Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Icons and I can't

So now the media is fixated on Tiger Woods and the fact he can't drive straight and keep himself on the fairway or the driveway. The frenzy has brought out hordes of scum artists who are looking for the juicy tidbit around the green. The lastest is Tiger has said he "transgressed" and that he is sorry.Having brought him off his lofty perch, we will see if they begin to let him lie or give him a mulligan.

Meanwhile in Washington, that "Tiger Woods Guy" (dubbed so by Will Farrell during his impersonation of George Dubya) who is president has been trying to fight off all sorts of insults and insinuations--he was born on a different continent, he is a Nazi, a socialist, and a teleprompter junkie. The claims have come faster than Joe Biden's gaffes. It seems he can do nothing that will satisfy the critics. Glenn Blecck's most recent salvo is that he is not following his generals even though the Constitution that Blecck so claims to revere makes it pretty clear that the President is the Commnader in Chief and it is the generals who should do the following.

But I am not writing about Tiger Woods driving ability or his marital skills or the President's policies. I am writing about us. What makes us the creatures who elevate people to impossible heights so that we can celebrate their fall? We weren't content to know that Woods is the greatest golfer likely to ever putt. We also made him a paragon of all that is virtuous. It is not enough that the "Tiger Woods Guy" we put in the White House was a first and one highly bright and talented dude--we had to make him into the second coming. Guess what-- he isn't and neither is Tiger.What we have are two men who do what they do with skill and ease that makes them purveyors of excellence. What they aren't are demi-gods. They aren't perfect. Tiger not only prowled--he strayed. Barack has dived into his plate of horrors that he was handed with gusto and confidence, even though he will get a lot of it wrong. It isn't about what they can do or not do.It is about what we shouldn't do. We shouldn't enbue our icons with all manner of virtue. They are men (or women in other cases) who err and fall and may rise again. Our focus should not be on their perfection but on their struggle. That is the human condition and we are all driving down that path together.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Nobel Son (and Daughter)

Much has been made of the recent honor afforded President Obama by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. Objections have come from a number of places with complaints of "too soon," "he hasn't done anything yet," or "he is leading two wars, how can he be honored for peace?" The far right have shown their dexterity, if not their consistency, by following their celebrations of the loss of the Olympics by Chicago, which they claimed showed Obama's weakness in the world, with thier dismay that the world has now honored the President with the greatest international prize given. I have to admit I have enjoyed watching the talk shows hosts' heads explode as they process this. We have seen conservatives cheer when America loses and scream when it whens. Strange times we ar living in.

And that is the point. The Nobel committee said they gave the prize for the good work that Obama had started and for his setting a new tone. Some have suggested, quite accurately, that a lot of this has to do with the fact he isn't George W. Bush. The realty is that the world became accustomed to a United States that had a "my way or the highway' attitude and if you weren't with us, you were against us. This dualistic view of history created division and distress around the globe. President Obama has acted as the "anti Bush" by offering a collaborative and inclusive vision for the rest of the world.

I was in Cusco Peru the night of the election and it was interesting to see the celebrations in the street, the smile on waiters faces and the children in classrooms the next day yelling "Obama, Obama." It was an election the world followed closely and celebrated mightily. No wonder then that the Nobel committee honored Obama--and for that all American's should be grateful--for it was a prize given to all of us. Conservative columists George Will, just a few days before the announcment, intoned, as only he can, that around the world Obama is adored and ignored. Well,not so fast with that ignoring assumption George.

In the provocative book "The Age of the Unthinkable" author Joshua Ramo posits that the rules of how the world works have changed dramatically in the recent past and that to cope with this requires greater flexibilty and openness to alternative ways of seeing the world. It seems to me that the selection of Obama as the peace prize winner is a perfect example of how the old ways of measuring success must be altered. If the most powerful nation on earth does not have a leader that is capable of being open and inclusive, then there may not be a world left where life time acheivement awards can be given.

But there was other Nobel news beyond the Obama selection and the fact that most of the winners in the other categories were American. The one that was most interesting to me was the selection of Elin Ostrom as the first female economics laureate. I was taken, not so much with her breaking the glass ceiling, but for what she was honored for.

Her work was recognized because she had shown that local communities were more effective at using their resources in a common collaboration than if the government had controlled the resources or if they had been privitized. This has great implications for public education. The history of public education has been a community based system of local control. Of late the model has shifted to a state and federally run control system with great pressure being applied to expand the issue of privitization into schools. While you don't have to be a Nobel Prize winner to understand that may not be a good idea, it is great to have one prove so. Thank you Laureate Ostrom and thank you Barack Obama for proving that little things mean a lot in the larger world.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Stupid Is

I have been watching with facination the recent controversy over the President's speech to school children scheduled for the day after labor day. Big chunks of the "Ropublican'ts" are up in arms that the President would dare speak to school children. Some of the "Democranks" are up in arms that the issue is even arrising. As a long-time school leader, I have found myself sypathizing with school leaders across the country who are damned if they show the speech and damned if they don't.

In 1991 President George H.W.Bush gave a similar speech to students. This was a year before his reelection campaign. I was a superintendent and didn't much care for that president--I found his push for vouchers and his unending criticism of schools offputting. Some questioned the political motivation and timing. My district, like most, showed the speech which turned out to be a rather benign call for students to apply themselves. Early reports are that President Obama plans a similar call to duty. So, what's all the fuss?

