"But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by...any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward [district], it is a belief against all experience." --Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Media...Again

Several days ago, I was contacted by a reporter from the Salt Lake Tribune. I was asked to outline why I was running and my top three issues. A few days later, as an after-thought, I was contacted again to get my take on the district's mission statement. The article, instead, is about the mission statement and yet again, turns this issue into a semantics game. I had hoped that the article would be about the candidates and their positions, and would not misrepresent the 'democracy' issue. It seems that the media can't get enough of this idea, and everything else must pale in comparison. That's too bad.

For those of you reading this blog, you already are familiar with my priorities and issues, so I won't go into them here other than to point out that 'associations' is number five of six. The mission statement debate falls into my fifth issue because the statement has connections to ASD's association with John Goodlad and his organizations. I believe all our education associations should be made with organizations that are academics-centered and void of political agendas. Despite email responses, a website, and a blog, the only information presented about me in the Tribune article is that I am endorsed by a particular group. No information about me or my views was communicated. That is why I have this blog, to clarify who I am and allow you to decide if I accurately represent you.

Let me start by asking, why do you educate your children? I have a list of reasons why I think education is important for my kids and for myself. But, how about you? You want your children educated because.....? Before you continue on, take a minute and come up with a reason or two. Okay, got your list? If not, stop and give it some real thought.

My guess is that my reasons are not the same as yours. Sure, we will find some commonalities. But what really drives me is not the same thing as what motivates your family. I think we do our families a disservice when government (in this case the district) tries to imply WHY kids are being sent to school. Each family is going to have different goals and reasons for their children's education. We want to help children reach their highest potential in all areas of their lives. School is there to provide educational opportunities that meet a baseline. What they do with that education is their own business. Certainly society has a vested interest in a well-educated, productive, freedom-loving populace. But we step into dangerous territory when we allow the government to say that what motivates me...should motivate you. Like all motivation, it is an individual thing. Setting a one-size-fits-all policy doesn't motivate people very well. There is no single 'end goal' to education.

In the early days of our country, one of the main reasons for education was to enable children to read the Bible. Today, that goal is deemed unconstitutional. "Educating all students to ensure Bible Literacy." OOPS! That wouldn't be a good mission statement. For some, a formal education is sought to attain a particular skill, trade or income level. "Educating all students to ensure a lucrative income or a professional career." Some people would like that statement, but many would think that was the wrong approach. Sometimes, education is to fulfill a personal goal. "Educating all students to ensure their future college attendance." Sounds nice, but not everyone may want or need to go to college. None of these reasons is The Reason for education. It is entirely individual. What most agree on is the "what"...that everyone should be given the opportunity for a certain level of education. The "why" will be difficult to find consensus on. The "why" should be left to families and individuals and not the government.

The district states the goal of education is democracy, and since they claim the majority are okay with the mission statement, we should probably keep it or tweak it slightly. I think it is presumptive for the district to put "to ensure _______" into the mission statement, no matter what fills in that blank. To know what individual families' goals are for educating their kids requires a crystal ball. To tell them what that motivation should be is government at its worst. We, as the people, need to make sure that our government is steadfast in precisely executing the tasks we set for it. In this case, it is public education. Would you expect everyone else to have the same reasons for educating their kids as you have for yours? I don't think you're that heavy-handed. Neither should the district be. In a public education system, I think the mission statement should be something all parents can agree on. Would you have a problem with a mission statement that said, "Assisting students to achieve an excellent education"? The point is the district needs to leave the WHY off, and let families fill in the blank.

UDOT doesn't need a "Building roads to ensure the future of our democracy" statement. Just build the roads with our tax dollars and we will decide how to use them. Likewise, focus on getting children educated and let the families and individuals work out what to do with that education.

