The Thing About Spelling

Some people equate spelling with morality. Good spellers, good people. The sheeps and goats in the New Testament? Good and bad spellers. Spelling’s importance is a topic capable of producing more heat than Adrian Peterson’s parenting, Scottish independence, and Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Parents worry incessantly that their children are destined to always be poor spellers. What kind of lives will they live? Will people whisper about us? Heaven help children with dyslexia.

This week the New York Times ran this lead front and center on their website, “A geneticist wins a prestigious Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation award and uses the spotlight to all for much wider genetic screening for breast and ovarian cancer.” Technically that’s a typo, but the Spelling Police don’t distinguish. The Spelling Police LOVE reading things like that. It gives them a purpose for being. And makes them feel superior. “Know that I am among those that can spell.” They despise any variance from what they deem to be “writing conventions”. Like when people start sentences with “And”.

Before determining if spelling is a life or death matter, we have to distinguish between drafts and final copies. Most of what we write and read, like electronic messages, are drafts. In fact, where does the constantly updating front page of the New York Times fall on that continuum? Irregardless, many would read that lead and think less of The Grey Lady. I would too if it happened with any regularity, but it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter, short of perfection, the Spelling Police pounce. If only they’d save their righteous indignation for final drafts.

Like teachers’ letters to parents. Nothing gets the Spelling Police more fired up than teachers’ letters to parents. Full. Riot. Gear. Misspell a word, lose your life right to teach my child ever again.

I’m not advocating for laissez faire (damn, got that right on the first try) creative spelling. Instead of seeing every spelling error as an opportunity to assert their spelling prowess, maybe the Spelling Police could take a second or two to consider whether the error is part of a larger pattern or not. If not, maybe you could try the impossible. Letting that one error on the third grade paper go, or the one in the newspaper, or heaven help us, the one in the parent letter.

Sometimes, okay, a lot of the times, I amaze myself—fore hundred and six words and not a single mispelling.




Serena Williams, Teachers’ Strikes, Personal Experience

Midway during her US Open Final match against Sam Stosur, Serena yelled “Come on!” while hitting a blistering forehand winner. Points are supposed to be replayed following accidental yelps, but since this one was clearly intentional, the line judge followed the rules and awarded the point to Stosur. Stosur went on to upset Williams who unraveled and yelled “You’re out of control,” and “Really, don’t even look at me,” and my personal favorite, “You’re a hater, and you’re just unattractive inside.” Williams was fined $2k on Monday which I’m sure will inspire her to take a long hard look at her insides (sarcasm).

On Monday on ESPN2 two analysts debated the line judge’s decision—Jemelle Hill, a youngish, always thoughtful African-American female sportwriter, and Skip Bayless, a pasty white*, cocksure, middle aged male who is almost always the debate aggressor. The exchange was interesting viewing because Hill focused exclusively on William’s gender, never referencing her ethnicity. In essence, she argued that since MacEnroe’s epic outbursts (hilarious picturing Mac wrapping up one of those with “and you’re just unattractive inside”) men have gotten away with far, far worse on court behavior. She added that Andy Roddick’s US Open outbursts were at least as bad as Williams. Bayless wasn’t buying it insisting it was a pattern with Williams and that she got what she deserved and should be banned from next year’s Open. What? Hill kept coming back to the obvious double standard, and surprisingly, to Bayless’s credit, he conceded the point at the end of the segment.

Hill was far more insightful and persuasive than Bayless, because, I’m assuming, she has direct, first-hand experience with gender and race-based double standards in her professional life. She knows it as soon as she sees it. I wish the moderator had asked Jemelle if she thought Serena’s race also impacted the public’s (and Bayless’s) stronger negative reaction to her outburst. But I digress.

Tacoma, Washington teachers are on strike. Among the issues, the district wants greater flexibility in moving teachers from program to program and school to school to better meet the needs of struggling students. Teachers want continuity and are fearful of one superintendent or one principal arbitrarily moving them from year to year. I hope I’m wrong, but given the stagnant economy, high unemployment rate, and growing antipathy for public unions, I predict the teachers will struggle to win the community’s support.

