hours since the surprise winter weather, Fairfax County had gone from a regularly scheduled day, to a two-hour delay, to a full-blown snow day. To explain their backward, bizarro reaction, FCPS made yet another statement. For the second time in three days, the email subject read, “Today’s Weather Decision”:

The decision to change from a two hour delayed opening to an all day closing for schools was made today because, as our bus drivers reported to work, it was evident that many of our buses would not start in this morning’s cold weather… In addition, the refreeze of snow and ice on residential streets and sidewalks also made walking and travel treacherous.

Not to pile on to what has been a week full of criticism for FCPS, but while it’s cold here this week, it has been colder in the past. School buses have surely survived worse. Also, why are the “treacherous” sidewalks and their safety implication afterthought to buses running on time? The snow day was either an obvious over-correction to Tuesday’s criticism or a subtle middle finger to the critics.

At least, in a show of progress, FCPS only had to apologize once for yesterday’s snow day. Their final email of the week (to date) announced today’s two-hour delay. If you’re scoring at home, that’s nine emails in 72 hours, with all the message discipline and conviction of Trent Lott’s ill-advised BET interview after he was accused of wishing Strom Thurmond a happy birthday.

Look on the bright side, Fairfax County Public Schools: The next chance of wintry weather is coming up on Monday. You might just get a do-over!

Happy Valentine’s Day, unless that offends you…

There shall be no perforated cardstock exchanged today at Salemwood Elementary School in Malden, Massachusetts: the school has banned Valentine’s Day in the interest of cultural equality:

David DeRuosi, superintendent of Malden Public Schools, defended the principal’s decision – explaining that with new residents and new mandates “certain traditions we have to modify and adapt.”

Where's My Valentine?If you’re scoring at home, that means they are sending and receiving Valentines anyway.  That’s even more ridiculous than the idea of cancelling Valentine’s Day altogether.  They’re doing all the same stuff, just calling it something else.  It’s a lot of motion but no progress.

There are four really ridiculous points here:

1.  Cultural Equality through NO CULTURE FOR ANYONE

The administration at Salemwood has a tough task, and no doubt they try their best to deal with a diverse student body.  Still, how does one arrive at the conclusion that the best way to be multi-cultural is to be non-cultural?  The best way to include outsiders isn’t to eliminate customs; inclusion means including them.

This is an American cultural holiday, even if it has its roots in a religious celebration.  This is about large corporations influencing buying decisions through heavy media inundation, and there is nothing more American than that.  If you’re new to the nation, this is a good lesson.

In the interest of the good ol’ American melting pot, it’s also a good idea to reach out to parents and ask the ones who may be able to do so to buy an extra pack of Valentine cards in case someone in the class doesn’t have the extra scratch to buy those precious perforated cards.  And of course, such transactions need to be on the down-low.

Also with inclusion in mind, teachers aren’t out of line to send every student home with a full list of his or her classmates, so that he or she can sit there the night before and write out all their names on those cards.  This mode of torture will ensure that every child gets a card, and that every child practices their penmanship.

2. Valentine’s Day cancelled.  EDUCATION CRISIS SOLVED!

The whole episode conjures the mental image of a principal or any other educational official, struck with insomnia  staring at the ceiling of his or her bedroom.  Nationally, our school are struggling, math and science scores are through the floor, and any improvement will have to come on a shoestring budget.

Which problem to address first?  Apparently, holidays are the major impediment to learning, and must be restrained.  The answer to why our students aren’t keeping up?  They must feel uncomfortable in the classroom.

(By the way, who is more uncomfortable at school than the nerds?  And they get awesome grades.)

Truthfully, these folks may sit around for six days out of the week thinking of brilliant new ways to get kids to suck less at math, and we’d never hear about it because the national media wouldn’t cover it.  (And if they did cover it, no one would  retweet it.)  With that grain of salt taken, this is one of the ideas from a brainstorming session that ought to be swiped off the white board as quickly as possible.

And note that Valentine’s Day is not being eliminated so that the students can spend more time doing multiplication tables.  Actually, if you talk to the principal, it isn’t being eliminated at all…

3.  Wait, they aren’t using this extra time to learn more?

How is Salemwood using all the time saved by passing out Valentine’s Cards?