The role of the School Board is to represent the families in this community to the School District. It is not to be the outreach arm of the district. If there is a group of people in the district who are concerned by the mission statement, and there is another mission statement that is acceptable to all, why wouldn't we change it? We need more input from the community to the district. We need to focus on the things that are most important. On one hand, we are told continuing in this debate takes away from the more important educational issues. I agree. So, let's change the mission statement and leave the 'why' off.

While I think it's wrong to determine the 'end goal' for the mission statement, let me address the 'semantics' issue from the article. The parents concerned by the word 'democracy' are okay with 'republic'. Do you have a complaint against 'republic'? What the reporters fail to realize about this debate is that words mean things. Democracy means majority rule. On that we all agree. In addition, it has become watered-down over the years, but it is used, sometimes incorrectly, in many different contexts. Both Lenin and Reagan used 'democracy' and I doubt their end goals were the same. Democracy has been described as two wolves and a sheep deciding what's for dinner. In our republic, laws are designed to protect the inalienable rights of the minority from the majority. In our republic, the sheep would be constitutionally protected by law. This is an important distinction. Again, words mean things. Educators should be involved in teaching facts and maintaining word meanings. Variations on meanings should be a concern for all involved in this process. The district's premise that we need to educate children to ensure the future of our democracy is incorrect. It is factually incorrect; we are a constitutional republic and not a democracy. Further, the people expect the government to simply perform the tasks we tell them to do and leave the motivation up to us. We need to educate children. The Why is up to the individuals and their families.

I am disappointed that the information I gave to the reporter wasn't reflected in the article. The ASD mission statement has become a bigger issue than it deserves to be. The media and other groups have pushed the mission statement issue to the forefront. The school district's handling of the issue has contributed in a major way. What we need more of is an infusion of you and your neighbor into the district, not more of the district explaining what they meant or the media telling people they are being silly. More of you...that is number one on my list of six issues. More of your voice to the district would resolve the vast majority of these issues. The first step in doing this takes place on November 2. But what's more important is that you and your neighbors get involved and remain involved on November 3 and everyday thereafter.

Monday, October 18, 2010

5. Developing Democratic Character in the Young?

My fifth issue is to make sure that associations and advisers are focused on academics, not politics.

I was asked today, by a reporter, about my opinion of the mission statement Educating all students to ensure the future of our democracy. As you know from reading this blog, I think there are much better mission statements. But, let me go into a little more detail about my concerns, and my suggestion.

First, this mission statement has nothing to do with academics. Have you ever tried to take a picture and then moved the 'auto-focus square' to something other than what you wanted? The result means that the forearm might be in focus, but the face is blurry. Schools exist to teach kids how to read, write, and do math (and history, science and art, as well). When we shift our focus from the basics, we lose our clarity of purpose. Of necessity, we will also lose some of the achievements in those areas, as well. Anytime our focus isn't on basic academics, the academics will not have the emphasis and the subsequent results that they should.

Second, assuming we want a somewhat political statement, shouldn't it at least be factual? Our Founding Fathers were pretty clear about the Constitution establishing a republic and not a democracy. Benjamin Franklin was asked by a woman at the close of the Constitutional Convention, "What kind of government have you given us?" He replied, "A Republic...if you can keep it." You are welcome to explore the Founders' views on democracy and republic, but, suffice it to say, the Constitution establishes a Republic to preserve those natural "unalienable rights" Jefferson referred to in the Declaration of Independence. To me, having a mission statement that refers to our system of government as a democracy, rather than a republic, is a bit like teaching a kid 2+2 = 5. It's close, but still wrong. We should be in the business of accurately representing all facts to our students. Their conclusions are their own, but the answer to 2+2 should always be 4.

Next, I am concerned with the way the parent complaints about the mission statement were handled. Anytime you have a customer complaint, you have failed either in setting appropriate expectations or delivering on your promises. In either case, there is work for you to do. It is always best to acknowledge the customer's concerns as valid, and work toward resolving those concerns. None of that was done in this case. There seemed to be an emotional tie to the mission statement from the board that didn't make sense. I've worked for several organizations, and I can say I never had an emotional tie to a mission statement. Why was this the case with the school board?

