Saturday, September 26, 2009

National Academic Standards Draft Released (and Free-Market Ideology Unleashed)

Cross-posted at BlogHer

Earlier this week, a panel of experts charged by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers with crafting a set of national academic standards for English and mathematics skills released the first official draft of the standards. The draft outlines those skills students are expected to have developed prior to graduating from high school. The release of the standards marks the beginning of a 30-day comment period before the panel launches into writing standards for individual grade levels in K-12.

Bloggers from all points in the political spectrum are weighing in on the standards--or, more commonly, on the idea of national standards, especially when they come from the federal government (though, as The Washington Post points out, the federal government really is more of a bystander) or if the federal government will be offering money as an incentive to states that adopt these standards. So far 48 states--Alaska and Texas being the exceptions--have signed on to the initiative.

At the New York Times Room for Debate blog, experts were invited to submit brief comments on the standards. Their backgrounds are diverse--they range from a representative of the libertarian Cato Institute to a charter school founder to a professor of urban schooling--and their comments aren't really surprising. You've heard them before: from Neal McCluskey's tired lament that teachers are fully to blame for all the ills in public schools and that parents will always make the right decisions for their children to Ernest Morrell's similarly cliché (but alas, true) observation that our schools aren't going to improve if we can't provide enough books, better-trained and highly educated teachers, and reasonable class sizes, the comments are predictable.

What's interesting to me is the way people--and here I refer to the NYT's invited respondents as well as bloggers elsewhere--are making the same claims about competing agendas. For example, at the NYT, Robert Siegler claims that variations in state standards "hinder learning, especially among children whose parents move often" and make it difficult to evaluate the learning taking place in different states. Yet McCluskey argues that it's the presence of uniform standards, rather than their absence, that slows learning.

There's probably truth in both statements, and honestly, I haven't done enough research to know which end of this standards continuum is drawing on better evidence regarding student achievement. I will say this: the standards themselves are fairly tame and--aside from a provision asking high school English teachers to teach students how to read texts from other disciplines as well as the traditional literary works--will likely not prove controversial in this draft. (Expect the dust to kick up once grade-specific standards are released.)

I do resent folks who are using this opportunity (as does McCluskey) to argue that we should unleash the forces of the free market on the education system, letting parent-consumers decide what's best and closing those schools that don't receive sufficient parental support. God forbid people who went to school for 5 to 10 (or more) years to study learning theory and practice, who have made it their life's calling and profession, have some say in what students learn. (But hey, I'm biased: I went to school through grade 24, so clearly you can count me among the anti-parent elitists.)

I'm hearing the free-market argument not only in K-12 education but also in discussions of what should be funded (or, rather, cut) in cash-strapped universities. By one measure, if undergraduate engineering majors go on to earn higher salaries than, say, English majors, then engineering is a more valuable major and should be better funded than English, even if equal numbers of students on campus are interested in each major. Similarly, some are arguing that if corporations are giving more money to science professors and researchers than they are to humanities and arts faculty, then the state university should invest its resources similarly because the markets have spoken. Of course, I hear this argument most often from the mouths of science faculty (and, interestingly, mostly white male science faculty).

So what happens if we let "the market" choose what K-16 students will learn? Taken to one (I'm afraid believable) extreme, we see a narrowing of the curriculum, with high school English teachers transformed into drones teaching students to interpret technical texts and universities cutting (as we're already seeing them do) foreign languages, literature, history, arts, and the humanities more generally. As state universities emphasize the lucrative fields of science, technology, engineering, and medicine, the last bastions of a real liberal arts education (by which I mean an education incorporating both breadth and depth across the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences) will be those few elite four-year colleges that can afford, by dint of their endowments or their ability to attract top students, to continue to offer what may come to be seen as an outdated (or maybe "classic") education. But these institutions tend to be pricey, so such education may even further become a privilege of the elite--by which I mean either wealthy families or families that are savvy and well-connected enough to know which schools offer the best financial aid in addition to opportunities to expand students' horizons.

