Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hope and the Culture of Violence

Over the last several months leading up to my arrest in front of Colisimos gun shop and then the five months after that leading up to my trial, I have been made acutely aware of how deeply embedded violence is in U.S. culture. While I was already quite aware of the role violence plays in our culture, being involved in an effort to stop the flow of illegal guns has shown me how irrational the arguments of the NRA and the gun lobby can be. I have come to see more clearly that the struggle in which we are involved has touched a nerve deeply rooted in our cultural DNA. J. Denny Weaver (Anabaptist Theology in the Face of Postmodernity, 2000) has shown how from the very beginning of our nation there has been a clear belief in the link between freedom and guns. A simple search on Google or YouTube of “Freedom and Guns” reveals how prevalent such a belief still is today. In a recent NY times op-ed piece Bob Herbert even suggests that the recent shootings in the Holocaust Museum, Pittsburgh and Wichita, are linked to the NRA-inspired surge in gun purchases since Obama’s election, out of fear that Obama will impose stricter gun control laws.

However, I think the issue goes far deeper than guns or the NRA. We on the progressive end of the political spectrum are as culpable the conservatives we like to lambaste. While the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller was an expression of violence gone wild, so too are the daily abortions he and others like him commit. While the violence on our streets is a concern, so should be the thousands of murders we witness on our favorite TV shows and movies. While we rightly decry violence against police officers in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other major cities, what about the violence against innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan that is unfortunately (we say) a part of our military strategy? What kind of culture makes it more attractive for poor inner city kids to choose the military and the possibility of dying in war to the staying in their neighborhood and facing the possibility of dying in that neighborhood? While we are not alone in the world as violent, dangerous place, how many weapons large and small are manufactured here and sold to be used in those other places? We wonder about how certain criminals can be so inhumane, and then we put them into a criminal justice system that is so violence-saturated that often people come out more violent than when they went in.

Sadly, religion, especially Christianity, has been a contributing factor to this culture. The pogroms against Jews, the enslavement of Africans and subsequent systematized racism that followed, and the virtual elimination of millions of Native Americans – all by Christian (Protestant and Catholic) Europeans – testify to the debilitating and denigrating role religion has played in the perpetuation of violence against others. A simple YouTube or Google search of “God and Guns” reveals how alive that link still is today. The absurdity of this link was taken to an extreme recently in a Kentucky church that actually had a worship service dedicated to allowing people to openly carry their handguns.

This culture of violence is literally killing us directly and indirectly. We are painfully aware of the direct cost of violence as we watch the evening news. However, Dan Groody (Globalization, Spirituality and Justice, 2007)illustrates the indirect cost by talking what military spending could be used for. If the world redirected its military spending for one day, malaria in Africa could be eliminated. Two days spending could provide the health services to prevent 3 million infant deaths a year. A week's spending could provide education for 140 million children in the developing world. When we examine these costs of violence, we have to ask: what must change?

While the United States is not alone in its addiction to violence, it is too easy for us to either rationalize it, feel overwhelmed by it, or try to simply deny it. Professor John Horgan routinely confronts fatalism in his students regarding the inevitability of war. My guess that a poll of most Americans would reveal that while they favor limits on gun purchases, they are resigned to the fact that the laws probably will never change, and that those of us who try to fight the NRA and the gun lobby are like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Certainly there is good reason for skepticism when common sense laws get thrown about courts, as happened in Philadelphia this week. There is reason for despair when a “one handgun a month" law can’t get passed in PA, but the Congress can pass a law allowing people to carry concealed weapons into national parks. There is reason for frustration when those in the pro-gun lobby continually create confusion and fear by stating that attempts to control the sale of any guns, is tantamount to control the sale of all guns.

There is no question that our cultural addiction to violence remains strong, and yet I remain imminently hopeful not only that gun laws will change, but that we are at a time when the futility of violence and the absurdity of the gun lobby’s arguments are showing them for what they are. I am hopeful because there are many countries in the world, especially Europe and parts of Asia, where societies carry on quite civilly without the need to show bravado through violence.

I remain hopeful because a change in our culture’s addiction to violence will either consume itself or we will change.

I have hope because I believe in a God of Justice and a God of history.

I have hope because I I believe with Paulo Freire that change is difficult, but it can happen.

I remain hopeful because as I study the movements for social change such as happened with civil rights and against nuclear arms, I can see there was a time when it seemed that things would never change. And yet today we have a black man as president who talks about his commitment to abolishing all nuclear weapons; who would've thunk it?.

