Steve Wood's
View from the Classroom

Thermos Bottle Barometer
October 15, 2001

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No, this isn't a column about a possible science fair project. My thermos bottle is often a pretty good indicator of what kind of day I've had at work. If, when I get home, the bottle is empty as it should be, there's been time to stop and rest and ponder the course of the day. On the other hand, if there's considerable coffee left, it's been one of those hurried, no break, no lunch, no nothing days.

Other than one day last week, when my roommate from our adult bachelor days dropped by for a cup, there's been a good bit of coffee left in the thermos to be disposed of when I get home from school this year. That's not a good sign. I wrote about a few of the specific issues in Why I Prefer Macs in the Classroom and Getting Ready for....

While I'm still working on various Mac-centric pieces such as "Third Year Classroom Tour, A Gaggle of LC IIIs, Part 3, Apple Ed is doing better, but..., Free again," and another piece about a cool utility I'm beta testing, the current national mood on education has shifted to one of "just get it done" concerning the education reform bill after the September 11 attacks on our nation.

President Bush and his administration have done an excellent job of stirring patriotic fervor and constructing an effective international alliance against terrorism. Meanwhile, they also continue to push for an education reform bill that won't (improve much of anything)! Million dollar cruise missiles are regularly launched towards Afghanistan while my school continues to play Russian roulette with the lives of disabled students by not having adequate staff to supervise these crippled children during emergency situations. This is the actual text (edited for confidentiality only) of a proposed "Disaster Plan" for one of my students.

[Student's name] will follow [his/her] classmates (to evacuate or to a sheltered area), or [he/she] will remain outside the classroom door for assistance from the principal or an instructional assistant.

I didn't pick the pseudonym "Backwash Elementary School" to describe this place for nothing. Gee, let's have the crippled child wait by him/herself for help to come during a fire or tornado emergency!

We pause, or are interrupted, for the Simultaneous Nationwide Pledge of Allegiance and are daily scrutinized to see if we teachers are wearing our American Flag pin or Unity Ribbon, while the children in my classroom arrive at school ill due to lack of proper diet. I cynically laughed and told my new, reduced hours, teaching assistant last week that I thought if we sent a child to the school nurse with a seriously bleeding head wound, they would return to class with a package of saltines!

While some might want to say, "It's just your crummy school system," these kinds of problems are endemic to American education. It happens in the "Metropolitan School District of Backwash" in Indiana, but it also happens every day in New York and Illinois and California and in every other state. True education reform is desperately needed.

Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, are now poised to approve an education reform act that mandates testing of children to insure accountability of schools when that same Congress continues to refuse to fully fund the federal government's portion of the special education act. Legislators perform the physically impossible act of talking out of both sides of their mouth by saying they want "to cut proposed increases for special education," predicting that such increases "would slow reform of the system." IDEA, first enacted in 1975, called for Washington to provide 40 percent of funding for disabled students' education. That has never happened, with federal funding last year estimated at just 15%. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, one of the sponsors of the funding increase for special ed, has said, "Local school districts have been waiting for 26 years for the federal government to step up to the plate and provide their fair share of funding. This is just one last excuse as to why they should wait even longer.''

Now, under the guise of national unity, President Bush wants the reform bill passed quickly. Reports like the one Washington Post staff writers Brigid Schulte and Dan Keating authored about schools' struggles to maintain excellence in education in the face of economic and cultural diversity are ignored. Pupils' Poverty Drives Achievement Gap and Closing Student Gap Opens Door to Conflict tell of the educational effects of population shifts in Montgomery County, Virginia, and "inner-ring suburbs across the nation."

The Washington Post analyzed the test scores and economic status of 50,000 Montgomery County students in the third through eighth grades. The analysis found that poverty was the most influential factor in predicting a student's performance. [my emphasis] It also showed that the performance gap between schools with high levels of poverty and more affluent schools has continued to widen, even as the amount targeted to help troubled schools doubled to $60 million in the last five years. The data indicated that the performance of individual students differed dramatically depending upon the overall level of poverty in the school they attend.

It's not likely at this time that our nation will suddenly become committed to addressing the social ills that affect education and other sectors of our society. Such problems defy solution, and by necessity, our country is focused on the war on terrorism. But sadly, ignoring the real root causes of educational problems pretty well insures that the current round of interest in improving education will fail.

I suspect that my thermos bottle will continue to be half full each day when I return home from teaching. I also suspect that many other teachers' emotional thermos barometer reads about like mine.

Odd thoughts while shaving between paragraphs:

Dan Knight, longtime publisher of the Low End Mac web site, has branched out and launched a companion site for users of older Windows boxes, Low End PC. On the "about" page Dan states:

The mission of Low End PC is helping users get the most value from their computers. We're not concerned with having the fastest, most tweaked out computer possible. We're not concerned with keeping ancient PCs in use long after they've become a bottle-neck. We are concerned about value: getting the most use from your hardware for the money -- and sometimes that means an upgrade or a newer computer.

I suspect that Dan may be taking a bit of heat from some Macintosh zealots who consider his action tantamount to giving in to the dominant Windows operating system. Some Mac writers on the web frequently advocate banishing all Microsoft products from their hard drives.

I'd like to commend Dan for this new and much needed endeavor. Dan and his writing staff have the opportunity to help extend the usefulness of some expensive-to-replace hardware. It could save individuals, businesses, and schools some serious bucks.

Online Resume?

I'm not quite ready to head for Florida, the sun, and soft food, but I am less than two years away from minimum early retirement age. It's unfortunate that when one is at the top of his profession, the only way to get a decent pay raise is to change jobs (retire) and double dip from a new career plus teacher retirement.

Neither my wife, Annie, nor I am quite sure how I'll be professionally reincarnated. It could be as a teacher in a neighboring state, or as a tech specialist, or even as a writer.

At any rate, I'm beginning to look beyond the current state of education and my current role to new horizons with different problems. Any ideas for a balding, often cynical, slightly dyslexic job seeker? I hear there may be an opening for a "greeter" down the road at Walmart!

Update:

When I sent out the usual press release to various web sites for this column, I chose to include the email address of our school's superintendent. When I arrived at school on the day of the column's publication, I was relieved not to find a pink slip in my mailbox. By 10 A.M. my building administrator arrived in my classroom with a solution to the emergency plan problem.

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©2001 Steven L. Wood