Sunday, November 23, 2014

To the Editor of the New York Review of Books:

In the article “Why is American Teaching So Bad?” Jonathan Zimmerman makes the same mistake that so many school reformers make by equating bad schools with bad teaching. He errs in other ways, too. First, by claiming that the “jury is still very much out” on the effectiveness of Teach for America teachers, Zimmerman overlooks the fact that however effective they might be, 80% of TFA recruits leave the profession after three years of teaching.[1] This high turnover results in added costs to local districts; moreover, as Zimmerman must know, it is only after the third year of experience that teachers acquire the full complement of skills they need to do their jobs effectively. This is why the first three years of a public school teacher’s employment are typically probationary. Second, Zimmerman credits public charter schools with much more innovation than they have actually accomplished. If one counts hiring unlicensed teachers, paying them less and requiring them to spend more time in the classroom as innovations, then yes, charter schools can be said to more innovative. In other respects, however, there is little convincing evidence that charter schools are any more innovative than ordinary public schools.[2]

Certainly, Mr. Zimmerman is right to assign much responsibility for the failures of American schools to schools of education, and to acknowledge the role of poverty – and the failure of public programs to address it – among other issues that make teaching in poorer school districts the difficult (and undesirable) job that it is. And he is right, too, to note that “’accountability’ makes our best teachers do their jobs worse…” By framing his question primarily in terms of teachers and teaching, however, Mr. Zimmerman makes serious omissions, as do so many education reform advocates. He ignores the roles of administrators, school board members and the leadership within the departments of education of the states, and he ignores impersonal economic forces. Instead of asking why American teaching is so bad, Zimmerman might ask instead: Why is it that school principals, who can replace any teacher they hire within the first three years, cannot sort out the “disciplined thinkers” needed for the classroom from the less capable ones they continue to rehire? Why are state departments of education obsessed with using student test scores as the chief instrument to judge teacher performance? Now that the bar preventing the brightest and most highly-educated American women from entering other more lucrative professions can schools of education and local districts not attract more qualified candidates? Finally,  why are local school boards still unwilling to pay their first-year teachers less per annum than a flight attendant?

Matthew R. Brown, M.Ed.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fancy Bikes

I have turned away from mopeds, mainly because I can't get my Puch Maxi running. I didn't really try, because I am so ignorant of motors. One of these days I'll sell it.

Instead, I've become more enamored of bicycles, partly because of Lovely Bicycle, a blog by a young woman in Somerville who is interested in biking in ways that I am. That is, for pleasure and transportation, and not racing. Velouria, as she fancies herself, is a fine photographer and reviews really interesting bikes. I'll let you visit and decide for yourself.

Visiting this site has led to interest in the Chief, from Heritage in Chicago. It's an awfully handsome bike, and you can get it with 8-speed internal gearing. Be still my heart.

Meanwhile, I tool around on a used, bright red Specialized Allez built in the early 90's that I picked up in Worcester at Barney's Bicycles. This IS a racing bike, so I will have to change the cassette and rear derailleur to something I can manage. Unless riding around on it in its present set-up enlarges my quads so much I won't have to (unlikely).

My other, main bike, is on its way from Worcester, a Gary Fisher Nirvana. It's stock, with a rack and panniers, so I can run errands. Since I now live a short distance from shops, work and library, I intend getting around on it more. I fancy putting fenders on it so I can ride in the wet; we'll see.

So I'll likely sell the Maxi moped and put the money into bikes. Here on Cape Cod, bikes are quite practical, and the Maxi, as lovely as it is, too much trouble for someone like me, who has no great love of mechanical work.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Wrong Kind of Historical Memory

Many people think that remembering isolated bits of historical information on demand is a must for every citizen in a democracy like ours. The folks who decide our history curriculum standards certainly think so, even though they know that we’ll forget most of the history we learned in school. A moment’s thought will tell you that remembering the date of the invasion of Normandy in WWII when someone asks for it is a poor indication of your understanding of history.
So let’s kill this idea right now. If you don’t know the date of the Normandy invasion, you’ll manage just fine.
I teach history in a public high school for a living, which means that I am more boring than most people. When I’m at parties or family gatherings I have very little to say. No one wants to hear about public policy or historical trends, except other history teachers and cranks with extreme political ideas who want to argue with me. So I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut at parties.
Curriculum committees place a premium on knowing isolated historical facts, but you’re better off knowing baseball trivia, or how to crochet. If you’ve ever met a real bore at a party, you know that already. When I think back to my own high school class in American history – we were required to take only one year of it, which tells you something about my high school – I barely remember a thing. Mainly I remember that the teacher told stories and showed movies. I do remember one piece of advice he gave us: If you want to be rich, get a job at McDonald’s and live as cheaply as possible so you can buy your own McDonald’s. Then use the profits to buy another McDonald’s, and so on, until you have a chain of them. The lesson my teacher wanted to convey was that most people lack the self discipline to make a bundle of money, which is why most people aren’t rich. The lesson I took from the story was that becoming rich was something so boring I would avoid it altogether, and I did. I became a teacher instead.
In the classroom I am stuck with this idea that learning facts is what history is all about, so I give tests with questions that years from now my students will not need to know the answers to, and thankfully, will have forgotten, so they can remember more useful things, like to check their mail carefully for bills. Still, my students expect these tests; if I didn’t give them, they’d be disappointed, grow despondent and probably stop working altogether.
The really important things my students do in history class don’t involve much declarative memory at all. They research, write news articles, speeches and dialogs. They interpret graphs and maps, write reports and make museum displays. They look at different interpretations of events and decide which interpretation makes the most sense. They debate and discuss. The put together collections of primary documents, organizing them into a coherent whole, and explain what the collection means. If my students ever need a fact when they’re doing any of these things, they do what I do and look it up on the Internet or in a book. And if I have taught them how to use sources properly, they will get their facts right, even the date of the Normandy landings.
Oh, yes, D-Day was June 6, 1944. Operation Overlord. Forget it.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Moped Recovery Act

Next week I go to court to confront the fellow accused of stealing my moped. The police returned the moped -- my wife was good enough to pick it up for me while I was away -- in somewhat rough shape. I hope I'm able to get restitution so I can have it fixed!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ten String Swing

My group, Ten String Swing, featuring guitarist Rich Falco, continues to get rave reviews. Here's our website: Ten String Swing where you can read them. We've been doing lots of weddings, playing background jazz, mainly, although we also play classical music for ceremonies. We're looking forward to spring and summer, when many more brides and grooms will be walking down the aisle!

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Is the Recession Really a Recession?

That is, is it really a recession when a bubble created by fictional financial foolishness finally pops? I see people wondering about holiday spending, even while thousands are stampeding over Walmart temps to get bargains, and wonder HOW MUCH LONGER CAN WE KEEP SPENDING BORROWED MONEY and keep thinking that we're doing our economy (and ourselves) any favors?

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Moped Stolen!

My innnocent enthusiasm for mopeds has led only to mine being stolen on Wed. night. I reported the theft to the police, and my moped was registered, but I suspect I've seen the last of it. If you see it, let me know!