10 Facts About Obama’s New Education Secretary

The word is out: President-elect Barack Obama has chosen Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan as his Secretary of Education.  But who is this man? 


Here are 10 Facts About Arne Duncan:


1.  He’s been CEO of Chicago’s public schools since 2001.


2.  He was appointed deputy chief of Chicago schools by Paul Vallas in 1998.


3.  He has a bachelor’s in sociology from Harvard University.


4.  He is 44 years old (he was born 11/6/1964).


5.  He is known for “reaching out” to teachers unions.


6.  The dropout rate in Chicago has gone down every year since he’s been in charge. 


7.   Believes in performance pay for teachers.


8.  He asked congress in 2006 to double funding for the No Child Left Behind law.


9.  He supports the expansion of charter schools.


10.  He played pro basketball in Australia from 1987 to 1991. 


To read more about Arne Duncan, click here.

YouTube Videos Serve as Tutor for Struggling Students

Today I read an interesting article in the education section of USA Today about teachers posting math and science videos on YouTube to help tutor students. 


“Math videos won’t rival the millions of hits garnered by laughing babies,” the article states, “but a YouTube tutorial on calculus integrals has been watched almost 50,000 times in the past year. Others on angular velocity and harmonic motion have gotten more than 10,000 views each.”


This is an extremely interesting concept.  It’s blending core subjects with technology, and using a medium many students know well.  This is something I might try in the future.  I could video tape a quick lesson on grammar or the writing process from my home (or the basics of any lesson, for that matter), and post it on YouTube to help some of my struggling students. 


This could also work for students who’ve missed the lesson because they were absent from class. 


To read the full USA Today article, “Need a tutor? YouTube videos await,” click here.

Does a student have the right to make fun of his principal on the internet?

On Wednesday, KYW News Radio reported a very interesting free speech case involving a high school senior and his principal:


A federal appeals court in Philadelphia is pondering whether a high school was right to suspend and threaten other punishment against a senior in the western Pennsylvania town of Hermitage in the Mercer County school district who created a fake Myspace page meant to ridicule his principal.


Vic Volchak, lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, is pressing for damages to be paid by the school district.


According to reports, Layshock was disgruntled because the school forgot to acknowledge his birthday.  Although I haven’t read the actual Myspace posts, news sources such as the Inquirer report that Layshock “made fun of the principal’s large build and implied that he drank”. 


KWY reported that Layshock also stated on the Myspace page that his principal smoked marijuana. 


The posts were written outside of school on his grandmother’s home computer. 


When school administrators found out, Layshock was suspended for 10 days, banned from after-school activities, and transferred to an alternative education program. 


On Wednesday, when I first heard this reported on KYW, I knew it would make a great critical thinking activity in my 11th grade English classes. 


I immediately printed out a hard copy of the article from KYW’s website and made copies for my students.  Once a week I bring in an editorial or op-ed from a major newspaper, and have my students read and analyze it.  They are required to identify the thesis statement and supporting arguments, and then explain whether they agree or disagree with the writer.  I knew the Justin Layshock free speech case would make a great topic.


I used the article with them this morning.  The lesson went extremely well.  We talked about free speech and whether Layshock crossed the line.  I asked students to write down their opinions and answer two questions:


#1.  Was the school’s punishment of Layshock too harsh?

#2.  Should students have the right to make fun of their principals on the internet outside of school?  


Question #1 was a landslide in favor of Layshock.  61 out of 62 students insisted the punishment was too harsh.   One student wrote, “I think the student is protected by the freedom of speech and the school went too far.  We are able to talk about the president and other national leaders, so why can’t we talk about a principal?  I believe that a 10 day suspension is too much . . .”


Another student wrote, “The punishment was too harsh.  They should’ve just gave him a detention.  It was a joke and he was just trying to have some fun.  Everyone knows it was a joke, because obviously kids act like that.” 


Question #2 had similar results.  41 out of 62 students believed kids should have the right to make fun of their principals on the internet outside of school.  Most argued that it was a free speech issue.  Plus, it was off school grounds. 


I played devil’s advocate.  I explained that defamation of character is not free speech.  I also explained slander and libel—that purposely misrepresenting someone in order to harm their reputation is against the law. 


Most students didn’t see how “making fun” of a principal was slanderous.  They sided with the ACLU: Layshock’s offensive posts about his principal were just a simple parody. 


I found this quite interesting.  I brought up the Don Imus incident from the spring of 2007, when he called the members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed hoes”.  He was just joking, I told them.  Making fun. 


