Category Archives: Education

Tenure Bender

Caught Michelle Rhee on Real Time with Bill Maher the other night. She’s the reform educator who closed low-performing schools in the Washington, D.C. school district.

One of the comments she made was that, when she visited a school early one morning, she found classrooms with five students, seven students, three students in them. Wondering where all of the students were, she chanced upon one classroom with thirty students in it. Leaving the school a short time later, she found herself walking behind a couple of the students who had been in that classroom.

Tapping them on the shoulder, she asked what was going on. The students told her that, while their first period teacher was worth the effort of showing up, their next teacher was not worth the effort of staying. Rhee said that, while people noticing these kids hanging around instead of attending class might think they are not motivated, she took away something entirely different from this encounter.

Rhee said that what she realized was that, these students were motivated enough to get themselves up, dressed, and to school in time for the first class of the day. Once they were there, though, they weren’t motivated enough to stick around. In other words, they were being savvy shoppers of their time.

Rhee’s comment on the whole situation was that teachers make a difference. I have something to add to that. Since even students in the worst schools can figure out whether they are learning anything or not, let’s chuck the whole tenure thing, the whole standardized testing thing, and let the students decide whether a teacher is worth his or her salt, or salary.

Set up each teacher with a classroom of thirty students. At the end of six weeks, if the teacher can’t manage to retain at least twenty students in class, that teacher is fired immediately. All of the other teachers keep their jobs until the next semester/quarter, when the process is repeated. And repeated, and repeated, each year.

Instead of tenure, where teachers keep their jobs until they are forced out, make them provide something worthy in order to keep their jobs. Impossible! you say? Anecdotal, you say? The kids will pick the teachers who make life easy for them? Not so. I will repeat my main point: children are programmed from birth to learn. Given their druthers, they will learn.  They must learn. Learning to be productive in the society in which people find themselves is the only way for the species to survive. It’s in our genes. Students will gravitate to the teachers who teach—it’s human nature. That desire must be stomped out of them.

Look at the Khan Academy, which is a corollary to the main point. We lost teaching when we went from requiring teachers to know their subject to requiring teachers to know how to teach. Sure, aspiring teachers need a few pointers on how to engage a class, how to deal with unruly children, and how to create an effective lesson plan. But those pedagogical aspects have overrun the absolute need to be fully conversant with the subject you are trying to get across to the students. Know your stuff, and the teaching will come. Know everything about teaching, and you still can’t teach celestial navigation if you don’t know it.

And Michelle Rhee? She didn’t get tenure, she got fired.


Filed under Critical Thinking, Education, Politics

Look! It’s the Spring Bunny!

The P.C. police are out in full force, just in time for the holiday. Which holiday, you ask? Well, it sure ain’t Easter. Yes, there are bunnies, there are eggs, there is chocolate, but we can’t call it Easter, because that term might offend some people. Actually, I can’t imagine why.

Easter as it is celebrated in this country has no more connection to the rising of Christ than Christmas has to his birthday. We have managed to eliminate most of the Christian parts of each holiday, while retaining only the pagan rituals. It’s amazing that anyone can relate a day filled with junk food and rabbits to a religious holiday. In fact, instead of not using words like Easter, we should be using them all over the place. There is nothing guaranteed to make words lose their meaning faster than uttering them without any context. Sort of the way parents yelling, “And I mean it this time!” comes to mean nothing if they fail to follow through yet again.

It is the words that are spoken in hushed, reverential tones that acquire mystical meanings. Those words that are tossed around like garbage quickly lose all ability to generate a rise out of anyone. Think of the words that are commonly used on network television this days. Not so long ago, those words were shocking, titillating, provocative.

Nowadays, if the young’uns hear words meant for grown-up ears, the response is more, “Just ignore that, dear,” than a gasp, a “Tsk!”, or a reach for the remote. We still may not want to hear the sounds coming from little mouths, but those words, so often heard these days, have lost a great deal of their power.

So is it with Easter. You’d have to look hard to find any Christian symbolism in any of the public celebrations of the day. For most people, the term “Easter” could easily be replaced with “Hiding Eggs Day”, “Fun Day”, or “Another Excuse to Pig Out on Chocolate Day”. I’m surprised that no one has yet come up with a non-religious acronym for Easter, like Eat All Sorts of Things Everyone Relishes.

