Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Perusing the Web

During the school year, I spend hours a day at the computer, responding to e-mails from students, colleagues and organizations, reading and responding to student forum posts in my on-line classes, and grading papers. I also use Google, every day, to find ideas and materials for my courses.

Now I'm on vacation, but I'm still spending hours a day at the computer, because there is just so much to read, see and hear on the Web.

I decided that I needed to get more systematic in reading the news on-line. [Although I still spend a couple of hours a day skimming news on television and cable, the quality of "news" available on the tube has severely deteriorated]. So I created a Google home page, and pulled in lots of news feeds.

And I learned, once again, why it is that I don't keep up with the news on the Internet all the time -- every time I read one news story, I end up following a link to something else, which links to something else, which reminds me of something that I want to Google, which leads to new pages that have links that cry out to be followed. Three hours later, I am still sitting in my nightgown with cold coffee, and have not yet read all the news I wanted to read because I fell down a rabbit hole into Wonderland.

On this particular trip down the rabbit hole, I discovered something called City Journal (the city in question being New York of course). What led me there was an article by Sol Stern
"Radical Math at the DOE" -- which refers to the Department of Education (in NY), not the Department of Defense, which had been my first thought.

Stern was decrying a conference which provided opportunities for math instructors (from elementary through high school) to learn ways of incorporating social justice issues in math lessons. Aside from the fact that I heartily approve of inserting lessons on social justice where ever one can, as someone who teaches statistics to unprepared and math phobic students in college, I consider any approach to teaching math in public schools that might actually engage students interest in the subject and make them desire to learn math all to the good.

What I was particularly intrigued about in Stern's article was the following:
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has won plaudits from business leaders for his corporate-style reorganization of the school system, and for supporting market-oriented education initiatives such as charter schools and merit pay for teachers. But the mayor’s supporters have been reluctant to acknowledge the downside of this new approach. Bloomberg and his schools chancellor have also taken a laissez-faire stance about what gets taught in the city’s classrooms....It’s ironic that while Bloomberg extols the benefits of the market in education, his schools are becoming rife with radical teachers using the classroom to trash the American system.
First, I thought that "laissez-faire" was the absolute essence of market capitalism. If laissez-faire is appropriate for business, and one wishes education to emulate business, then it would seem appropriate for education. [Note I say "if" one wishes education to emulate business. Be assured that I, as a left wing radical certainly do not wish that, but Stern seems to heartily approve a market approach to education.] Secondly, if in fact one does wish education to emulate the capitalist market, then it would be for the consumers of education to determine the appropriateness and/or desirability of what happens in the classroom. Has it occurred to Stern, that perhaps social justice is what the people want?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Here goes....

Since it would appear that no one actually reads my blog, I might as well write whatever I want. So...

I was just watching Brit Hume's "Special Report" on Fox News (yes, I watch Fox News, it's always important to know what the enemy is up to). He had a panel of very articulate, interesting and thoughtful guests having a rational discussion about the immigration bill being debated in Congress. Two of the panelists pointed out that the current bill does not really have the support of the business community, because it does not go far enough with the guest worker program.

The current bill only offers 400,000 guest worker slots per year, and proposes that the workers only stay 2 years, then go back to their country of origin for one year, before being able to return for another two year stint. The American business community, according to one of Hume's conservative panelists, would rather see a million workers a year, with a three year work permit, that can be renewed for another three years without having to return home. (If you doubt my version of this, check out Brit Hume's "Special Report" website on Thursday, and click on the transcript for today's show -- Tuesday May 22, 2007 -- it won't go up until later today or early tomorrow).

I have absolutely no doubt that this speaker is right on the money when it comes to a large proportion of American businesses which depend very heavily on the inexpensive labor of immigrants, especially illegal workers.

