Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Praise of Not Knowing

A quite unusual op-ed piece managed to sneak its way on to the Sunday Opinion pages of the New York Times on Sunday, June 19. Called "In Praise of Not Knowing" and written by Tim Krieder, a writer and cartoonist who is preparing an essay collection entitled "We Learn Nothing," the piece celebrates the thrilling feeling which has become increasingly rare in the internet age of possessing knowledge of something that appears to be unknown to just about everyone else. The author recounts a time in the 1980s when he and a friend learned about an obscure contemporary classical music composer named Harry Partch and the delight they experienced in seeming to be the unique holders of this rarefied knowledge. This, of course, was before Mr. Partch could be googled and turn out to have, among other things, a lengthy Wikipedia entry to his credit.

In the end, though, what Mr. Krieder really wants to discuss is how rare it has become in an era of "instant accessibility" to enjoy the exhilaration of not knowing the answer to every question that can be posed. Not knowing, he argues, fuels curiosity and the drive to find things out. Having ready answers to everything, whether correct or not, actually deters the motivation to learn, to uncover life's greatest quandaries. More than ever, he seems to be arguing, we must work at keeping some of the available answers at bay. It follows, too, that we must value the questions at least as much as the answers, and devote more time to helping learners develop a sense of wonder and encouraging them to revel in what appear to be the unconquerable mysteries of life.

As Mr. Krieder says in his conclusion, learning to turn ignorance into mystery and not knowing into a sense of wonder may have become the most neglected of skills. "It turns out," Mr. Krieder affirms, "that the most important things in this life--why the universe is here instead of not, what happens to us when we die, how the people we love really feel about us are things we're never going to know."

So, I say, let the not knowing begin. We have nothing to lose but a few answers that were most likely arrived at prematurely without a whole lot of thought or effort anyway.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sanitized History is Boring History

Here's a little something I sent to the NY Times a while back that did not get into the newspaper:

Op-Ed Contributor

Sanitized history is boring history


Staten Island, N.Y.

Results released Tuesday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the gold standard of standardized tests, indicate that American students at all levels are alarmingly ignorant of the most basic facts of our own history. Sam Dillon of the New York Times reported on Wednesday, June 15th that only 20 percent of 4th graders, and a shockingly low 12% of high school seniors, showed proficiency on the history exam. The conclusion is inescapable that the vast majority of students possess virtually no knowledge of history.

As Dillon pointed out, most 4th graders could not explain why Abraham Lincoln was significant, and only a tiny percentage of students could identify what Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case, was about.

As a long-time educator and follower of educational trends, I am not at all surprised by these results. They are exactly what I expect. There has never been a time when American high school students have done well on history examinations. And there is every reason to believe that the level of historical knowledge among the general public is just as abysmal. Over the years, the New York Times has reported many times how little our 17-year-olds know, but it has also shown — using its own specially prepared tests — that adults don’t know much more than their children.

I believe that James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” has the most plausible answer for why we don’t know our history: History is not retained or understood because it’s almost always taught in a boring way — and the reason it’s boring has everything to do with the half-truths and outright lies we tell about it.

Is it really surprising that students don’t know about the Brown case when so many teachers provide them with so little historical context for understanding what a dramatic step forward that case represented? Why should our students know about Lincoln when we so frequently withhold from them what a wily politician he was or how far he progressed in his understanding of slavery and race during the course of the Civil War? Unlike a good movie about real life that is often interesting because all the boring parts have been taken out, we tend to teach history in high school with all the boring parts left in and all the really fascinating material removed so as to not to offend anyone.

This has been true for decades. Our history text books bored students to death for most of the 20th century because everything controversial about American life — including the racism, the sexism, the cultural genocides, the overwhelming social and economic inequities — has been omitted.

If we ever find the courage to tell the true and often tragic story of American history, our students will sit up, take notice, and learn. In the meantime, don’t expect change any time soon. Social studies is famous for being the most boring subject in school, and so it will remain as long as its textbooks and its teachers are unable to face up to the gut-wrenching but arresting truths about that history.