It appears there is a sizeable segment of our country who thinks anything this president does is tainted and that he is out to "brainwash" our youth. Since these are the same folks who like to compare him to Hitler or call him a "socialist" (that is a straddle that stretches credulity and the hamstrings!) they feel he is some dark influence. I suspect some see him as the Dark Lord Volemort from Harry Potter. I kind of thought that might have been Dick Cheney, but what do I know?

Let's get a grip folks. He is the President, recently elected and he won't be running again for over three years. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt. If he is dumb enough to try to turn this event into a political one or one that pushes his agenda then he will deserve all the opprobrium that will come his way. Since when is this country a place that the duly elected President can't speak to our children and ask more of them? I keep seeing protests on television that people are screaming they want their country back. Well, so do I. I want an America where the President is, if not revered, at least respected and where the crazies don't dictate what everyone else can see and do. Forrest Gump's mother used to tell him that "stupid is as stupid does." Let's stop "doing" stupid, if only for a little while.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Oh, Canada

A few weeks ago I was priviledged to speak to a group of school leaders from Manitoba. I was there with a couple of my colleagues from the Center for Empowered Leadership to share some of our work with our Canadian counterparts. A couple of major lessons emerged from the experience.

First, I found the Manitoba leaders unusually interested in a wide variety of topics. They were well read and had wide enthusisam. They were very open to new ideas and were looking for solutions. As they told me about their work I realized how creative and "out of the box' they seemed to be. I was curious about this and asked them if they could tell me why that was so. The immediately pointed out that in Canada, Manitoba was the last provice to try to interfere with local school jurisdictions. They were not saddled by provincial tests and requrirements which allowed them to find their own solutions.

Ther great irony here is that one of the single biggest reasons for America's international dominence, in my opinion, has been our tradition of local control. We have historically encouraged states and local districts to address their unigque issues in unique ways. Of late, this has started to slip with increased pressure from Washington and the states taking back much of their power from local districts. Before we go too far, perhaps we need to visit Manitoba to be reminded of the energy created when people are allowed to exercise their own creativity to solve their problems.

The other lesson I got was about health care. Given the current controversy in the U.S. on this topic and given the scare tactics used by oppoents includinlg making the Canadian system a poster child for the perils of "socialized" medicine, I was anxious to get their take on it. First, they found our "town hall" meetings funny and scary. I was surprised by how much they knew about what was happending in the U.S. One of them said when you sleep by a 1000 pound bear, you keep your eyes open.

Everyone I talked with liked their system. They found it fair, comprehensive and affordable. They couldn't imagine going back to a non governmental model. I asked them about the horror stories of the long waits for service. Tehy said that was nonsense. They said if you have an elective, non emergency issue, you might have to weait. (I thouht of the three month wait I had to get to a specialist her." They said that whatever you needed you got, regardless of cost. (I thought of my friend who had just been told by her insurance company that she couldn't get an MRI because it was too expensive.) I asked about the stories of Canadians coming to the U.S. for treatment. They said, yes, I you need the Mayo Clinic, it is in the U.S., but our government pays for hte service. (I thought of the thousands of Americans who go acrosst he border to buy their medicine because it is much cheaper in Canada.)

The real take on socialized medicine was Clint who told me that if he and a homeless person needed the same treatment they would both get it, no questions asked. Perhaps that is what we are really afraid of--equal treatment. Perhaps we could learn from Clint who went on to say, "and that is the way it should be." I am not sure how much of the spiritual lessons we had served up to them had taken. I am not sure because they seemed to have already mastered them.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Call of the Lion

Much has been said and will be said about Sen.Ted Kennedy, called by many "the Lion of the Senate." While I did not always agree with his policy positions I had the upmost admiration for him as a person and as a leader. I got to meet him on a few occasions and I found him warm and approachable.

Once I was in his office with the president of my organization giving him a plague in recongnition of his servcie to education. It was in late fall and while we waited for him, we noticed a boxed flag behind his desk. We asked his aide if by any chance that was the flag from President Kennedy's coffin that we have all seen in newsreels. She indicated that it was and that every year between November 22, the date of JFK's death, and Christmas, the Senator kept the flag in the office. She said during that time he is never quite himself--sad and somber. After Christmas he removes it and his mood lifts. He came in and there was, indeed, a sadness in his eyes. It struck us that few have seen the highs and lows that this man had seen--being a revered Senator, brother of a president and another senator, born to wealth and priviledge, and yet enduring tragedy after tragedy and taking on the burdens of his extended family and by even greater extension the family of man that he fought so hard for thoughout his career.

I told him I had grown up in West Virginia and one of my great memories was seeing him and his two brothers on the steps of the courthouse in Huntington, West Virginia during the 1960 primary. He talked about what a tough race that was because of his famiiy's religion and how my native state was not very Catholic. Then he told a story about JFK meeting in Wheeling, West Virginia with a group of protestant ministers who had been opposing his election. JFK talked about his brother Joe who had been killed in World War II flying a military mission. JFK pointed out that the other person killed in the plane was a young man who happened to be Baptist and who was from Wheeling, West Virginia. JKF had told the congregated ministers that as they boarded that plane neither his brother or his compatriot had asked each other which church they went to on Sunday. They were just two American boys going off to fight and die for their country. It is easy today to forget the various prejudices we have overcome in this country and yet, watching the news we can see how much further we have to go.

