Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Parable for School Budgets

Henry Petroski, author of To Engineer is Human, tells how he introduces the concept of structural fatigue to engineering students.
I bring a box of paper clips to class. In front of the class I open one of the paper clips flat and then bend it back and forth until it breaks in two. That, I tell the class, is failure by fatigue, and I point out that the number of back and forth cycles it takes to break the paper clip depends not only on how strong the paper clip is but also on how severely I bend it...Having said this, I pass out a half dozen or so clips to each of the students and ask them to bend their clips to breaking...

Dr. Petroski records the results of their "low-budget experiment" on the board.
Invariably the results fall clearly under a bell-shaped normal curve that indicates the statistical distribution of the results, and I elicit from the students the explanations as to why not all the paper clips broke with the same number of bendings. Everyone usually agrees on two main reasons: not all paper clips are equally strong, and not every student bends his clips in exactly the same way. Thus the students recognize the fact that failure by fatigue is not a precisely predictable event.

I said it was a parable, and like most parables, it has a moral. To wit: high-quality teaching requires neither advanced technology or lots of money. I have examined school budgets, and always, there is plenty of room for significant savings at no loss of instructional effectiveness, but for turf wars.

I will admit that I have not yet examined budgets of schools in other than middle class or rural schools, so it is possible my observations will not hold for all budgets. Nevertheless, many budgets have a problem with priorities. There is something wrong when a school board will deny raises for three administrative assistants making about $20,000 per year each, and then turns around and approves a 5 percent raise for the superintendent making $100,000 per year. I saw it happen; I was at the school board meetings.

Meanwhile, the library just had to have a new computer lab with all the bells and whistles, a lab (like most school technology) is so rarely used that it is hard to justify the expense. Down the road, the local intentionally low-tech Waldorf School was producing better results with a lot less money, as was true of most of the private schools, even when controlling for the higher public school salaries. People first, then things.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Below the Radar

People love lists. I lifted a list from this diary:

It took ten years to raise the minimum rage a buck forty.
And now we’re being stampeded into a disastrous bailout deal by the same (expletive deleted) who have rammed down our throats the:
USA Patriot Act
Military Commissions Act
Domestic Spying
Retroactive immunity for violators of FISA
The abomination of the Iraq war
The torture of helpless prisoners
Suspension of Habeas Corpus
Dismantling of Posse Comitatus
Free Speech Zones
The Katrina nightmare
Deregulation of Everything
Mercenary Armies in America

All while ignoring everything that really matters:

Climate Change
Pollution of land, sea and air
Diplomacy and World Peace
Sustainable Agriculture
Universal Healthcare
Alternative Energy
Veterans’ Rights
The General Welfare

Now these same (expletive deleted) want us to fork over $700 Billion that we ain’t got, while they say we must be very very afraid and must do exactly as they say without question.

If at this point we have any trust in these (expletive deleted) at all – we are fools.

They will fix nothing.  They will simply steal anything that is left.

What issue is conspicuous by its absence from the list? EDUCATION--that is the issue that should be in all caps.
"This bailout is basically going to suck the air out of education funding for years to come,” unless there is a major commitment to boosting education spending on the part of the next president, said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a Washington lobbying coalition. Education advocates will have to make the case that investing in schools is necessary to shore up the economy over the long haul, he said.
When does society demand action? In the world of engineering, nothing happens until someone dies and/or someone files a lawsuit. In the world of finance, the wounding of fat cats' portfolios arouses quick action in an otherwise mostly do-nothing congress. What will it take for Americans to become exercised over EDUCATION? I fear that Bill in Portland, Maine is right.
But who am I kidding? No one's gonna riot anyway, even though many Americans probably feel that the times call for it. We're busy, we have families, and so far the Iraq war, the economic meltdown, and the clampdown on our civil liberties haven't deprived us of our favorite TV shows.

Please let's start a collaborative effort to brainstorm without prejudgment as a precursor to systemically examining the issue of education in America.
I would like to start by compiling three lists:
1. An action list of ways to put education at the forefront of our national conscience.

Here's one: Lots of letters to local editors to motivate local media to cover education more deeply and more often.

2. Identification of all stakeholders, their (possibly not-so-great) motivations for perpetuating the status quo, and their activities.

Here's one: Education consultants, loving the move toward state standards, states pay them hundreds of thousands of dollars to basically cut and paste from somebody else's state standards.

3. America's strengths, in education and in fields other than education.

Here's one: The organizational ability of the military to disseminate important information.

Let's roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Right now the two biggest stories are the financial bailout and the election. Our kids possess very little civics or financial education. What we have learned is that many of our current problems, in both arenas, occurred in a climate of public ignorance. The future of American democracy is an educated citizenry, and America does not have an educated citizenry. There is simply no excuse.