Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dear Arne Duncan: draft 2

I am a teacher, and just to be clear, I don't teach AP or Honors classes. Those lofty class environments are not at issue for this topic.

Just a few years into my teaching career, we were informed that teachers were expected to educate our charges not only in the "three Rs" but also in ethics/morals. My first thought (Hah! I never have first thoughts without a nexus of connecting thoughts leading rapidly to a conclusion, but it feels like a first thought) was, "Better make us a boarding school, then," because no way was I going to be accountable for teenagers' ethical training without 24 hour access to the influences on their lives.

I know you're trying to get a handle on the federal government's role in improving the education of America's youth, and you want teacher pay to reflect teacher effectiveness. Most of us can agree with that in principle, but in practice, not so much. Notwithstanding being held accountable for their moral development, being held accountable for their math skills requires nearly the same amount of control over students' out-of-school environment. We teach our hearts out during school hours, and at 2, off they go, out of our supervision. Anyone who thinks even a small majority goes home and dives right in to homework tasks or even plans the pm hours in such a way as to budget several hours for homework ensuring a reasonable bedtime is completely out of touch with reality.

Give a homework assignment due the following day. First period, you'll get 10%, Second period, 20%, Third, 30% and so on, but you won't get more than 60%. Ever. The increasing percentage is caused by having other classes before English class during which students will ignore what's happening in that class and doing the "home" work. I once bribed an English class with a pizza party if everyone would have a ROUGH DRAFT 3 days after the assignment. Didn't happen; the highest percentage for my sophomore class was 47%. Students don't do homework. They play sports, they play video games, they "hang out" with friends, which seems to be 4 or 5 kids sitting around texting other people.

We send them off and any focus on school evaporates. Parents often aren't around to help them or even monitor them. Increasingly, students exhibit the attitude that school is an interruption in their far more important activities, their social lives, their playtime or their jobs, nowhere near the stepping stone to a better life that we teachers constantly harp about. Their only motivation is to get it done with as fast as possible and with the least effort possible.

What about the kids who want to learn, I hear you object, surely there are some. Yep, there are, and they really brighten up a day. In each class of 30, maybe there will be 3 who have the golden combination of motivation and readiness. They are precious jewels. Others are the most tragic cases of all. They want to learn, but they are not ready for the topics that we are presenting to them. That is a pointless activity, a complete waste of everybody's time and creates a subclass of usually disruptive students who have been promoted grade after grade regardless of any mastery of the content. I once had a student at Spokane Community College who came to me privately and confessed that he had managed to graduate high school without learning to read and could I please teach him.

Social promotion has to stop at every level. How can teachers be evaluated based on the performance of students who are in no way ready to learn at the level they've been placed. It's not rational; it's not fair.

Not just for teachers, either; it's not fair to students. Nearly every kindergartener goes to school excited to learn. What happens between then and high school for so many of them to turn in to sullen school-haters? Here's one scenario: six-year-old Dave isn't ready to read. In his end-of-year report card, his teacher notes his difficulty. Despite his parents' misgivings, Dave goes on to second grade. He has no learning deficit, so he receives no extra help and his teacher has a full class. Dave eventually comes to the end of third grade, not reading well if at all. How do any of us feel about doing something we're not good at? How about being tested on something you can't do? Frustration, anger, negativity, disruption, dropping out.

Make some real change in education; stop promoting children to grades they aren't ready for merely because they have aged a year.

Stop! Thief!

I'm here in Tully's stealin' their wifi, except that it's free. Next to me there are some men truly stealing. Three guys, one bald, goatee-ed guy with an American accent and two Latinos, one who does not appear to speak much English or he's just quiet. Mr. Loquacious Latina, LL, is chatting with Baldy. Baldy is quizzing him all over the plave about some house LL is working in, apparently painting kjudging from the paint splattered Glidden Tee he is sporting. I wonder how many gallons of paint you have to buy to get one, or do they automatically throw in a T-shirt with each purchase? Hm.

LL answers each query about the job, possible repairs, "How's the floor? Did you do the floor? Should I do the floor?" asks Baldy. "Do you have other jobs lined up? Are you working all the time? Do you have lots of work? I got this $3000 dollar job they'd give me but I need another guy."