Also, only a very small percentage of the public has direct, first-hand experience with the challenges of public school teaching. Just as Bayless struggled to see a gender double standard in professional tennis, the public can’t see things from the teachers’ vantage point. I empathize with the teachers. Few people, even if they freely chose to enter the profession, would passively and indefinitely accept their modest (and reduced) pay, their increasing class sizes, and their district and schools’ top-down management.

I hope the public union vitriol is tempered, the conflicts can be resolved, and the strike is short for the students and families it will definitely inconvenience.

* Just as African-Americans are able to use the “N” word, I can use the “PW” phrase because I am PW.

Chinese Test Score Hysteria

China’s ascendancy is inevitable because they’re willing to work for much less than American workers and American consumers are deeply dependent upon inexpensive “made in China” consumer goods. Thus the unprecedented trade imbalance, and as the recent G-20 meetings made evident, our relative loss of leverage.

My self-image isn’t tied to an accident of birth, living in a country long thought to be the world’s economic superpower. The next few years and decades are going to be tough for Americans whose self-image is somehow tied to being the world’s economic superpower. Asia, and China in particular, will continue to gain leverage and we’ll lose it.

Despite many reasons for this gradual reorientation of global economic and political power, the next few years and decades are going to be doubly tough for teachers because they’ll be blamed for it. U.S. citizens are deeply anxious about their waning hegemony and precarious standards of living. That collective anxiety will be projected onto public school teachers.

For educators, a New York Times article titled “Top Test Scores From Shangahi Stun Educators” by Sam Dillon last week doesn’t help matters. Some excerpts:

With China’s debut in international standardized testing, students in Shanghai have surprised experts by outscoring their counterparts in dozens of other countries, in reading as well as in math and science, according to the results of a respected exam.

The results also appeared to reflect the culture of education there, including greater emphasis on teacher training and more time spent on studying rather than extracurricular activities like sports.

“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview on Monday.

“I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better,” he added. “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

In a speech to a college audience in North Carolina, President Obama recalled how the Soviet Union’s 1957 launching of Sputnik provoked the United States to increase investment in math and science education, helping America win the space race.

“Fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back,” Mr. Obama said. With billions of people in India and China “suddenly plugged into the world economy,” he said, nations with the most educated workers will prevail. “As it stands right now,” he said, “America is in danger of falling behind.”

Tom Friedman recently wrote a scathing expose detailing why he thinks the U.S. is falling behind China. Friedman is a fairly predictable critic of U.S. education, but this time, to his credit, he said the primary problem is a broken political system and a parochial, lazy citizenry.

Duncan, Obama, and Friedman not only see improving education as an international competition and zero-sum game, but their rhetoric suggests you and I have to see it that way too. But the genius of our political system is we get to decide for ourselves.

I’m increasingly convinced that Duncan is the one in need of a wake-up. Few educators find jockeying for global economic supremacy inspiring. Like me, they tend to be humanitarians who don’t begrudge the Chinese the marked educational and economic progress they’re making. The Shanghai test scores are only a Sputnik moment if we decide to compete in a zero-sum game with the Chinese (and Singaporeans, Koreans, Finns, etc.).

Educators have to let the Secretary of Education, the President, and the opinion leader know that there are alternative starting points. For example, what can educators in different countries learn from one another and how might we capitalize on what each national educational system does best to solve challenging global economic, environmental, social, and political issues?

Educators aren’t parochial or lazy. They’re quite willing to think globally, just not exactly the way those in the bully pulpit might prefer.

The Measure Teaching Effectiveness Consensus

An underreported and potentially important sea change is underway in K-12 public schooling. It’s the somewhat natural culmination of a two decade-long emphasis on increased teacher accountability for student learning.