My other memory of Teddy was when I was invited to speak at a weekend study retreat for the Democratic members of the Senate. It was held at a beautiful resort in western Pennsylvania. I had been able to have lunch with the Senator and got to talk extensivly with him at the reception before the barbeque dinner. After dinner the Senators had a square dance, something my hillbilly roots could relate to. What I was not prepared for was who they ask to call the dances--Senator Edward M. Kenndey of Masschusetts. It was a Zen experience to hear that boomng baritone, with the thick New England accent, yelling out to "dosie doe your partner." He did a great job but the joy on his face and the joy he spread with his colleagues was priceless. One of the calls in a square dance is to "go back home." He has and we shall all miss him.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Don't Just Do Somethng, Stand There--And Yell

America has been built upon it's "can do" spirit. We excelled as a country because we believed we could do anything and be anything. Our deepest values revolve around being a land of the free and the home of the brave. I don't know about you but lately that has seemed to change. We are becoming a land of the mentally constipated and the home of the fearful. "Can Do" has been replaced with "Can't Do." And the soaring motto of President Obama's campaign of "Yes We Can" is being usurped by a sense of "No We Won't."

It is hard to know where and when the shift to fear and helplessness started but certainly the horrific events of 9/11 put a sense of unease across the land. This was accelerated by the Bush administration that played on the fear and magnified it with a society reduced to color codes telling us how afraid to be. We were surrounded by those who wanted to destroy us for our freedom, so we capitulated and surrendered our freedom so we could stay free. This cognigive dissonance has led us to where we are today. We want what we are unwilling to make happen.

Meanwhile, the election of a vibrant, articulate, Black president was viewed as hope my many. He becme the Great Black Hope for people of all races. He told us that "Yes We Can" and we saw the possibilities of being n control of our lives and our fortunes. Fate intevened in the form of an economic meltdown and much of that hope was put on hold. meanwhle we thought we had emerged into a "post racial" world, but really we just crossed into a "post racist" world. Fear of the "other" rose in the land and some even were fearful of a "wise Latina woman" sitting on the Supreme Court. Some claim our country has an illigitimate president who could only produce the standard birth certificate to prove he was American. As an aside, my own birth certificate is so old and faded I am not even certain I was born anywhere. Obama's election was called into question--by those who were perfectly happy to see a president voted in on a 5-4 vote in the Supreme court. Then those who were on the losing end were told to shut up and sit down. Probably not a bad policy in today's climate. Old ideas and predjudices die hard and change does not come easily.

Today we see politicians of both parties, but I would have to say more Republican than Democrat, who see "No" as the answer to every question and fear as the motivator of human expression. We were told by some only a few months into Obama's administration that he had failed, or others who said they they wanted him to fail not understanding that his failure would fall on all of us, red and blue alike. While I like Obama personally, I certainly don't agree with all his policies. I didn't like George W. Bush, and the longer he was president, the less I liked him. But I can honestly say I never once wanted him to fail anymore than I want to see Obama fail. When you are in a fragile boat, punching holes in the bottom to spite the captain seems foolish.

In the last few days we saw the return of two of our citizens from captivity in North Korea and were told by the conservative talking heads that this wa a sign of weakness on our part for even going after them. And we have seen a piece of the stimulus package (which had been soundly criticized by talk radio, Fox News and Republican leadership) run out of money in one week because so many people were turning in their gas guzzling cars and buying new ones, which helps our flagging auto induntry and improves the environment. Since it was a win all around, what do the "Nattering Nabobs of Negativism" (to borrow a phrase of an earlier political period) have to say? That the Obama administration had screwed up because they had not planned for it to be so successful. My mother always told me if you can't say something nice about someone then don't say anything. Rush "Dimbulb," Bill O'"Really?", Sean "Vanity" and Glen "Blech!" apparently were taught something else by their mothers.

"Birthers," "Deathers," and screaming mobs who want to protect their Medicare from government I am still not sure how that works!) are not the problem--they are the result of the problem. Leaders in the media and politics need to understand that while they are scoring political points, they are undermining the one thing that holds us together as a nation--our ideals. When that is gone, we will really have cause to be afraid--very,very afraid.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Gates to Gates

In 1991 Rodney King, an African American was beaten by four white members of the Los Angeles police department. Unlike many claims of "police brutality" this was caught on tape and led to the trial of the four officers.LAPD chief Darryl Gates insited that his men were merely doing their duty. In essence he asked that the public believe him rather than their lying eyes. The tape revealed the officers tasering King and then using their nightsticks to beat him into submission. They claimed that he was under the influence of drugs and was resisting arrest. The officers argument prevailed at trail and their acquitals touched off an eruption of violence and rage in the black community of Los Angles. Riots lasted for days resulting dozens of deaths and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage.

Chief Gates moved to the center of the controversy and his many appearances on television did nothing to assuage the mood of the black community. In fact, many of his statements seemed to show a lack of sensitivity to the issue of race and the historic interplay between police and the black community. For years I have heard my black friends joke in a rueful manner about being stopped by the police for "driving while black." That is the term used to label the reality that blacks are stopped and arrested by the police at a much higher rate than whites. Many times these arrests are with the flimiest of cause. The issue of "racial profiling" has emerged from this concern.

