Saturday, April 28, 2007

Preaching Abstinence Education and the New York Times Editorial Page

From the editorial page of the New York Times comes a lucid opinion about a neo-conservative agenda losing its momentum.

"At least nine states, by one count, have decided to give up the federal matching funds rather than submit to dictates that undermine sensible sex education. Now there is growing evidence that the programs have no effect on children’s sexual behavior."

Backed by a Congressionally mandated study by Mathematica Policy Research, the Time's Opinion is entirely reasonable. Abstinence education alone, masquerading as sex education is a severely wrong headed approach to teaching. Teaching people about something by only demonstrating and advocating the opposite is called preaching, not teaching.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Words of Preparedness from the University of Virginia

I've been compelled to write a lot today. Things are about to change a little and I don't know how it'll impact my writing. But I wanted to share an email from the Office of the Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer Patricia Lampkin at the University of Virginia in response to this week's terrible events at Virginia Tech. This email reached the entire UVA student community.

The complete text follows and represents exactly some of the steps schools everywhere should be taking, some of what I wrote about earlier in the week.

"We are nearing the end of a long, difficult week. From the words of Virginia Tech student leader Elizabeth Hart in an open letter to our community, it is clear that your outpouring of support has been a source of comfort during a time of great loss and suffering. For so many of us, fully absorbing what has happened at our sister campus and coming to terms with it will understandably take time.

"One subject now on many minds is our own safety procedures at U.Va. Yesterday, I sent parents an e-mail summarizing steps that the University takes to address and communicate critical incidents. You can read this message at:

"Reviewing and strengthening our safety procedures is an ongoing priority. This fall we will be adopting a new emergency communications system that will combine LCD broadcast screens in key buildings with text messaging to cell phones, which will deliver information and instructions based on the circumstances. You will hear more about this in the near future and will have an opportunity to register your cell phone number with the University, solely for emergency communications. We will continue to use other forms of communication to ensure that multiple systems are used as effectively as possible.

"Safety is both an institutional issue and a personal one. While experts tell us our schools and cities are statistically safer than ever, we must accept the realities of random, inexplicable violence. Being prepared for the unexpected has to become part of taking care of ourselves.

"What can we do personally? Being prepared does not mean living in fear. It does mean taking safety seriously and not blithely dismissing the simple things ~V locking your doors, walking friends home when it is dark and late, and reporting situations that bother you.

"If you are in immediate danger, call 911. If you are on Grounds near a blue-light phone, you can pick it up and immediately be connected with University Police.

"Basic safety reminders cannot constitute a set recipe that will apply in every conceivable situation. Your own judgment is an important factor. Remembering the basics is a good place to start. Please read these reminders with fresh eyes and a commitment to your personal well-being:

"Personal Safety
* Be aware of your surroundings. Be careful not to use a cell phone or iPod that may distract you while you walk alone in the dark.
* Avoid isolated areas.
* Avoid walking alone at night. Use SafeRide, walk with friends, or take a late-night weekend bus. The number for SafeRide is 434/242-1122.
* Use the lighted pathway system.
* Tell a friend where you are going and when you will return.
* Trust your instincts about a person or situation. If you feel uncomfortable, remove yourself from the situation and immediately report your concerns to police by calling 911.

"Using Cell Phones
*When an emergency occurs, it is important to keep cell and phone lines open so that communication systems are not jeopardized. Work with your parents and family to develop a communication plan in a time of crisis.

"Residence Hall Safety
* Never allow strangers to follow you into the building.
* Call 911 if you see someone in the building who seems suspicious.
* Never prop open card-reader doors or leave room doors open.
* Secure doors and windows prior to leaving.
*Contact your Resident Advisor should you have concerns about the safety or well-being of someone living in your dorm.

"Home/Apartment Safety
* Keep doors and windows locked.
* Use outdoor lighting.
* Work with your landlord to ensure that overgrown shrubs and trees are trimmed in order to reduce the possibility of prowlers hiding in dense, darkened areas.
* If you see any of the following, immediately call the police at 911: a prowler, someone peeping into a residence, an individual watching, photographing or filming an area, or any other suspicious behavior. You can remain anonymous in your report.
* Work with your neighbors and fellow community members to ensure a safe environment.

