Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Removing God from Govt. Schools "Leaves Moral Vaccuum Filled by Celebrity Culture"

The chairman of a group representing 250 private schools in Britain has blasted the government-run schools in that country for treating God as "an embarrassment", which has led to "a moral and spiritual vacuum and the breakdown of any shared value system."

Rev. Tim Hastie-Smith told the annual conference of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference:

"In our schools we have the freedom, if we choose, to fight that malaise. Not by retreating from society but engaging with the big questions in a mature and reasoned way, offering possible answers and challenges rather than the passing fads of an X-Factor culture."

The X-Factor is a British reality show similar to American Idol. Rev. Hastie-Smith is dead-on in his critique of how abandoning the schools' traditional role in teaching children in accordance with Judeo-Christian principles has led to moral relativism and the valuing of style over substance.

Rev. Hastie-Smith also said state schools were being smothered by red tape and government dictates and should be given the freedom to set their own curriculum and appoint staff that private schools enjoy:

"Education, if it is to achieve true excellence and if it is to be tailored to the needs of the individual child, should be free of government control....Free from political control, free from the red tape and dictates which can smother our colleagues in most of the maintained [i.e. government-run] sector."

To have a truly effective school, decisions need to be made at the lowest feasible level. Micromanagement by politicians and other bureaucrats hundreds of miles away in the state capitol or thousands of miles away in the nation's capitol interferes with the ability of teachers and school administrators to do the jobs for which they've been hired. We need to grant them the flexibility they need to meet their students' individual needs rather than forcing them to follow a "one-size-fits-all" model from on high.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Judith Warner Completely Missed the Point

The other day Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, wrote a blog post for the New York Times on feeling surprisingly sympathetic toward Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin entitled "Poor Sarah".

Ms. Warner's discussion is full of the typical elitist snobbery towards Mrs. Palin- at one point the author dismisses the governor as "a moose-killing Alaska frontierswoman with her five kids, five colleges, and pastoral protection from witchcraft" - and reiterates the Democratic party line of attack on her that she's allegedly "out of her league".

Am I a particularly big fan of Gov. Palin? No. Do I have concerns about her relative inexperience? Yes, but I have even bigger concerns about Sen. Obama's lack of experience. I would much rather see a young, relatively inexperienced politician as second in line to be the president than actually being president. The learning curve is much steeper and the stakes are much higher for the actor in the spotlight than for his/her understudy.

But what really caught my eye in Ms. Warner's blog post was her discussion of one of my favorite movies from the past few years, Legally Blonde. The movie is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel written by a woman who was a sorority girl at party school Arizona State before deciding to attend Stanford Law School. Like the heroine of Legally Blonde, Elle Woods, the author felt out-of-place with her designer wardrobe and pink accessories and was subject to snobbery from the other students. She found solace in writing long letters to her friends back home skewering her classmates, which ultimately became the basis for her novel.

In the movie, Elle discovers to the surprise of everyone around her that there's much more to her than just a pretty face. She receives a near-perfect score on the Law School Admissions Test and once she decides to get serious about her law school coursework, she starts acing them. At the end of the movie, she has solved a big murder case through her quick wits and has graduated with honors from Harvard.

I've always felt a kinship with Elle Woods as someone whose abilities often get underestimated simply based on my appearance. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard the back-handed compliment, "Wow, you're a LOT smarter than you look!" I could buy myself a pair of Manolo Blahniks. Like Elle, I've overheard myself being dismissed by one of my female classmates as a "walking Barbie" because I'm cute, blonde, and a bit of a girlie-girl. Yes, I was in a sorority and do like shopping, but that doesn't make me dumb. In this day and age, I resent the implication that women are still supposed to choose between being pretty and being smart.

In Ms. Warner's NYT blog post, she completely misses the whole point of Legally Blonde. She sees Elle as an "imposter", who hides the fact that she's "not the intellectual equal of her peers" behind a mask of self-confidence and "dressing up in a nice suit". Ms. Warner tells her daughter after they watch the movie together that (emphasis in the original):

"You can’t accomplish anything worthwhile in life just by being pretty and cute and clever. You have to do the work."

