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The senior minister my church, the Rev. Jim Nelson at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, holds a "Preacher in You" class each year to teach church members how to write a sermon and conduct a church service. It's a fascinating look into another form of public speaking, so I took the class this year. And in the summer, the class participants run the service for a Sunday while the regular ministers are away. Here is my sermon from last Sunday. Prefer to listen than to read? Here's the audio of the sermon.

I loved Jay Ward cartoons: Rocky and Bullwinkle, Peabody's Improbable History, Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties. How can you not love a show that name checks The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam through a story about Bullwinkle the talking moose finding on the shore of a local pond a model boat encrusted with red jewels? That's right -- a ruby yacht. For a youngster struggling with his teachers' attempts to impose strange rules of grammar and syntax, I loved watching Jay Ward's characters gleefully blow up the conventions of language and of history and rearranging the debris for the sole purpose of making me laugh. I didn't understand most of the references. Heck, I was deep into my teens before I got that Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam joke. But I did learn an appreciation for the power of irreverence.

My sharpest memory of a Jay Ward character wasn't from one of his cartoons. When I was very young, I had a dream that Snidely Whiplash had tied me and Nell to the railroad tracks. The evil Snidely always was tying the beautiful young Nell to the tracks, just before Dudley Do-Right the dim-witted Canadian Mountie came riding to her rescue, brought there by his infinitely more intelligent Horse, who went by the name "Horse." This time, though, Dudley and Horse were nowhere. And the train was coming. I could feel it in the tracks. They started to sway, then shudder, then shake, and violently. I saw the train appear around the bend as the tracks erupted, breaking our ropes and throwing me clear of the approaching locomotive.

I woke up when I hit the floor next to my bed.

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If we're going to improve public schools in America, we need three things: 1) The abolition of charter schools and voucher programs -- all public funds should be spent on schools under voter control. 2) A reaffirmation of neighborhood schools -- kids should be assigned to the schools nearest them (with options for kids with unique talent to go to other schools with specialized, audition- or application-based programs). 3) Aggressive new funding to support kids from poor families -- this includes restoring state funding for extracurricular activities as well as for lowering class sizes and paying for after-school and vacation-time tutoring and child care.

What we don't need? 1) More standardized testing -- let's better replicate "real life" by asking students to demonstrate their ability by creating projects in the subjects that interest them instead of taking tests that don't replicate any real job experience. 2) Tying school funding to test results -- that's a death spiral that chokes funding from schools serving poor kids, who are more likely to score poorly on standardized tests. 3) Changing work rules to leave teachers with lower pay, fewer pensions, and weaker job security -- if we want better even teachers, we need to offer better compensation, not worse.

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Want to know the real problem with America's education system? Here it is:

When I was a kid...
Millions of American graduates are discovering that their education isn't paying off with the middle-class (or, for top students, better) lifestyle that they envisioned when they were working so hard in class. One report says that there are seven job seekers for every position that pays above a living wage of $15 per hour. And if you think that 15 bucks an hour is a lot compared to when you graduated college, may I introduce you to the inflation calculator? Use it to see what your first post-college job paid in today's dollars.

As a result, millions of college graduates are stuck with jobs that don't actually require a college education. Nearly half of the low-wage workers in America have a college degree.

College has become the new high school. Instead of providing a ticket into the middle and upper classes, an expensive college degree too often merely helps you hang on to the menial jobs a previous generation filled with high school graduates and drop-outs.

Think this is a problem with the quality of today's college graduates? Let's put it this way: companies moving jobs to the Third World aren't doing it because they can find more college graduates abroad. We're producing a glut of college graduates not because our economy demands them, but because college provides a convenient place to store excess labor. Our economy doesn't have jobs for young workers, so we send them off to college instead.

Follow me below the squiggly for more.

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Wed Nov 27, 2013 at 08:22 AM PST

The many problems with Common Core

by RobertNiles

My son's eighth-grade math class has begun implementing the new national "Common Core" math standards, and the new education curriculum already has taught me something.

As my college roommate wrote on Facebook, "we've replaced 'No Child Left Behind' with 'Every Child Left in the Dust.'"

Via Wikimedia Commons
Via Wikimedia Commons
The idea behind Common Core was alluring, especially to those of us frustrated with hearing about states that have cheapened their education standards over the years, such as by trying to write evolution out of science standards in favor of various religious mythology. Or by replacing biologically accurate information abut human reproduction with "abstinence based" sex-ed programs that have been shown to increase teen pregnancy rates.