Stephen Preskill is the chairman of the Education Department at Wagner College on Staten Island, N.Y.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Golf Summit

So golf is in the news a lot lately owing to Speaker of the House John Boehner's success in goading the President of the United States into meeting for a so-called political summit on the links. The "summit" has, at this writing, already taken place. Nothing momentous was decided, but apparently Boehner won. I hope they had a nice conversation and all that, but I have at least two related quarrels about this match-up.

First, why does the President once again allow himself to be put into the weaker position? We all know that Mr. Boehner is a really good golfer and that Obama isn't. And, of course, none of this really matters, but to the extent it matters at all, it simply makes the President look worse. I mean really, can you imagine what would happen if they played one-on-one basketball? It would be a total rout; Boehner wouldn't have a chance. So why no basketball? Partly because the President truly is such a gentleman that he doesn't want to let someone even as puerile as Boehner feel bad. Such a match-up, we and the President imagine, would surely result in tearful humiliation for Boehner. Something Obama, the prince of civility, with all good but sometimes misguided intention, cannot countenance.

But don't you think it's also true that this little summit is meant to send a message about who really matters in America today? It's not the kind of person who plays basketball, who tends to be a person of color, who is poor and who is young. Nope, we embrace the golfers, rich, sheltered, older men with plenty of time on their hands. If you think this is meaningless symbolism, I would invite you to think again. It speaks volumes about who matters these days in this country and who doesn't.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Clara Luper - Pioneering Civil Rights Activist Dies

Where else but in the New York Times would the death of someone like Clara Luper be recognized, a true civil rights pioneer, whose fame, unfortunately, never transcended the boundaries of the State of Oklahoma? Nevertheless, her achievement was noteworthy. As an adult advisor to the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Luper had the courage and strategic acumen to stage a sit in at an Oklahoma City lunch counter in August of 1958 to protest Oklahoma's legal statutes supporting racial segregation. This was a full 18 months before four Black students from North Carolina Agriculture and Technical College received national attention for refusing to leave a Greensboro lunch counter.

Although not given national publicity, the sit-in campaign that Luper led to desegregate the lunch counters at the Katz's Drug Stories continued for years. It eventually led to the full integration of the chain's 38 stores scattered throughout the lower Midwest.

Clara Luper was also the first African American to earn a master's degree in history from the University of Oklahoma 1951. Born in 1923, she taught in Oklahoma City schools until retirement in 1991. Although she was proud of what she accomplished as a teacher, she also observed that teaching and preaching were the only vocations available to Blacks in the 1940s and 1950s. Teaching was her only real chance at practicing a profession. From 1960-1990 she also hosted her own radio program about efforts to promote equity and racial justice and she eventually wrote an autobiography called "Behold the Walls." In the later 1950s, she was so inspired by Dr. King's efforts in Montgomery, Alabama that she wrote a play about his campaign for nonviolence called "Brother President." This play, which was produced in New York City, helped to make possible a trip that Luper and her students took to Gotham in 1957. The experience of being in a city where there was relatively little overt racial discrimination led Luper and her students to launch a campaign in Oklahoma city to end public segregation.

At first, Luper and her students wrote letters to public officials and newspapers to express their opposition to segregation. But when all of the conventional ways of making change proved ineffectual, Luper and her students opted for something more dramatic: Lunch counter sit-ins. As Clara Luper herself put it in a television interview with Oklahoma Television, the point was "to do what I could do while I could - to eliminate segregation of all kinds." See this link for a videotaped interview with Clara Luper:

In an interview in a blog called StoriesinAmerica, Luper was asked in 2005 what it meant to her to be a Christian. Her answer could not have been simpler or more timely. She said plainly: "Being a Christian means expressing Christian ideals all wrapped up in one package that's called love. That's all I have to do is love. Love your enemies. If you can love, you can live." The wisdom of Clara Luper, Oklahoma teacher and activist, dead at age 88.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Elizabeth Warren Again!

In another column praising Elizabeth Warren's selfless commitment to helping consumers make sense of the financial products that some unscrupulous bankers want to pawn off on them, columnist Joe Nocera reminds us that Warren has become a great ally of the ordinary person. In establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, she is simply trying to make sure that everyday people get all the information they need when conferring with bankers. This is a clear case of someone trying to look out for the millions of ordinary people who are often manipulated into purchasing financial products they neither want or need and that may even threaten their financial security.

