Bringing back Voltaire

I continue guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs, with one more post to come.

One thing I appreciate about the Internet is the availability of books online. Recently I have been reading John Tallis’s two-volume History and Description of the Crystal Palace (1852), illustrated with steel engravings. Tallis comments on the Crystal Palace’s origins, preparation, and construction; the nations that took part in the 1851 Exhibition; the excitement, the press, the opening ceremonies, the visitors, and of course the exhibits: sculptures, model ships, bridges, locomotives, cloths, gemstones, papier-mâché, glassworks, machines, electric telegraph, and more. He vividly describes the history, significance, cultural particularities, and workings of item after item. It is exciting to read. While some of the exhibition was probably a bit gaudy (he hinted as much himself), one can understand why visitors were awed by it. Charlotte Brontë wrote, “It is a wonderful place—vast, strange, new and impossible to describe. Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things.”**

But there is a curious digression in Tallis’s book. At one point he imagines Voltaire coming back from the dead to visit the exhibition. Actually, Tallis admits that he has extracted this account from columns of “Christopher North” (pseudonym of John Wilson, apparently), but Tallis clearly enjoys the story enough to retell it. North’s fictional Voltaire scoffs at progress from the start:

What a din this age makes about its progress! it travels fast enough, if that were all. Rapid progress of that kind. For the rest let us see whether the world is revolving in any other than its old accustomed circle.

Voltaire inspects a locomotive, which a professor of mechanics proudly introduces as an “iron slave.” Voltaire points out that this locomotive will require much tedious human labor:

Putting my head out of the window of my railroad carriage, whilst we were yet at the station, I saw an industrious mortal going from wheel to wheel with a huge grease-pot, greasing the wheels. He greases wheels from morning to night; eternally he greases.

Voltaire criticizes not only the false progress but the “ornamental nonsense”: [Read more...]

Exodus from the empty spaces

I continue guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs.

In “Death by Suicide: The End of English Departments and Literacy” (Minding the Campus, January 25, 2010), Mary Grabar writes that “students are leaving English departments in droves” as the field cedes more and more territory to theories that have little to do with literature itself.

“Who are you kidding?” I wanted to get up and ask the English professor who was giving a talk at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association convention in November. He was analyzing a graphic novel, the spaces between panels, the line widths of the panels, the lettering inside the “speech bubbles.”

Indeed, the “spaces” may have much to do with the exodus. Why spend a lifetime on empty space? [Read more...]

Praise for Obama on education

Both Checker Finn and Rick Hess praise the education themes in President Obama’s State of the Union speech. Finn writes on Flypaper:

On primary-secondary education, as on most topics, Mr. Obama stayed at 30,000 feet. The main themes he sounded, however, are fine: use federal education dollars to reward success, not failure; apply Arne Duncan’s “race to the top” reform priorities to the mega-bucks Elementary/Secondary Education Act; and keep a “competitive” element in this rather than simply distributing dollars via formula. All extremely hard to do but all worth doing.

The White House blog has specifics on Obama’s education plans, which include trying to reauthorize (in modified form) No Child Left Behind.  

Hess notes that education got no more than 90 seconds of a 70-minute speech.

Teacher pay: Up or down?

Over the last decade, teacher pay declined after inflation in every state, claims the National Education Association.

Not so. Teacher pay rose in 36 states after inflation, responds Jay P. Greene, looking at the NEA’s own data.

. . . we see that salaries increased by 3.4% nationwide over the last decade after adjusting for inflation.  The increase in average salary outpaced inflation in 36 states

. . .  total compensation for public school teachers has risen much more rapidly than just salary because of the rising value of benefits.  In addition, the numbers the NEA provides are the increase in the average salary, not the increase for the average teacher.  The huge increase in new teachers over the last decade who begin with lower starting salaries makes the rise in average salary smaller than the average raise that each individual teacher has received.

According to the NEA, the average teacher in 2008-09 was paid $54,319, excluding benefits, Greene notes.  The average school revenue per pupil was $11,681, up from the previous year.

Update:  The NEA has revised its press release to say teachers have lost ground in “many states.”

Tell us, six-year-olds, what's the author's purpose?