Several of my students objected.  Imus was different, they argued.  His comments were about race. 


This is when our conversation turned to the issue of double-standards, and whether or not they exist in America.  We talked about things you’re allowed to “make fun of,” and things you are not.  Race, sexuality and gender are off limits, we all agreed.  You can’t make fun of them.  You can’t “parody” them. 


What can you “parody”?  You’re average over-weight principal, I guess.  You can “make fun” of his large build.  You can call him a drunk and a pot smoker, even though these statements are completely fabricated.  Sure, it might ruin his reputation, but if you do it off school grounds, it’s okay. 


Several of my students began to see the other side of the argument.  One wrote, “That student [Layshock] doesn’t know what his principal does when he goes home.  What that student said could have caused his principal to get fired.  The student is destroying the principal’s reputation.”


Another wrote, “It doesn’t matter where it takes place.  You could get in trouble and have to pay the consequences.  The student is giving his principal a bad reputation.”     


The lesson on Layshock and free speech was interesting and well received.  I could see the wheels turning in my students’ heads, could smell the wood smoke burning between their ears. 


In the end, their viewpoints on the Layshock case didn’t matter.  What did was the fact that they could see BOTH sides of the argument, and understand how to think critically about the world around them.



American Students Just “Mediocre”? I Don’t Think So

by Christopher Paslay


Americans—the American media and politicians in particular—have a fetish for griping about how lousy public education is in the United States.  Ever since President Regan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education published the infamous report, A Nation At Risk, our whole country’s just been beside itself when it comes to America’s schools. 


Woe is America!  Our children are in trouble!  They can’t do math!  Or science!  The educational system in America is in shambles!


Enough is enough already.  Let’s stop all the doom and gloom.  America is the best country in the world, and so is our education system.  Don’t think so?  Check out this report in USA Today that highlights the fact that nearly 583,000 foreign students studied in the USA during the 2006-07 academic year. 


Amazing, isn’t it?  Over a half a million young people eager to learn—many from China and the Asian countries that are topping the test score charts—are coming to the US to get their educations. 


People from all over the world understand very clearly that America is where you go to get the best education.  This year’s Summer Olympics are a case in point.  It seemed that every college athlete competing in the games—whether it was track and field or swimming—was going to school in the US.  It was amazing to witness.  Jamaicans were going to school at the University of Kentucky.  Kenyans at Villanova.  Australians at UCLA.  The list went on and on.


I know—these are colleges, not high schools.  But when you look past all the media bias and posturing by politicians running for office, when you look at our county’s public schools as a whole (when we don’t focus on the dozen or so large urban school districts who are crippled by poverty and a culture that doesn’t value education), our country is doing pretty damn well. 


According to The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), American fourth graders were 11th out of 36 countries in math and 8th in science.  Eighth graders were ninth out of 48 in math and 11th in science.  Sure, we’re not at the top, but that’s just because math and science aren’t hip in America.  It’s a cultural thing, not a school issue.  Plus, the professors who write educational policy from their ivory towers in academia don’t want us to be number one (hence differentiated instruction, the very hot and very unrealistic trend in education).  Number one isn’t good.  Number one doesn’t leave room for improvement.  Number one would put a lot of people out of a job, cost educational testing companies billions. 


Regardless of our place on the TIMSS, America’s schools are working.  Our children are not only well educated, but will be the global leaders of tomorrow.  This is a fact, and no matter how hard newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer try to downplay the ability of our youth (US students still test as mediocre, Inquirer, 12/10) we know who they are, and how strong our country’s school system is.

District Unveils Accountability System for Textbooks

by Christopher Paslay


In a letter today in the Philadelphia Daily News, Dr. Ackerman announced there will be “districtwide accountability systems in place for textbooks that hold everyone responsible for the proper use and return of these instructional resources annually.” 


Dr. Ackerman pledged that the Philadelphia School District will:


–Assess all schools to determine the individual book needs in each classroom and place new book orders where appropriate immediately.


–Implement a new automated tracking system next spring that tracks textbook orders from the district office to individual classrooms.


–Enforce district policy that holds students and parents accountable for lost or damaged textbooks.


–Hold building administrators accountable for ensuring that books are available for each student at the start of each school year and collected at the end of the school year.


As announced on the Philadelphia School District website, “The District is asking parents and students with textbook issues this year to first contact their school principal. If further action is needed, please contact the student’s Regional Superintendent’s office. Finally, parents and students can contact the Superintendent’s Parent Ombudsman at 215-400-6161 or by sending an e-mail to superintendent@philasd.org if the issue remains unresolved.”