Now, in mid 2009 we have seen another Gates hit the news because of this issue. The time it is Professor Henry Gates of Harvard who, in one of the many ironies of this case, is considered to be the leading American scholars of race. He was arrested by the Cambridge Police, shortly after trying to enter his own home. It seems a neighbor had seen two black men with backpacks trying to force the front door of the house. The men were professor Gates and his driver who ws tryig to help me force open the stuck door. Dr. Gates was inside his home when the polic arrived and became incensed at the officers for accosting him in his own home. They claim he became loud and difficult and they arrested him for this behavior, cuffed him and took him to jail.

This has caused another firestorm across the nation with many lining up behind the officer, who ironically was a model officer and a trainer for the department on racial sensitivity issues. Officer Crowley claims he was merely following procedure which procuced echoes of Los Angeles in the minds of many African Americans. Most African Americans I have heard comment on the case see it merely a one more evidence of the disparate tratment of blacks in this society. Even President Obama has been caught up in the controversy when he suggested that the Cambridge Police were "stupid" for arresting a man for breaking into his own home. He has sense disavosed his language but continued to suggest the incident was troubling.

As with any issue the details of this incident for open to interpretation. Perhaps Professor Gates was treated more harshly simply because he was black. Perhaps Officer Crowley indeed followed the letter of the polcy manual. Or perhaps we had two men indulging in some "macho maashup" letting their egos and different perspective escalate a situation beyond its normal limits.

What is clear is that while America has come a long way in our relations between the races, the racial lens is still applied first when incidents like this occur. All this comes on the heels of the hearings for Puerto Rican Sonia Sotomayor for supreme court justice. At those hearings and in the run-up to them, the nation was "treated" to a litany of white men, many of whom had demonstrated their own racial insensitivity in the past suggesting that Sotomayor was a "reverse racist" for suggesting that a wise Latina might be a better judege that a white man.

What all American's should stipulate, up front, is that race still matters in this society. The election of a mixed race president who has addressed this issue quite eloquently, has not healed our divisions. In fact, his election seems to have raised the racial barometer for many whites. I seriously doubt if there is one person of color in the country who at one time or another has not been subjected to treatment based upon their race. This could be from being arrested unjustly or merely, as President Obama described in one of his books, waitng for the valet to deliver a car and having a white person throw him the keys, thinking he was the valet because he was black. And there is not a white person in America who hasn't at one time or another reacted to a person of color out of that lens rather than seeing beyond it. This could range from the ugly racism of jokes or actions, or merely getting steamed when a person of color seems to slow down when they cross the street in front of your car. Our nation has a long, dark history of racism. We fought a civil war, in part, because of it. We have had ongoing viloence because of it. It has cost us money and moral authority. And it has been a topic largely ignored in public discourse because it is so fraught with peril and pain. But we will never get past it until we brave the peril and face the pain.

Perhaps, taking a lead from President Obama and incidents like the one played out in Cambrige these las few days, we can open up the dialogue between the races. It is clear that we are not in a "post racial" time as some thought after Obama's election but maybe we can finally get to the the starting post of shedding light and understanding about this difficult issue. At last maybe we can follow the words of Rodney King in the midst of the riots,"can't we all just get along?"

Monday, June 29, 2009

Man in the Moon

My daughter Suzanne called me this weekend to talk about the death of Michael Jackson. It is interesting how one rather strange person could have touched the world the way he did. We all marveled at his gifts of music and movement. He was creative and iconic in so many ways. As he got older, he didn't really grow up which is the way he wanted it. He was taken with all things Peter Pan, going so far as naming his estate "Neverland" after the home of the lost boys. Accusations of child abuse and pedophilia made him a lost boy too. All that notwithstanding his legend is assured. I heard one analyst say that he was a modern "Benjamin Button" being born with the wisdom and gifts of an old man who got younger and less mature as he got older. His strange genius will give us much to think about in the years to come as we all ease on down the road.

The touchstone for Suzanne, her sisters and myself revolved around watching his videos together on Saturday mornings. He wasn't so much "Bad" as he was a "Thriller." The stunning moment for me came at the Motown 25th when he glided across the stage, indroducing the "Moonwalk" to the world. It was like watching magic become real. How could he move backward while walking forward? A few weeks later at the Princeton High School talent show Shammie Flenoid did a Jackson inpersonation and duplicated the moonwalk. I grabbed him in the hall the followig week and insisted he give me "moonwalk" lessons. I considered it a basic skill for a superintendent--moving backward as you appeared to be moving forward. I was convinced it was a skill I would use frequently, especially at board meetings. As the spring rolled on the moonwalk lessons continued everytime I visited the high school and could round up Shammie. I dutifully practiced at home.

I have to admit that while I thought I would use the skill in many circumstances, I only unveiled it once. It was at graduation. Shammmie was graduating and as he accepted his diploma from the principal, I waited on the side of the stage to shake his hand as I did for all the seniors. As he approached me and stuck out his hand, I stuck out mine and glided about four "moonwalk" steps back across the stage. He found himself chasing my hand. I am sure that is all he remembers from his graduation and it created quite a stir from the audience as well. My moonwalk career began and ended that day but I continued to brag to friends that I was the only superintendent in America who could do the moonwalk.