I remain hopeful because our cause is right and just, and stands on the side of Truth and “Truth crushed to earth is still truth and like a seed will rise again” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Widget Effect - Take 2

My last blog responded to Jonathan Alter’s article on a recent report of The New Teacher Project called The Widget Effect. I got curious and decided to read the report myself. I found that Alter fairly summed up the report accurately. Essentially, the New Teacher Project notes the lack of viable systems for evaluating teacher effectiveness in public schools. As such one finds that the overwhelming majority of teachers (90+ %) are given “satisfactory ratings. This practice not only fails to weed out ineffective teachers, but also neglects to recognize and reward truly good teachers. Furthermore, administrators are not adequately trained and equipped to determine which teachers are doing an effective job in the classroom and which ones are not. Thus, teachers are regarded as interchangeable “widgets” which can be equally effective in all situations. This “widget effect” simply perpetuates a sub-par educational system

As far as it goes, the report identifies a realistic concern. As a parent, I was quite cognizant of which teachers seem to “get through” to my children as students, and which ones seem to miss them altogether. While over all I was pleased with the education my children received, there were a few teachers I would have loved to have seen sent their “walking papers.” Likewise I have worked in and with schools, where teacher effectiveness has been a valid concern, and there did not seem to be an easy way to separate the good from the bad, or to get rid of the bad. So as far as it goes, the report makes a good point.

The problem is that this study is narrowly focused on a politically attractive symptom (teachers), and in the process completely ignores the wider context in which the problem of public of education must be discussed. As I read through the report, I saw nothing about the wide range of social and economic circumstances affecting student performance. I read nothing about wide disparities in per student funding created by the antiquated system of funding schools through property taxes. There was nothing included about the total ineffectiveness of the No Child Left Behind Act, in which “learning” is equated with test taking. I read nothing about our culture’s misplaced priorities that pays professional athletes, lawyers, doctors and corporate CEOs on one scale and teachers, social workers and childcare workers on another. I also did not see a word about developing curriculum that honors the diverse cultures from which today’s students come.

I share The Widget Effect authors’ concern for raising the bar for our nation’s educational system. However, it is both irresponsible and misleading to assume that teachers operate in a social, political, economic and cultural vacuum. The legendary Brazilian educator Paulo Freire stated that all education is political, and that effective teaching must help students to “read the word and read the world” around them. In other words effective teaching is that which enables both teachers and students to address the major issues and challenges of our world, by treating knowledge not as a commodity to be measured, but rather a problem to be solved. What is needed is not simply a better teacher evaluation system, but rather a whole scale reorientation of values and perspectives on what the meaning and purpose of education truly is. By simply focusing on one aspect of that challenge, The Widget Effect oversimplifies a complex problem, and makes teachers a scapegoat for a failure that all of us in U.S. society have contributed to.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Problem with the "Teaching Effectiveness" Argument

This brief article was prompted a recent Newseek column by Jonathan Alter (June 15) in which he urges President Obama to push his agenda for teacher effectiveness by funding those programs with “good track records at turning around poorly performing schools and training teachers better.” At the same time he urges Obama not to give into teachers unions and “educrats” who like to spread money around evenly across a wide range of programs, even if some of them show no distinguishing marks of being “successful.”

As far as Alter’s argument goes, I agree that there needs to be greater teacher accountability and greater emphasis on looking for effective models of education outside the current norms of public education. However, Alter, like many of his ilk, is short sighted when it comes to the complexity of the teaching-learning process. While he criticizes “the widget effect,” which suggests that all teachers are equally competent, he seems to assume a corresponding “widget effect” when it comes to students. Moreover, he makes the assumption that everyone knows what “good teaching” is and how to measure it: with the results of a standardized test. These are two assumptions I do not share and must challenge.

My oldest daughter teaches in an alternative school for students with behavioral and emotional problems. These are students who have been removed from their regular public schools because of disruptive and incorrigible behavior. Some days she can spend a better part of her teaching time simply trying to get her students to focus on their lessons. Fortunately, in her school there are a whole host of support services that can help her when a student gets out of hand. She is there to help students not only with math, English and so on, but with managing their lives. Her goal is that after a year they will be able to return to a regular classroom. Apparently, her school has a good track record on doing that. Even so my daughter has often said that if her effectiveness was judged on her students’ test scores, she would be out of a job.

However, one of the political reasons these students are sent to her school is that their test scores bring down the sending school’s average, thus depressing their overall “success” as a school. Her students, once they are in her school as “special ed” kids, aren’t factored into the overall average.

