Tuesday, April 15, 2014

An Open Letter to "Stand for Children"

[Johnathan Clayborn]

To whom it may concern,
While I was recently supporting an online petition on Change.Org I was presented with another petition that the website thought I might like; your petition to support Common Core in Arizona. I am writing to inform you that, regrettably, I cannot and will not support your petition in this case. While I do agree with the mission statement of your organization and your stated goals, I believe that this particular course of action is a mistake. Common Core does have a more modernized set of standards than what is currently being used in Arizona, yes. However, it also treats all education as a one-size-fits-all, assembly line approach that has not been working very well for the last 100 years. Taking an approach that isn't working and changing the color of the product that the factory produces still does not begin to repair the problem.
The education system in America is beset with challenges; administration who mis-allocate funds, publishers who overcharge for textbooks, a diminished literacy rate among schoolchildren, behavior problems, violence, drugs, a high teacher turnover rate, and not enough resources for the teachers to effectively do their jobs. The NCLB Act has already been highly detrimental to our education system. Instead of allowing teachers the freedom to teach lessons in a way that children understand and in a manner that will develop children's cognitive thinking processes, we binding teachers to a very narrow curriculum with a high degree of specificity. And, to ensure that the teachers are teaching exactly what is prescribed by administration more and more states are tying teacher's annual pay raises directly to how well their classes perform on standardized tests. The adoption of the Common Core curriculum will not improve this problem. In fact, I would argue that it makes it worse as it locks teachers into a prescribed curriculum even more. Students today are being taught to the tests. They are learning the answers to the specific test questions through pure rote memorization at the expense of cognition and higher level thinking. We don't need robots running the country when we are old and grey, we need thinkers, intellectuals, inventors, renaissance men...none of these would be created by spoon feeding a prescribed curriculum to the students.
The vehicle that is public education in America is broken. The "education reform" plan that is common core will not repair this breakdown. At best it would replace one tire on the car when all four are flat, and even then there's no guarantee that the new tire will be inflated. Many proponents of education reform wish to simply throw more money at the problem, but that's not the answer. The US Public Education is already the most expensive education in the world, and compared to other G8 countries it's a shining example of confident mediocrity. We are losing new teachers faster than ever before in history, with 50% of new teachers quitting within the first 5 years. That fact, right there, should be a deafening alarm bell that we are doing something drastically wrong. I challenge you to name another professional vocation where people are required to have at least a Bachelor's degree as a minimum requirement to be employed with a turnover rate as high as this. We are losing competent qualified teachers at a much faster rate than we can replace them. They are retiring, taking their years of wisdom with them or they are young and intelligent, but have decided that this job. as much as they love it, is simply not worth the hassle that is imposed upon them by bureaucracy.
There are many, many ways to change the education system. The most effective way would be a complete overhaul of everything we do from the top down, including the notion that summative assessments are a requirement for determining if our children are learning anything, that antiquated notion has to go. We need to develop student's critical thinking abilities. We need find a way to retain the new teachers that are coming into this noble profession by providing them with support, resources, and development opportunities rather than throwing them to the wolves. We need to put legislative pressure and public pressure on the administrators and school boards to stop purchasing overpriced textbooks from greedy, profit-mongering publishers when other, legitimate sources of information are available. We need to push to our administrators to move into the 21st century and adopt more technology into our classrooms. We, for the first time in history, have the ability to develop truly experiential learning to our children and we elect not to. We need to put pressure on the government to stop letting politicians and bureaucrats make bad decisions about what is "good for our children", which is code for "how can we track the money?" and turn more of that power over to researchers and scientists who can make decisions about how a child learns best based on empirical evidence about learning and cognition from the best minds in the world. There are many, many things that we can do to improve the education system in America, but the adoption of another program that mandates standardized testing and forces teachers into a regimented methodology of instruction is not one of them. No, I will not support your petition. I will vociferously oppose the adoption of Common Core at every chance that I get. I beseech you, before lending your support to a program such as this, to ask yourself whom does it serve, the schoolchildren in the classrooms, or the politicians and the bureaucrats?
-- Johnathan Clayborn
 PhD Student, Educational Psychology

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Misinformation Bandwagon

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Admittedly, I don't want the news too much anymore. After being deliberately misrespented by a reporter too lazy to check her facts, or too interested in writing for the ratings, I've become disenfranchised with the "news", especially since they often report only half the story or make a deliberately skewed point. I often read foreign newspapers to see what they report and compare that to what the US news is reporting and realize that the truth is somewhere in the middle. I've been following the news about Flight 370 pretty closely because I find the story fascinating. But, there was another news story that recently wrapped up; Cliven Bundy, the cattle-rancher who had a standoff with the Beareau of Land Management in Nevada.

This story has blown up and made national headlines. It's certainly got a lot of people riled up. I don't purport to know the truth of the situation, but I do know that the news is not the only group of people who deliberately skew or mis-represent data; everyone else does it too. Most of us are quick to jump on the bandwagon and get fired up about something because our friends said that it was bad. Most of us never stop to look at the information objectively or consider the source or the truth before developing an opinion.

Now, I'm not going to get into a debate about who was right or wrong in this case, but let's examine some of the things that happened.

1. The BLM reported that Cliven Bundy's cattle were a hazard to the Desert Tortoise in the area. This is bogus. Back in August of 2013 the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center was killing the tortoises by the hunderds. It was so bad that there was even a Change.org petition to get the killing of the tortoises to stop. That was clearly an excuse.

2. I don't about the allegetions of who paid what to whom or not and I had trouble verifying that with actual documents, so I reserve the right to comment on that one.

3. There are allegations of BLM Officer misconduct, particularly where one of the officers threw a woman to the ground. Let's be real about that for a minute. Yes, the officer threw the woman to the ground. But, the woman was also stepping in front of a moving truck, putting herself at risk, which is a pretty damned stupid thing to do. On the one hand, you could argue that he was abusing her because he didn't let her get run over. Or, on the other hand you could argue that throwing her to the ground was an effort to keep her safe. Or you could just say "Meh, I don't care either way".  The fact that this woman is a cancer-survivor really has no bearing on the situation and is used as a pity-card to get sympathy.

4. There are allegations that the BLM was stealing Bundy's cattle. To be clear, the BLM removed the cattle that were grazing on the county's land, not off of Bundy's personal property as many assert. Bundy's grandfather bought the rights to graze and develop the land, allegedly, but that did not transfer ownership of the land to him. They don't own that land, they simply have rights to graze there. The BLM alleges that they own the land and the previous agreement is null and void. I don't know which is right, that's a matter for the judge, but from the opposite point of view, the BLM wasn't stealing the cattle, they were confiscating the cattle for trespassing on county land.

5. The most ridiculous thing that I've seen going around is that the real reason for the standoff was so Sen. Harry Reid can seize the land and sell it to the Chinese to build a solar-panel farm to sell us energy. Now, the source of this allegation is decidedly less-than-reputable, but given the obvious misdirection about the tortoises, I thought it worth investigating. I did find a page, listed below, about plans to develop a solar-power farm, however, I did not find any information linking that to Chinese developers or interests. Also, if you look at the attached maps of the planned area where the solar farm is to be developed, and compare that area to Bunkerville, where the Bundy Ranch is located, you will see that these areas are roughly 50 miles apart, so it doesn't make sense for them to seize his land for development of a solar panel farm that is 50 miles away.

The important thing to remember before getting all riled about events is to take a deep breath and examine the facts critically before forming an opinion. Just jumping on whatever people tell you at face value and propagating that information forward makes you no better than crappy reporters.