Which is *EXACTLY* the message Elle learns! She's spent her whole life up until law school merely getting by on her looks and aspiring to be a socialite trophy wife like her mom. She finally gets fed up with being treated as inferior by her snobby classmates and sets out to prove to them that she's just as competant as they are. How does she accomplish this task? BY DOING THE WORK! The whole point of the movie is that Elle *IS* the intellectual equal of her peers in spite of her designer suit and pink scented accessories. How did Ms. Warner manage to miss that?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Extremist Legislation Would Bar ANY Abortion Regulation

I had never heard of bills S.1173 and H.R.1964, the so-called "Freedom of Choice Act", until I received a couple of email alerts today about them from Catholics for the Common Good and Trinity Communications (who run the CatholicCulture.org website). S.1173 is sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and co-sponsored by 17 other Democrats including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry plus 2 liberal-leaning "Independents". The corresponding House bill is sponsored by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and co-sponsored by 109 other Democrats

So what exactly would this proposed legislation do? It would create a "fundamental right" to abortion THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE NINE MONTHS OF PREGNANCY. It would eliminate ALL limits on abortion and force all Americans to SUBSIDIZE ABORTIONS WITH THEIR TAX MONEY.

The abortion regimen imposed by FOCA would be MUCH MORE EXTREME than the implications of Roe v. Wade. FOCA would RULE OUT ANY possibility of limiting or regulating abortion.

FOCA would apply to EVERY FEDERAL, STATE, AND LOCAL regulation pertaining to abortion.

The measures that would be overridden by FOCA include informed consent laws, parental involvement laws, laws promoting maternal health, conscience protection laws, laws prohibiting a particular abortion procedure (e.g., partial birth abortion), laws requiring that abortions only be performed by a licensed physician, abortion clinic regulations, government programs that pay for or promote childbirth and other health care without subsidizing abortion.

As the legal analysis done by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops notes:

"If FOCA were enacted, it would wipe out a very large number of existing state laws on abortion, substantially impede the ability of states to regulate abortion, and override nearly 40 years of jurisprudential experience on the matter of abortion."

FOCA states that the decision whether to have an abortion is a "fundamental" right, even though in 1992 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Casey decision that states may regulate abortion so long as the regulations do not impose an "undue burden" on women. FOCA does not bar "substantial" regulations as Casey does but rather ANY interference with the decision whether to have an abortion.

As the USCCB analysis puts it,

"FOCA is a radical measure....It is difficult to recall any other single piece of legislation that, in a single stroke, would have such a comparable destructive impact on the government's ability to regulate abortion."

Pro-abortion groups are pushing the 110th Congress to enact this legislation soon. Those of us who oppose the expansion of the "culture of death" in this country must speak out for the voiceless potential victims of this heinous act!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

StoryCorps Project Coming to S.F.!

I don't know about you, but I'm a big fan of the Friday segments on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" program featuring personal vignettes from everyday Americans recorded as part of the StoryCorps oral history project. If you're unfamiliar with these, you can listen to a sample of them here.

I was very excited, therefore, to learn that the recently opened Contemporary Jewish Museum here in San Francisco has been selected as the very first museum in the U.S. to host a StoryCorps recording booth. On Thursdays and Sundays from October 12, 2008 through October 11, 2009, the StoryCorps project will be offering appointments for recording sessions to visitors. For more info, click here.

My mom's coming to visit in January to help out after the arrival of our new baby. I'm probably not going to feel up to participating in the project myself but I'd love to get the chance for my mom and my uncle to reminisce about my late grandmother, who was quite a remarkable woman :-)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Barking Up the Wrong Tree a Bit When it Comes to Education Reform

A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the ideas found in the recently released book Smart Kids, Bad Schools: 38 Ways to Save America's Future by Brian Crosby that I felt had merit. On the whole, I think Mr. Crosby (a veteran high school English teacher from Southern California) is on the right track with his suggestions for reforming America's government-run schools. However, I do believe he completely missed the boat with certain of his ideas.