And now for a round-up of what folks are saying in the blogosphere:

Think Tank West addresses some myths--and, it ends up, not-myths--about the interplay of No Child Left Behind, federal and state control and funding of education, and national standards.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers makes a tentative case for national standards.

Writing a few months back at The American Prospect, Dana Goldstein recounted a roundtable debate among Weingarten, New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and D.C. schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee. Goldstein sums up the conversation:

So there you have it: Three of the most influential education leaders in the country, all supporters of national standards, but all raising their eyebrows at the current state and testing-industry-led effort to get there.

Melanie Smollin asks, among other questions,

How will teachers know how to align curriculum, instruction, and assessment with these new standards in ways effective enough to enable all students to have a shot at reaching them?

Chester Finn, writing at the Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog, laments the Byzantine mess states have made of standards:

Yes, those who abhor the thought of national education standards and tests for the United States will find all sorts of reasons to oppose them. I don’t know if the forthcoming product, once fully massaged, will be to my liking. But I do know that our present motley array of state-specific standards and assessments is obsolete and dysfunctional—as well as mediocre or worse in many states. (There are a few happy exceptions.)

For some good discussion on an earlier leaked draft of the national standards, see the comments section of Robert Pondiscio's post Voluntary National Standards Dead on Arrival at The Core Knowledge Blog.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about the standardization of curricula, either within state borders or across them?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Layoffs


A couple days ago, I was reading Lucas some bedtime stories; among them was one of my favorites, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. As I read, Lucas was mumbling about something else, so I had to focus extra hard on the text. Reading deliberately, it turns out, has its dangers; in the middle of the book I had a revelation that the book wasn't at all about the challenges of having food fall from the sky.

In case you're not familiar with Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett's book (1978), a quick plot synopsis: A man tells his two grandchildren a tale of the tiny town of Chewandswallow, where instead of having supermarkets or raising their own food, the townsfolk depend on the weather to bring in storms of hamburgers, orange juice rain, clouds of sunny-side-up eggs, and Jell-O sunsets. But then, inexplicably, the weather takes an erratic turn, and, besieged by pea soup fogs and house-crushing giant food falling from the sky, the people of Chewandswallow flee the town for a new land, where they must adjust to rainwater, packaged food, and supermarkets.

As I read the book this last time, it increasingly seemed at once an allegory and a parable for my own life.


Recently, I caught up with several far-flung friends and colleagues, and I heard--explicitly, in the anecdotes they shared, and implicitly, in the alternately wistful and frustrated tone of their voices--a desire to move on to something new, even if it meant walking away from their current careers, where over decades they have built up a good deal of respect, authority, and expertise. They're in their 40s and 50s, and I'm 34, but I must admit I was feeling the same existential angst.

We admitted to intellectual fatigue, to wanting to have new conversations rather than rehashing the same old ones that kept arising. We wanted to move forward, to be creatively productive, to be proactive rather than merely reactive.


As many of you are undoubtedly learning through articles in higher ed publications or--God forbid--first-hand experience, the University of California is kind of a sucky place to work right now. We've gone beyond the point where the budget cuts are damaging the quality of our programs; the cuts have become personal. Some of us have been more than cut to the bone. We're oozing marrow.

We're in hedgehog mode, rolling up in little balls hoping to escape the budget scythe, hoping we don't lose our jobs and health insurance and our ability to provide for our families. We're being kicked while we're down.

So is it any wonder that when I read "Whatever the weather served, that was what they ate," I felt as if I had been punched in the chest?