Rather than improving compensation and making entry into the profession more challenging, rather than empowering proven teacher leaders to improve schools, rather than increasing parent and family accountability for student learning, the highest ranking and most influential policy makers are in agreement that our ability to compete in the global economy depends upon better schooling, better schooling depends upon increased teacher accountability for student learning, increased teacher accountability requires measuring teaching effectiveness. There are parallel pushes to measure school leadership and teacher education program effectiveness.

Like the vast majority of K-12 teachers, I’m not opposed to the concept of teacher and administrator accountability, but it seems as if more time, energy, and resources have been put into planning the negative consequences of teaching and administrative ineffectiveness than into incentives for teaching and administrative excellence. The primary negative consequence of teaching and administrative ineffectiveness will be closing schools and reassigning (if the unions still hold any sway) or dismissing altogether (if they don’t) the administrators and faculty at the worst performing schools.

This “measure teaching effectiveness consensus” raises many questions that Arne’s Army seemingly has little patience for. Among them. . .

• How does one best measure teaching effectiveness?

• More specifically, if the Information Revolution is making knowledge transmission and recall less salient, how does one quantify increasingly important student skills and sensibilities like writing, problem solving, cross cultural understanding, teamwork, empathy, and resilience?

• How does one control for independent variables like differing degrees of outside of school support?

• Will an emphasis on individual teacher’s relative effectiveness contribute to even greater professional isolation to the detriment of student learning?

• What might the effects of steadily increasing accountability be on talented young people considering teaching as a career independent of improved compensation?

• Why, when top-down experts with little to no teaching experience are in the process of reshaping their profession based upon business model precepts, aren’t more teachers asking these types of questions?

The Lost Art of Detached Analysis

I had to squeeze this in between my two-parter. I read the NYT on-line including their essayists including Herbert, Rich, Brooks, Dowd, Friedman, etc. I’m waiting for them to call me and ask me to join them in the fun. Most of the writers are liberals who support Obama-Biden.  A common thread lately has been Palin’s lack of qualifications for the number two job in the land. Take Friedman’s today for instance.

To me, the comments attached to each essay are especially interesting. Attached to each comment is a link where you can “recommend” the comment to others.

Here are two typical comments that I’ll embellish a touch.  “Well said, bravo, finally someone has challenged Palin’s claim that she’s an energy expert. You are a first-rate journalist and fine human being.”  Now, 90% of NYT readers are left-leaning so a comment like that might have 600 recommendations. The next comment might read, “I can’t quite figure out why the NYT pays you to write such drivel. Palin already knows more about energy than you’ll every know. You’re a detriment to humanity.” A comment like that might get 30 recommendations.  

So if I agree with your argument, you’re a great writer.  If I don’t, you suck.

Here’s a comment I recently attached to an essay written for a professional on-line journal:

I’m a liberal democrat that’s looking forward to voting for Obama, but I’m wondering why the editors at TCR accepted this essay for publication. Zimmerman assumes way too much about his readership. Maybe everyone that reads TCR thinks similarly, and this was accepted because it’s timely, but for an essay to have real merit, it has to provide supporting evidence. I have to wonder if Zimmerman truly knows any Palin supporters. Their support is definitely emotional, but not entirely. Zimmerman doesn’t take on any of their arguments, for example, that Palin has more executive experience than Obama. Refute that or the right can simply argue it’s a case of left-leaning emotion versus right. More specifically, Zimmerman implies Obama is smarter, but Palin supporters would distinguish between book smarts, people smarts, and political leadership smarts. Zimmerman seemingly wants his readers to accept that there’s an inevitable correlation between intellect and political leadership. That may be true, but nothing in the essay will convince anyone of that. I’m sure Zimmerman would have said Gore and Kerry were far more meritorious than the man who beat them (at least Kerry if we blame the SC for the 00′ outcome).

A critique like that might earn me two or three recommendations. More evidence I guess that I’m hopelessly out of step.

Detached analysis isn’t really an art, it’s a skill that is learned. If we take NYT readers as a sample, educators have a lot of work to do. For all the vague talk of critical thinking skills, I wonder whether we have enough teachers capable of modeling and teaching substantive analytical skills.