"If a Crime is Witnessed
Call 911 or anonymously provide information by going to the Crime Tips Web site:

"Bias Incidents
If you or someone you know witnesses a bias incident, help is available. The following Web site provides complete details on how to report the incident, what constitutes bias, and what you can expect in response from the University:

"In closing, I encourage you to continue to seek support from your friends, parents, fellow students, faith communities, and all of us who care about you. Focus on your studies and your interests, and find strength from the people around you."

-Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer Patricia Lampkin

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Nintendo New-School

That looks like a fun place to go to school. Look out for Nintendo to keep up a torrid software sales pace on its software based on academic skills.

Here He Comes to Save the Day

Under the banner of here comes the inevitable D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty has won approval from the DC council to take over D.C. Public Schools. Story here. Current obstacles include a lawsuit claiming DC deserves a referendum vote and a Home Rule Charter status change by Congress. He's got his work cut out for him.

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"Making Writing Instruction a Priority in America’s Middle and High Schools": A Recipe for Writing Improvement

A recent report from the Alliance for Excellent Education targets secondary writing skills. Long champions for reading and literacy, the Alliance brings a very cogent set of writing recommendations to bear on the policy community.

The report, "Making Writing Instruction a Priority in America’s Middle and High Schools," suggests that "People often assume that writing is merely the “flip side” of reading, and that if adolescents are proficient readers, they must be proficient writers too. But in fact, while reading and writing are indeed complementary skills, they do not necessarily go hand in hand." The report highlights national lackluster performance trends in writing proficiency and dovetails nicely with what many English and Social Studies teachers will share late at night over a drink, or even early in the morning if you get enough caffeine in them--"So many of my students cannot write!"

The report cites recent research that shows: students need a lot more practice writing; a variety of strategies can be employed such as "writing to learn"; rigid universals like the 5-paragraph essay can be more harmful than good; and choice in style and content reduces the chore of writing and encourages thoughtful decision making. Following this research, the Alliance makes several policy recommendations. Check it out.

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An '08 Edu Plan

Andy Rotherham and Richard Whitmire outline 9 broad strategies for improving education across the board in hopes that an '08 contender will bite on a few. Whom I kidding, they want the whole thing swallowed. And good for their ambition--despite a few rough spots. New-York-Cititize the entire nation?? Also, I'm not so sure the National Standards debate is turning into a tactic to delay real accountability. How long would it take to get a set of national standards, a year, maybe two? States have been easing their way into their homebrew standards for years.

Aside from those points there is real wisdom in this platform that should appear obvious to people in education who look at education broadly--people who are not so partisan to get hung up in nuance and historical hyperbole. Perfect for '08 Democratic candidates. Democratic, yes. I don't think you'd find a republican edu-reformer who could resist the party mandate to layer privatization mud, or market mud, between the cracks of Andy and Richard's project. Sorry, that's my bias. That's what I see.
Highlights from this list entitled "Steal This Education Agenda" include: focus on adolescent literacy; provide more urban schooling choices; give real positive incentives to teachers (career ladders that don't require moving from the classroom to management to get paid a professional wage), and flexible schedules for students and schools that need it (be careful here though Sens. Clinton and Obama, and Mr. Edwards, it's not in every child's best interest to stay in school longer when he or she is not being challenged).

Monday, April 16, 2007

Preparing for the Worst: Living in a Post Virginia Tech Massacre World

As the news and accounts continue to trickle out of Blacksburg, VA tonight and my back knots with disgust and sorrow I'm compelled to put to paper some reactions, reactions I've already spoke, but worth getting down more succinctly anyhow.

Complete prevention of these types of incidents seems close to impossible. All talk of what could have been done to keep something like this from happening must be tempered by the truth that all humans have agency and some are capable of atrocity.

Gun control must be open for discussion, but beyond gun control more discussion about security and planning in schools, towns, and cities must be discussed first on a national scale and then locally to implement plans. We need a national discussion about local preparedness. We shouldn't have to wait for terrible days like this for our leaders to act.

In a post 9-11, post U. Texas, post Columbine, post Nickel Mines, Pa, post Virgina Tech world, more care, effort, and resources must be devoted to improving our response to emergency and catastrophe. Say what you will about the response Virginia Tech Administrators made this morning, say what you will about how any University would have responded. What we must focus on moving forward is preparedness.
  • All higher education institutions and all schools must have proper plans;
  • Every student must have a sense of what they are supposed to do to keep them as far from harm as possible in an emergency situation;
  • Every university should have an emergency response program to get useful up to the minute information out to all students and staff; and
  • All schools must have a security director in charge of making sure the above mandates are met.
We've got a lot of work to do. Preparedness is our biggest challenge.