Under Common Core, the thinking was, states would adopt a common, national set of education standards, one that would be guided by education professionals and not hijacked by reactionary politicians in individual states.

Well, Common Core did deliver a national set of education standards. But many education professionals aren't happy with the result.

Looking at what my son's doing in his math class, it's easy for me to understand why.

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If a group of wealthy children of college-education parents — kids who get homework help at home and tutoring on the weekends — score better on a test than a group of poor children of non-English speaking immigrants who can't provide help at home, what does that tell us? Does that tell us anything about the kids' schools, or their teachers? Or do those scores just tell us something about those kids themselves?

Is a school attended exclusively by the first group of kids a "better" school than one attended by the second group? What would happen if both groups switched schools for a year? Would the first group score worse on tests, and the second group better? Or would the results look pretty much the same? What if both groups went to the same school? Would that school be "good," or "bad"?

For too long, politicians and the public have judged schools — and our American public education system — simplistically, by looking at top-line test scores. We've looked at where students end up — completely ignoring where they started, and far they have come to get there. Then we give assign credit or blame to students, teachers, and schools with no consideration for where those students began when they first stepped into their schools.

I'm reminded of the late Molly Ivins' devastating line about George W. Bush: "He was born on third base, and thought he'd hit a triple."

If you want to know the truth about public school test scores, look beyond the top line and look instead at apples-to-apples comparisons. Look at how children of similar economic backgrounds are performing at different schools. Once you do that, you find that the so-called "bad" schools in a community are really the poor schools. And that when poor and middle-class kids attend the same school, the middle-class kids end up scoring pretty much the same as the kids at exclusively middle-class schools.

And yet… we're in the middle of a national "education reform" movement that accepts as gospel the hypothesis that schools are failing. That test scores are declining, and that if we simply move kids in "bad" schools to charter or private schools, they will be better educated as a result.

But what happens when we actually test this hypothesis, instead of simply accepting and acting upon it?

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Mon Mar 11, 2013 at 08:58 PM PDT

We Can't Go on Arguing Like This

by RobertNiles

My post last week on the 'myth of the excellent teacher' elicited an intriguing comment from a reader that it should be easier to get rid of the worst of the worst teachers in a school system.

While I agree that abusive or bigoted teachers should find no place in our public education system, I think people who support public education need to think about how we frame our discussion of this issue. We can't go on arguing like this. If we're willing to frame education reform as a question of "how to lay off bad teachers," then we've already lost. Why? That statement implicitly delivers suggestions that a) teachers are bad and b) schools have too many teachers and c) cuts are a given. By agreeing to address the "how to get rid of teachers" question, then we've conceded those important points about teacher quality and inevitability of education cuts.

Let's instead reframe the discussion as "how do we increase the number of good teachers available to help our students?" Or, how do we increase the chances that a student will be paired with a teacher who can forge an instructive relationship with that student?

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Sure, I've had several teachers over my life whom I considered excellent. But just because a specific teacher was excellent for me doesn't guarantee that same teacher was excellent for every other student he or she taught.

I remember one high school teacher who drove me and a handful of other students to improve our writing, and her lessons remain inspiring and instructive to me, even today. But many other students couldn't stand her abrasive style, refused to work and failed to develop in her classes. Was she an excellent teacher?

My daughter has a great year with one of her elementary school teachers, exploring music, writing and science at a deeper level than she'd done before. But my son endured a very different experience with the same teacher three years later. For my son, this previously patient, wonderful teacher was almost bullying, and my son hated the class. Was that teacher excellent?

That different people have different experiences with the same teacher shouldn't surprise anyone. Education is a deeply personal experience. A teacher can put forth all the lessons he or she can deliver, but education doesn't happen until a student learns. And when that happens depends as much on what ability, motivation and context the student brings to the class as what a teacher offers there.

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So my son's school is getting locked down for an hour tomorrow morning. The school announced the drill in response to last week's shooting in Connecticut. One of my former Disney co-workers posted to Facebook this morning that her child is home today because all of their local schools are closed due to "security threats." The often-excellent Free Range Kids blog today posted a note from a day care that's now prohibiting parents from holding the door open for each other, again, due to security concerns.

Isn't the death of 20 young students and six heroic teachers and administrators enough? Must we let this terrorist - and that's what mass shooters such as this person I will not name intend to be - make millions of other American schoolchildren and their families his victims as well?

This is when we need to come together, not to split part. When someone attacks us, we ought to work harder to strengthen the bonds of community, service and civility that bring us together. That is how we reduce violence in our communities, not by throwing more locks on the doors.