You want people to continue to be offended by religious terms? Be very careful about which ones are used, and when, and make sure to infuse them with plenty of mystery and sacrament.

On the other hand, you want religious words to quickly lose their offensiveness? Invest the original meaning with new associations. For most people Easter will soon not have any connection with Christianity. Just as many groups have adopted terms that were once pejorative and made them standards, so allowing Easter to remain in use will deprive it of its religious meaning for all except those who practice the religion. In fact, they will decry its sacrilegious use.

We made up these words, we get to decide what they mean, and how much power we invest them with. After all, they are only words. As the great philosopher, Humpty Dumpty, once said about us versus words, “The question is, which is to be master—that’s all.”


Filed under Critical Thinking, Education, Politics, Religion

And How Are We Feeling Today?

The quiet revolution is going on all over, if only we stop to notice it. My brother brought to my attention a new, as he called it, ‘interesting medical website’ (if I didn’t have family, I’d never have anything to talk about). The website is called, which stands for In Need of Diagnosis. is a Florida-based patient resource organization, which is working to change the face of medical diagnosis.

Over-worked doctors who rely on the results of common tests can sometimes miss the 800-pound elephant in the room. INOD strives to give people access to doctors who can think outside the box of applying obvious disease labels to conditions that end up being not so obvious, doctors who have not yet been so indoctrinated into accepting test results over the evidence before them.

In addition, INOD stresses the simple point that patients are in charge of their own bodies. Patients who document symptoms, patients who question the automatic responses of doctors, patients who keep track of how medicines and life-style changes affect their bodies, and patients who seek to inform themselves about the status of their conditions are not the demons that TV programs lead us to believe. Those patients are, in fact, the ones who are doing themselves and their doctors a great service, by bringing all their symptoms to the doctors’ attention, giving feedback on the efficacy of prescribed medicines, and becoming pro-active in their own care.

True, anyone can be stupid when researching on the Internet. But we have been brainwashed into thinking that we do not have the right to question a diagnosis pronounced by a great and mighty M.D., even if what the doctor recommends (surgery) is not our number one choice for dealing with a particular situation, or if the recommendation (just one pill per day) doesn’t seem to be accomplishing what it was supposed to be doing. The most interesting concept advocated here is to manage symptoms, even while a diagnosis eludes the best medical minds. Such an important idea: live your life, even if you don’t know the name of what is bothering you. Don’t wait to feel better while scores of doctors take your money (or your insurer’s money)—if not drinking milk makes you feel better, then stop drinking milk. We have become so used to the idea that a pill provides the only answer that we forget that we can make large, or incremental, changes that in turn make a great difference in the quality of our lives.

The quiet revolution is the taking back of responsibility for our lives onto ourselves. There is so much information available now that we have opportunities only dreamed of by people living just fifty years ago. But we can only take advantage of those opportunities if we act in a responsible, thinking, logical manner. It’s easy to be stupid. The goal here ought to be find a way to manage the glut of information in a way that actually makes sense. Websites like are leading the way.


Filed under Critical Thinking, Education

A Change in the Making

I know that I rag on the educational system a lot, but really, is it so unjustified? My father-in-law gave me yet another example of a true success story the other day.

It seems that my in-laws had stopped at a deli, and ordered a sandwich, side, and a drink, to split. The cashier punched in whatever she needed to, to arrive at a total bill of $9.52. My father-in-law is old school, and learned how to do maths back in the day. He found a Ten Dollar bill in his wallet, and handed her that, then said, “Wait a minute,” while he fished in his pocket for change. Before he could locate the change, she’d rung up the Ten Dollars, and the cash register was now telling her to return $.48 to him.

Being a good little obeyer, as is the wont these days, she retrieved Forty-eight cents from the cash drawer. Okay, now here is where it gets complicated. By this time, my FIL had located two pennies, and set them on the counter. The cashier (I use this term loosely) stared at the pennies for a moment, then her face brightened. She counted out Forty-six cents, and held it out to my FIL, who couldn’t help but chuckle in disbelief.