I give this new accountability system two thumbs up.  It’s holistic, in that it holds everyone accountable—students and parents as well as administrators and teachers.  My only question is (and I don’t mean to be cynical), what specifically IS the District policy that “holds students and parents accountable for lost or damaged textbooks”?  Seriously.  How do you do this?  If parents can’t (or won’t) pay for damaged or lost books, how do we handle this?  Do schools put a hold on a student’s records?  Refuse him or her prom tickets?  Stop them from participating in graduation?  Are teachers allowed to refuse students additional texts who owe money for lost books from the year before?


Maybe the District could ask Philadelphia courts to garnish wages.  Or maybe the city could get involved and handle lost textbooks like unpaid parking tickets.          


Regardless of the method, we need to have this policy in writing, and it must be uniform across the city.  And we must implement it.  No excuses.  No backing down under pressure, no giving-in to “special circumstances”.  All for one, and one for all.   


If the District truly follows this plan, and we ALL pull our own weight—teachers, administrators, parents and students—I truly believe the lost textbook epidemic in Philadelphia will be a thing of the past.

District’s Military Opt-Out Form is Denying Students Opportunities

by Christopher Paslay


So far in 2008, there have been more murders on the streets of Philadelphia then there have been American soldiers killed in Iraq.  On December 1st, Samantha Houston, 19, became Philadelphia’s 304th homicide victim when she was shot in her North Philadelphia home before dawn. 


On November 24th, Master Sergeant Anthony Davis, 43, died after being shot by an Iraqi Security Force soldier while he was conducting a humanitarian food drop.  Davis was America’s 294th soldier killed in Iraq this year.


Why am I comparing Baghdad to the streets of Philadelphia?  Because of the “opt-out” campaign the Philadelphia School District is running against United States military recruiters.


Despite the fact that America’s armed services provide young men and women with a variety of occupational skills and the opportunity to travel the world, the school district has been working diligently to remove students’ names from lists of recruiters.  A quick visit to the Philadelphia School District’s website will reveal that a link to their “Military Opt-Out Form” is not only pasted on the front page, but also translated into eight different languages: Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Khmer, Vietnamese, Albanian, Arabic and French.   


The campaign to keep the names of Philadelphia teens off military recruiter’s lists is also being promoted inside city schools as well.  At Swenson Arts and Technology, the high school where I teach, military opt-out forms are made regularly available.  Directions for completing these forms are often announced during advisory period. 


It’s usually during this time that students in my homeroom ask if they can be excused to go to the office to pick up a form. 


“Why do you want to get your name off the list so bad?” I recently asked a young man in my classroom who requested the form. 


“Because I don’t want to get drafted,” he told me.  Others in the room agreed with him.


I tried to explain that there was no draft in the United States, that the lists were strictly for recruiting purposes so military personnel could send you information in the mail or call you on the phone.


“And you can always say no when they call,” I told the boy.  “But at least it gives you options when you graduate.”


“I don’t want to go to war,” he told me.  “I don’t want to die.” 


And that was the end of the conversation.


Although I understood his reasoning, part of me felt sorry that many students blindly close the door on such a golden opportunity.  If they kept an open mind, students would realize the United States military has so much to offer.  Instead of hanging around the neighborhood and dealing with high unemployment rates, they could serve in the Army and earn money for college.  As they did so they could learn about computers and engineering—job skills that could pave the way for a bright future once their service is over. 


Much of the same applies with the Navy, Air Force and Marines.     


Not all students reject the military, of course.  Surprisingly, a growing number of teens in Philadelphia are embracing the military through Jr. ROTC.          


At Swenson, we are privileged enough to have an Air Force Jr. ROTC program.  AFJROTC cadets are some of the best and brightest students in the building.  They are highly motivated and disciplined, often serving as escorts to visitors during school community functions, and raising and lowering the flag in front of the school every morning.  Not to mention they look incredibly sharp in their crisp, navy blue cadet uniforms. 


Despite the best efforts of teachers and principals, too many students in Philadelphia are graduating with limited skills.  The military is a perfect solution to this problem.  School district officials should be encouraging young men and women to enlist in the service, not shielding them from such an opportunity.


Although I’ve had dozens of students come back to my classroom to visit me after graduating, the ones who impress me the most are always those young men and women who have enlisted in the military. Their presence is clearly distinguishable from the rest of their peers: They are proud and confident, in amazing physical shape, and have a look in their eye like they can conquer the world.