Who wouldn't want to get behind such goals? Apparently, most of the Republican Party that continues to block her nomination as head of the new Bureau. They claim that placing her in this position could threaten the financial system. As Mr. Nocera puts it: "How, precisely, an agency that tries to keep financial consumers from being gouged threatens the system is something no one ever explains." And the reason they don't explain it is because these politicians are in the hip pocket of the Big Banks. Doing anything that might upset the Big Banks appears to be anathema to the Republicans. Yet none of this filters down to the ordinary person who continues to think that Republicans and Democrats are the same. When the reality is, in fact, undeniably obvious. Republicans will always opt to support the leaders of large, well established institutions over the needs and concerns of less privileged people. Big banks over individual consumers.

Somehow, this conflict needs to be reported for the revealing story that it is: A fight between bigness and smallness in which the Republicans seem to be opting, almost without exception, for bigness. In the meantime, as Nocera says, it is important for Obama to continue to support Warren, even if it means her nomination is not approved. Nocera, for one, seems to look forward to this eventuality, for if Warren's nomination did go down, then "Americans would be able to see, in the starkest way imaginable, who’s trying to help them — and who’s not."

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mad Libs Creator Dies

Some sad news was reported in the Times today. Leonard B. Stern, a successful television writer and co-creator of the ___________________[adverb] successful children's word game called Mad Libs, died on Tuesday at the age of 88. Since the late 1950s, when Mad Libs first appeared, something like ___________________[number] million copies of the Mad Libs tablets have been sold. A seemingly endless source of amusement for children on ____________________[mode of transportation] trips or during any long period of _____________________[noun or gerund], these games also taught children __________________[noun] in a manner that was __________________[adjective] and _______________________[another adjective].

The story goes that the idea for the game dawned on Mr. Stern while writing a script for _____________________________________[name of TV show] when he needed just the right descriptive word. He turned to a colleague and requested an adjective. His colleague, the humorist Roger Price, gave him two: "clumsy" and "naked." When Mr. Stern ___________________________[adverb] laughed, the two men realized they had hit on a potentially ______________________[adjective] idea. Unable to find a publisher willing to take a risk on this venture, they published the books themselves. The rest is _______________________[noun].

Actually, Stern was an incredibly successful and _______________________[adjective] writer for television, but _______________________[adverb], Mad Libs would become his most acclaimed creation. It helped, though, to be a known commodity and to write ______________[adverb] for ______________________[noun]. Steve Allen, the noted variety show host, introduced the game on his television program in 1958 and sales _____________________[past tense verb].

Mad Libs continues to sell and the names of Leonard Stern and Roger Price _______________[verb] on. Rest in ____________________[noun] Mr. Stern.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What the Rich Want

Today I am struck by two articles in the New York Times, both having a connection to the lives of the rich and the privileged. One article is about the huge amounts of money (up to six figures annually) that wealthy parents are paying to have their children tutored for rigorous, challenging courses taught at places like the Riverdale Country School and the Dalton School. The second article, less obviously related to this theme, is Thomas Friedman's column featuring environmentalist Paul Gilding who argues that in a world of dwindling resources we all need to find ways to enjoy life more but by relying on far "less stuff."

I like Friedman's column, but it also has me thinking about who it is exactly that will be expected to get by on "less stuff." Consider the obscene amounts of money the rich are expending to ensure that their children perform well in a single class. Can there be any doubt that one of the reasons they do this is to maintain their position at the apex of the economic and social hierarchy? I can't help thinking that even as most of the rest of us are asked to jettison our superfluous stuff, a mighty elite will continue to joyfully expand their already mountainous pile of possessions.