Last week we were informed that employees represented by the clerical and technical unions that had not agreed to furloughs would be laid off for the same number of days that they would have been furloughed. I'm not represented--not by my choice, I assure you--but half of our office staff is. We non-represented employees are having our annual salaries cut by a percentage that varies with how much we make (e.g. I'm taking a 6% cut), with each paycheck being reduced by that amount. So yes, losing 6% of my salary sucks, even with the 16 furlough days I've "earned" as a result, but at least the pain is spread across 12 pay periods. Not so for the union-represented employees. My coworkers will be temporarily laid off for a certain number of consecutive days. If I were union-represented, for example, I would be laid off for 16 consecutive workdays--meaning my paycheck for that month would cover only 4 days. How many of us could live for a month on 4 days' wages?

Worse, these union-represented employees will also be required to observe the 11 mandated campus closure days (during which the rest of us will be using furlough days). They'll need to cough up some vacation or comp time or take those days off without pay. Which means a union-represented employee earning my salary could lose 27 days of pay this fiscal year.

Whatever the weather served, that was what they ate. Overcooked broccoli. Brussels sprouts and peanut butter with mayonnaise. Or nothing but Gorgonzola cheese all day long.

Another day there was a pea soup fog. No one could see where they were going.


I asked our budget person about upcoming cuts. As I said, we're already hemorrhaging, losing staff and being asked to find grants to pay for our own keep. She said she expected another $100,000 in cuts to our unit this coming year. We've already lost at least $200,000, maybe $250,000--I've lost track. Here's the deal about the $100,000, though--we only have $70,000 in our current budget for non-salary expenses. You do the math.


Confession: Fang and have $30 in savings and something like $75,000 in debt from student loans, debt Fang brought into the marriage, emergency car repairs during grad school when I was only making $13,000 a year, dental bills, vet care for the last dog, etc. We try to live within our means, but our means are a bit modest right now.

Alert: Fang needs $1900 in emergency dental care at the end of the month. We found out today the dog might need shoulder surgery. And we're spending $1,600 to attend a relative's wedding next month. We can't not attend the wedding because the groom is shipping out to his first tour in Afghanistan shortly thereafter.

When you take into account the university's freezing of staff (but not faculty) salaries the past couple of years, my pay has actually declined 13% over the past two years--and that doesn't account for inflation. Considering only one year I've worked here has the university offered merit increases (of 4%), I'm making considerably less than when I started.

We live, in short, hand to mouth. The cost of living in this town outstrips our salaries. And I'm tired of freelancing, of selling used books on Amazon in an attempt to make ends meet. I don't want to have another yard sale.

I know there are people in far worse shape. At least we have jobs. (For now.)

Everyone feared for their lives. They couldn't go outside most of the time. Many houses had been badly damaged by giant meatballs, stores were boarded up, and there was no more school for the children.


So what do we do in the face of tomato tornadoes and hurricanes of hard rolls?


Well, what did the people of Chewandswallow do?

A decision was made to abandon the town of Chewandswallow.

It was a matter of survival.

The townsfolk made sailboats out of giant pieces of stale bread and set sail on their rafts for a new land.


So I ask myself: What constitutes a new land?

Never have I had so many ideas and so little hope. I feel over the past few years I've set sail a dozen tiny boats, none of them seaworthy on their own.

Right now I'm trying to find the one or two projects on which I really want to focus, the ones where I can get busy slathering peanut butter between two huge pieces of stale bread before I jerry-rig some sails from oversized slices of pizza and Swiss cheese.

And I'm doing it all without the benefit of medication, which is making it especially hard on me, and on Fang as well. It's hard to be positive or to imagine--let alone chart a path to--a better future. In my current financial situation, it's hard not to resent the university--both as the grantor of a three graduate degrees I'm realizing are largely unmarketable and as my current employer. It's especially hard because in a perfect world Lucas would have a sibling, but my fertility and I are staring down the barrel of "advanced maternal age" and we can't afford another child, and won't be able to for a long time. I feel as if that decision has been taken out of my hands somewhat by my decreasing salary, and I resent that, too.

I'm so ready to be somewhere else--mentally, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, perhaps physically. I used to be the kind of person who could steer her own life in an appropriate direction. But for now here I am, with my stale bread and my peanut butter, wondering which way the wind will blow us next.