[Principal Carol] Keenan said they were not cancelling Valentine’s Day. Instead, the elementary school is going to celebrate a modified version.

“Every student is making a friendship card for another student,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that every single student is given the opportunity to get a card and to also give a card. I didn’t want some students feeling left out.”

So it’s just a rebranding deal?  It sounds like Salemwood is in cahoots with Carlton Cards, trying to cut into a Hallmark Holiday.

It isn’t clear how much though, effort, and study went into trading out Valentines for Friendship Cards, but it was too much.  Cancellation of classroom celebrations in favor of more time doing multiplication tables might sound less fun, but at least there would be a clear rationale.

4. Watch your language!

The most disturbing aspect of Salemwood’s reasoning?

Keenan also addressed the language barrier – noting there are 400 students in the school who don’t speak English.

She feared they “wouldn’t understand the concept of having to bring a card or get a card.”

Read that again: There are 400 kids in the school who don’t speak English.  That’s not just a big hurdle to communicating with their peers, it’s a potentially huge impediment to finding a well-paying job and establishing a successful life in this country.

Cancelling or rebranding the concept of Valentine’s Day doesn’t help these students, but devoting some time to teach them English probably would.

Holding higher education accountable (but some schools more than others)

Two stories that have been floating around in the last week haven’t really been connected in most media coverage, but they should have been.

The first is the US Department of Education’s website designed to “increase transparency” by providing prospective students with information on college costs – including tuition and fees and rates of increases over the past few years.  Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the hope is to keep students from being “saddled with unmanageable debt.”

Another story is the ongoing effort to exterminate for-profit colleges – the Strayers and Phoenixes of the world.  Last month the Obama Administration promised new rules on for-profits; earlier this week several Democrat Senators pounded their chests and released a statement condemning schools that exploited GI Bill benefits after they saw a story it on PBS.  (Of course, now that a statement has been released, the problem is sure to be cleared up.)

As a sidebar: When did seeing something on TV become a reason to make a statement?  Shouldn’t there be more study and consideration that goes into an official statement?

The Senators’ statement comes a few weeks after the Obama Administration promised to regulate for-profit colleges.  These so-called educational institutions, it seems, receive large amounts of federal funding through student aid programs and other grants but often leave students with student loan payments and questionable career prospects.

If that sounds familiar, it should, because that’s how just about every other institution of higher learning operates.

Tuitions and fees at saintly non-profit colleges have skyrocketed in the past several decades precisely because the cost of education has been so subsidized – from easy student loan programs to Pell grants to federal work study programs that pay two thirds of a student worker’s wage.  (Another sidebar: It just dawned on me that, due to the Federal Work Study program I once ran a snack bar with federal aid.  That means federal tax dollars went toward making sure people in Coolidge Hall at UMass got exceptional grilled cheese sandwiches served to them.  Suddenly, the existence crippling deficit makes a little bit more sense.)

How much have tuition rates risen?  Enough to motivate the Department of Education to launch a website so that students could keep score and avoid overpriced schools.  It’s a good thing those schools aren’t making money, too, or they’d be facing new regulations, too.



Results don’t lie

My latest post over at Pundit League talks about the Obama White House’s attempt to shift the focus on budget debates from the money to the benefits.  This month, they’re talking about education as a sacred cow; future budget battles are sure to treat other programs similarly.  As difficult as budgets are, it’s still a tough sell to cut back on government programs everyone is used to.

But what if those programs, for lack of a better-refined and focus-group-tested term, suck?  That reality may be the best arrow in any small government Robin Hood’s quiver.

The Heritage Foundation points out that a boom in education spending has not bought higher performance in America’s public schools.  Thomas Sowell made a similar point this week, when he wrote about the allegedly ecologically friendly policies of urban liberals in San Francisco pricing low- and middle-class blacks out of the city.  Private unions – who represent workers who actually have to worry about their jobs – are concerned that the EPA would cause layoffs from companies forced to spend extra complying with extraneous regulations.

For each of these programs and others like them, there’s always talk about the benefits.  But as Speaker Boehner said this week, “Talk is cheap.”

