This is . . . ignorance

The AP phrases the story as one about Brits “losing their grip on reality” because they think historical figures are mythical. This is not a reality problem, though. This is sheer pig-ignorance, the end result of a country that is so busy teaching political correctness, that it has phased out teaching its own history:

Britons are losing their grip on reality, according to a poll out Monday which showed that nearly a quarter think Winston Churchill was a myth while the majority reckon Sherlock Holmes was real.

The survey found that 47 percent thought the 12th century English king Richard the Lionheart was a myth.

And 23 percent thought World War II prime minister Churchill was made up. The same percentage thought Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale did not actually exist.

Three percent thought Charles Dickens, one of Britain’s most famous writers, is a work of fiction himself.

Indian political leader Mahatma Gandhi and Battle of Waterloo victor the Duke of Wellington also appeared in the top 10 of people thought to be myths.

Meanwhile, 58 percent thought Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Holmes actually existed; 33 percent thought the same of W. E. Johns’ fictional pilot and adventurer Biggles.

UKTV Gold television surveyed 3,000 people.

Quick picks *UPDATED*

I’ve got a deadline, so I thought I’d just give you a few links to things that interested me this morning:

Rick Moran highlights Zimbabwe’s insane inflation, another horrible indictment of Mugabe, who took one of Africa’s most stable and prosperous nations and reduced it to abject poverty.

An Iraq War widow, trying to help others, was scammed out of $57,000, and now needs help.

I don’t know if Jonas E. Alexis is a good writer or not, but he’s certainly written what sounds like my kind of book: In the Name of Education: How Weird Ideologies Corrupt our Public Schools, Politics, the Media, Higher Institutions, and History. You can read an interview with him here and see if it sounds like your kind of book too.

Chavez the coke-head — it explains so much, including the paranoia and megalomania.

About three years after the rest of us, NPR is finally catching on to the fact that there is a problem integrating Islamists into Western culture, especially when it comes to the subjugation of Muslim women.

Laer does a fantastic post about Israel’s decision to cut of power to Gaza. I would be more impressed if it weren’t for the fact that I know that, in a day or two, when Palestinian shrieking reaches fever pitch, the UN, Europe and the US will gang up on Israel and demand that she act in a more humanitarian way. And Israel, instead of sticking to her guns and refusing to provide supplies to those trying to destroy her and every one of her citizens, will yield — and the Palestinians will be heartened once again.

I blogged yesterday about the problem with Obama’s race, and it’s not that he’s black, it’s that the Left cares deeply that he’s black. Apparently (and unsurprisingly), I’m not the only one who has figured this out. Slate is running excerpts from what promises to be an interesting book: Richard Thompson Ford’s The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse. Given the nature of the publishing industry, this book was obviously written before Obama and Hillary dove into the cesspool of racism, so its presence on the market right now is serendipitous.

That great curmudgeon Pat Condell takes on Canadian dhimmitude.

UPDATE:  Hah!  What did I tell you?  Two days and Israel’s already started caving.  I can also guarantee you that the Palestinians are not thanking the Israeli’s for their munificence.  Instead, they’re gloatingly thinking “weak, weak, weak” — and they’re right.

Why are home schoolers for Huck?

Rational self-interest is a great concept, but it’s amazing how often people deviate from it and behave completely irrationally. A case in point is the “Home schoolers for Huck” trend we’re seeing right now. Huck’s political policies and pronouncements are completely antithetical to home schooling. He wants the federal government to encroach more and more on public school and, during his time in Arkansas, oversaw laws restricting home schooling rights. The NEA loves him, which tells you way more than you want to know about the man’s politics. Home schoolers ought to be running as far away from his candidacy as they can, but they’re not. Instead, the Home School Legal Defense Program is supporting him. One can only assume that they are so thrilled that a Pastor will take the White House that they are blind to their own self-interest. And speaking of self-interest, I’m also willing to bet that many home schoolers would be opposed to a whole bunch of Huck’s other stands, which are detailed here. (Hat tip: W”B”S.)

I think a lot of Evangelical Christians have to sit down and ask themselves a serious question: Am I willing to put in the White House a man who espouses political policies that go against my self-interest as a Christian merely because he himself is a vocal Christian? As for me, I would be much more interested in measuring Huck by his acts than by his words. And his acts have all the impetus and effects of a liberal Democrat. (By the way, if you have any doubt that a devout Evangelical Christian can also be an ultra liberal Democrat, just put yourself in the way back machine to the years 1976-1980, when this Country was headed by a vocal Christian who was not only a liberal Democrat, but also one of the worst presidents ever.)