Bad Idea #1. Moving teachers rather than students from classroom to classroom between periods. Mr. Crosby does acknowledge that this would only be possible if every student in the class took the exact same courses, but dismisses this concern:
"With the push toward more academic rigor, why can't they take the same classes? The students in the advanced classes are already tracked together; those who would be in a vocational track would likewise be taking the same coursework."
This is a false assumption. While certain honors classes may tend to enroll many of the same students, not every student in them is taking the exact same schedule as every single one of his/her classmates. In my high school during 9th-11th grades, I would say that probably 75-85% of those taking honors math also took honors science, and there was roughly the same overlap between honors English and honors history. However, there was a much lower overlap between honors math and honors English, only around half to two-thirds. Senior year, by which time almost all students had already met the school's graduation requirement for 3 years' each in science and history and many had chosen to drop one or both, had even more variations in schedules.

That's not even taking into consideration electives such as foreign languages, computer science, psychology, economics, statistics, the performing arts, study hall, etc. My friends and I tended to be in mostly the same core courses, but we took all different types of electives depending on our particular interests and post-graduation aspirations.

On top of the normal variations among students' schedules, I knew several individuals who were taking courses either ahead of or behind the typical grade level. A good friend of mine doubled up in math her freshman year so that she could take a distance learning university-level math course in 12th. I personally chose to start studying Latin as my second foreign language in 10th rather than the typical 9th (when I had tried Spanish but got frustrated with the lack of academic rigor in that particular sequence).

In addition to problems with coordinating students' schedules, there is also the issue of courses requiring specialized classrooms. Mr. Crosby, the English instructor, may very well be able to teach in a generic classroom. But what if he taught chemistry, biology, computer science, or a foreign language and needed specific equipment available on a regular basis?

Bad Idea #2. Having teachers instruct classes Monday-Thursday and then spend every Friday in professional development. Mr. Crosby writes:
"What do the teachers get to do on Fridays? They do something they only rarely get a chance to do- share ideas with other teachers....It also frees up one day a week for teachers to attend conferences without having to miss teaching to their students."
I agree that teachers ought to have more time available in their schedule for collaboration and pursuing continuing education. But devoting 1/5th of their working time (which is already quite a bit shorter than most other professions) to these activities seems excessive. I could see perhaps 2 Fridays per month, but not every single week.

Bad Idea #3. Bashing teachers who go above and beyond what they're required to do by their contracts for love of their students. This one just struck me as pure selfishness:
"I have often heard from principals how proud they are of teachers who volunteer to advise a club or chair a department. Yet these slave laborers are inadvertently harming the rest of the teachers....Many teachers, partly due to their strong Judeo-Christian ethics, sincerely believe in the 'I'm there for the kids' credo and view their jobs as missionary-like, a 'calling' if you will....These instructors sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice, but what they are really sacrificing is their own profession."
*HEAVEN FORBID* that certain teachers actually put the welfare of their students ahead of their own greed! The problem with today's schools is *NOT* that too few teachers share Mr. Crosby's self-centered opinion on this issue but that far too many do :-(

One of the major reasons that certain charter schools like the KIPP ones outperform their traditional government-run counterparts is that they attract teachers who put service to their students above selfishness. Who's going to do a better job for his/her students- the teacher who views the profession as a calling or the one who's "all about the Benjamins"?

The cynic in me suspects that Mr. Crosby is uncomfortable with his more altruistic colleagues because they make those who share his selfish mindset look bad...

Bad Idea #4. Bashing educational alternatives to government-run schools like private schools and homeschooling. Like #3, I suspect that Mr. Crosby's antagonism stems primarily from self-interest rather than what's best for the students. He nearly says as much in the final chapter of Smart Kids, Bad Schools, when he writes:
"I'd rather have a broken public school system than have millions of kids stay home to be schooled. I'd rather deal with bureaucratic headaches than have vouchers given out to millions of parents."
Wow, I'm glad to know that Mr. Crosby is willing to put ideology of "believing in the public schools" ahead of the welfare of millions of American children.

