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Bureaucracy is choking education

Bureaucracy is strangling public education as politicians continue to proclaim their concern for students while discussing numbers, not people.
Students are not numbers by default. Grownups turn them into numbers.

How many will be accepted? What is the attendance rate? How many graduated? How many met state guidelines? Who didn’t make the cut?

It’s easy to tally numbers such as test scores, enrollment, and the percentage of students of a certain ethnicity or income level. Measuring the level of content mastery for each individual student is not so simple. Students are young human beings and cannot be measured on a scale of 1 to 100. They can’t be stacked up like cordwood so journalists and politicians can compare one stack of kids to another.
Elementary and middle school students in Georgia are required to take the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). Bureaucrats and newspaper editors accept this test score as the measure of student achievement, but it will never be an accurate measure because the test is designed for students to fail. If too many students in a control group answer a question correctly, that question is thrown out. How could it be a good question if everyone knows the answer?
Student achievement is built on shaky ground to begin with because the curricular guidelines that set the baseline for student education–typically set at the state level–shift about every five years. The changes are usually punctuated with the noble goal of increasing rigor. The changes come just about when teachers are comfortable enough with the old curriculum being replaced to help students learn at a profound level.
Elementary teachers and students are expected to wrestle with concepts of algebra recently reserved for high school. Students who may still struggle with spatial physical mathematical concepts are expected to master theoretical concepts like algebraic variables before they reach the sixth grade.
Most “real jobs” like the ones we want all of our college graduates to get have some sort of annual evaluation. Should an employee’s future depend on a single multiple-choice test or an objective review of your performance, achievement, and growth during the year? Forget about imaginary college grads. What about you? Are you ready to take that test? Be sure not to mark outside the bubble and please try not to make a mistake. If you correct an answer we must assume you’re cheating.You have 90 minutes to answer 100 questions.
Fail to meet the standard and you’re fired. Go!

Let teachers teach

State and federal legislators need to stop piling on new rules for teachers. Just as most folks shouldn’t tell their surgeon where to make the first cut, politicians shouldn’t presume they understand the business of education enough to continue cutting funding for public education. If they don’t step aside and let teachers teach, I fear our children are doomed.
For legislators to lead the U.S. back to the head of the class, they must have the courage to get out of the way, to empower school administrators with the authority to terminate bad teachers, and to reallocate resources to help good teachers do their job.

No Child Left Behind

A steady stream of analysis (and nonsense) has been written about the federal No Child Left Behind Act since the bill was introduced in Congress in 2001. Let’s just get this piece out of the way.

  • Pro — NCLB exposed some ugly realities about the disregard many educators had for some groups of students including minorities and students with special needs.
  • Con — The perverse rise of accountability despite evidence that measures adopted to measure performance are inadequate indicators of student success and miss the boat when it comes to gauging a student’s potential.

I would rather not get any deeper into NCLB without hip waders. Let me know if you want me to elaborate.

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Extravagent Defense for our Starving Nation

The Wall Street Journal published a series of charts explaining President Obama’s federal budget proposal.
It’s thrilling to see such a large amount of money allocated in two categories:

  • $82.2 billion reserved for Health and Human Services, and
  • $77.4 billion for Education.

Those social services rank 2nd and 3rd, respectively. Can you guess what took 1st Place? And how much could be allocated to it?
Defense. The budget for national defense takes the top spot with $670.6 billion.
Background: I know there is a need for a defense budget and a standing military. I don’t dispute that one bit. What I believe needs more explanation is why we spend significantly more than any other nation (or furthermore, more than many other nations’ combined military spending). Moving on…
If the chart published by the Wall Street Journal based on data from the Office of Management and Budget, Associated Press, and Dow Jones Newswires is correct along with my simple addition, the rest of the budget totals $572.3 billion, or $98.3 billion less than the defense budget.
Remember you can look at the Wall Street Journal’s charts for yourself, but for your information here and now, the budget areas by rank are:

  1. Defense
  2. Health & Human Services
  3. Education
  4. State and other international programs
  5. Veterans Affairs
  6. Homeland Security
  7. Housing and Urban Development
  8. Energy
  9. Agriculture
  10. Justice
  11. Treasury
  12. Transportation
  13. Labor
  14. Interior
  15. Commerce
  16. “Other”

Hmm. Can’t we lump a few more of those different areas into Defense? Veterans Affairs? Homeland Security? Let’s do that for the sake of argument and see how military matters continue to encumber the nation.

