Friday, May 30, 2008

Are Students Canaries In the Free Speech Coal Mine?

After 12 years of censorship and regimentation, many high school students will graduate this spring with little or no idea about what it means to be a free, active and engaged citizen in a democracy. When they march across the stage to get their diploma, let's hope someone slips them a copy of the First Amendment - with instructions on how to use it.

Far too many public school officials are afraid of freedom and avoid anything that looks like democracy. Under the heading of "safety and discipline," administrators censor student religious and political speech, shut down student newspapers and limit student government to discussions about decorations at the prom.

Fortunately, a growing number of brave students defy the odds and take seriously what they hear about free speech in civics class. Earlier this month, Heather Gillman won her fight when a federal judge ruled that her Florida high school violated the First Amendment by prohibiting students from displaying any symbol of support for gay rights, including rainbow stickers. And last month, Alexander Nuxoll won the right to express the opposite viewpoint when the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that his suburban Chicago school must allow him to wear a "Be Happy, Not Gay" T-shirt while his civil rights case proceeds.

Of course, students don't always win in court - in fact, they often lose. On May 12, Kimberly Jacobs lost her battle to wear a religious message on her shirt when a 9th Circuit panel upheld a Nevada school district's dress code prohibiting messages (including political or religious expression) on student uniforms.

But win or lose, students shouldn't need to call a lawyer in the first place. Public schools are supposed to be places that teach and model what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, especially what it means to use the basic freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Instead, many school officials are convinced that keeping order means ordering students to leave their religious and political convictions at the schoolhouse door.

Yes, schools have an important interest in maintaining safety and discipline. Schools can and should prohibit speech that is obscene or defamatory or promotes illegal activity. And schools may draw the line at student speech that can be clearly shown to cause a substantial disruption in the school. But the widespread practice of censoring the political and religious views of students simply because their speech might offend someone or might be controversial contradicts everything schools are supposed to teach about freedom of expression.

Students have become canaries in the free-speech coal mine: We can predict the future health of freedom of speech in America by looking at how public schools live up to - or fail to live up to - the First Amendment. Right now, there are a lot of sick canaries out there. It's no mystery why so many young people tune out public-policy debates, stay home from the polls and become cynical about their government.

Not all school officials make the false choice between security and freedom. In a small number of schools across the nation - Federal Hocking High School in Ohio and Fairview Elementary School in California are two stellar examples - students are given a real voice in the life of the school.

When schools uphold the First Amendment, they become learning environments that are not only free, but also far safer than schools where students are alienated by censorship and repression. The challenge is for schools to promote freedom through lessons in civic responsibility. This includes, among other things, involving students in decision-making, teaching peer mediation of conflicts, encouraging a free student press, offering instruction in the ethical use of the Internet, and integrating lessons in civic character across the curriculum.

Here's a concept: Freedom works. Freedom and democracy, not censorship and repression, create safer schools for students - and ensure a more secure society for us all. Freedom also takes work. Many school officials complain that in this era of high-stakes testing they don't have time for such "extras" as supporting meaningful student government, promoting student journalism or creating opportunities for student engagement in public policy and service. But if we can send young people to fight and die in the name of freedom and democracy abroad, surely we can take time to practice freedom and democracy at home.


US Can't Pass English 101

Most Americans can't write a decent college paper. It's not exactly news. Half a century ago Bernard Malamud, smart Jewish kid from Brooklyn, taught English at Oregon State University. He found the experience so grueling that he wrote it up in A New Life. His fictional hero, Levin,

"lectured his students on this thinness of their themes, for their pleasant good-natured selves without a critical attitude to life."

Then he wondered why "people disappeared from his classes" and transferred to other courses.

The boneheadedness of the average college student is, of course, a favorite theme of the educated classes, so it is not surprising to read in the June Atlantic the lament of an adjunct college instructor. In "The Basement of the Ivory Tower" we learn of the experiences of "Professor X" teaching English "at a small private college and at a community college."

Professor X is not teaching the children of The Atlantic readers. He is teaching evening classes to other peoples' children, students whose college applications showed "blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go." Nor are many of the students children. Many of them are health-care workers, would-be police officers, and municipal employees who need college level credits to "advance at work," or, in short, get a raise.

