Sunday, November 27, 2005

Teacher Watch: Kenneth Burke, Man of Letters

He died in 1993, but 21st century teachers would do well to appreciate the educational path taken by Kenneth Burke and introduce him to their students. Burke's career (and his legacy of thinking) challenges dominant attitudes about "measuring" learning through tests and certificates. Arguably, his contributions are more relevant now than ever.

Burke famously dropped out of Columbia University in order to read, write and study on his own, penning heavy book-length works and hundreds of articles about language, philosphy, and literature. I once met a Columbia grad student at a conference in Leeds, UK, who confessed that Burke's legacy is an intimidation to even his most ambitious classmates, who are mortified to discover what he accomplished without credentials from the Ivy League. Some of Burke's significant texts include Counter-Statement (1931), Grammar of Motives (1945), Rhetoric of Motives (1950), and The Rhetoric of Religion (1961). He was friend or correspondent to many modernist writers and artists, including Jean Toomer, Marriane Moore, and William Carlos Williams. He worked for a time at The Dial (as a music critic!) and also contributed to The Nation. Despite his lack of a PhD, he was also a teacher in the ancient peripatetic tradition (i.e. he gave talks everywhere).

Burke examined language to interpret human motives and to advance complex dialogue--as an antidote to winner/loser debates and physical violence. His work is not easy to catalogue or typify, and Burke defended himself against being slotted into simplistic compartments of understanding. But his "place" is still debated by scholars in diverse disciplines, including literary theory, speech communication, composition, rhetoric, history, and theology.

What does this have to do with us now? Our perpetual bombardment of testing and failure in schools is counterpart, in domestic politics, to the state of perpetual war foreseen by Orwell--a state which haunted Burke and other writers who lived through the bloody beginnings of the past century. Burke's writings provide tools through which we can analyze and discuss motivations inside forces now assumed to be "objective," including multiple choice tests, automated essay scoring, textbook summaries, classroom performance systems, diplomas, and even teacher training.

For too long, schools have valued scrutiny over attentiveness. Extending the Burkean tradition, perhaps teachers and students can stand together for curiosity, life-work, and a commitment to posing questions that open rather than reduce conversation. In our own individual ways, we can do the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable work of breaking molds that confine us--because, as Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, we too "contain multitudes."

Check out KB Journal for informational links, articles, new books and scholarship.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Breakfast with Hillary

Several years ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to meet Neil Diamond. I remember how excited we were. We talked about it for months after. I also remember how excited we were when we had the opportunity to meet President Clinton at a private reception at the Pickfair Mansion in Beverly Hills. It was a fundraiser for a gun control group headed by Reagan's press secretary Jim Brady.

All of it was great including the secret service agents and their dogs. Clinton, ever the eloquent speaker, was a big hit.

I felt the same excitement again when I was lucky enough to have breakfast with Senator Hillary Clinton at a venue near the Los Angeles airport on Friday.

It all started when Artesia assembly member and 56 AD candidate Tony Mendoza invited me to be his guest at a gala at our alma mater--Cal-State University Long Beach. I was really impressed with the event, which was to celebrate the opening of a Center for Indo-American Studies at the campus, but I was even more excited when I met the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.

He was such a genuine and sincere man whose love of humanity was quite apparent. It was obvious that his grandfather had left a lasting impression on him.

At the gala, Mendoza told me that he had been asked by an Indo-American host to be his guest at a breakfast for Hillary. Unfortunately, he would not be able to attend because he had a prior commitment.

I told him that I thought he was dumb for not wanting to meet the Senator until he told me that he had suggested that I go in his place. Then I told him what a genius he was!

Of course, Hillary was great, and made a point of greeting each one of us. We had the opportunity to have a picture taken with her before breakfast. She spoke passionately about the issues facing America today, and how disappointing some of the administration's decisions have been concerning the war in Iraq and the hurricane of Katrina.

She was asked if she was planning to run for President in 2008, and she said, "It's too early to think about anything else other than my Senate race in 2006."

She did say, however, that "I do admire South Asian countries who are ahead of America when it comes to placing women in high positions of leadership!"

She also was asked why, during the Clinton administration the Republicans were relentless with their attacks, but now the Democrats have little to say about "the current problems of indictments, cronyism, and incompetence."

Hillary replied that "Americans didn't seem to be ready to hear about the problems in Washington, but now they seem to be. So you will be hearing a lot more from Democrats as the 2006 elections draw near."

In attendance were representatives from Congresswoman Linda Sanchez's office as well as the appearance of Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi and State Board of Equalization John Chiang.