I continue guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs, with three more posts to come.

Last night I watched a video of a Reader’s Workshop (Balanced Literacy) lesson for first graders. The objective of the lesson was to “determine the author’s purpose” (a strategy that they were apparently learning in anticipation of second grade). The teacher presented two basic purposes for writing a book: “to entertain the reader” and “to teach the reader.” She taught the children hand signals that corresponded with each purpose, gave them some practice with examples, and then sent them to their independent reading, where they were supposed to practice the strategy and give the appropriate hand signal.

The following comments do not reflect at all on the quality of the teaching. The teacher was giving a fine Reader’s Workshop lesson, by Balanced Literacy standards. She was well prepared, spirited, and very clear, with good command of BL procedures. The problem lies not with her teaching, but with the premises behind the lesson. (I am not going into decoding here–this lesson doesn’t even touch on it.)

First of all, Balanced Literacy lessons usually revolve around a strategy. This limits the instruction, as the literature is subordinated to the strategy. In this case, the teacher read short passages from books in order to determine the author’s purpose. The only reason she read these passages was to illustrate and practice the strategy. The stories themselves hardly mattered. [Read more...]

Design a bridge, win a prize

The West Point Bridge Design Contest is open to students from age 13 through grade 12. Prizes include a $5,000 scholarship or a laptop computer.

Via Right on the Left Coast.

Homeschoolers get asylum

German parents who said they were persecuted for homeschooling their five children have been granted political asylum in the U.S.

Education vs. poverty

“In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a first-class education,” said President Obama in his State of the Union speech.

Is that really true?  Flypaper’s Mike Petrilli thinks preparing young people to be “military ready” might fight poverty better than educating everyone for college.

I agree with Obama — if it’s really education and not just additional years of schooling.  Unfortunately, his proposed funding increases don’t guarantee more “first-class education.”

“The question is not whether to invest in education, but how, writes Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, in an e-mail. Making Race To The Top an annual billion-dollar competition gives extraordinary power to the Education secretary, Whitehurst writes.

I’m all for using carrots instead of sticks to spur reform, but we ought to get at least a hint of what we’re going to get from the billions invested in Race to the Top 1.0 before we make it permanent.  

. . .   The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act, now overdue, rather than the 2011 budget bill, is the place to decide whether an annual Race to the Top competition is worthwhile and what reform policies it should impose on states and school districts.

Obama has the right priorities, writes Paul Peterson on Ed Next, citing a new study on the huge economic benefits if we educated U.S. children to Finnish levels. “If” is the operative word.

Intervening with ELLs

Response to Intervention — extra help for kids who are starting to fall behind – works well for students who aren’t fluent in English, reports Education Week. RTI is designed to keep students from being designated as learning disabled by “catching them before they fall.”

In Chula Vista and across the country, response to intervention provides instructional triage with three “tiers.” All students receive Tier 1 instruction, in which teachers ideally take into account the individual needs of students in their regular instruction. In Tier 2, a subset of students who need additional help receives interventions in small groups, which in Chula Vista are provided by teachers in regular classrooms and while students are pulled out of class, such as for the reading clinic at Rice Elementary. Lastly, some students are identified for Tier 3; they receive even more intensive help, such as daily one-on-one instruction . . .

Teaching well in Tier 1 is critical.

Free trade in brains

The globalization of higher education should be embraced, not feared,” writes Ben Wildavsky in The New York Academy of Sciences. While other countries are trying to catch up, “the U.S. dominance of the research world remains near-complete,” he writes. 

Yet there is every reason to believe that the worldwide competition for human talent, the race to produce innovative research, the push to extend university campuses to multiple countries, and the rush to produce talented graduates who can strengthen increasingly knowledge-based economies will be good for us as well. Why? First and foremost, because knowledge is not a zero-sum game. Intellectual gains by one country often benefit others.

. . . global academic competition is making free movement of people and ideas, on the basis of merit, more and more the norm, with enormously positive consequences for individuals, for universities, and for nations. Today’s swirling patterns of mobility and knowledge transmission constitute a new kind of free trade: free trade in minds.

Fun fact: Half the world’s physicists don’t work in their native countries.