Christians are also being short-sighted if they think that Huck’s expanding the federal government will Christianize it. Next time the administration changes into Democratic hands, or next time the Democrats finally take effective control over Congress, these same Democratic political leaders will take the federal government that Huck so thoughtfully expanded for them and use that new power for very Progressive (read: Leftist) ends.

Merry Christmas!!

It’s a little early for Christmas, but I wrote the following for part of an American Thinker Christmas trilogy, and offer it to you here, as well:

Last week, I attended the “Winter Concert” at my children’s public elementary school. It was a very good concert. The kids – all 75 of them – performed beautifully. They remembered the words, sang in time and in tune, and showed a great deal of poise.

The only problem was the music. There were two African harvest songs; an American spiritual that repeatedly mentioned a Mary and a baby, but stopped short of giving any hints as to which Mary and which baby; a Hebrew song and a Yiddish song; two Muzak songs that seemed vaguely to deal with generic uplift themes; and a disco homage to Santa that, as with the spiritual, carefully avoided any reference to Christmas. It was rather like a concert in code, with the initiated meant to understand that, in fact, this was a Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah concert, rather than a mere “winter” musical soiree.

It was a far cry from the “Christmas” concerts of my youth, a youth that was also spent in public schools. Back in those days – spanning the mid 60s through the mid 70s – the weeks before Christmas saw us singing all the Christmas classics, both old and new: Oh, Holy Night, Silent Night, Little Town of Bethlehem, Oh Come, All Ye Faithful, Deck the Halls, Christmas is Coming, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, just to name a few of the songs that delighted my friends and me as public school children.. We also sang Hanukkah songs that actually mentioned Hanukkah, songs such as Oh, Hanukkah! or The Dreidel Song. Kwanzaa songs were missing only because, in those far away days, this holiday had not yet received any prominence outside of small sections of the African American community.

As a child, I loved the musical feast that came with winter. Just as the days grew oppressively short and cold, we were inundated with beautiful, celebratory songs. The children in my school, Jewish and Christian alike, felt bound together by songs of light and hope in a season of darkness. Instead of being dull and drab, this was a most exciting time of year, visually and aurally beautiful. I felt connected both to the history of all humans – people trying to bring light and meaning to the days when the sun seems so distant – and to the history of my country, which, whether one likes it or not, is imbued with Christian thought, music and iconography.

By the way, did I mention that I’m Jewish? According to today’s experts and ACLU activists, as a Jewish child who was being inundated by these Christmas songs and images, many of which were explicitly religious, I should have felt, at best, marginalized and, at worst, coerced or insulted. Maybe I was exceptionally obtuse, but I never felt any of these emotions. To my mind, the songs were offered as something to share and enjoy, and our smilingly practical elementary school teachers never indicated any preference for one faith over another.

As for me, I was delighted to share in the Christmas holiday with my friends in the public forum of school. I caroled their songs, and delighted in my ability to draw Christmas trees with a certain panache (one of my few artistic accomplishments, I might add). When I went home, I lit the Hanukkah candles with every bit as much pleasure. Rather than feeling slighted, I felt doubly blessed.

How different it is today. The schools are frightened of the parents, the parents are afraid to give offense to each other, and the children are denied the excitement of public celebrations of a unique set of holidays, concerned with wonderful abstract concepts such as faith, bravery, and hope. Instead, we’ve entered a grim Seinfeldian “Festivus” world, where joyous winter celebrations of light and song are reduced to the Airing of Grievances (usually identity based, along the lines of “they’re discriminating against me this season because I’m [fill in the blank with your choice of Jewish, Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, Kwanzaan, Wiccan, etc.”]). How much better, I’ve always thought, whether one is Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist or Buddhist, to eschew the public school effort to gather around a minimalist and meaningless aluminum Festivus pole, and instead to share in the bounty of America’s many faiths.

