What Amanda Ripley and Her Amazon Reviewers Get Wrong

Ripley has written a book titled “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way“. Thanks to my brother (shout out to Ohio, not California), I recently read an article by Ripley based upon her book. Given my frustration level while reading the article, I’m not sure I could get through her book. Her Amazon reviewers loved it though.

What does Ripley and what do her reviewers get wrong? That you can improve schooling in the U.S. by arguing that Finnish teachers are far, far superior to American ones. I assume Ripley wants to help improve American schooling. She’s right that teacher education programs in the United States are not nearly as selective nor rigorous as Finnish ones. But in the excerpt at least, she doesn’t even bother exploring the reasons why, let alone propose solutions to the problem.

Dear Ms. Ripley, there are lots of reasons why teacher education programs in the U.S. aren’t as selective and rigorous as in Education’s Holy Land ( let’s create some ed jargon baby, EHL). Maybe the most vexing one is best illustrated through a question.

Whose recent performance is most impressive, Peyton Manning’s or Dexter Filkins’? To which most people in the U.S. would ask, who does Filkins play for and why haven’t I heard of him? Filkins is an outstanding writer, who, when he’s not writing books, plays for The New Yorker. And he just published an amazing story on Qassem Suleimani. Who does Qassem Suleimani play for and why haven’t I heard of him? Two teams really. Iran and Shiites worldwide.

You haven’t heard of him because American culture is anti-intellectual. How can anyone expect teaching to be a deeply respected profession when we reserve our highest pedestals for athletes, actors, and other entertainers?

Ripley also illustrates how dangerous a little knowledge can be. She’s critical of how short teacher candidates’ apprenticeships are in the U.S. I am too. Just the other day I was cringing in my office as colleagues next door weighed the merits of eight-week long professional apprenticeships.

But the problem is even worse than Ripley lets on. Not only are they far too short, increasingly candidates spend a lot of their time co-teaching because of growing standardized test score anxiety. Given the momentum for tying teachers’ evaluations and compensation to students’ test scores, an increasing percentage of principals and teachers are reluctant to “hand over” their classrooms to teacher credential candidates. Ripley doesn’t bother peeling that onion at all. Literally and figuratively shortchanging future teachers’ professional preparation is just one of other unintended negative consequences of standardized test score mania. We’ve lost our minds.

Absent from Ripley’s article, we obviously have to improve teacher compensation to have any hope of raising the profession’s profile and making teacher preparation programs markedly more selective. Related to that, we have to improve the work conditions—meaning fewer or smaller classes; more time to develop curriculum, prepare for classes, and assess student work; and fewer authors, elected officials, and businesspeople ripping teachers for not being more Finnish.

Postscript—peel more of the onion by reading Anu Partanen’s December 2011 essay in the Atlantic, “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success“.

What School Principals Get Wrong

Third in a series of overgeneralizations (installment one, two). So fun, I just can’t stop.

Principals get human nature wrong. Despite what you assumed as a child, teachers don’t retire to the coat closet in their classroom at the end of the day only to miraculously reappear the next morning. Teachers are human beings, meaning every one, to some degree, is insecure. In part, that’s why the best principals are impartial. Especially when it comes to public praise.

That’s why Centennial Elementary principal, Alice Drummer’s quote in this morning’s Olympian, made me cringe. Drummer, referring to Laura Currie, a Centennial teacher in her 45th year of teaching, said:

In my 38 years as an educator, I have worked with many teachers and can say without reservation that Laura Currie stands out as the best and most distinguished teacher kids could ever have.

Then, later that night at dinner, she announced to everyone at the table that her middle child had always been her favorite.

In fairness to Drummer, she communicated that in a “Teacher of the Year” letter she wrote on Currie’s behalf. Then again, Drummer willfully shared the letter with The Olympian.

Almost every teacher works hard in the hope that their students, their students’ parents, and their principal will think that they are the best teacher kids could ever have. Take that possibility away, the way Drummer’s public proclamation does, and a little bit of motivation may be lost.