Aside from the many hours of music I have enjoyed I have to thank Michael Jackson for giving me the sense of magic that comes far too infrequently in our busy and mundane lives and for giving me and my children a shared memory. Pop culture is often rightfully criticized for its coarseness and stupidiy but sometimes it brings us together in ways we don't fully understand. And sometimes it lets us share some magic.Vaya Con Dios M.J.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mullah-ing Over Iran

Like the rest of the world I have been following closely the situation in Iran. Since America has some recent history with what happens when someone gets elected who may not have really been elected, we can see that the future for Iran may not be pretty.

At home we have Sen. McCain and pals excoriating Presidant Obama for being soft on the Mullahs. This is the same McCain who about a year ago was captured joking about "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran." Now he is belittling the U.S. president for not being more forceful in dealing with the Mullahs. I suppose there is a consistency here if you dig deeply enough but on the surface we have him showing a new found senstive side by wanting to support the poor Iranian people against their leaders--the same people who would have been the recipients of the bombing he joked about.

So where do things stand? Whose up and down on the scorecard? Well, many (include me) think that President Obama has shown real leadership and nuance in his handling of the situation so far. Speaking softly seems wise when you have no stick to wield. Certainly it seems wiser than speaking loudly when you have nothing to back it up. We are already fighting two wars, suffering through a disastrous economy, and haven't had diplomatic relations with Iran for 30 years. We are already supporting economic sanctions against them. What do we have to threaten with that is meaningful--holding our breath until we turn blue? Others feel he has had his 3 o'clock phone call and has fumbled the receiver. Some think the Republicans have looked tough and agressive (that's a new one for the party of "shock and awe") while others think that once again they are suffering from hoof in mouth disease. Some see the Mullahs and clerics who have ultimate power and who lead Iran as having been weakened as they go about crushing resistence and consolidating their power. Others see the beginning of the end for the Islamic republic. Many see the cause of women having been furthered by the actions of the women on the street of Tehran. This, while the government moves agressively to suppress them.

I think the clear winners in all this are the people of Iran. They have shown their human face to the world. The iconic shooting of Neda and its world-wide sharing has put a face on one leg of the "axis of evil." It is not unlike the realization that grew during the Cold War that the Russians loved their children too. Yes, we will likely continue to have real problems with the government of Iran. But none as great as the people of Iran will have. Meanwhile we have come to see these same people as heroic, as yearning for things similar to what we yearn for and most of all, we have come to see them as human. Next time someone wants to sing "Bomb,bomb,bomb Iran" the face of Neda and her sisters and brothers is what we will all think of. Once you have humanized an enemy, they can no longer be your enemy.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Gaming the System

In a speech to the IES conference on June 8, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan laid out the current administration's educational agenda. As a life-long educator I have watched this with some interest. It seems, from my perspective, that we have a "kinder, gentler" version of the Bush educational approach; lots of belief in alternatives, but with some nodding to the need for more accountabilitiy for charter schools, a continued emphasis on testing with a nod to the reality that the tests we have aren't very good and lots of attention to creating a merit pay system for teachers. Since this administration came to office, in part, on the support of teacher unions this is seen as daring.

In his remarks Secretary Duncan was discussing some of the oppostion to their position and he stated that "somehow to suggest that we should not link student achievement to teacher effectiveness is like suggesting we judge a sports team without looking at the box scores." Now sports are something this secretary knows something about--he played basketball for Harvard, went to Australia to play professionally and his close connection to the president came, in part, through their shared pick-up basketball games. So he knows what he is talking about. Or does he?

Certainly box scores are important for giving an overview of how individual players performed. But we know that you can have one or two outstanding players with impressive statistics and still lose the game. In fact, bastketball coaches collect all sorts of data that does not appear in the box score--where shots were taken, fouls taken as well as given etc. But the greatest of current players and past players were great, not just for the statistics they generated. They are great beacuse of their attitude, their sense of competition and their will to win. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or LeBron James are great players not because they score a lot of points but because they carry their teams on their backs.And each of them found that winning championships was not just about them and thier exploits. They needed the right team around them. Duncan is right in drawing the sports analogy. Like sports, education is a people activity but that implies things like motivation, belief and teamwork are as important to victory as box socre statistics.

As we look to improve American education let's not lose sight of the fact that the box score is uesful for explainging the final outcome, but the final outcome will be shaped by the attitude of the players on the team and their will to win. In constructing these new "improvements" to education, such as merit pay, let's make certain that we don't win the game but lose the championship. Oversimplifying the issue is probably not a great idea.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Connecting the Dots

It has been an interesting week for news. We had the Tiller murder in Kansas, the shooting at the Holocaust Museum and the dust-up between David Letterman and Sarah Palin. What do these things have in common? I would suggest quite a bit. Sarah Palin has responded to Letterman's humor about her and her family with great indignation. It is difficult to know how much is anger and how much is calculation on her part. Declaring her kids offbase with the media seems a bit too little, too late as she has spent the last year parading them in front of the public. But now, she seems to have settled on the argument that Letterman's comments demean young women and lead to the coarsening of our society and that it gives comfort to those who would prey on young women.