The problem with American education

I blogged only the other day about the hare-brained thinking that characterizes the meetings I attend at my children’s public school. (See this post too.)  I’m constantly amazed at how foolish these teachers and administrators are, and are they are absolutely lacking in general knowledge or analytical skills. However, because they have “education degrees” they have a monopoly on our public school children. No one who hasn’t attended a teaching college can get near these kids. This means that thousands of people like myself — professionals with huge funds of knowledge (and, if I do so say myself, pretty good communication abilities) — are barred from reaching the kids unless we too want to subject ourselves to a time-consuming, expensive and foolish teacher’s education. Walter Williams has more about these teachers:

American education will never be improved until we address one of the problems seen as too delicate to discuss. That problem is the overall quality of people teaching our children. Students who have chosen education as their major have the lowest SAT scores of any other major. Students who have graduated with an education degree earn lower scores than any other major on graduate school admissions tests such as the GRE, MCAT or LSAT. Schools of education, either graduate or undergraduate, represent the academic slums of most any university. As such, they are home to the least able students and professors with the lowest academic respect. Were we serious about efforts to improve public education, one of the first things we would do is eliminate schools of education.

The inability to think critically makes educationists fall easy prey to harebrained schemes, and what’s worse, they don’t have the intelligence to recognize that the harebrained scheme isn’t working. Just one of many examples is the use of fuzzy math teaching techniques found in “Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers.” Among its topics: “Sweatshop Accounting,” “Chicanos Have Math in Their Blood,” “Multicultural Math” and “Home Buying While Brown or Black.” The latter contains discussions on racial profiling, the war in Iraq, corporate control of the media and environmental racism.

If you have a fifth-grader, his textbook might be “Everyday Math.” Among its study questions are: If math were a color, it would be (blank) because (blank). If it were a food, it would be (blank) because (blank). If it were weather, it would be (blank) because (blank). All of this is sheer nonsense, and what’s worse is that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics sponsors and supports much of this nonsense.

Mathematics, more than any other subject, is culturally neutral. The square root of 16 is 4 whether you’re Asian, European or African, or even Plutonian or Martian. While math and science literacy among white 15-year-olds is nothing to write home about, that among black 15-year-olds is nothing less than a disaster.

Few people appreciate the implications of poor math preparation. Mathematics, more than anything else, teaches one how to think logically. As such, it is an important intellectual tool. If one graduates from high school with little or no preparation in algebra, geometry and a bit of trigonometry, he is likely to find whole areas of academic study, as well as the highest paying jobs, hermetically sealed off from him for his entire life.

Having been so harsh, both directly and (through the Williams quotation) indirectly, let me add a few ameliorative statements.  There are absolutely wonderful teachers out there, people who are truly gifted at communicating with young people and at leading them to knowledge.  There are deeply committed people out there.  Indeed, even though I don’t respect professionally many of the teachers at my kids’ schools, there are some who do deserve professional respect and, with few exceptions, all of them deserve respect for their good will and their good intentions.

My complaint is the same as Williams’:  we have a system that drives to the bottom, rather than aims for the top.  The monopoly of education degrees, degrees that turn out people practiced in certain methodologies but often woefully uninformed or incapable of thought, means that there is no way to allow others who are informed and able to help lift up the education system.  And that’s a crime that no amount of federal and state monies can fix.

More on the teacher accused of insulting religion in his class

I blogged very briefly on Friday about the lawsuit against Dr. James Corbett, who, along with his school district, is being accused of using his AP history classroom to indoctrinate his students in anti-Christian attitudes. I’ve discovered two things since then. First, the LA Times article from which I quoted was disingenuous in the extreme in citing to the inappropriate things Corbett said, since it managed to whitewash the lengthy anti-religious rants in which he engaged. Second, if you read the comments left at that same LA Times article, you’ll see a common threatd running through those that defend Dr. Corbett. Almost without exception, his supporters say that it’s appropriate to crudely insult religion and to use history lessons as a rant against Christianity. Why? Because in their minds he’s speaking truth, and it’s an educator’s responsibility to bring truth to his students, especially the benighted Christian ones. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that there is a problem, not with discussing faith, but with insulting faith. I’ve taken many comparative religion classes over my career as a student, which included discussions of the absence of religion, and all were thoughtful and respectful in their approach to and comparison of the different ways of worshipping or denying God.

Not so Dr. Corbett. If you’d like better examples of the crudity of Corbett’s discourse, crudity that is an insult to the Christian religion and that has nothing to do with scholarly discourse about the nature of religion, you only need to check out the allegations in the actual complaint against him.

For example, in the full quote alluded to in the LA Times article, he basically calls religious people ill-informed idiots: “How do you get the peasants to oppose something that is in their best interest? Religion. You have to have something that is irrational to counter that rational approach…. [W]hen you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.”