Another young teacher I know is not so lucky, because he teaches math in a Philadelphia public middle school. On a recent visit to the school he confided that nearly half of his students don’t live with their parents, but instead are in foster homes or with relatives because mom and dad are strung out on drugs, in jail, or participating in any number of self-destructive behaviors. As I watched him perform a simple lesson, I could see he was not only teaching them algebra, but also basic concepts like courtesy and respect. However, unlike my daughter, his school did not have all the support services, and thus he was on his own. At the end of the year the standardized tests will reveal him to be an “ineffective teacher” because most of his kids will score well below acceptable levels. While he would agree he has much to learn, in my book he is a hero for teaching on the front lines of difficult school, a place where many “successful” teachers dare never tread.

Having been a teacher myself for nearly 12 years, and having helped many others as a faculty developer, I have had my share of great teaching moments where students really got the subject material I taught them. Yet, I have also bombed. While, I always ask myself how I could have done better, I also recognize that often my “success” is determined by not only by my teaching methods and the academic preparation and motivation of my students, but also a whole host of factors outside the classroom such as family, health, finances, job, and so on. Not only that, each student learns in different ways, bringing in different experiences, and processing information in their own special way. Moreover, there are socio-political factors such as class, race, and social power that enter into the subject matter that is taught. My point is simply students are not uniform “widgets,” and success is far more elusive than most policymakers and columnists would care to admit.

If the Obama administration wants to raise the effectiveness of education, the focus cannot just be on teachers, nor on schools. The problems in education today, are much wider and broader than that. Columnists like Alter and many politicians want simple, sure fire solutions to problems like education. They want simple measures like standardized tests to determine “success" and ‘effectiveness.” However, the task is far more complex and therefore does not lend itself to “silver bullet” answers.

Instead of berating teachers and their unions, the policymakers need to draw on the expertise and passion of the many dedicated educators in our schools. By and large teachers go into their profession because of their love of their subject and of students. Yes, there are bad apples that need to be weeded out. However, by and large teachers offer a valuable service for which they are grossly underpaid, and vastly under-appreciated, no thanks to people like Jonathan Alter.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Recognizing the Lens Through Which We Experience the World

Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh made fools of themselves this past week when they called Supreme Court judge nominee Sonia Sotomayor “racist” for her comments that her background as a Latina from a lower income background might reach a better judicial decision on matters affecting poor people “than a white male who has not lived that life.” Gingrich later retracted labeling the judge herself as “racist” and instead said it was her “words” that were racist. Either way a lot of conservatives (and probably a lot of white people in general) still miss the point of her statement.

Most of us who have grown up white in this country were led to believe that with practice and critical thinking we could reach “impartial” and “objective” decisions on matters of consequence; and so we ran the world that way. The irony and problem was that all the impoverished people of color around the world were asking: “How come when those white people make impartial, objective decisions, it always seem to end up going in their favor.” What all the other folks saw that we whites had (and still have) a hard time seeing is that we were as biased out of our own background and self-interest as any other group. We had deluded ourselves into thinking we were able to “rise above” our own prejudices to see things objectively.

Once when I was on jury duty I was in a jury pool for a young black man who had been accused of breaking and entering a store. As I looked around the 40-50 of us who were being interviewed for the jury, there were only 2-3 black persons, and all middle or upper middle class, and I thought “this is not a jury of this man’s peers.” I was shortly dismissed from the jury pool, so I don’t know who ended up on the jury, but I am sure that man did not see a reflection of himself. That jury was not able to make an “impartial” decision about that defendant. Our middle class upbringing influenced us to see that man in a certain light: young, black, poor, and probably guilty. My guess is the young man’s true peers would have viewed him differently and used different adjectives to describe him. We can do the best we can to be “fair” and “impartial,” but the fact is that all of us see the world in a certain way because of our background

I appreciate Sonia Sotomayor’s candor about the impact her life experience has on her judgment because it forces all of us to consider how our judgments, values, prejudices and preferences are shaped by our life experiences. Just like Sotomayor, it is not that we don’t consider facts, principles and (in her case) the law, but the lens through which we view those “objective” elements is literally shaped by how we were raised, who we grew up with, the experiences we have had, and the socioeconomic conditions in which we lived. Given her background Sotomayor will provide a valuable addition to a Supreme Court that currently reflects the backgrounds of only a small segment of the U.S. population. Like the President who nominated her, Sotomayor brings a new set of eyes to a role that requires a diverse set of opinions and perspectives.

For me, Sotomayor’s comments don’t strike me as prejudicial at all, but rather remind me that I need to listen more intently to those whose experiences and backgrounds are vastly different than my own, so that perhaps I might be able to see and have a feel for life experiences that I missed or from which I was spared. I don’t begrudge my privileged background except in the ways it may have inadvertently damaged or diminished others, but I won’t know how others are or were affected until I step back and realize I need to listen first, and speak second.