This mounting inequity surely will be the cause of our decline if we don't do something about it soon. For every person who says, rightly, that we must get by on less stuff, I want somebody else to stand up and declare that we must begin with the very wealthy few who will agree to go first, not just as an example to others but also because their lifestyles, if not constrained, will yet sink the democratic ship of state.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Michael Winerip

Those of us who care about meaningful schooling and have become impatient with current trends in so-called education reform are increasingly finding a thoughtful and articulate ally in Michael Winerip, the author of the Times' On Education column that appears every Monday. As the work week begins, Winerip can be counted on to single out a school or a reform or a practice that he thinks merits analysis and that he ties skillfully to the larger educational policy landscape. Unfriendly to No Child Left Behind and inclined to support teachers' unions, Winerip also tries to avoid offering up easy answers or relying on predictable harangues.

In today's Times, he writes about PAR - Peer Assistance and Review - a program for developing struggling teachers that has proved quite successful in Montgomery County, Maryland over the last 11 years. PAR is staffed by hundreds of highly skilled instructors whose job it is to work with teachers regarded as low performers - whether young or seasoned - and to take responsibility for mentoring them toward greater effectiveness. A key part of the PAR Program are the 16 educators - 8 teachers and 8 administrators - who comprise the PAR panel. The panel reviews the documentation provided by the struggling teachers and their mentors and decides whether they should be retained or let go. According to Winerip, this program has led to the firing of 200 teachers and the decision on the part of some 300 others to resign rather than undergo the PAR review process. It has taken time and effort to make this program work and a tremendous level of trust had to be built up to make it sustainable, but it now enjoys nearly universal praise from teachers, administrators, and union leaders.

Despite this success, however, Montgomery County and its PAR Program are not eligible for the Education Department's Race to the Top Funds because there is no provision in PAR for assessing teaching effectiveness based on the state test results of students in classes taught by the teachers being evaluated. Such a provision is a hard and fast requirement to secure federal monies. Superintendent of Montgomery County Schools, Jerry D. Weast, resists this demand and says that they will be turning down the money as long as this requirement stands. "We don't believe the tests are reliable," Dr. Weast observes, and then adds, "You don't want to turn your system into a test factory."

The upshot, as Mr. Winerip so brilliantly points out, is that Montgomery County is ineligible for federal funds despite an 11-year program that has shown itself to be a clear winner. Whereas the State of Maryland as a whole, not counting Montgomery County, IS eligible for this money even though its own plan, evaluating teachers for how their students do on state tests, does not even exist yet!

Is this what the world of education reform has turned into? Can it be accurately summarized as a world where you get something for nothing and virtually zilch for doing something really quite remarkable? Probably not. Sounds like too easy an answer or too predictable a harangue. But that must be the way it looks these days in Montgomery County.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Letter to the Times (Not Published)

Today I am going to include a letter I wrote to the New York Times back on May 29th in response to an article by Gretchen Morgenson that cited a financial expert who said debt was unusually high, especially in a time of peace. Except, of course, we're spending billions every day to maintain at least two wars, maybe three. The Times requires that letters not be published anywhere else, so I had to wait for their decision before copying it here. I think I can be pretty sure at this point that they won't print this letter. Pity. What could be more Orwellian than for responsible commentators to claim we are in peacetime when we are clearly at war.

To the Editor:
In her May 29th, 2011 column in the New York Times Sunday Business
section, Gretchen Morgenson, a usually reliable reporter on financial
issues, allows a dangerous and insidious error by Joseph E. Gagnon, a
much praised senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International
economics, to go uncorrected. At one point, Gagnon is reported to have
said: “It is unique in peacetime for so many countries to have so much
debt.” Stunned, I searched the article for a correction. None came.
Last time I checked the United States is spending billions of dollars
every day on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya. This is hardly
peacetime for the United States. But perhaps it is not surprising that
Mr. Gagnon would make such a statement, as it has been the strategy of
American leaders at least since 2003 to wage war and risk thousands of
American lives, while exacting so little sacrifice from most of the
rest of the American people. The fact that Mr. Gagnon can claim we
live in a time of peace when we are plainly mired in multiple wars
shows how morally bankrupt our position has become. The first issue
that must be addressed in any discussion of the debt crisis is the
money being wasted in senseless conflicts. Everything else is

Stephen Preskill
170 West End Avenue, Apt. 6S
New York, NY 10023

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Losing Ida

As a pretty sophisticated Central Park Zoo polar bear and therefore as a regular reader of the New York Times, I just couldn't resist adding to what the Times had to say today about the passing of my beloved Ida who died yesterday at the very advanced age of 25 (quite old for polar bears).