Another instance of his approach to discussing religion is to take one item of data about two different countries — their religious practices — and from that extrapolate to broad reaching conclusions about their crime rate: “People — in the industrialized world the people least likely to go to church are the Swedes. The people in the industrialized world most likely to go to church are the Americans. America has the highest crime rate of all industrialized nations, and Sweden the lowest. The next time somebody tells you religion is connected with morality, you might want to ask them about that.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him that a huge, melting pot frontier nation such as America might have developed differently from a small, entirely homogenous nation such as Sweden. A man who thinks this simplistically hardly seems fit to be a teacher, let alone an AP teacher. (Incidentally, Laer, at Cheat-Seeking Missiles, who wrote a wonderful post about the Corbett lawsuit, took the time to show the factual errors underlying this particular rant.)

Corbett also goes on lengthy rants about birth control, something that seems far removed from AP history, and that involves insulting entire American political parties: “….[C]onservatives don’t want women to avoid pregnancies. That’s interfering with God’s work. You got to stay pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen and have babies until your body collapses. All over the world, doesn’t matter where you go, the conservatives want control over women’s reproductive capacity. Everywhere in the world.” That’s news to me. I do know that American conservatives disapprove of out of control sexuality, believing that it is demeaning to the dignity of men and women alike, and that many of them are opposed to abortion, believing that it is destructive of the nascent life of a fetus. The only ones I know who do currently seem to advocate Corbett’s “Barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen” attitude are the Taliban but, peculiarly, their views don’t seem included in his rants.

It’s also a bit hard to see where Corbett’s view of Rush Limbaugh (“I love Rush Limbaugh. A fat, pain in the ass liar. And, boy, is he a liar”) fits into the AP History curriculum. Frankly, I also don’t see room in the curriculum for the vulgarities that roll of this man’s tongue. This is a teacher who demeans students, rather than who uplifts and educates them.

The bottom line is that teaching history and critical thinking are not skills that involve lengthy rants that take aim at specific religions and political views, let alone rants that shower students with vulgar language. Those students who have left comments saying that they felt free to disagree with him miss the point. As a public school teacher, Corbett’s job is to provide information, which can include information about doctrine or its effect on historical movements (such as the anti-Slavery movement in American history, for example, which was strongly affected by its adherents’ Christianity). It is not to shout soap box slogans that merely hark back to what were, I’m sure, his youthful days as a Marxist imbued anti-War activist.

Softening children continues apace

They are scraping the bottom of the barrel to find cowardly, clueless school administrators, aren’t they?

Children at the Oakdale School here in southeastern Connecticut returned this fall to learn that their traditional recess had gone the way of the peanut butter sandwich and the Gumby lunchbox.

No longer could they let off their youthful energy — pent up from hours of long division — by cavorting outside for 22 minutes of unstructured play, or perhaps with a vigorous game of tag or dodgeball. Such games had been virtually banned by the principal, Mark S. Johnson, along with kickball, soccer and other “body-banging” activities, as he put it, where knees — and feelings — might get bruised.

Instead, children are encouraged to jump rope, play with Hula Hoops or gently fling a Frisbee. Balls are practically controlled substances, parceled out under close supervision by playground monitors.

The traditional recess, a rite of grade school, is endangered not only in the Oakdale School here in Montville, a town of 18,500. From Cheyenne, Wyo., to Wyckoff, N.J., recess — long seen as a way for children to develop social competence, recharge after long lessons, and resist obesity — is being rethought and pared down.

In the face of this, a national campaign called Rescuing Recess, sponsored by such organizations as the Cartoon Network, the National Parent Teacher Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Education Association, has taken hold at many schools where parents and children fear that recess will go the way of the one-room schoolhouse.

At Oakdale, Mr. Johnson finally relaxed some prohibitions after a parade of parents complained. Now, twice a week when a parent or grandparent is present, fourth and fifth graders are allowed to play a modified version of kickball as long as the score is not kept. Many parents are still not satisfied, however, saying that such coddling fails to prepare children for adulthood.

“Life is competitive,” said Shari Clewell, the mother of a fifth grader. “Kids compete for attention. They compete for grades. You compete for a job. You compete from the time you’re little all the way to the end.”

Pretending otherwise is pointless, she said. “They’re kids. They are competitive. They can play jump rope and jacks and make it competitive.”