Earlier in the book, he makes the astonishing claim that:
"Except for religious reasons and spiffy uniforms, there is no sound argument for educating children in private schools."
What about the fact that the government-run schools in many areas are truly dreadful? In Mr. Crosby's hometown of L.A., only 48% of students in the city's government-run high schools graduate in 4 years. Compare this with a 97.5% graduation rate in the city's Catholic high schools for students from low-income families, according to a recent study done by Loyola Marymount University in L.A. Also, test scores are consistently higher among private school students than among students in government-run schools.

Mr. Crosby notes that private school salaries are typically lower than those paid in government-run schools, and that often private school teachers lack state certification. He then makes the extraordinary claim that:
"The best teachers out there know this and that is why they work in public schools where they can command higher salaries."
I know plenty of wonderful teachers who feel that the greater autonomy, significantly better working conditions, and higher caliber student populations at private schools outweigh the somewhat lower salaries.

In addition, evidence is lacking that traditional teacher certification actually improves student achievement. In his book Education Myths, Jay Greene of the American Enterprise Institute notes that (emphasis in the original):
"After examining every available study on the impact of teaching credentials on job performance--171 in total--Eric Hanushek [of the the Abell Foundation] found that only nine uncovered any significant positive relationship between credentials and student performance, five found a significant negative relationship between the two, and 157 showed no connection. "
Mr. Crosby also dismisses parental concerns about there being far too much standardized testing in government-run schools. He points out that most private middle and high schools require an entrance exam. True, but that's *ONE* three hour test taken during the application period and it's typically prepared for outside of the normal classroom time. By contrast, California government-run schools require annual tests from grades 2 through 11 administered over several days. In addition, many schools these days devote a significant portion of the school year towards preparation for these standardized tests, resulting in less time available for other educational activities.

As for the brief half-page discussion of homeschooling in Smart Kids, Dumb Schools, it's obvious that Mr. Crosby doesn't know much about the topic; he regurgitates the same old tired stereotypes about socialization, spelling bee winners, and speculation about racial segregation playing a role in the decision to homeschool. I'm not going to waste my time dignifying them with a response as they've been so thoroughly debunked in the past better than I could ever hope to do myself.

Bad Idea #5. Parents should *ALWAYS* defer to the "authority" of the teacher, and should *NEVER* question the teacher's "expertise" or want to influence what their child should learn. This highly patronizing and paternalistic attitude is probably the biggest beef I had with Smart Kids, Dumb Schools. Mr. Crosby even goes so far as to title chapter 36 "Would You Ever Question Your Child's Pediatrician?"

Well, guess what? I don't automatically defer to my pediatrician- and she's got a medical degree from Yale. Not to sound like too much of an educational snob, but that requires a whole heck of a lot more brains and hard work than getting a credential from some no-name state college (what the typical teacher holds). The typical newly credentialed teacher in the U.S. has a SAT score placing him/her in the bottom third of college graduates.

But back to my relationship with my child's pediatrician- while I do take into consideration her advice, I may or may not choose to follow it. She's not God and I'm not going to take what she says as the Gospel truth simply by virtue of her position. In general, I have a lot of confidence in her diagnostic skills and often follow her recommendations. But when it comes to a situation where we disagree about what's best for my individual child (such as whether to follow the standard vaccination schedule or a selective/delayed one), ultimately I'm going to make that judgment call.

Mr. Crosby goes on a 5 page diatribe against parents, insulting them as "nasty", "manipulative", "pushy", and "busybodies" simply because they dared to "question the authority and knowledge of the teacher". He laments that:
"In the old days, parents would listen to what teachers and principals had to say about their children without questioning their expertise or authority...But with [today's] teachers, half of whom have master's degrees, parents seem to have no compunction whatsoever about suggesting ways to teach their children.... As Evan Chase wrote in Edutopia, 'Somewhere along the line [parents] have gotten the implicit or explicit message...that they are somehow entitled to unprecedented influence over what their child will learn and think they know better than classroom teachers what's best for their kids.'"
I hate to break it to you Mr. Crosby, but parents DO know their children better than someone whose interaction with them is limited to around 1800 hours for the typical high school teacher. So please forgive us parents for having the nerve to believe that we should retain the ultimate say over our own kids.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Upcoming HS Social Studies Fair in San Jose

Registrations are now being taken for the upcoming Social Studies Fair for homeschoolers of all ages to be held on Saturday, November 1st from 1-3 P.M. The fair will be held at the recreation room of Mary Jane Hamman Park, S. Greenview and Westfield, near Hwy 17 in San Jose. There is no charge to enter, and all students will receive a certificate of achievement.