The Central Park zookeepers finally put Ida to sleep because her liver cancer was incurable, while also causing her a great deal of pain. I had tried to get them to do this earlier, but they have always been rather reluctant to listen to me.

Most of what the Times had to say about Ida is true. She was born in Buffalo and did come to the Central Park Zoo at the age of 2. I was already there and we bonded almost immediately. We have been nearly inseparable ever since.

I don't know if you recall this, but years ago I was diagnosed with depression. The zookeepers never did quite figure out what was wrong with me, and, honestly, I can't remember myself what brought it on. I just know that I felt like I didn't want to live any more. But Ida was so gentle and so patient with me during this whole time. Because of her devotion to me, I fell in love with her all over again. For years afterward, my happiest moments were those many times when Ida and I cuddled together, a scene captured by thousands of photographers.

Now I have no one to cuddle with. Ida is gone and I am alone. A polar bear without a cuddling partner can't be fully himself. But now my fond memories of Ida keep me going. She was so special, a one-of-a-kind polar bear. Those who saw her often know what I mean. Those who never got a chance to see her will just have to imagine what a life force she was - for me and everyone who knew her.

Your Mourning Friend,


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Waiting for Diane Ravitch?

That tiny sliver of humanity who, like me, actually follow what historians of education have to say about school reform, almost certainly were once again dismayed to read Diane Ravitch's latest op-ed piece in today's New York Times.

For the uninitiated, Ravitch has been writing about reform and the history of American education since at least the mid-1970s. Her teacher and mentor was the late Lawrence Cremin, a great scholar who won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1981 for the second volume of his 3-volume history of American education, a truly unique achievement, that even in her best moments Ravitch could never possibly match. Over the years, however, as a result of books like "The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980," "Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms," and, more recently, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education," Ravitch has become the only historian of education who is even occasionally read by the general public. She was also, far more infamously, a leading member of the Federal Department of Education during the "No Child Left Behind" years of President George W. Bush. You'd never know, given how contemptuous she is of this law now, that she helped to spearhead its passage back in 2001.

At any rate, her column today entitled "Waiting for a School Miracle," draws on a series of examples from places like Denver, Chicago and Florida to show that claims of dramatic school improvement are invariably exaggerated by school officials. She concludes with this lesson: be skeptical of all claims of educational transformation. Such transformations are virtually impossible given the achievement gap that already exists between children from high income and low income families even before they actually enter school. She then meekly calls for better parental education and has the temerity to end with this: "If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved."

Such a statement from one of the architects of "No Child Left Behind," a law which assumed from the beginning that the achievement gap could be overcome through educational reform alone, without doing anything to alter the socio-economic status of poor children, utterly takes my breath away. My fury is hard to contain when I read something like this. Where has Diane Ravitch been? How dare she make such an obvious yet absurd observation that if every child came from a stable home with a steady income, that the achievement gap could be closed. The entire history of recent education reform has pitted those who claim that great educational progress can be brought about without resorting to other social and economic reforms against those who argue that full-scale educational change is impossible without attacking poverty directly. How she can sashay onto the op-ed page of the New York Times to spew her half-truths about reform is beyond me. Just because she says so doesn't mean that dramatic educational transformation is impossible. In fact, the evidence is overwhelming (and is far more complex than 3 superficially explained anecdotes) that when the conditions are right such transformations do occur. But, even worse, not to concede she was dead wrong about her support of No Child Left Behind and is responsible for subverting efforts to foster educational change paired with vigorous efforts to promote greater economic equity, is intellectually dishonest at best.

It is time for her step out of these debates altogether. The confusion she has engendered with her constantly shifting opinions and the ways in which she has undermined genuine educational reform makes her a problematic figure to all sides of this debate. Step aside, Ms. Ravitch, so that others can take the lead unhampered by your poorly thought out and inconsistent recommendations. Your time has past. We are done waiting for your next unsupported and uncorroborated pronouncement about what educators should do next to usher in authentic reform.