But the principal is determined. “I’m honestly one of the most competitive guys in the world, having coached sports for a long time,” said Mr. Johnson, who has coached youth basketball and softball. “But I honestly don’t believe this is the place for that.”

Acknowledging that the changes caused “quite an uproar,” he defended his policy as a way to build skills and camaraderie rather than competition and conflict, and said that it had nothing to do with insurance costs. He said he had seen too many recesses where children “want all the good kids on one side and they want to win at all costs, and kids are made to feel badly.”

Read the rest here.

It’s unsurprising that, as the administrators get increasingly spineless and political (something it’s hard to imagine happening considering where they started), the teachers get increasingly aggressive in promoting viewpoints inconsistent with public education.

As you know from a post here a few days ago, the above article just touches the tip of the iceberg. At my kids’ school, the official policy is to ensure that the kids never play competitively, and that they never lose. God forbid that they should learn useful skills such as handling disappointment.

I was one of the kids at school who was always chosen last.  I didn’t like it.  The school could have helped, not by destroying the games kids play, but by having an administrator drop in occasionally to give tips about fair play, not gloating, and losing gracefully.  The sports were great; what was bad was that the school didn’t use the fallout to educate.

One public school education against God

Comment would be obvious, so I’ll just offer you the news:

A San Juan Capistrano high school student and his parents filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday alleging that his history teacher violated his constitutional rights by making “highly inappropriate” and offensive statements in class regarding Christianity.

James Corbett, who teaches Advanced Placement European history at Capistrano Valley High School, consistently “demonstrates a sense of hostility toward religion,” causing Christian students to “feel ostracized and treated as second-class citizens,” according to the lawsuit filed in federal district court in Santa Ana by Chad Farnan, 16, and his parents, Bill and Teresa.

The lawsuit contends, among other things, that Corbett told students during class that “when you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth”; said that religion is not “connected with morality”; compared Christians to “Muslim fundamentalists” who want women to “stay pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen and have babies until your body collapses”; and suggested that churchgoers are more likely to commit rape and murder.

Corbett did not return a call for comment. Capistrano Valley High School Principal Tom Ressler described Corbett as a “solid” teacher who has been with the Capistrano Unified School District for more than 15 years. Ressler said Corbett’s class was popular among Advanced Placement students and has a high pass rate.

“It’s really premature to say anything about this,” he said of the allegations. “People can make allegations all they want; we have to see the reality and context of what was said.”

Teresa Farnan said her suspicions were aroused on the first day of school when her son — a sophomore honors student required to take Corbett’s class for college admission — asked her whether America was founded on Christian values, which he said his teacher had denied.

“He had learned in the eighth grade that our country was founded by persecuted Christians,” said the mother, who describes her family as nondenominational Christian, “so I sent him to school with a tape recorder.”

During the next two months, Chad Farnan said, he taped Corbett’s lectures with the recorder in plain sight on his backpack.

“I’m not sure whether he saw me,” the student said. “He’s against Christianity and bashes it all the time. He’s been indoctrinating us and not teaching the class; we don’t need to be hearing his political views during school time when we should be learning.”

Eventually the Farnans contacted Advocates for Faith and Freedom, a nonprofit organization based in Murrieta dedicated to “protecting religious liberty,” a spokeswoman said.

The group filed the lawsuit on the family’s behalf, attorney Jennifer Monk said, because it believed Corbett’s behavior violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

“The teacher is a representative of the state and the Constitution requires government neutrality toward religion,” she said. “This teacher’s conduct and words clearly show he is hostile toward religion and is indoctrinating these kids, who are a captive audience.”

The lawsuit — based entirely on Corbett’s comments during one Oct. 19 class that the Farnans describe as typical — asks that the teacher be removed from the classroom. “We will not seek damages if the teacher is removed,” Monk said.

Chad Farnan, who attended Corbett’s class until the lawsuit was filed, said Wednesday that he would remain in school but stay out of the class until the matter is settled.

Let kids be kids — not!

I received this email from a friend, who thought that you all might have some useful input about a recent policy change at her daughter’s elementary school:

Apparently a boy got hit in the head playing football at recess and hurt himself, though I don’t know in what way or how badly.

The school’s response has been to ban all soccer and football at recess and lunch despite the fact that no accident occurred in soccer. Children can still play basketball and tetherball. They are only permitted to play soccer or football under adult supervision, that is at p.e.