There are two types of faculty cultures—one where professional success is a zero-sum game and one where everyone’s professional success is sincerely celebrated. Most are zero-sum, meaning if you’re flourishing in your classroom—the kids love you, parents extol your virtues all over town, and the principal says you’re the best and most distinguished teacher of all time forever and ever amen—I’m inclined to feel worse about mine. It doesn’t matter if it’s unflattering, it just is. Call it the “chopped liver” syndrome.

The most enlightened principals know most every teacher wants to be “the best and most distinguished” teacher possible and so they are mindful of how they parcel out praise and tend to highlight faculty team accomplishments.

More importantly, it’s high time teachers recognize “Teacher of the Year” awards as the scam that they unfortunately are. Here’s how the scam works. Instead of reinventing the profession more generally, by which I mostly mean improving compensation, throw some crumbs of recognition to a few teachers. I’m still waiting for a “Teacher of the Year” to reject their award on the premise that it’s a poor substitute for strengthening the profession.

Easy for me to write since I’ve never won a teaching award*. If I do some day, here’s how I’ll start my acceptance speech.

Thanks, but no thanks. I refuse to be a token. Until our work is a respected profession with much improved compensation, I’d rather not be singled out for the hard and excellent work most of my colleagues do day in and day out (exits the stage to either stunned silence or appreciative applause).

There’s one exception to my teacher award cynicism. Anyone with 45 years in the classroom deserves a Lifetime Achievement Award so you go Mrs. Currie.

* In actuality, I did win the World’s Greatest Educator award once in 1999 when I taught a social studies lesson in my daughter’s second grade Centennial Elementary classroom. It was a slide show discussion based upon a trip I took to China. I asked her how she thought it went. “Dad,” she said, “it was perfect.”

The Inevitability of Military Conflict

Most of the time I believe the “human condition is improving” side of the ledger trumps the “life is worsening” side.

Right now at least, after watching an excellent documentary about Egypt’s civil war, reading about Syria’s three-pronged civil war, and following the BBC’s up close coverage of the terror attack in Kenya, plus the one in Pakistan, I’m less certain of that.

The lesson of those conflicts and most others from the last 50 years is this: the victor’s brutality—whether in civil wars or international ones—sows the seeds of future conflicts. Devastated and humiliated, losers vow revenge; as a result, violence continues unabated.

“An eye for an eye,” Ghandi said, “makes the whole world blind.” No side ever truly wins a war because the underlying causes of the conflict—poverty, greed, ethnic hatred, religious fundamentalism, nationalism, desperation—are exacerbated by the military excesses of the seeming victors. Diplomacy loses, moderates are radicalized, children resolve to avenge their dead parents’ lives. What appears to be an absence of war is just an interlude in the back-and-forth between suicide bombers, anonymous drone missile strikes, and ground combat.

My government doesn’t appear to be learning the lessons of war. Our diplomatic efforts are not increasingly wise or effective. As evidence of that, despite representing 4% of the world’s population, we continue to account for 50% of the world’s military spending.

Our only hope may be running out of money. Someday maybe, we’ll realize we can’t rebuild our infrastructure, pay teachers adequately, provide affordable medical care, compete in the global economy, and invest more in our military while providing security for other governments (see Japan among others).

Like Conservative Republican Southern governors who are backtracking on mandatory prison sentence laws because they can’t afford their incarcerated populations, maybe the day is coming when the State Department will have to step up its game to compensate for a leaner military.

In the meantime, I don’t expect to see meaningful peace in Syria in my lifetime or democracy in Egypt. I hope I’m wrong and Isaiah is right. Chapter two, verse four:

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

Still Progressing Toward the Standard

That phrase is from my favorite sentence in Dahlia Lithwick’s recent funny-sad Slate essay (penultimate paragraph). Thanks to Dahlia for saying aloud what all of us have long suspected, educational jargon is out-of-control.

Why so? Because education is so much more complicated than in the past? That might explain a tenth of it. More consequential, educator’s confusing language reflects muddled thinking.

Here’s a recent fav example from the torrent of acronyms and tortured language I have to wade through daily. It’s from the promotional materials of a highly sought after teaching consultant.