Being a polite sort, instead of saying what was on his mind, he merely inquired how she had come up with that amount. She said, “I took off the two cents.” I know, I know. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

He gently said, “That’s not right, you know.” The blank look on her face cluing him in, he said, “Let’s start over.” He took back the Ten, pushed all of the change except his two cents back her way, then said, “If I give you Ten Dollars,” handing it to her, “plus two cents,” dropping them into her palm, “that totals $10.02. $10.02 minus your bill of $9.52 equals Fifty cents. You owe me Fifty cents, not Forty-six.”

By this time, her eyes had glazed over, and she was clearly simply waiting for instructions. When she heard Fifty cents, she was relieved. She picked up the two dimes and the three pennies that were lying on the counter (fortunately, somewhere along the way she had learned to count change), and added a quarter to the one left there.

“Did you see how that worked?” My FIL asked, intent on not cheating either himself or her. She merely smiled. The cash register had told her one thing, he had told her another, but even though she had not learned higher math in school, she had learned the more important lesson that the customer is always right. And I guess that’s got to be good enough, these days. Let’s just hope that somehow the people who will be programming our computers get the chance to be introduced to some math along the way.

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Mississippi Mud

Much as the liberals amuse themselves with the conservatives’ lack of belief in global warming, the conservatives have a field day with the liberals’ Panglossian notion that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that we ought to keep the planet exactly the way it was when we, the generations currently alive, chanced to embark upon our lives. As if.

I can almost always find the wellsprings for a rant or two in the pages of The Economist, and of course, TED Talks. (If that sounds too snooty, you should see me snort into my beer at some of the comments that Daniel Tosh makes.) I am not picky about the source of my ramblings—generally I want to be amused, entertained, or educated, and preferably all at once. I mention this because, with all of the evidence that surrounds us, at all levels of erudition, I can’t understand how anyone can believe that this world is not all about change. Back to The Economist.

Awhile back, there was an article on the Mississippi River, and how its flow has changed over the centuries. The illustration accompanying the article makes the flood plain painfully clear, and yet our government encourages people to build, and rebuild, in an area that can’t help but be inundated in the future. When will the madness stop? Who will be the first to say, yup, it’s a bad idea to try to drag this planet to a halt, right where it is. It’s the height of hubris to think that a) we can mold this big old earth into our version of heaven, and b) that we are the be-all and end-all of everything.

It’s interesting that conservatives tend to be more religious, but that liberals act as though humans are the teleological result of evolution. Change is the only constant, and evolution is a non-thinking phenomenon, regardless of the way it is portrayed in schools and on science shows. No creature thinks, wow, I got to get me a longer proboscis, so’s I can get the nectar buried deeper in the flower. It’s the poor fella who happens to be stuck with the longer proboscis that finds, or doesn’t find, the flower that happens to allow for that particular trait. Then he either dies off, or passes that mutation on to later generations, who find, or don’t find, flowers that work for them. Evolution is not a forward-thinking process. It’s only after it happens, and we see the current state of things versus what worked in the past, that we can figure out which random mutations are working right now. Even that won’t tell us what mutation will become necessary in the next five minutes as a result of ongoing changes.

Yet daily we are inundated with examples of the pervasive thinking that, because we exist at this point in the lifespan of our planet, this is the way things ought to be forever and ever. We can’t manage to find a source of power that can be made readily available to all, without causing harm to some part of the planet, but we have the right, and the ability, to keep the next ice age from occurring?

How about we get the religion out of the government—the religion that says that we are the all-powerful, all-knowing gods of this planet, and that if we merely tithe enough to Caesar, he will render paradise.How about we make adaptation a conscious process, conforming ourselves to the world we happen to find ourselves in, instead of acting as though throwing more money at the coastline will make the tide stop washing away the beach. Or plunking a house down will hem in the Mississippi River.

Somewhere, we glommed onto the notion that we’ve got all the answers, even in the face of the planet constantly demonstrating that we do not. Maybe this is the time we can step back and think things through, before rushing to an expensive, short-term solution that only ends up aggravating the whole situation. Or, I guess, we can just throw more money into the river.

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