While I think taking one questionable joke and using that to blame the plague of abuse and misuse of young women may be a stretch she has one valid point--words matter. And when enough words are spoken over the airwaves it can either give permission to those who may have strange ideas to act on those ideas or, at best, it sets a tone of disrespect or worse. Which brings me to the other two incidents.

In both cases talk radio and cable TV commentators have to shoulder some of the blame for creating an atmosphere of intolerance. When Ann Coulter suggests all Jews should be "perfected" by becoming Christian it creates a diminishing of respect for Jewish people and when Rush Limbaugh suggests that Barack Obama doesn't have a birth cirtificate (giving credence to the right wing conspiracy theorists who think he isn't really American) it can lead a nut case who agrees with this theory on the president and who hates Jews to feel it is just fine to pick up a rifle and shot up a memorial to those who died in the holocaust against the Jews. And when Bill O'Reillly talks for years about "Tiller, the baby killer" it creates an atmosphere where the unhinged can feel it is moral on their part to kill the "Killer." Of course Coulter, Limbaugh and O'Reilly did not tell these nut jobs to get their guns and go on a shooting spree any more than Letterman making a joke about Palin's daughter tells a pedophile it is OK to abuse children. But when hate speech is used too easily or when jokes are made that dimish others in a crass way, then speech can lead to actions.

I tend not to agree with Sarah Palin on a lot of things and don't find her particularly insightful on very much, but she is on to something here. Words uttered on television,(or the radio or on the internet)have meaning and resonence far beyond the speakers' intention. Perhaps it is time for everyone to start dialing back their loose speech. Loss lips can not only sink ships, they can lead to sinking our culture.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Susan and Sonia Sitting Up a Tree

The last few weeks have seen two ladies of a certain age take center stage in the public's mind. First there was Susan Boyle, that remarkably ordinary looking Scottish lady, who captured the You tube with her singing and dreaming on "Britain's Got Talent." The frumpy, wildhaired lady walked on stage and in a few notes won the hearts of the world with her crystaline voice and her lack of pretension. She became an instant pop culture phenomenon with barrels of ink devoted to dissecting just what it was that made her win the world. She was unexpected and upset the preconceptions of her audience and the judges. She was Cinderlla arriving at the ball in a simple dress with bushy eyebrows and she won the heart of the Prince (or at least Simon Cowell.) Of course, not every fairy tale has a fairly tale ending---at least not yet. She was upset by a dance group called Diversity.

Meanwhile back in the states another middle-aged lady who described herself as an "ordinary women who had had extra ordinary opportunities" walked onto the center stage of American political life and was excoriated for her views on diversity. The clock has not struck 12 just yet for Sonia and we don't know whether she will become queen of the ball or just get ridden out of town in a pumpkin, pulled by a group of rats.

Both of these stories share a common element. Women who rise above the station that others set for them sometimes get their comeuppance. For Susan, she was praised, then pilloried by the press. She made the mistake of showing that the thing she was praised for--her humanity--made her human. She lost her temper with some of the British press and was beaten by the tabloids for it. How dare she be human? The British voters on the show pulled her back to earth, at least for a little while. For Sonia, her every word is being parsed to see if she is a racist, or intellectually capable, or even if she has the "judicial temperament" to sit on the high court.

Both tales are rather silly. Susan Boyle has a gift that will ultimately win out over the pettiness of those who didn't like that she had dyed her hair or yelled at a photographer who was in her face. She'll get her record deal and will sell enough CD's to keep her cat Pebbles in catfood for a very long time.

Sonia, whose academic credentials are extraordinary and which belie her claim to ordinariness, and whose extensive experience on the court (more than any other nominess in a hundred years) will ultimately win out in the end--after the right wing have used her for their fund raising purposes. One of the great ironies of her story is that she is being accused of the very things her accusers have demonstrated over time--bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and foul behavior. My mother always taught me that you are judged by your friends and your enemies. On that basis alone Judge Sotomayor has earned the nation's support. If Rush, Newt and company are against her, that seems proof enough that she should be confirmed. It has been amusing to watch them dance around the fact that other justices have said much the same thing she has said, but of course they were white males which makes it ok. And if Karl Rove wants to accuse you of a lack of intellectual firepower (a man nicknamed "Turd Blossom" by his former boss) then it is bit like Alfalfa telling Susan Boyle she can't sing. Just step over it Susan and Sonia--just don't step in it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Educational Alchemy

Over the coming months, we can expect to see an increase in the number of stories about "heroic exceptions" in schools. These are places that overcome the ravages of poverty and still produce outstanding results. The trouble with these stories is there is a grain of truth to them. Education has always been about alchemy--turning base metal into gold. Most educators choose that profession because they believe they can make a difference. And most do to some extent. But as child poverty rates soar (from 18% in 2007 to a projected 28.3% in 2010) we need more than a few making a difference. We need someone weaving straw into gold 24/7

. There are certainly wonderful stories out there of schools that do a miraculous job of raising student achievement despite overwhelming odds. This has always been true. America is a land of heroic execptions. The fabric of the American dream is woven with these stories. Abe Lincoln went from a log cabin to the White House. But sadly, most people who grow up in grinding poverty tend to stay there. Being born in Kennebunkport or Hyannisport is a surer path to the White House. I have seen very few people with money giving it all away so they can benefit from the challenge of overcoming the odds.