What I find so fascinating about all this, is that the American upper class and business elite, have been stoking the fires of xenophobia and racism for more than a hundred years as a means of keeping the working class divided among itself and unable to joing together as a politically coherent class based political power. The power elite as G. William Domhoff calls them, make use of their ownership and control over mass media outlets, to promote this rabid anti-immigrant sentiment. [And don't give me any crap about the so called "liberal media" -- Lou Dobbs, who I am sure is considered "liberal" by folks on the far right, does a superb job in ramping up the hysterial xenophobia of his viewers].
If you're interested in a serious, well documented sociological study on the use of racism and ethnic divisions to control the work force, check out the classic Blue Collar Community by William Kornblum about steel workers in South Chicago in the 1970's. For a less scholarly, but well written view of the same issue, read bell hooks where we stand: class matters [no capitals in the original].
As a genuine left winger, I would like to see amnesty for all immigrants with jobs [if they are legal, they won't worry about being deported, and they can be more radical and agressive in pressing for better pay and working conditions]. If it weren't for that, I'd be crowing for joy that the American business community is not getting what they want out of this immigration bill. It seems only fair that if you spend a hundred years of fanning the flames of hate and fear, that hate and fear will suddenly be inconvenient when you suddenly decide you actually need a lot more cheap workers. Hoisted on their own petard.

The answer my friend is blowing in the wind

Wonderful story in the New York Times this morning on the transformation of defunct Bethlehem Steel mill in Lackawana, NY into a wind farm. The brownfield site has been transformed into a source of clean energy.

As I read this piece I can hear the rattle, crash and clanging of the strip mining equipment that is removing the top of the mountain above our little neighborhood. A single modern wind turbine placed on that same mountain, would, over the next two decades produce far more electricity than the coal that will be extracted -- without the noise, enormous quantities of overburden dumped in ephemeral streams, loss of animal habitat, and loss of watershed -- not to mention the ugliness.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Dilution of Education

Yesterday (May 16, 2007) in Inside Higher Education an article "‘College Prep’ Without ‘College’ or ‘Prep’" discussed the lack of rigour in college preparatory classes in high school. The article cited a study by ACT that found that
"Nearly half of ACT-tested 2005 graduates who earned an “A” or a “B” in an algebra II class were not ready for a first-year college math course;"
One of the main contentions of the article was that the recommended core college preparatory curriculum – at least four years of English, and three of math, science and social studies -- is not sufficient to prepare most students for college, at least as measured by ACT scores. However, the point I found most intriguing was this one
Yet, not only can the number of courses taken be misleading, so too can the content, pointed out Chrys Dougherty, director of research at the National Center of Educational Accountability. For instance, when students enter algebra I unprepared, the teacher may adjust the instruction to a lower level accordingly. All the sudden it’s not Algebra I even more — although a student’s transcript might record an “A” in the subject. “What they essentially have,” Dougherty said Tuesday, “is orange drink in cartons labeled orange juice.”
You see, I know all about pouring orange drink into orange juice containers. I teach a statistics course at a community college. The course is a 200 or sophomore level course, that has a prerequisite of college algebra. Yet when I give a diagnostic test on the first day of this course I discover that the majority of my students cannot do any problems involving percentages nor can they convert fractions to decimals (something usually taught in elementary or middle school), and that less than twenty percent have even the most basic understanding of simple linear equations (taught in elementary algebra in high school, a foundation for College algebra that all my students must complete before taking my class).

Because my students come to me unprepared, I find that I must spend a significant amount of time teaching them to do things like take percentages, and work with linear equations, rather than teaching them about as much as they should know about correlation, regression, and significance testing. While my students know substantially more about math and statistics when they leave my class than when they entered, even those with an "A" grade know less about statistics than what the official content of the course says they should know. Moreover, I know that they know substantially less about statistics than I did when I finished a 200 level statistics class, at a community college in California in Fall 1974. A class that prepared me so well, that I breezed through my graduate statistics course in the spring of 1975 without having to do more than show up and take the exams.

Elite colleges and colleges are able to skim the cream off the high school crop by taking only those with the highest ACT and SAT scores. Even state universities have minimum entrance requirements, leaving those students who need remediation to the community colleges which must take all high school graduates regardless of their level of preparation for college.