Overall, it was an experience I will always remember.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

An Argument for Tenure--Part Two

Here's an update to the previous post regarding the teacher at a private school who was fired for a volunteer job she used to hold with Planned Parenthood. Follow the link provided to the article in the Sacramento Bee. (Registration may be required.)

One key question: Will confidentiality bar the teacher from speaking up in public?

Loretto Settles with Teacher

A confidential deal avoids a wrongful termination suit in the controversy.

By Todd Milbourn -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Saturday, November 12, 2005
Story appeared in Metro section, Page B1

The Loretto High School drama teacher fired last month for past volunteer work at a Planned Parenthood clinic has reached a settlement with the Catholic all-girls school, attorneys for the teacher and school said Friday.

Marie Bain of Sacramento, who alleged last week that her termination was a case of religious and sexual discrimination and a violation of free speech rights, will not be reinstated but will receive compensation from the school. Neither side would disclose how much.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Teachers for Sale

In my most recent small adventures courtesy of the Association of Test Publishers, I've received an email list of teacher name banks for sale by state and region--K-12 through Community College and University levels. Considering all the hubbub in recent years about identity protection, telemarketing and "opting out" lists, it's important for instructors to know that their professional contact information is being bought and sold.
How cheap are you?
Browse K-12 email lists
Browse 4-year University email lists

A few highlights:
  • North Dakota K-12 teachers (9,000+ contacts) are a bargain at $99.
  • California K-12 teachers (100,000+ contacts) go for $1249.
  • The whole country (1.7 million+ contacts) is a steal at $3999.
My last year as English department chair, I kept every catalogue, brochure and "special offer" that landed in my mailbox. By June, I had filled a giant plastic tub to past brimming. Apple logos everywhere. Plump kid faces and pretty teacher-ladies in front of green chalkboards. All the trappings and gimmicks of easiness and user-friendliness. What irritated me most were the packets from Cliffs and Sparks Notes, now billed as "study guides." But when I thought about it, I had to admit it made perfect sense: in a curriculum where novels are seen as "non-standard" material, who wouldn't like to teach the Cliffs Notes version? I thought about the generation of students raised on reading-for-testing, some of whom will become teachers themselves.

This insider's barrage of names for sale may not be surprising for professionals who deflect marketers on a day-to-day basis, but at least it provides us with a massive consumer's view of the educational meat market.

Exercise your right to opt-out.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Teacher Watch: ETS Monopoly Continues

Educational Testing Service (ETS)--famed (or notorious?) publisher of the AP, SAT, LSAT, GRE, TOEFL, GMAT and most recently the HSEE--has again been granted an exclusive contract to administer the "mammoth" testing program for California students, grades 2-11, through 2008-09. According to ETS estimates, the contract is worth $170 million. The final price has yet to be negotiated.

Keep in mind that ETS maintains not-for-profit status under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. This means two things: ETS pays zero federal income tax and does not have to report any of its financial information to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The fact that ETS vies for public tax dollars makes no difference.

John Oswald, former president of the Association of Test Publishers and senior VP of ETS Elementary and Secondary Education, is reportedly "gratified" to see the state board reward ETS's performance since 2002-03. Interestingly, Oswald has been fairly open about ETS's essential monopoly: "This might sound a little silly, but I don't really think that we have competitors... We really do approach the market from a very different standpoint. We want to work with states that will use assessments to make teaching more effective, that will invest in professional development programs, and that are serious about curriculum reform. Our trustees have made that a matter of policy."

One of Oswald's ETS colleagues, President and CEO Kurt Landgraf, has clarified the corporation's attitude towards (public) money: "[ETS] will never be the low-cost bidder on a contract." Landgraf has also quipped, "I would really be happy if people didn't know what the 'T' meant in 'ETS'. I think of this as an educational-solutions company."

Read the full article about Thursday's new contract award in the Los Angeles Times California section.

Click links for more about ETS, John Oswald and Kurt Langdraf (as sources for above quotes). Ironically, the first appears on a website run by ETS sometimes-competitor Thomson Prometric. The other appears on the site of Stanford University of Education.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Teachers--Press Your Union Forward!

I’m an eleven-year veteran California teacher, now in voluntary exile from the public K-12 system. Politically, I’ve registered as “refuse to identify” on the California ballot for the past three years. I hated Gray Davis but voted for Camejo, not Arnold. I’m pro-labor. And with two days to go, I’m still tempted to vote for Prop 75, the so-called “paycheck protection act.” I'd like to clarify why.

In years past, I happily paid dues for union representation at the collective bargaining table, even though my district (like many) is essentially a “closed shop” which doesn’t bother with member recruitment anymore. It’s the extra money, approximately thirty-eight percent of the now $927 annual paycheck deduction for my former colleagues, that bothers me still.