Perhaps it was because, as I read, it took over 40 meetings to come up with the mission statement. At first blush, you have to wonder how inefficient it must be to spend that amount of time and come up with something so non-academic. However, just a few weeks ago, it was clarified (in a meeting I attended) that the Areas of Focus took 40 meetings. The mission statement (and motto: Enculturating the Young into a Social and Political Democracy) came almost verbatim from the writings of Dr. John I. Goodlad.

This leads me to my final point. If we are taking cues from one individual (or an organization), should we not discover what that individual/organization has to say about those issues? I would like to share with you two quotes taken from Developing Democratic Character in the Young (Goodlad, et. al.) "Parents do not own their children. They have no 'natural right' to control their education fully." And, "Public education has served as a check on the power of the parents, and this is another powerful reason for maintaining it." Having enjoyed reading this tome over the past few weeks, I can say the most distressing part of Dr. Goodlad's emphasis is the devaluation of the parents and their values. This is integral in developing good "democratic" character because parents may be steeped in religion and values that do not agree with what Dr. Goodlad emphasizes as the purpose of his idea of 'democracy'. In short, if we are teaching morals in school, whose morals are they? Dr. Goodlad's or yours?

The bottom line is that parents want to send their kids to a school that teaches core academics. Our schools should reflect that desire. Ultimately, the students and their families are primarily responsible for their learning. The teachers, schools, and district are there to assist families by providing additional educational opportunities. I am very grateful to my kids' teachers who have assisted us with this rewarding task. I would like the district to maintain the focus on those issues that are most important to public education--reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Reading, Writing, and the Arts

Today, I was graciously invited to attend a school community council meeting with my opponent. It was a great learning opportunity because one question that was asked caught me by surprise. The question was, in essence, "Have you read the studies that talk about the benefits of the arts to math and reading, etc.? So, where do the arts fit in to Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic?" I have to admit I floundered. What I did respond with and do know is that math and music are very directly linked. Improvement in math skills has a strong correlation with musical involvement. (In fact, my senior year in High School, I had to write a research paper for my math class, and I chose to do it on this very topic--the relationship of math and music.) I am a musician and a mathematician. I believe that music has enhanced my ability with math, and vice versa. I have a great appreciation for the beauty and intricacies of each discipline. Having said that, let me attempt to answer the question in more detail.

Art fits into the three R's as a complement, but also as an elective. All our students are expected to emerge from school well-versed in a foundation of the three R's. This is the focus as it applies to every student. For example, we don't have parents who send their kids to school and opt out of reading. The basic academic disciplines are the universal requirements. The basic knowledge in these disciplines is the primary reason for school. Along with the three R's, every child is going to be taught science and history, as well as introductions to the humanities. But not every child will be in the band, or play sports, or study sculpture. Because of the universal emphasis for basic academics it necessitates greater focus.

As I have spoken with parents, I have received feedback that they would like more focus on academics. It is not to devalue the arts or sports, but simply the idea of "more basics". I support a classic liberal arts education. Appreciation of art, architecture, literature, and music are things that all students should be exposed to. We acknowledge the Renaissance and the advancements in, not just art, but science as well, as a true 'rebirth' in history. We want students to understand and appreciate all these beauties and wonders around them. I, personally, have great memories of my school-days' associations in our Madrigal choir. But, when all was said and done, I was still expected to have that academic foundation.

A school board member has a responsibility to represent the ideas, issues, and concerns of the community to the district. You need to know that as I am presented with information and decisions, I will be doing so through the prism of "more focus on the basics". Does this mean I have a specific action plan? No. Do I wish to defund the arts or cut back on these programs? No. It is my desire to communicate to you, what principles I will fall back on as I take on these responsibilities. "A focus on more basics" will be part of that process.