When I attended community college in California, during 1973 and 1975, after having graduated from the highly selective Oberlin College, I found little difference in the course content of Oberlin classes and community college classes. Today, I believe that a huge gulf has opened up between the content found in many community college courses and like courses in elite institutions. This applies less to courses that are tied to specific careers in the health sciences where students must pass national licensing examinations.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Math Counts

Everyone in education these days is talking about preparing students to compete in a global economy where math and science will be more important than ever. Problem is we aren't even preparing them with the math they need for today's service economy.

Monday, I drove 25 miles over into Virginia, to do my shopping at the larger Wal-Mart and larger Food City (we have smaller versions of both in Letcher County, Kentucky). One of the things I particularly like about the new, larger Food City in Wise, VA, is the fresh meat and fish counter.

I asked the woman behind the counter (who looked to be in her 30's), for "three-quarters" of a pound of sea scallops. She put a container on the scales, and lifted a few scallops in. The read out said ".25" pound. She stopped, and asked me "Is that enough?" I thought perhaps I had not articulated well and she'd heard "one-quarter," so I said, "no, I'd like to have three-quarters of a pound."

Still the woman hesitated, and she asked again, "Is that enough?" Again, I repeated myself, and said no, and repeated again what I wanted.

Finally, in an embarrassed and apologetic tone, the woman said, "I'm sorry, I don't know how much that is." So I told her that three-quarters of a pound, was ".75" pound on her scale.

She was clueless on how to translate fractions into decimals, even the simplest and most commonly used decimals that are an absolutely essential part of her job of weighing out meats and fish for customers.

Translating fractions to decimals was something that I learned in the sixth grade, in 1962, in a working class neighborhood public school in California. A school, that moreover, was viewed as inferior to other, middle class and upper middle class neighborhood schools by the junior and senior high schools in the city. Students from my working class elementary school were routinely denied access to accelerated and advanced courses in junior and senior high schools, because we were deemed "under prepared." Yet, clearly, my elementary education prepared me better for the work world, than that of the Food City employee.

We appear to be missing the boat at a most basic level of preparation in math in elementary schools. Something needs to be done!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Times change -- for the better

This morning while at physical therapy (for a wicked case of plantar faciitis), I lay behind a curtain with hot wraps on my foot and listened to a familiar conversation.

My physical therapist has recently learned that she and her husband are expecting their first child, and the patient on the other side of the curtain, parent of a 20 month old little girl, was dishing out typical advice. The conversation ranged from car seats and cribs, to diaper bags and what should be packed in them.

It was a conversation I've heard dozens, if not hundreds of times before, as those who are already parents pass on wisdom to the expecting. The only thing that made this different, was that the parent with helpful hints about diaper bags was male -- a father. Moreover, it was clear from his conversation that he often spoke of these issues with other young fathers. He told our therapist that he and his friends joked about their diaper bags being their "man purse."

Fathers have always talked about their children. But this was the first time that I had heard a father dish out the familiar advice about the nitty-gritty details of car seats and dirty diapers to an expecting parent.

As a sociologist who often writes about family, I was happy to mark this conversation as a sign that fathers are becoming more involved in the routine and daily care and nurturance of children.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Taxes in America

I ran across an interesting article North Carolina's The News Observer, on the origins of our nation at Jamestown. As the daughter of two Virginians I have always been fascinated with Jamestown, and had the opportunity to visit the site and the Jamestown Festival Park while in elementary school despite growing up in California (my mother's home community was on the mouth of the Rappahanock).

However, what caught my eye in the article was the information on the House of Burgesses. The first exercise in formal representative democracy in North America, the House of Burgesses first met in 1619 (a year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth). Moreover, one of the first acts of the Burgesses was to levy taxes.

The role of essential role of taxes in sustaining our society and communities has been much in my thoughts since I just posted a piece for Kentucky Economic Justice Alliance (KEJA) on that topic. It was gratifying to see that democracy and taxes are clearly linked together in a positive way in American history. Too many people only remember that the American revolutionaries objected to taxes imposed by England and fail to remember that the objection was primary about a lack of political participation in the process and not about taxes as such. If today's political candidates truly honored our founders intentions, they would spend more time on expanding political participation in voting and less on promising lower taxes.