Where education really happens

The other night, I got to witness first hand some of the hard work being done by the Oakton High School robotics team.  Two teams of high school students build machines to accomplish certain tasks, controlled by both pre-programming and direct remote controls.  It’s pretty amazing stuff to say the least.

What struck me about the room was the presence of community volunteers.  There were parents and teachers, of course, but also folks with no children or job at the school.  I spoke at length with one mentor, who had retired from his career, and gave some of his free time to the robotics team.  Several encouraged me to become a mentor as well.  When I joked that I doubted I could match the students’ knowledge of the subject matter, the reply was an only half-joking suggestion that the important thing was asking a lot of questions anyway.  The students don’t need people to teach them knowledge, just someone who can help them think through problems.

This became apparent when watching the students – tinkering with sensors, motors, nuts, bolts, and computers with a mix of determination and invincibility.  Whatever challenge they saw in their robots – a program not performing as expected, a misfiring sensor, or wheels failing to grip an incline – there were never questions about whether solutions existed, just an eagerness to find where they were hidden.

(There was a corporate sponsor too, which is good because the competition can cost a team up to $8,500 just to build a robot.)

It’s interesting that some form of the gizmos these high school students were building in a near-deserted school may one day exploring Mars.  It’s also interesting that few of the participants were getting paid any money to turn an unused high school shop class room into the staging are for the next generation of technology.  Even for just a few hours, it was nice to see a place where commitment to education was not measured in dollars and cents.

Trying to burn Phoenix

Two guys who got rich when people lost their homes are telling anyone who will listen about the possible insolvency of for-profit education.  Steve Eisman and Manuel Asensio point to the fact that colleges like the University of Phoenix rely heavily on student loans, thus inflating their revenues and stock prices.

It seems like a straight business argument – that a market financed by personal debt would go the same route as housing and auto sales did in the last few years.  But flipping through Eisman’s presentation on the issue tells otherwise.  Eisman complains of placement stats  and advertising practices with anecdotal evidence of nurses working as hospital janitors and billboards lining homeless shelters.  His speech reads like a hit piece on for-profit education; Asensio’s organization piled on by asking the Department of Education to investigate the industry’s business practices.

Some of the points are fair, and it deserves the question: why has enrollment in for-profit education jumped so markedly that it necessitates these altruistic crusades from people who profit on falling stocks?   It might have something to do with the fact that a college degree from a traditional school isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

This puts the questions about Elena Kagan’s Ivy-league background – and the prospect of an all-Ivy high court – into perspective.  It’s not (as some critics suggest) that she and the rest of the court went to schools that are “elite”; rather that they all went to one of two or three schools.  Whether the schools are Harvard, Yale, and Brown or UMass, UConn, and URI.  We know that the idea of the elite school is a crock – the problem is the lack of diversity of thought.

Crowdsourcing commencement

My former employer, the Leadership Institute, is collecting information on college commencement speakers through its Campus Reform blog.  And, instead of emailing their contacts and scanning the internet looking for that information (as we used to do back in my day) they’re relying on the wisdom of crowds to help them fill in information.  Users who don’t see their school or alma mater on the list can email the information, presumably to LI Worldwide Headquarters in Arlington, Va.

The list, predictably, shows a leftward bias, so LI further helps out by sharing tips on how to take action and provide a counter to the speakers.

Hopefully LI’s call to action will result in student-filmed user videos of the commencement speeches themselves.  Most of the big speakers – such as President Obama and other national politicians – will have their comments on C-SPAN, of course, but that won’t be the case for everyone.  Wouldn’t you be interested to see the things discussed during commencement season?

Secure employment

USA Today points out that fewer than 2% of all teachers nationwide lose their job due to poor performance, thanks in large part to teachers’ unions.

In Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah and Vermont — states in which fewer than half of fourth-graders are proficient at reading or math — the average school district did not remove a single tenured teacher in 2007-08. It’s no wonder: Dismissing one teacher can cost upwards of $100,000, and the legal struggle can drag on for years.

In a related note, the California Teachers Association leads the Golden State in campaign contributions.  And Michelle Rhee has been publicly lambasted for her successful efforts to improve DC’s public schools.

The tragedy, of course, is the creation of a system which rewards bad teachers and fails to reward the best teachers.  But then again, for teachers unions, is education really the point?