Sunday, August 10, 2008

... Aren't we the state? Does society celebrate education? How do we measure learning? ...

Melinda Manley, a teacher at Alma Bryant High down in Mobile County, Alabama got ink in today's Mobile Press-Register with her Is it the state's goal to educate or just graduate? Much of what she wrote is dead on and I also know I've felt her frustrations with students, parents, bureaucrats, ... However, I'm not sure teachers, principals and school systems are judged by merely the graduation rate. NCLB's AYP gives us plenty of benchmarks to reach beyond that one measure.

One main worry I have over her piece relates to the following:

Instead of hanging tough, however, state leaders are doing the opposite. They have politicized the problem. ...

It used to be that we called our children "our greatest natural resource." They still are, but our state leaders have hobbled them by exchanging a philosophy of excellence for a program of entitlement.

By this I mean that the genuine wealth and governmental entitlement in this nation have created a society in which resourcefulness, determination, hard work and sacrifice are seldom taught or praised. There are few traces of Puritan stamina.

I'm not sure where she's going with this. Is she worried about this "genuine wealth" construct? I'd suggest that's hardly dominating our discourse in either the nation or Alabama. "Entitlement" often seems like a loaded word given how easily it is thrown around by various right wing types yet I'll pass on trying to label Ms. Manley. Here's an academic definition of "entitlement program" from Dr. Paul Johnson at Auburn.

Although I'm generally no fan of Puritanism, stamina seems like a positive virtue. As are "resourcefulness, determination, hard work and sacrifice" but I'll suggest that society (it would be tempting to go after "gangsta rap" or "celebrity obsessed media" or "sexualized advertising" or "consumerism" or ... for instance) is more to blame than schools as to why those traits don't get that much attention. Plus, I expect kids best learn those traits from models at home, in their communities, and the like. I do, however, think modeling of solid attitudes and consistent conduct is a critical part of what better professional educators do for their students. I also strongly believe teachers could more easily demonstrate (and perhaps even explore those virtues!) if they weren't so focused on high stakes testing.

I'm somewhat lost when Ms. Manley writes, "Instead of hanging tough, however, state leaders ... have politicized the problem." Aren't all laws, rules, regulations, ... politicized? I'd argue the move toward "accountability" since at least the early eighties has been the ultimate in politicization. The model of "measurement" of "outcomes" tied to "standards" and "benchmarks" via "objective" use of "data" as some sort of "reform" has long dominated public education. The move toward allowing "market solutions" has been gaining ground yet one might argue this is merely phase two of the last three decades. As a proud Progressive I certainly think wise policies can yield positive results. I just think we've got the wrong policies that come from the wrong politicians.

In a recent post titled The Mobile Press-Register's rose-colored glasses I wrote at length on how NCLB's AYP is hardly the whole of the story on how we are educating our children. In that post I linked to my Good teachers, not bureaucrats, are celebrated! post from two years ago. I remain very sympathetic to the ideas of Professors Alfie Kohn and Michael Apple and Paulo Freire and ... Professor Freire might very have something to offer up on Ms. Manley's lament over how future employers might view how well we prepared their labor yet I'll not go into his colonialism in the classroom worries.

As for the graduation exam, the Anniston Star provides a sample that can even be scored. I'm embarrassed to admit my results. I obviously need to brush up on the Math and Science. The Language wasn't perfect yet the Social Studies was. However, even in my field, I'm not so sure knowing those answers is much more than knowing one damn fact after another. I also wonder how the average resident of the blessed "business community" that might moan and groan over allegedly dreadful schools would perform on this test. High stakes testing is not totally without value and yet it is merely one facet to evaluating the process. Ms. Manley seems to focus far too much on this one measure.

I found it interesting that Ms. Manley, rightly frustrated I'm sure over some of her students and their parents, made no reference to poverty. She's working in a rather poor area of Alabama just below I-10. (As an aside, I once taught in the Troup County Georgia Schools which was then under the direction of Dr. Roy Nichols who is now the Superintendent of Mobile County.) I've most recently taught in a system with many poor students. It is tough work to teach children from poor homes. From attitudes toward learning to basic limitations (like Internet-connected computers to look up grades that Ms. Manley seems to assume all possess) the barriers are plentiful.

Finally, I couldn't help but note on the sidebar of Bryant High the appearance of apparent advertisements (I hope they've paid at least a small price for this tribute) from State Senator Rusty Glover and State Representative Spencer Collier. Rep. Collier is actually from Irvington, the home of the Hurricanes and Sen. Glover is a high school history teacher. I'm sure these two gems up on Goat Hill will be part of the solution. John Gunn

UPDATE ~ I failed to notice State Senator Ben Brooks on the (so far every single page has these pols and an Army recruiter and ... on the right sidebar) Bryant High pages. I know little if anything about him other than the fact that he, like these other two, is a Republican. In fact, his own Senate Bio states "Senator Brooks is a Republican and a Christian."

UPDATE #2 ~ Heading to North Alabama we get Schools parade sure way to keep politicians in line from Steve Campbell of the Huntsville Times. Huh?

UPDATE #3 ~ The Montgomery Advertiser examines The Schott Foundation for Public Education’s 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males titled "Given Half a Chance" and shares the following:

Alabama has a 20 percent gap between the graduation rates of the two groups, which is smaller than the 28 percent gap for the nation as a whole.

But a closer examination shows that Alabama does relatively well compared with other states not because it does a better job of graduating black males, but because it does a worse job of graduating white males. ...

There is some good news in all of this for Alabama. The statistics used in the Schott report all predate several meaningful new programs instituted by state and local school officials in Alabama to address overall graduation rates.

Those programs include a change in requirements for graduation that allow students to get a degree if they pass only three of five sections of the state graduation test, as long as two of the three sections passed are math and reading. There are several initiatives designed to push students to take more challenging academic courses. Both the state and the Montgomery systems are developing credit-recovery programs that allow students to receive course credit without repeating a full course. And the state is moving to put graduation coaches in all high schools with low graduation rates.

UPDATE #3 ~ Even if you graduate from college and not "merely" high school this might not be a guarantee of success. The Montgomery Advertiser's Cosby Woodruff reports Economic downturn harder on recent graduates where the following appears:
Jim Ramsey, with the Department of Industrial Relation's Montgomery career center, said those entering the job market straight out of high school are having the most difficulty.

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