The students' chosen path to increased emoluments is not easy, for many of them are not well prepared for college work. Never mind the agonies of the "compare-and-contrast paper, the argument paper, the process-analysis paper... and the dreaded research paper." Many of the students "cannot write a coherent sentence."

Professor X wonders when he's going to get a note from the college to pass more students, and he worries "about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass."

Since we are worrying about "larger implications" let us escape from the bell jar of liberal thinking and wonder why it is that after a century and a half of "free" public education so many students present themselves at college unable to write a coherent sentence. If you read the latest National Assessment of Adult Literacy you will find that only 13 percent of US adults are rated "proficient" in prose literacy, e.g., "comparing viewpoints in two editorials." We are not talking here about 87 percent of Americans lacking the skill to write a scintillating article comparing foolish liberal with wise conservative viewpoints on education. We are talking about 87 percent of adults being not quite up to the task reading a couple of editorials and getting the point.

Could it be that the vast majority of Americans aren't particularly interested in reading and writing? Could it be that they don't really need advanced literary skills in order to hold down a decent job and enjoy a comfortable life in these United States? The "larger implication" of unprepared students attempting entry-level college English is that maybe the program of universal K-16 education is fatally flawed, for it suggests that for an unknown proportion of students the program of compulsory bums-on-seats education that is a central article of faith for the governing elite is a mistake.

If we have made a mistake in the development of our government education system we ought to do something about it. Liberals were properly outraged that President Bush tolerated two years of failure in Iraq before he would agree to change his strategy. For some reason they are not in quite such a hurry about the K-12 education system that was excoriated over twenty years ago in A Nation at Risk.

But if the current education system is broken what should we do to fix it? Laurence Gonzales' intriguing Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why suggests a different understanding of learning. Gonzales warns that you cannot confront the crises of life with just book learning. If you fall down a crevasse on a mountain or your yacht sinks a hurricane you need more than a rational appreciation of natural hazards to survive. You need practice, and actual experience in decision-making under duress so that your rational knowledge becomes internalized as an instinct. That's the way they teach you to fly airplanes. When the weather starts to close in good pilot must combine knowledge, skill, experience, and judgment to make the decisions that will get him out of a jam. The same applies to ordinary life crises like losing a job or getting divorced.

The day will come, perhaps sooner than we think, when the American people will be ready for education reform. Yet after a century and a half of government stasis it is difficult to know what to do. There is not even consensus on the notion of a "learning style." Perhaps the only thing to do will be to let the American people decide for themselves.

One thing is certain. The future of education will not have much to do with forcing government bureaucrats to jump through hoops in order to get their next raise.


Some Australian teachers to be paid on merit

THOUSANDS of teachers are set to be judged partly on the academic performance of their students under a ground-breaking accreditation scheme to recognise excellence in the classroom. In an Australian first, the state's most outstanding classroom teachers will be able to apply for merit promotion to newly created advanced level positions. To qualify, teachers will have to demonstrate their students' achievements, provide work samples, submit references from parents and others and allow inspectors to assess their classroom performance.

The new positions - professional accomplishment and professional leadership - will eventually attract higher pay after negotiations with the Government or school authorities. The changes provide a new layer of seniority over the decades-old system of grading teachers automatically on length of service, and gazump the Rudd Government's agenda to reward classroom excellence. They also open the floodgates potentially for an even more comprehensive overhaul of teacher quality aimed at retaining the best teachers and weeding out duds.

Education Minister John Della Bosca said yesterday NSW would have the first comprehensive scheme in Australia to recognise excellence across the whole teaching profession in the state. All schools in the state will come under the new merit scheme judged on standards laid down by the NSW Institute of Teachers. "Outstanding teachers in NSW public, Catholic and independent schools will now have the opportunity to be formally recognised by the profession and the community by meeting high level professional teaching standards," Mr Della Bosca said.

Teachers yesterday welcomed the opportunity to gain recognition at an advanced level and said it would encourage many to remain in the classroom. The Teachers' Federation said it had a range of concerns about how the scheme would work and called for talks with the Government. It is now mandatory for all new teachers to be accredited at the level of professional competence but it is voluntary to apply for the two higher levels. Mr Della Bosca said the Institute of Teachers had developed standards setting out whole of career pathways for teachers in Government and non-government systems.


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