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Republicans like to stereotype Hollywood as the Land of Liberals. But when it comes to portraying public education, Hollywood is anything but progressive. The (staged) documentary "Waiting for Superman" played like it was written by the Koch Brothers. Actually, it was produced in part by Philip Anschutz' Walden Media, and Anschutz is another well-known right-wing billionaire who makes the "Koch Brothers look moderate in comparison."

Now Walden Media's doing it again, this month releasing another big-budget, wide-release, anti-public education movie, "Won't Back Down." They've dropped the pretense of a documentary this time, but the film promises the same attacks on teachers and their unions - blaming them for underperforming schools, while never acknowledging the rampant and growing child poverty in America. It's poverty - not bad teachers - that leaves kids without books in the home, food on the table, and beds of their own to sleep in, much less available parents to help with the avalanche of complex homework that today's public schools are often forced to assign.

Funny how you never see a "failing" school with rich students, isn't?

Why can't Hollywood produce an honest look at public education? Why can't we have a real documentary that tells another side of the story, one that isn't afraid to show that some kids do succeed in public schools, while also educating viewers about the complexity of student needs?

A group of independent filmmakers in the Los Angeles area have filmed just such a movie. But they need your help to get it seen. Follow me below the squiggle to learn how you can help.

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Here's my wish for this Labor Day - that someone Democrat in Congress would introduce a proposed 28th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, to protect the rights of working class Americans to try to get a better deal from their employers.

The "Right to Bargain" amendment would be short  - just two sentences. And here's what it would say:

"The right of employees to bargain collectively with their employer shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
That's it. With that amendment in place, no state could pass a law telling certain workers that they can't join a union. No state could prohibit unions from trying to negotiate a better deal for its members. This amendment wouldn't force union membership on anyone, and it wouldn't force employers to accept what a union asked. All it would do is say that elected officials can't tell working Americans that they can't even try to get a better deal for themselves.

Follow me below the squiggle to read why that's so important.

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So who really builds America's businesses? Is it entrepreneurs? Or is it the government?

The real answer is neither, and I'll get to that in a moment.

The whole issue of "who built that" blew up when Fox News and a bunch of Republican bloggers decided to twist one of President Obama's quotes. Here's what he actually said:

"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."
Let this be a lesson to all writers out there about the danger of using pronouns. Rephrase your words to avoid unfocused pronouns if you want to avoid this type of problem. From the context of the president's speech, it's pretty clear that President Obama was referencing "this unbelievable American system" and "roads and bridges" when he said that you didn't build "that." When reporting on the speech, the president's opponents dropped those preceding sentences, though, to make it appear that the president instead was referencing "you've got a business" when he said "you didn't build that."

Since this incident first blew up last month, the president's supporters have counter-attacked by pointing out every instance when someone hitting the president over this line accepted or benefited from some government program. When the Republicans planned a "We Build It" theme for their convention, writers noted that the Republicans' schedule speaker, Maryland entrepreneur Sher Valenzuela, actually built her business using $17 million in government loans and contracts.

But I don't care if someone finds an entrepreneur who started a business that accepted no government loans and no government contracts. I don't even care if that business doesn't use the Internet or any other government-funded or supported technology. No matter how independent an entrepreneur might be, there is no business on Earth that was built solely by its owner.

That's because owners don't build businesses. Customers do.

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I don't usually disagree with Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate in economics who writes for the New York Times. But this week, he blew it in his column about the unequal playing field facing Americans trying to pursue their dreams. Here, he tried to describe some of the obstacles that make advancement impossible for millions of Americans:

The failure starts early: in America, the holes in the social safety net mean that both low-income mothers and their children are all too likely to suffer from poor nutrition and receive inadequate health care. It continues once children reach school age, where they encounter a system in which the affluent send their kids to good, well-financed public schools or, if they choose, to private schools, while less-advantaged children get a far worse education.

I won't dispute for a moment that poor children in the United States are getting a worse education than kids from affluent families - a quick look at test scores will show that even though test scores for poor children have been rising in the United States over the past decade, they still lag other students' scores, and the gap is growing.

But who's to blame for that? Krugman doesn't explicitly say it, but when Krugman writes that "affluent send their kids to good, well-financed public schools," it's not hard to imagine that the reader will take from that statement an assumption that the poor end up with the "bad" schools.

Here's the trouble with that hypothesis, though: If inadequate schools are the problem that prevent children in poverty from advancing, why are the middle-class children who attend those same schools succeeding?

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