There's a bit of diversion as they talk about other contractors who hire cheap labor and do shoddy work. Baldy looks great compared to them. He reiterates how great this other job is, but he needs x, y, and z, and apparently, LL, too.

I can't hear LL too well as he is facing away from me, but he does not seem to want Baldy's other job.

Mid-conversation, Baldy hands LL $800 cash as was agreed for this painting job. There is one moment of theft, clearly. Baldy just stole from the State, Local and Federal Gov'ts. No payroll taxes are paid, no income tax is paid. Baldy stole from LL, too, no FICA, no health insurance, none of the security that comes with an above the table job.

Is LL legal? Unknown, and I don't want to judge, but he could be. There's more theft, if so, but I know plenty of fine, upstanding Americans who are happy to work under the table. Plumbers, electricians, after their day job, they might just stop by the house of a friend of a friend to pick up some extra cash off the books. If you're a home-owner squeaking by on a lower middle class income, it may be the only way you can afford repairs or improvements without doing it yourself and goofing it up.

It's theft. If you'll steal small things, where will you stop? I know some young people with felony convictions leaving them permanently un or under-employed and their crimes were theft related. If any theft is wrong and deserves punishment, all of it is.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Run from the Borders

I used to moonlight at Waldenbooks, at first it was for extra money, but that didn't work out. Even with a 40% discount, I spent more than I earned. When the parent company began building the free-standing, upscale Borders bookstores, it seemed great. Borders accepted my preferred reader card, and they had great prices and excellent customer service. I even knew some of the staff.

I no longer find Borders great. Every time I go there, incompetency reigns. Today was no different. I had hoped the poor economy might have promoted better customer service, but not so.

To help out the family, I offered to do a favor and return The Girl Who Played With FirewithThe Girl With The Dragin Tattoo. As I walked up to the front door, I struggled to adjust my negative attitude and give them a chance to make my book-buying experience a positive one. Going through the doors, I dredged up patience for standing in the inevitable line. There was no line! It boded well. There was one clerk. I approached her, but first she dialed the phone to leave a message for a special order. Hm, ok. I placed the book on the counter next to the receipt. Without speaking, she picked it up, scanned the receipt and began to issue me a refund. Not what I wanted, and couldn't work, since I had not bought the book. I interrupted her to explain that I wanted to exchange it; she told me abruptly to go get the new book and come back. I went off with the book and the bag and the receipt thinking that if I had done that first and shown up at the register, a clerk could very well think I had brought in the receipt and the empty bag and gotten a free book. Her impatience with me seemed out of place, is all.

As I walked toward the books, I saw a large display of the trade paperback (read spendy, trendy paperback that makes the publisher more money) version. I had already been warned that the mass market size was hard to find. Borders has no "fiction" section. I cruised past literature and saw none in the "L" section. I went over to the Mystery/Thriller section. I'm pretty good with the alphabet, but they interrupt the purely alphabetical listing with collections and special displays, so the "L" section seemed to be farther along than it was. When I found it, there were only trade paperbacks. I asked for help. The guy flipped a thumb over his shoulder and I saw the huge glowing pile of yellow mass market paperbacks of the book I sought. I said to him, goodheartedly, "Oh, there they are! I was told they were hard to find."

"They're in the section," he answered, curtly. Sure, "in the section," but not with the others and not alphabetical.

Back at the checkout counter, a new clerk was taking over. My good attitude having completely fled with the snarky "in the section" comment by the guy at the "help" desk, I am afraid I told the clerk how much I did not like Borders and this trip had been no exception. Guess what. She promptly scanned the return book twice, thus confusing the checkstand computer, necessitating a call to a supervisor while I waited.

Customer Service! Why is it so difficult. Two days ago, the deli clerk at Safeway, Toni, went out of her way to guide me through the remodeled store, let me buy bananas at her till even though it was the deli, and let me get away with paying her 2 cents less so I would not have to change a bill since the manager had not brought her change yet. The Pearl Safeway is closer to my house, but I'll now be shopping there, Toni's customer service won a customer.

Big box stores who have no competition do not need service I guess. When there are no examples in our society of treating people well because stores don't teach their employees to do it and parents aren't around to insist their kids have manners, what hope is there for a civil society?