Heroic exceptions will not get it done. For a long time school folks had to listen to the argument that "money doesn't matter." These arguments were usually made by those with the money. I have yet to hear someone without money make that case. As the greed and prolifigancy of the last two decades have undercut that notion, we hear that argument less and less. Money does seem to matter and if you don't have it, it reallly matters. So now we have a new mantra. Poor kids can achieve if only they are educated by people who believe in them. We have attacked the "soft bigotry of low expecations." But we haven't heard much about the hard bigotry of high expecations without adequate support. It is comforting to believe that we can overcome the effects of poverty by diligence. I had a successful fellow tell me once that people are poor because they choose to be. That is no doubt true for a few. But it is a big lie for the many.

So a softer version now is that if we just expect more from kids, they will rise to the challenge. That is also true, to a certain extent. But it is even more true that children with lots of needs have lots of needs and wishing them away is the vilest form of bigotry. I am glad we have a few schools who, because of great leadership or a special support system, have moved poor kids towards success. The real question is how will we do that for all the poor kids in poor schools? We can certainly benefit from learning about how these heroic exceptions become exceptional but we should start by understanding that we can't weave straw into gold. Gold comes from digging deeply and it takes a huge effort. We shouldn't be trying to bury the truth of the effects of poverty with a handful of feel good stories.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Amateurs in the Little Red School House

I am an expert flier. Over the last 15 years I have logged literally millions of miles on thousands of flights as a passenger. Every time I fly the same thing usually happens before the flight. As I am boarding, I walk down the jet way to the door of the plane. A flight attendant greets me warmly. I look to my left at the cockpit door which, at that point, is open. The pilot and co-pilot are busy going through their pre-flight rituals. I turn right, walk down the aisle and find my seat. I am proud to say in the millions of miles and thousands of flights, not once have I been tempted to turn left, walk into the cockpit and sit in the pilots lap and tell him or her that I am an expert flier and I think I will take this puppy up this time. It would be ridiculous. I know my place.

Yet every day school people are subjected to folks wanting to sit in their laps and take the controls simply because they have attended school and that makes them an expert school person. After the Nation at Risk Report came out in 1983 nearly every politician decided they were the "education representative," or "education governor" or even the ''education President." Since it had been said that schools were in crisis, everyone wanted to be credited with solving it.

The problem we have is, "Nation at Risk" was overblown in its rhetoric and flawed in its analysis. There may have been a "rising tide of mediocrity" in the schools but subsequent reforms have merely dumped more water on the problem. Schools have gradually gotten better over time; the problem is they have been making incremental progress in an exponential environment. They need to get better but do so by doing things differently. There may have been a "unilateral disarmament" as suggested by the report but if you recall the concern was over Japan and Germany, our vanquished World War II foes who seemed to be gaining on us and the schools were thought to be the cause of it.

There was much concern raised over the fact that more money was going into education but there had been a small but steady decline in the SAT scores--proof positive that the schools had failed. And drop-outs were a problem. Little mention was made of the fact that only a couple decades earlier more students were leaving school before graduating than were finishing and the drop-out problem only because a problem when more were staying in and it was noticed many were not. The other part of that equation was that in the 1950's when more were leaving, they could leave and still contribute to the economy and make a living. By the 1980's this was increasingly not possible.

No one talked about the fact that despite the long, slow steady drop in the average SAT score, every subgroup taking the test had increased its average score. The reason for the decline was that more students in the lower scoring subgroups (poor and minority children) were aspiring to college and taking the test--what might have been celebrated under different circumstances. The reason it wasn't was that the "amateurs" were now running in full-throated panic over the rise of Japan and Germany. Well, they did rise, until the late eighties, a few years after the study but then they ran into their own problems. I don't think they blamed their schools. That seems to be a uniquely American trait. Today we are in a panic over India and China. Same story, different villains. The reality if that the rest of the world is catching up--not because we are falling back but because they are finally in a position to move to first world status (although the reality is that millions of children in India and China are more than left behind--it is just that millions more are doing well and that creates pressure on us.)

The last decade has seen even more panic about the condition of education in America and "so-called" school reformers have taken flight with an emphasis on standards and accountability. They have done so with the aid and abetting of elected officials and corporate heads. The last few months should have put a lie to the wisdom of corporate America. They don't seem capable of running their own business much less dictating how education should be improved. And whether our elected officials know what they are doing is an ongoing matter of debate.

Here's the problem. Those who work in school on a day to day basis have been ignored ("they are part of the problem, not the solution" say some) and those calling the shots have little understanding of the complexity and difficulty of really changing a massive system affected directly by policies that have little to do with what happens in the classroom. If we, as a nation, did a better job of dealing with health care for children and with offsetting the debilitating effects of poverty it would be easier and more appropriate to move accountability directly into the schools and classrooms. As long as schools are affected by the context they exist within, we are apt not to see the kinds of improvements we want from the types of reforms we are currently pursuing.