Students advocating for educational improvement, researching classroom climate, and leading new approaches to learning and teaching stand together in the architecture of involvement, effectively demonstrating what school change looks like when the hearts, heads, and hands of students are infused throughout the process.

Come again? The “architecture of involvement”. Please stop. The more times I read that sentence, the more confused I become. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to appreciate his brilliance.

I should start a contest for the best example of educational jargon by a non-computer, and by “best” of course, I mean worst. But participants would probably cheat by using this educational jargon generator. The situation is so desperate that humor is the only viable response.

Switching gears, I added the briefest of postscripts to Friday’s triathlon post. Basically, a link to the results. If you take the time to skim the results, you’ll see that I HMAHTM (that’s a triathlon acronym which stands for Had My Ass Handed To Me). Props to Kennett. I can’t complain. I raced well and was only 2 seconds slower than two years ago. At this stage of my life, I’ll gladly give Father and/or Mother Time one second a year.

Kennett passed me early on the bike and then we leap frogged a bit. The first time he said, “You’re in the duathlon right (a separate bike/run division)?” To which I said “No.” Afterwards I thought of better responses like, “Yes” or “You don’t swim that fast.” A few miles later, when he passed me again, he asked me my name and I didn’t reply. Regretted that and so when I passed him back a mile later, I told him my name and asked his.

When racing I enjoy taking time checks on the guys ahead of me to see if I’m gaining ground or not. When they pass a landmark I glance at my computer and then glance at it again when I pass the same place. Throughout the middle of the bike his cushion yo-yoed from 11 to 31 seconds. By the 56 mile finish he had put about 2 minutes into me. I was hoping I could run him down, but he ran really well and beat me by 7-8 minutes. Based on athlinks.com, it was a career day for him. Afterwards, he didn’t bother to thank me for pushing him to a personal record and when I congratulated him on his race he barely acknowledged me. The only consolation was he could barely walk and looked like shit. In contrast, after a quick dip in the lake, and a change of clothes, I was my normal uber-handsome self.

Right now, according to edmunds.com, my 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid with 100k miles on it, is valued at $6,800. His bike cost well north of that. More triathlon jargon—Cervelo P5, Di2, Zipps. My old hand-me-down, heavyish, Dura-Ace 9 speed time trial bike is probably five minutes faster (over 56 miles) than my roadbike. I think I might gain another five on his bike. Then it would just be a matter of those pathetic/disastrous transitions. Send money so I can take revenge next year!

A jargon-related footnote. In my postscript I said I got spanked, which is of course, sports jargon. It’s a synonym for ass whupping. A few weeks ago, the GalPal said some team really “spanked the other”. To which I immediately said, “No!” “What?” she said innocently while smiling. She knew just how dangerous it was for her to start down the path of sounding like she knows what she’s talking about. I told her that you have to have an athletic background to use the work “spank” or “spanking” in a sports context. The zenith of her athletic career was when she laid the basketball in the opponent’s basket while “starring” at Peralta Junior High School in Orange, CA.

Fight the power this week, write and speak plainly.

Forget Mayweather-Alvarez, Seahawks-Forty Niners, Alabama-A&M

The best matchup of the weekend is Byrnes-Kennett.

Black Diamond Half Ironman Saturday morn @ 0900 at Nolte State Park.

Last year Kennett destroyed the 50-54 year old division by 22 minutes. I was recovering from Iron Canada. My plan tomorrow is to sneak up on him and make him earn the victory.

Swim Transition 1 Cycle Transition 2 Run Total
2011 Byrnes 30:42 3:12 2:42:54(road bike) 1:52 1:40:09 4:58:49
2012 Kettering 33:37 3:12 2:39:32 1:20 1:39:51 4:57:33

I’m fit, but not as fit as 24 months ago. Unlike the run up to Canada, I’ve missed workouts. I feel undertrained and it’s going to be unseasonably warm (70s), but I will empty the tank and report back in case no one from SportsCenter shows.

cropped-sierra-killer-climbs-5-2012-151.jpgPostscript—I got spanked.