  • Defense + Veterans Affairs + Homeland Security = 62 percent, or $772.8 billion
  • Everything else = 38 percent, or $470.1 billion

Or let’s split the budget into three broad categories and review those allocations:
Defense and Military = 62 percent, or $772.8 billion
Social Services = 20 percent, or $247.1 billion
Infrastructure = 12 percent, or $148.4 billion
Other = 6 percent, or $74.5 billion
Do you feel safer knowing that 62 percent of the country’s $1.25 trillion budget is reserved for defense and military spending? Our you proud of the education your child receives at public school? What about those “other” public schools everyone is talking about?

Side note: When parents are asked about the state of public education, they often reply that their child’s school is excellent but that schools are generally in bad shape. See also: lawyers, doctors.

How much do other nations spend on their defense? Here is an unofficial and unscientific peek courtesy of the Internet:

The United States is far and away the global leader in defense spending. In 2007, the most recent year for which complete data is available, the United States approved $660 billion in defense budget authority (FY09 dollars). This figure includes funding for DOD’s base budget, DOE-administered nuclear weapons activities, and supplemental appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • With its budget of $660 billion, the United States spent more on defense in 2007 than the next 14 highest spending countries in the world combined.
  • The United States accounted for 43% of the world’s total defense spending in 2007.
  • In 2007, the United States spent 4.6 times more on defense than China, 7.7 times more than Russia, 85.2 times more than Iran, and 100 times more than North Korea.
    Source: The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

Wikipedia’s list of countries ranked by military expenditures (as a percent of the 2009 military expenditures vs the 2008 Gross Domestic Product) seems to corroborate claim from the Center for Arms Control. Here are the Top Five:

  1. United States – $663 billion, or 4.3 percent of its GDP
  2. China – $98.8 billion or 2 percent of its GDP
  3. United Kingdom – $69.2 billion, or 2.5 percent of its GDP
  4. France – $67.3 billion, or 2.3 percent of its GDP
  5. Russian Federation – $61 billion, or 3.5 percent of its GDP

And those are our allies. The first nation that could be considered “on shaky ground” is Saudi Arabia ranked at #8 with its defense budget of $39.2 billion.
Could someone please explain to me again why we are spending so much on defense and so little on making this nation a better place to live? Why are so many people in America poverty-stricken, malnourished, hungry, uneducated, and unemployed?
Why can’t we shift $100 billion or so to educate and improve the quality of life of U.S. citizens and less money making life a hassle for them in the name of defense and homeland security?

A Closing Note: I reserve the right to be wrong, but I think this is pretty close. This article is poorly researched and was written in about 45 minutes after getting rankled by a tweet about the White House budget proposal.

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Good Journalism is *Hard*

In my previous post I alluded to my background as a writer for local newspapers. Those publications served rural northwest Georgia. One of my editors shared some advice years ago that stuck with me; that reporters should write everything as if they’re explaining to a sixth-grader.
It is crucial for everyone to understand the complexities of government for this nation to continue to move forward in a positive way. Journalists must be able to explain the complications of municipal funding–where money comes from, how it’s spent, and why it’s spent that way–in a way that everyone who can vote can cast their ballot with confidence because the understand.
It doesn’t matter if the voter is a rich 17-year-old private school student, a 50-year-old cashier at the local clothing store who was a freshman when she dropped out of high school in 1975, or a 84-year-old retired farmer with a third-grade education. Everyone, every eligible voter, is empowered with the ability to change everything.
And that’s why a journalist’s job is so important. The writer must have a complete understanding of the material to redeliver it with clarity, brevity, and free of bias. It doesn’t matter if he is covering Teacher of the Year or the need for voters to approve a special tax to buy equipment to improve roads (because the ability to do the labor in-house is cheaper that contracted labor and will save money in the long run).
It means the writer must understand the county tax digest fluctuates based on new construction and annual property reassessments, and how those variables impact the value of the millage rates set by county, city, and state governments. And how the proposed tax for equipment can only be used to buy equipment and can’t supplement the property taxes used to pay employee salaries and benefits for the school district, city council, or county office.
It means understanding how state laws and local ordinances may impact the outcome of a court case and having knowledge of area history to keep everything in context for local readers.
Remember our farmer friend? He needs to understand all of that and way more to make an educated decision at the polls. He and millions of his pals are a part of this social experiment called democracy in America and journalists owe it to all of them to present the most complex issues in the most understandable way without killing the context of the content.
Good journalism is hard.