We happen to think that this policy is ridiculous. I plan to meet with the principal to try to convince her to bring soccer back. This is an affluent community with some pretty protective and forceful parents. I don’t know if the principal is afraid of a lawsuit- but for heavens sake- minor bumps and scrapes is a part of childhood!

If you feel inclined to put this to your blog, I would be interested to know what you and your readers have to say about it. I could use some good points when I meet with the principal (who is a pretty strong and opinionated lady herself).

So, my friends, if you were meeting with a school principal and wanted to have a rational, intelligent, polite discussion with her that would help convince her that a ban on soccer and football is a bad idea, what would you say?

Context is king

My family likes doing jigsaw puzzles.  If you’ve ever done a puzzle, you know the drill:  you buy a puzzle that has an interesting picture that hints at the right degree of difficulty, you spill the pieces on the table, and using the cover as your guide, you spend many enjoyable hours putting that puzzle together.  About that all-important cover:  It tells you where you will end up when you’re done and, during the process, it helps understand the myriad inscrutable puzzle pieces dotted around your table.  Only the most hardcore puzzle fanatics, those seeking the greatest challenge, do away with the box cover — and even they look at it before starting the puzzle and put it away only after they begin their work.  The cover is context and, for puzzlers, no matter how much or how little they ultimately rely on it, context is king.

What constantly boggles my mind is how educators seem so immune to context’s benefits.  At traditional school, educators have adopted an incremental approach.  To this end, they break difficult materials down into bite-sized abstract pieces, confident that when the kids have mastered a sufficient number of these pieces, they will have a sudden, blinding revelation about the whole.  In sports, coaches teach the kids individual techniques and skills, but they forget to give them an overarching picture of the game, its strategies, goals and rules.  In chorus, they begin to teach the kids the lyrics and hand out the music by measure, without ever just singing the song for the kids.

Actually, all of these methods work, at least for the bright kids, who have committed teachers and education-rich home and school environments.  What irritates me about the whole situation is that it’s such a crazy, difficult way to do things.  It’s the opposite of Occam’s razor, with the educator choosing the most difficult, infelicitous, circuitous route to conveying information.  It gives children neither goals nor guidelines.  Children feel frustrated and lost, just as the amateur puzzle-maker feels frustrated if his box cover vanishes.

My question for you, because it’s one I am completely unable to answer despite years of asking it of myself, is why do people think there is a virtue to teaching kids in puzzle pieces, without ever showing them the larger picture?


I seem to be in an “education-y” mode lately regarding blogging, but that’s because there’s some interesting stuff out there on the subject. At today’s American Thinker, Charles Sykes, who has written about education for about 20 years, challenges the conventional wisdom that our children are suffering from too much homework:

A generation of hyper-parents has larded their children’s days with band practice, piano lessons, soccer practice, volleyball, martial arts, dance recitals, and swim classes. For their part, teens find time to spend something like 6 hours a day using various forms of media; Xbox 360 sales do not seem to be suffering because kids are too busy to play video games and the malls have not been emptied of teens.

And yet the cry goes up that it is Mrs. Grundy’s history homework assignments that are destroying the innocence of childhood and wrecking the American family.

I both agree and disagree with Sykes’ thesis. It is absolutely true that American children are completely overbooked and this certainly makes it difficult, sometimes, to find time for homework. However, I think many of us parents believe that the after-school activities truly are important — they’re not just to keep up with the Jones. For example, I’m a huge fan of after-school sports programs, which I see as the necessary antidote to the sedentary life young people inevitably live in sprawling communities, many of which don’t even have sidewalks, where walking around and running are not an option. Also, given that the schools have abandoned the competitive sports model, a model that teaches kids to be good winners, good losers and good team players, soccer and other after school sports are the only forum in which they can learn those valuable life skills.

I also have a strong sense of not letting talent go to waste. My kids are both musically inclined and, while their school does have a music program, it doesn’t go anywhere near cultivating their undoubted talents in that area. Both have had the opportunity outside of school, though, to develop their musicality, and I just couldn’t, in good conscience, deny them that opportunity.

I think Sykes comes a little closer to nailing the homework problem when he writes this:

Of course, as any parent who has spent hours working on pointless dioramas and time-wasting cardboard volcanoes can testify, some of the complaints are not without some merit.