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A Reminder

Second two deadliest shootings: One in 1966 at the University of Texas. The shooter Charles Whitman climbed to the top of a clock tower and killed 16 people before he was gunned down by police. In more recent memory, the Columbine High massacre near Littleton, Colo., in 1999, saw 12 students killed and one teacher. The Kent State, May 4 1970 massacre involved the shooting of four students by members of the Ohio National Guard. The students were protesting the Nixon Administration's invasion of Cambodia.

A Prayer

A prayer for those whose lives were cut short and whose families and friends must now carry on. Something awful.

In the second link "awful," a recording from Washington Post radio, Virginia Tech Professor Robert Denton comments on the morning's happenings in Blacksburg, VA. Irksomely towards the end of the clip he suggests student anger is on the rise, and intimates a gender???? problem. That's quite a guess.

Unfortunately easy prediction. In the coming months we will hear more than we ever have about security in our schools and institutions of higher education.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Character Education Special Sauce

Education Next recently published a profile of character education programs at several different types of educational institutions. "From Aristotle to Angelou" by Paul J. Dovre highlights how these schools integrate principles of character education into their curricula and inculcate values into their students.

While different in many ways, as the profiles attest, the programs do have a lot in common. Each of the character education programs are "comprehensive, encompassing all school activities, engaging all members of the faculty and staff, and includ[e] all grade levels. At each site, there is clarity and transparency about goals and values." Faculty engagement, curriculum development, and parent participation are all critical components of the character education programs Dovre features.

It seems like a tough thing to measure or prove outright--that character education works in any demonstrable way, but one school in Minnesota, Community of Peace, has had some success measuring and documenting quantitative and qualitative gains in students and environment. For my money we could spend more time trying to figure out exactly what we want to gain out of character and citizenship programs in schools, and devote more resources to trying to prove we're meeting our objectives. I don't doubt that most of our best teachers in our own school experiences cared about more than just our academic progress. They cared about the whole person. Some of these special teachers provided tools to navigate the world more humanely. The function of character education seems to be an exercise in capturing that "special teacher sauce" and spreading it around the whole school.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Bob Lutz Breathes and We All Suffer the Mindless Hyperbole

Under the banner of "Can you believe dat?!" General Motors' Vice Chairman Robert A. Lutz, product of American schools, U.C. Berkeley for Pete's sake (had to keep it relevant), had this to say about the recent Supreme Court Decision regarding greenhouse gases and EPA regulation thereof. Brilliant retort follows:

“All of us standing here right now — anybody who exhales is polluting like mad ... If we have CO2 limits, I think we should all contribute, and we’re all going to have to train ourselves to breathe fewer times per minute.”

UNBELIEVABLE. And sad on so many levels. One more cause for alarm to keep it relevant: Lutz serves as chairman of The New Common School Foundation whose mission as a "nonprofit corporation is to create sustainable, replicable models of excellence in urban education." One obnoxious turn deserves another Mr. Lutz.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Beginning of an Era for DC Public Schools?

In an era where hope and possibility often trump politics and tradition, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty has secured the first and maybe most significant step along the way to becoming school chief. Notables like Mayor Bloomberg in New York City have ushered in wide spread sweeping change like an end to social promotion, small school creation, and major reorganization. Another standout mayor, Mayor Patterson of Indianapolis won the right to establish charter schools. As the list of cities grows--Providence, Trenton, New Haven, Philadelphia, and Baltimore have been added to the "old guard" list of Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Boston and Harrisburg--it arguably becomes easier for a Mayor like Fenty to assume leadership of the schools.

And it's not like anyone is surprised. Mayor Fenty made his intentions well known in advance of his mayorship. With promises like fixing broken windows and dilapidated bathrooms within two months, it is no wonder that the language of hope and action goes far in an urban system notorious for delay and bureaucratic strangle. As for the role of the Superintendent Clifford Janey, his job is still up in the air. School board President Robert C. Bobb has said he will continue to serve in a reduced capacity. The school board members, present and future, will accept diminished control as well, but the Mayor's office seems intent on including them and "beef"ing up their role, at least according to the Washington Post.

Assuming this change happens, and it looks like it will it's easy to make a prediction or two: Fenty will have some success, just like others have had. People will be patient with this 36-year-old mayor. He has a lot of capital. His clout and the successes of those who came before him will carry. Just don't expect the moon, folks. We won't get it.
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