Where does all that money go? Let’s say where it doesn't. In the past ten years, neither the National Education Association nor the California Teachers Association has resisted corporate interest in the public money pots of compulsory education. I don’t mean Coke machines and advertising on the Internet, but the bedrock of schooling: curriculum, standards, instruction and assessment.

That’s what makes “Stop 75” ads comparing union and corporate donations to political candidates and parties frankly laughable and even disturbing. In fact, union dollars haven’t used their muscle to advance a coherent, anti-corporate agenda under the status quo.

The National Business Roundtable’s impact on standardization in schools has stood publicly un-critiqued by unions. Neither NEA nor CTA has scrutinized, in any coherent way, the current testing and reporting system. They’ve bought into Orwellian euphemisms like “collaboration” and “professional learning communities"--phrases which belie increasingly top-down, scripted, multiple-choice models of learning. Unions have at times traded teacher pay for professional autonomy and told teachers they will not support “insubordinate” defiance of unconscionable testing practices. Even with heavy access to the Democratic Party, the NEA pressed for more funding of the No Child Left Behind Act, rather than an overhaul and re-examination of school policy.

While both NEA and CTA advocate for important medical benefits, salary, tenure, and retirement investment, they don’t press for more funding of ongoing teacher education. I’m not talking about some in-house training workshop run by district lackeys, but subsidies for serious study, writing and research. (I know, I know: it’s pie in the sky for the lowly schoolmarms.)

No union resources have been used to raise awareness about the financial interests at stake for industry lobbying giants such as the Association of Test Publishers and the Association of American Publishers. I haven’t read a single critique of how public schools are used as a marketing platform for assessments in the wider business world. No foray of union voices clamored when the nonprofit Educational Testing Service was granted a virtual monopoly on test administration and reporting in California from Grades 2-11 in 2002--and then was commissioned to develop, administer, and score the California High School Exit Exam. No one complained when Grey Davis, in his final election year, abruptly allocated millions for a quick buyout of newly-minted books with the California standards branded into the margins. (Then-CTA-President Wayne Johnson outed Davis for soliciting campaign money as trade for political support--but why was Johnson surprised?)

When I attended the 2005 annual Association of Test Publishers conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, I saw representatives from Microsoft, Vantage Learning, Thomson Prometric, ACT, Harcourt, The College Board, Linux, Caveon Data Forensics, Pearson VUE, and Educational Testing Service. Even Famous Amos of chocolate chip cookie fame was there, singing and playing a kazoo onstage. The absence of educators, state and local school board members and other officials was noted for the record at least twice. But they moved on without us. And there were no union watchdogs at the table.

Ironically, the main reason given by most supporters of Prop 75 is that “unions have an agenda.” What agenda? My problem is that the teachers’ union--at the highest and most prominent level--has provided very little organized vision and resistance.

The teachers’ union knows better than anyone that a textbook isn’t just a textbook anymore, and that information and test graft are easily the new wave of public waste. We need more sophisticated arguments than simply “Our kids need books!” or “We love kids!”

I’ve seen pictures of CTA President Barbara Kerr beaming with the Gubernator before and after his election. Under her leadership, the union agreed (with reservations?) to permit the “borrowing” of $2 billion that never got returned. Current union ads whining about Arnold’s “betrayal” would be sad if they weren’t so infuriating. Did CTA--bankrolled by the rank-and-file--really believe The Terminator would be a true advocate for education? That union compromises hadn’t already set the stage for a smile and pat on the head (or the behind)?

What teachers need is organized civil disobedience and coherent philosophical leadership, not pretenses of “reform” inside a complacent system. Make unions rally the rank-and-file. Make unions stand up and defend their expenditures.

Then I’ll happily and proudly write an extra check.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Teacher Watch: Sandy Kress--Know this Face

President Bush's central advisor on education policy, lobbyist and attorney Sandy Kress, also consults some of the most highly invested "pro-testing" interests in the country. Check out Jim Trelease's article, posted October 15 at

Kress recently spoke to Ray Suarez on PBS about Connecticut's lawsuit against the federal government over No Child Left Behind. You'll notice how, whatever the alternatives, testing is the starting and ending point:

"[T]here's lots of flexibility in this Act for Connecticut to do what it wants. They can do formative testing. They can do more in-depth testing. They can do testing by the way they can insist upon their contractor coming back faster than four months. They can do lots of things. The point is that parents and taxpayers want to know each year on a comparable assessment how youngsters are doing." (italics added)

Read the complete discussion at