For me, that pretty much nails the issue.  I don’t have a problem with my kids reinforcing and honing newly acquired skills, but I have a tremendous problem with the time wasting.  Teachers waste time in class with a lot of stuff that has no place in an academic curriculum, whether it’s building a model mission out of a milk cartoon, all the while teaching a politically correct parody of California history; or dragging the kids to endless “green” assemblies, rather than keeping them in the classrooms to learn the basics.  The homework sometimes reflects this same skewed set of values.  It’s possible that, if the teachers were freed from all these political/union constraints, and were allowed simply to teach (a) they might have to rely less on homework to get done what couldn’t be done in class or (b) parents might see more value in the homework as an adjunct to an already solid academic education.

I do have one good word to put in about homework, which often isn’t mentioned even in the pro-homework debate:  Oversight.  It’s through my kids’ homework that I’m able to see how they work and where they have problems.  I’m able to step in and help, if necessary, or to bully them (gently) into tackling a problem on their own.  In other words, I find homework a very useful window into the classroom, into my child’s academic skill set, and into my child’s approach to work.

Common sense to deal with poorly performing students

I blogged the other day about a brave educator’s claim that cultural differences (which he mistakenly described as “race”) affect the education gap between whites and Asians on the one hand, and Hispanics and blacks on the other hand. At a conference that this educator organized to deal with these vexing issues, another speaker stepped up to the plate and announced that he had solutions. I expected to read in the next paragraph some touchy-feely, feel-good approach to the problem but, instead, read common sense ideas familiar to all of us who attended schools more than 20 years ago:

[Douglas] Reeves, the founder of a Colorado consulting firm called the Center for Performance Assessment and an award-winning author on student achievement, stood before the crowd as one of the conferences’ keynote speakers and said he had the answer to closing the gap.

Even the best known, most effective strategies go nowhere in schools because too few teachers and principals implement them consistently, he said.

“It’s only going to help us if 90 percent of teachers are doing it,” Reeves said. He called for “deep implementation” of the strategies.

In the vast auditorium at the Sacramento Convention Center, the strategies that Reeves posted on big TV screens for all to see seemed simple. They included:

— Explicitly teaching students how to take notes, so what they learn in class isn’t wasted.

— Testing what has been taught.

— Assigning teachers based on students’ needs rather than by teachers’ seniority.

— Posting clear objectives for every classroom lesson.

— Posting students’ work on walls, not just in elementary school but through high school, to foster pride and encourage high achievement.

What’s fascinating is that, one of the hallmark items “assigning teachers based on students’ needs rather than by teachers’ seniority,” which falls into the “well, that’s obvious” category, is pretty much un-doable because of the union’s stranglehold on public schools:

Many teachers say they already do these things – except for assigning teachers based on students’ needs, a sticky issue involving labor contracts between teachers and school districts.

It’s not just the unions, though, that are making it difficult to implement these changes. It’s government, too:

Sam Neustadt, an assistant superintendent for Solano County, agreed that deep implementation of good basic strategies makes sense – “if we were allowed to do it.”

The problem, Neustadt said, is that a vast set of education laws, including federal No Child Left Behind rules and the state’s own requirements, keep educators doing so much paperwork and data collection that they have little chance to spend extra time on instruction.

“It’s possible,” he said, “but not under the current circumstances.”

I’ve heard that from the teacher’s too. They don’t complain so much about the paperwork as they do about the fact that they’re so constrained by a rigid, politically driven curriculum, they do not have time to teach the basics and then make sure that they stick.

One teacher quoted in the article couldn’t see these simple rules work because they seem like a band aid to the endemic problem of social promotion:

But for at least one high school teacher at the conference, Debra Craig of Riverside County, Reeves’ straightforward way of solving the achievement gap was far too complicated.

Craig teaches at Vista del Lago High School, where 85 percent of students are black or Latino.

“I have high school kids who can’t do fifth-grade math,” she said. “They can’t do fractions. Can’t multiply by decimals. But we stick them in algebra class.”

“It’s totally crazy,” Craig said. “It’s because of the practice of promoting kids without their having the skills to move on to a higher level.

“And then we have a big conference to find out why there’s an achievement gap. Gee!”

Sadly, the students Craig describes, who have been pushed through a school system without having learned anything are a lost educational generation. That does not mean, however, that these common sense steps should be abandoned. You’ve got to start somewhere, and these fairly straightforward fixes, put into place when kids are very little, may go quite some way to keeping another generation from having public education pass them by.