For more info, contact Katherine Ingram at katipokat(at)yahoo(dot)com.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

If NCLB Applied to Football

I couldn't find the original source on a quick Google search, but I personally came across it in one of the comments on Tamara Fisher's blog "Unwrapping the Gifted".

No Child Left Behind: The Football Version

1. All teams must make the state playoffs, and all will win the championship. If a team does not win the championship, they will be on probation until they are the champions, and coaches will be held accountable.

2. All kids will be expected to have the same football skills at the same time in the same conditions. No exceptions will be made for interest in football, a desire to perform athletically, or genetic abilities or disabiliites. ALL KIDS WILL PLAY FOOTBALL AT A PROFICIENT LEVEL.

3. Talented players will be asked to work out on their own without instruction. This is because the coaches will be using all their instructional time with the athletes who are not interested in football, have limited athletic ability, or whose parents don't like football.

4. Games will be played year round, but statistics will only be kept in the 4th, 8th, and 11th games.

5. This will create a New Age of sports where school is expected to have the same level of talent and all teams will reach the same minimal goals.

Sexual Activity Doubles Rate of Depression in Teen Girls

A new study published in the September 2008 issue of the medical journal Journal of Health Economics has found that teen girls who are sexually active exhibit double the rate of major depression when compared to girls of similar backgrounds who remain virgins. The research team based at the University of North Carolina examined data on more than 14,000 girls aged 14-17 from across the U.S. and found that these negative feelings could be directly ascribed to sexual activity, rather than outside influences such as family difficulties.

Dr Trevor Stammers, a lecturer on sexual ethics and chairman of the British Christian Medical Fellowship, told the Daily Mail that the new study confirmed that most girls:

"retrospectively showed regret about early intercourse....[The study] also shows as closely as we have been able to show so far that there is a genuine link between increased risk of depression and adolescent females engaging in sex. My experience is that, for girls, depression, regret and shame are very common."

This is just further proof that teenage sexual activity is unhealthy, particularly for girls. Not only do teen girls face the highest risks of any age group for unplanned pregnancy and contracting sexually transmitted diseases, this new study shows that they also face significant risks to their mental well-being. Regardless of one's beliefs on the morality of teen sex, it is quite clear that from a public health standpoint, abstinence is the only way to go for teens. As a society, we need to make sure this is the message we are sending to impressionable young people.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Why Isn't There More Attention Given to Maternal Mortality?

*HALF A MILLION* women this year will die as a result of pregnancy- or childbirth-related complications. While we moms fortunate enough to live in developed countries face a lifetime risk of maternal death of around 1 in 8,000, those in developing world face a risk of 1 in 76. In the worst countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the rate is a jaw-dropping 1 in 7. The majority of these moms die because they lack access to skilled birth attendants, proper pre- and post-natal care, and emergency obstetrical care.

Noting that the global epidemics of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis now receive lots of international attention and billions of dollars in funding, UNICEF's chief of health Peter Salama called for a similar effort for reducing maternal mortality:

"The time is right. We now know exactly what to do for maternal mortality reduction to make this one of the next big issues in global health."

I can't help but wonder how much racism plays a role in the neglect of attention paid to the problem of maternal mortality. 99% of the maternal deaths occur in the Third World, with over half occurring in sub-Saharan Africa.

I don't mean to belittle breast cancer activism, but that disease claims around the same number of women annually (the World Health Organization estimates there were 548,000 deaths from breast cancer worldwide in 2007) yet it receives far more attention than maternal mortality does. When's the last time you saw a pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness? When's the last time that you heard anyone talking about all the moms dying needlessly during pregnancy or childbirth?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Read for a World Record & Help Support Early Literacy

On Thursday, October 2, 2008, the JumpStart non-profit organization is sponsoring "Read for the Record" events all over the country. For each $10 donation, an at-risk child will receive a copy of the picture book Corduroy by Don Freeman. The goals are to promote early literacy among disadvantaged children and to set a new world record for reading the same book on the same day.

