Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I've got nothing to add

Peruvian surfer Domingo Pianezzi rides a wave with his alpaca Pisco at San Bartolo beach in Lima, March 16, 2010.   Credit: REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

Friday, March 19, 2010

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Okay, I can't let the day pass unacknowledged. Here's Planxty, a short-lived Irish supergroup. If you've never heard them, you've never heard anything like them. There are other groups with good musical talent, there are others who have a genuine love for the form. There's never been anyone else who ever could blend the talent with the joie de vivre. Liam O'Flynn's work on the uilleann pipes in this song is beyond joy and mastery.

There's not an Irish musician who doesn't pause and look at his feet at the mention of Planxty. They are at once exhilarating and inspiring and absolutely humbling. Their like will not be seen again.

Give a listen.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A diller, a dollar, a dithering

I haven't had a clear view yet of the president's plan to reform education. Perhaps it's brilliant, or perhaps it's another case of a person thinking that, because he's eaten in a restaurant, he's qualified to be a chef.

In anticipation, then, here are some things that nobody with the power to make things happen will bear in mind but that might make a difference in our educational system:

1. Cohort testing. I was at a gathering in Strong, Maine, at a blue-ribbon school, with the faculty and Senator Susan Collins, and this was raised as a major factor in testing. You can't judge this year's fourth grade against last year's fourth grade. It's not fair and it doesn't tell you what you need to know. You need to follow each group as they move through the system. How did this group do in fourth grade, compared to the progress they made in third grade the year before? Collins said she, and her fellow-senator Olympia Snowe, were aware of this issue and wanted it to be part of the re-authorization. Okay, time to step up.

2. An end to hazing of new teachers. This is not a problem everywhere, but it's certainly an issue at a lot of schools, and it has an impact on educational attainment. To begin with, we lose some potentially good teachers because they are hazed instead of mentored. They are deprived of classroom space, they are shuttled to the least desireable assignments, they are given the worst schedules, because they are lowest on the totem pole. That's wrong.

But more to the point, the problem of seniority is that too often, the hardest kids are left to the least experienced teachers. You can't show "adequate yearly progress" when the kids who drag down the school's average are being taught by novices. It is natural enough that more senior teachers would rather not have to deal with the unteachables. But that's what experience is for, and it's not right, it's not fair and it's not good sense to leave the hardest assignments to the faculty members with the least experience. Share the burden, my brothers and sisters.

3. Teach kids stuff they want to know. One common element of other nations' educational systems is that they recognize a difference between engineers and poets. The Big Lie told in American circles is that this system "locks kids in" before they are old enough to know what they really want out of life.

It is not just a lie, but a damned lie, because it is a lie that hurts kids and hurts our educational system. About two years ago, I met with a group of some two dozen exchange students, from at least three continents and a variety of nations that ranged from Serbia to Venezuela to Turkey to Vietnam, and I asked them about the tracking systems in their education. If you were in an engineering program and you decided you wanted a liberal arts education instead, what would happen? They shrugged and said that you would talk to your guidance counselor and you would switch. One of them (one of the two Turks, I think) laughed and said that, if you kept switching back and forth, there might be a problem, and they all laughed at that. But they were flummoxed by the idea that you couldn't change your mind. Of course you could change your mind. You're a kid, after all.

4. College for all is a bogus misdirection. On one hand, it is nonsense to prescribe "college for all" because not everybody needs to know much about Shakespeare. On the other hand, "college" has come to mean any large building with desks and a whiteboard. We need to get clear on what we mean by a K-16 educational system.

To begin with, if it takes 17 years to build an educational portfolio that will get you a job, then we need to make it equitable. All kids, regardless of family fortune, must be able to reach the bottom rung of the ladder, and if that is Grade 16, then let's support that much education. When it only took a "grade school" (i.e, 8th grade) education, we paid for that much, as an investment. And when a high school diploma became the lowest common denominator, we paid for that, too.

The process whereby people get that necessary BA, without which you cannot get an interview,  and end up with thousands of dollars of debt is completely immoral. If it is the base requirement, then we, as a society, have an obligation to invest in our future and make that the hallmark. When college was a frill, it was up to the student to pay for it. But if we are going to dictate college as the base requirement, then we have to pony up and invest in our future.

Which brings us to what I've heard so far: The President wants all students to end up at a point where they are ready for college.

To which I say, okay. But those who call the tune must pay the piper, and it's not fair to call a tune and then charge the dancers for trying to keep up.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wretches with knotted knickers

I don't want to spoil this by detailing my own response. However, I cannot resist observing that the comments at the end of this outraged blog post seem pretty much divided between the ink-stained wretches and those who are, instead, stained by hair spray.

What's your reaction?