Here's the real issue. The so-called reformers which have found even more power in the Obama administration know some things. But they don't know everything. It is great to consider charter schools as a part of the solution but they are just that--a part and thus far a small part. Most of America's children go to public schools. Some bad, some OK, some good and some wonderful. We could learn much from looking at the very good ones and seeing what they are doing and if it has any implications for the rest before we put too much effort into newer, untested models. It is good to look at alternative sources for teachers al la "Teach for America" or "New Leaders for New Schools" but they are the source of a very small fraction of new teachers and leaders. The problem, as I see it, is that these and other "amateurs" have pushed out the professionals. As the new administration was staffing up some of these folks even used the term "professional" in a pejorative sense. That is a recipe for a really bad outcome. I still want professionals handling my health, caring for my teeth an flying my planes. The new Secretary of Education, with his less than a decade of school leadership is somewhere between an amateur and a professional. He did some really interesting things in one school system. But I think everyone will be relieved to know that Chicago is not representative of the entire nation. He seems to be a listener and is willing to think about what he hears. He just needs to be sure that he hears some of the pros as well as the well-intentioned amateurs--and that he buffers the reform process from the real amateurs on the Hill and in the White House. Otherwise, his efforts won't get off the ground.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Libertarian .v. Communitarian

The political atmosphere in the United States has been fraught with conflict since its birth. A revolutionary war fought to win independence from Britain, fights between Native Americans and those who would take the land from them, a deeply bloody Civil War fought over the idea of states rights, slavery and the desire to keep the new repulic whole. The last few years we have seen a battle between "red states" and "blue states," liberal and conservative but I think we have failed to frame the current debate properly. When you say it is between states you fail to consider that there are lots of "blue" people in red states and "red" people in blue states. Talking about liberal and consverative is just as useless. Was George Bush a conservative? He expanded government control and spending. What about Ronald Reagan? He, too expanded government. What about Bill Clinton? He declared the era of big government over. The labels we have been using just don't describe what is really going on. We need a better descriptor.

I believe we are caught in a battle between those who see the need for community with those who champion personal rights. With apologies to Amatai Etzioni, who has led the "Communitarian" movement in this country, and to that small but noisy "Libertarian" party which has run a candidate in the last few presidential elections and which was given voice by candiate Ron Paul in 2008, the battle we are seeing in this country is between the "communitarians" and the "libertarians" (small c and small l.) The problem is that the forefathers envisioned both elements as core to this democracy.

The talk of "we the people in oreder to form a more perfect union" envisioned a nation where we are all in it together. That sense of community is one of the two pillars of our democracy. But the founders also suggested that the other pillar should be "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"--clearly a set of personal liberties that gives each of us the opportunity to rise and fall as individuals. But our forefathers also believed that government had to create the conditions for this to happen. This tension between what is best for all and what is best for each forms the core of the debate taking place in this country on nearly every level.

What are gated communities if not bastions for libertarianism? Yes, they are communities but isolated within a larger context. The question is how big is the circle we live in. The battle over school vouchers and choice is another front. Should government pay for the individual choice of parents or are schools a community enterprise created for the greater good? What about the current "tax revolt" evidenced by the tea party thrown last week? Why pay personal taxes to support others? In fact there is more than a little irony that many of those promoting the tax revolt are also those who promote vouchers. By their logic you should only pay taxes for the things you want but it is OK for others to pay taxes for what you want invidually.

It was pointed out by some of the pundits that the states where there is the greatest interest in breaking out of the tax system are those that receive the greatest benefit from it. By their logic, if they left they would get fewer services, not more. Likewise, the states that the are greatest "donor" states in paying more taxes for less return, were states which were some of Obama's biggest supporters and which seem fairly comfortable with being communitarians.

The only way to make sense of all this is to see it through the lens of communitarian and libertarian differences. Do we have government to create a greater sense of community or should it just get off our backs? Last week not only saw the reprise of the Revolutinary War's tea party (except that was about taxation without representation and last week seemed to be about taxation with representation) but we also saw the governor of Texas suggesting that maybe it was nearing the time for Texas to secede from the union. So apparently we are also still not settled over the causes of the Revolutionary War or the outcome of the Civil War. Now while many of us are bemused by Texas' oversized sense of self, there is a darker issue here. It is quite simply whether the system created by the forefathers will endure into this millenium.

The reality is that while we may long for the "good old days" when a six shooter settled all differences and that manifest destiny ruled, we now live in a highly complex world with external threats that require military power for response. You can't rely on vigilantes and a state militia to deal with Iran or Al Qaeda. And we need rules and regulations that will keep us from choking to death on pollution or drowning because of melting oceans. We need to make sure that our food and drugs are safe and that there are means of transporting our necessities over long distances so roads, rails and air traffic need to be provided or and controlled. And as we have seen lately we risk drowning economically because someone decided to use our savings for a gambling spree in the stock market and that needs better controls.

The last eight years were a time when fear of terrorism was used to curtail individual rights and liberties and now fear of economic security is being used to make us less trustful of government.We need liberty from governmental tyranny and from the tyranny of fear. And we have to understand we are in this together. Martin Luther King suggested we are bound into a single garment of destiny and that what affects one directly affects all indirectly. This dance between the one and the all must be conducted carefully and fear isn't not the music we need to follow.

I think the forefathers had it about right. Our form of democracy is always going to be a balancing act between having a deep commitment to community--to the manifestation of that Biblical call to be "our brother's keeper" and that very deep American trait of individualism and self care which makes each of us master of our own fate. It can't be an "either or" proposition. We all have to be communitarians and libertarians and we have to give each side a little more slack.