On the S.F. Peninsula, the Shelter Network organization will be hosting "Read for the Record" events at its homeless shelters for families in Daly City, San Mateo, Redwood City, and Menlo Park. They are also looking for volunteers to come read to a homeless child from 6-7 P.M. More information on the Shelter Network events can be found here.

For those living elsewhere, you can find a local "Read for the Record" event here.

This is a great way for parents to teach their children the importance of giving back to the community because it's understandable even by the very young. It's good to hear the call to practice charity in our churches/synagogues on the Sabbath but we need to show our kids how to put those teachings into action.

Carnival of Homeschooling is Up!

The "Nerd Family" blog is hosting this week's edition of the Carnival of Homeschooling here. Happy reading!

Monday, September 15, 2008

And In This Corner...

The website "Opposing Views" is currently hosting a debate between the Homeschool Association of California and the California Teachers' Association about the merits of homeschooling. You can add your comments here.

What I really want to know is why the CTA doesn't worry a bit more about the quality of education received by the ~85% of California's K-12 students who attend government-run schools and less about the ~5% who are homeschooling?

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Breath of Fresh Air

Brian Crosby is a veteran high school English teacher from Southern California who has written a very interesting new book called Smart Kids, Bad Schools: 38 Ways to Save America's Future. It's a fairly quick read and many of his ideas for improving government-run schools are eminently sensible. Some of his suggestions that I fully support include:
  • making schools' physical appearances and policies less like prisons
  • having larger class sizes with higher quality teachers in high school classes
  • having K-8 schools rather than separate middle schools or junior highs
  • not selling junk food or beverages on campus
  • having daily PE and a strong arts program
  • having high-quality vocational education for non-college bound students
  • merit pay for teachers
  • eliminating tenure
  • paying teachers in hard-to-staff schools and specialties more than others
  • ending social promotion
  • bringing back the teaching of basic civility, personal responsibility, respect for and consideration of others, and other virtues
  • more rigorous classes for gifted students
  • more field trips
  • incorporating community service
  • empowering teachers to actually do their jobs instead of being micromanaged by administrators and bureaucrats
  • less standardized testing
  • improving teacher preparation programs at the nation's colleges of education
  • having a career ladder for teachers
  • better fiscal management so that schools get more bang for their educational buck
  • requiring parental involvement
  • expelling chronically disruptive students
  • ending frivolous lawsuits by parents
  • placing caps on out-of-control special education spending
Other of his ideas I believe have merit for certain students but I'm not convinced should be mandatory for *EVERYONE*:
  • a year-round calendar. This should be an option available to those parents who want it. Research also suggests it may be beneficial for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. But middle-class families who prefer a traditional calendar should still have that option.
  • a longer school day. Ditto for what I said about a year-round calendar.
  • full-day kindergarten. Ditto. 30 hours per week is a long time for young children to be in an institutionalized setting away from their families. 15 hours per week may be much more appropriate for many five year olds.
  • charging parents for the cost of textbooks plus a flat tuition of $200 per child. I like this idea but believe it should be done as a sliding scale depending on the family's financial circumstances. Also, families should be permitted to substitute their own labor in lieu of a monetary contribution if they wish to do so.
  • abolishing homework. I agree with this for the lower grades where there's no evidence that assigning homework actually raises student achievement. In high school, however, I do believe that students should be expected to complete a reasonable amount of non-busywork assignments.
  • outlawing teachers' unions. I agree with Mr. Crosby's assertion that teachers' unions typically stymie educational reform. I'm not sure that I'd go as far as banning them outright, however. That seems a bit anti-democratic (note the very important small "d") to me. Sensible campaign finance reform would go a long way in reducing unions' role in blocking good ideas through political influence.
On a handful of issues, however, I feel Mr. Crosby is totally off-base. I'll discuss those in a future post.