Georgia teacher uses slaves to illustrate word problem–A school voucher rallying cry? And other notables this week in education

Posted: January 14, 2012 in post
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I haven’t written in a while. OK, a long while, but there have been several stories this week that compel me to put hands to keyboard and pontificate.

First, I give you the 4 third-grade teachers at Beaver Ridge Elementary School in Gwinnett County Georgia, maligned for using slavery analogies to teach math. Probably not the best idea the teachers have had, but as usual, the media distorted the event (notably, or maybe not so notably, FOX News).

First, the background. A January 8, 2012 report by CBS news states “…9 third-grade math teachers have caused an uproar by giving their students assignments using examples involving slavery and the beating of Fredrick Douglass as analogies for solving math problems, according to multiple reports” (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57355514/ga-school-used-slavery-analogy-to-teach-math/. Accessed 1-14-2012). The CBS news article cites district spokesperson Sloan Roach as saying there was no reason to believe there was any [malicious] intent.

Apparently, the teachers were attempting to create cross-curricular assignments to reinforce learning from a social studies unit about Frederick Douglass and slavery. As one of the parents noted in the above-linked FOX News video, there were probably better, more positive ways to reinforce the children’s learning about slavery and Frederick Douglass . There will be no argument from this quarter that the particular questions that caused an uproar were not particularly well thought out. That said, teachers are people and people make mistakes. FOX News in a segment of the show “Cashin’ In, blew the incident out of proportion and took it out of context as a “rallying cry” for school vouchers! Really?

While I agree that the particular word problems were a poor choice, I commend the teachers for their attempt to reinforce learning across the curriculum. This is good practice! Instead, FOX showed the most incendiary questions and the videos of the protestors out of context to demonstrate the sad state of American education and the “need” for school vouchers.

School vouchers are beyond the scope of this post, but I must refute one of the arguments (oft-heard from proponents of vouchers) that “private schools do more with less.” This is a patently false and misleading statement. Being familiar with private schools having both attended a religious school during my high school years and later having taught at a Catholic school, I can make a few assertions here.

1. Many of the public do not realize that the vast majority of private school teachers earn less (substantially so) than their public school counterparts. This is one way to stretch a dollar!

2. The vast majority of individuals with whom I have spoken about the issue (and as the lead caller for a referendum vote in my community, I have spoken with more than a handful) are unaware that public schools substantially subsidize the private schools. A few examples: busing, textbook purchases, provision of special services.

Thus, the statement that private schools do more with less is a bold statement

This map shows the incorporated and unincorpor...

Image via Wikipedia

, but that is a topic for a separate post!

Education Week ran a “response to critics” of the American Enterprise Institute study released at the beginning of November 2011 stating that teachers are overpaid. Andrew Biggs, one of the study’s authors stated in a November 1, 2011 article appearing in National Review Online, “…we estimate that public-school teachers receive total compensation roughly 50 percent higher than they would likely receive in the private sector” (See link, National Review Online. Accessed 1-14-2012). Again, having been employed as a teacher as well as having held a number of jobs that required no formal education, I find this study tough to swallow. Nearly every job I have ever held paid more than did teaching and most of those jobs required no formal education past high school. Most of the jobs also had substantially better benefits than I received as a teacher, and one of those jobs was not a union position. Again, this topic is beyond the scope of this post, but the defense of this dubious study irks me.

To conclude, let’s take a look at a couple of more positive happenings in the education arena: A new book by Peter H. Johnston is available from Stenhouse Publishers: Opening Minds: Using Language to Transform Lives. The book explores the way in which the words we use construct the very “worlds” of our classrooms. One example from the book analyzes these two statements: “Introducing a spelling test by saying, ‘Let’s see how many words you know’ [conveys a very different message] from saying, ‘Let’s see how many words you know already‘” (page 2). The thesis is that the words we choose have the power to transform the lives of our students, for better or for worse. I’ll be adding this book to my “must read” list.

Finally, let me introduce you to the website Disability Is Natural. I stumbled across the website this week after a Twitter pal shared the profound article to which I have above linked, “Disability Issue or Human Being Issue?” The two page commentary provokes the reader to look afresh at the way in which he or she views disability. Kathie Snow, the website owner poses the following questions to the reader: “How many times do we make assumptions about children or adults with disabilities that are based primarily on the person’s diagnosis? How many decisions—life-altering decisions for the person with the disability—have been made based on these assumptions? How do we know the issue is a consequence of the person’s disability?” (Snow, Kathie. See Link, Disability is Natural). I encourage you to read the article and evaluate how you see people with disabilities. Can you look beyond the disability or diagnosis?

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