An article, quote, or citation of interest to heritage teachers

Linking with kindred spirits

Kevin Kosar is interviewed on Alexander Russo’s blog. Kosar, author of Failing Grades: The Federal Politics of Education Standards, sees quite clearly the dilemma we are in. Without strong leadership, we become balkanized and act too chaotically to reach high standards. Though he’s talking primarily about the federal level, “where politicians say things which are so far out, so incredibly divorced from reality, that one’s jaw falls slack,” one can see the same pattern at staff meetings around the country. It’s hard to get a group large enough to accomplish much to agree on a plan strong enough to make a real difference.

Since we have quite a lot of freedom and quite a lot of ideological diversity, we reject strong leadership.

Our ideological divisions are so fierce that good policy doesn’t survive our political process. “Multiculturalists will caterwaul that standards that emphasize knowledge of grammar are Eurocentric, creationists will holler about any mentions of evolution, and so forth. Even mathematics, a seemingly objective discipline, isn’t immune to intense debates about what gets taught and how.”

At the national level, it doesn’t seem likely that our divisions are going to get any less vexing, and yet we no longer have a political party arguing that education should be a state and local affair. Though either the Democrats or the Republicans had taken turns holding that position since the 1880s, both have abandoned it since Bob Dole lost to Clinton, campaigning on a platform to reduce the federal role in k-12 schooling. So as we abdicate more and more education decision to the feds, the feds get less and less capable of making sound policy.

To teach in these noisy times within a system that may be coming apart, good teachers need to find sources of serenity apart from the lobbying agencies that assail them. I feel a certain lack of passion about the big arguments in education--not that they don’t matter, but that fighting is not learning or teaching. It’s good to follow the debates, to stay informed, to keep learning and thinking about what will work, and to talk with those who are trying to make learning work better for young people but to disengage readily from those who are trying to “do well by doing good.”

This feels like a time to link up with individual teachers and to form “tribes” of kindred spirits working together to understand better ways of teaching and learning. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/19 at 01:40 AM
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©2005 Montana Heritage Project

William Thomas grave along I-90

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If you get off the interstate at Reed and head west on the old frontage road, about three miles east of Grey Cliff you’ll pass an old highway marker.

Text of historical highway sign: In 1866 William Thomas, his son Charles, and a driver named Schultz left southern Illinois bound for the Gallatin Valley, Montana. Travelling by covered wagon they joined a prairie schooner outfit at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, and started over the Bridger Trail. The train was escorted by troops detailed to build a fort (D.F. Smith) on the Big Horn River.

From the site of this fort the Thomas party pushed on alone. A few days later they were killed at this spot by hostile Indians. Emigrants found the bodies and buried them in one grave.

The meager details which sifted back greatly impressed William Thomas’ seven year old nephew. Seventy-one years later (1937) this nephew closely followed the Bridger Trail by car and succeeded in locating the almost forgotten grave.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 05/02 at 12:49 AM
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©2005 Montana Heritage Project

Sizer’s new book is out

All of Ted Sizer’s books thus far have been worth reading, so I’ll be ordering a copy of the Red Pencil.

Sizer comes closer to my own view of things than any other education guru. Central to his vision is the notion that the school itself is where quality must be created and sustained--and thus the doings of large bureaucracies are often distractions from the work.

I often run into people who scoff at the idea of local control, because they can cite incidents of local idiocy. They have a point. I’ve encountered my fair share of local loopiness, and I can tell my own harrowing tales about the logic of local school board members. For example, when I was a principal I once wrote a proposal for a $750,000 grant. It was announced in the national media that our school was one of 10 finalists. At the board meeting where I was explaining the next steps, a board member interrupted my presentation to ask this question: “Mike, this school was screwed up when you went to school here. It was screwed up when I went to school here. Why the hell are you trying to change it now?”

I know local control is not a panacea. It is full of challenges. It can go horribly astray.

Nonetheless, it is our only real hope. Steven Covey likes to point out that “when morays are sufficient, laws are unnecessary. When morays are insufficient, laws are unenforceable.” Schools, like towns, will either figure out how to govern themselves well or nothing will really fix their problems. Despite the siren song of fixing things by making rules, the more a school is controlled by external rules, the less likely it is that the people there call on all the resources of their full intelligence and energy.

It’s a simple thing to match every tale of local lunacy with a tale of bureaucratic insanity, but the important truth remains that every really great school is great because of local leadership and the intitiative of local teachers. The only way, ulitimately, to build quality schools is to use the methods of teachers: models, resources, opportunities, information, encouragement, and accountability. The methods of controllers--rules, forms, directives, and reports--simply aren’t powerful enough.

Sizer knows that we are past the point where the habitual platitudes of either the left or the right are an adequate guide to where we need to go now.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/26 at 05:34 AM
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