Tuesday, March 31, 2009

No Matter

Today is Progress report day. I hate progress report day. My students hate progress report day. We hate it for different reasons however.

To me, it is like a new beginning. Students get a wake-up call as to just how bad an average can be when you only turn in one assignment out of 10 but the chance to turn things around looms on the horizon. To my students however, it is a death knell. No matter how many times I remind them that it is a PROGRESS REPORT, they all scream about their averages and much moaning and gnashing of teeth is heard.

No matter how many times I ask them to see me for tutoring before or after school, I am still chased around the classroom by students waving progress reports like villagers waving flaming torches at Frankenstein. No matter how many times I tell them to take it home and get it signed for a homework grade, 40% will still throw it in the trash anyway and take another zero. No matter that I always call parents when I don't get the progress reports back. In everything I do as a teacher, grading papers and giving grades to 178 students is my least favorite thing.
I wish that all grades matched what my kids are capable of doing. I wish that all students would at least attempt to do even a small bit of what we're doing. I wish all students could taste a little bit of success without so easily accepting a progress report full of zeros.

Because in the end, it's actually no small matter when a fifteen year old has already given up.

History Today

If you are a regular reader/subscriber to History Is Elementary then you are aware that I have had several fits and starts to my posting schedule since the latter part of August due to health concerns and two major surgeries.

Thanks for hanging in the there with me. It has been a real challenge to keep to a regular blogging schedule. I’m behind in several posting topics, and the only way I know to get rid of the many entries on my “to-do” list is to just begin wrestling them to the ground one by one.

Some time ago I became aware of History Today magazine and their blog found here. Information at the site explains…History Today delves into the deeper, historical issues that lie behind the headlines. We have been published in London since 1951.

Paul Lay, the magazine’s editor has his own blog here and the main website for the magazine can be found here along with archived articles and much, much more.

I’ve already added the sites to my blog roll. Go check them out!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Great Depression in Music and Video

Today’s wordless or near wordless offering is a video regarding the Great Depression from the Thomas Brothers. If you aren’t sure who the Thomas Brothers are check out their website here and follow this link to another video clip showing how they mix history, video, and song to entertain and teach with.

Even if you can’t get the Thomas Brothers in front of students these clips are interesting enough to add to a lesson or unit of study.

Be sure to check out the video here that clearly shows how they work their magic with all age groups.

You can locate other bloggers participating in Wordless Wednesday here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Greater Depression?

In an October, 2008 online article at the site for a South Carolina news station, USC economist Dr. Bill Hauk states, “There are enough similarities [between the current economic crisis and the Great Depression] to say there’s definitely something wrong here. We definitely do need to be concerned. I think the comparisons to the Great Depression are certainly premature and hopefully unneeded.”

I agree with him to a point. The current situation is exactly that…current. We are living through a huge historical event that others in the future will analyze and judge. It’s too early to look at the situation clearly, yet that is our nature, isn’t it?

As a teacher of history I’m anxious to get my facts NOW, so when little John or Jane asks why did my dad lose his job, how did this all happen, or why does my mom yells at the television and throws things every time Obama’s face shows up on the screen I can give a proper answer.

Yet, we must realize the situation is still fluid, and we certainly don’t know the whole story regarding how all of the dominos have fallen or in some cases been pushed. While I want to agree with Dr. Hauk and state I don’t think today’s situation is greater than the problems our nation experienced in the 1930s especially listening to some of the folks including my parents who lived through the events I honestly have to say I don’t know…because this historical chapter is still in play.

Dr. Krassimir Petrov, a professor of Macroeconomics, International Finance, and Economics at the American University in Bulgaria, wrote a great article at The Market Oracle in November, 2008. He states, “At its core, environment of the 1990s, and the response of the Fed to the tech-telecom bust has created an economic environment that has encouraged the repetition of the very same mistakes that led to the Great Depression.”

Dr. Petrov then lists several obvious parallels to the current crisis that include:

*Asset Bubblesfirst in the stock market during the 1990s, then in real estate during the 2000s, pretty much mirroring the stock and real estate market bubbles of the 1920s.

*Securitization…Although not in the very “ultra-modernistic” form and shape of the 2000s, with slicing and dicing of pools and tranches of seniority, it was widely recognized in the 1930s that securitization during the 20s drove the domino effect in the U.S. financial system during the Great Depression.

*Excessive LeverageIt was very clear back then that the root of the problem was not deleveraging per se, but the excessive leverage that took place prior to the deleveraging process. “Investment Pools” were then instrumental in both the securitization and excessive leverage, just like the Hedge Funds of today.

*Corrupt Gatekeepersaccounting firms aided and abetted the Environs and Worldcoms and in the current crisis we are seeing the same thing (see the most recent report from ABC's Brian Ross) and following the Depression the SEC was created due to the corruptness in the 1920s.

*Financial EngineeringWe are led to believe that financial engineering is a rather recent phenomenon that flourished during the New Age Finance Era of the last 15 years, yet financial engineering was prevalent in the 1920s with very clear goals: (1) to evade restrictive regulations, (2) to increase leverage, and (3) to remove liabilities from the books, all too familiar to all of us today.

*Lagging RegulationsUnderstandably, regulations should have forseen today’s financial problems and should have been introduced before the crisis.

*Market IdeologyLaissez-Faire reigns, but we need to remember the money markets are not really free

*Non-TransparencyOriginally, lack of transparency was designed to fool the markets; ironically, modern-day financial executives have gotten to the point of fooling themselves.

But then Dr. Petrov takes a turn and states the current mess will be judged greater than the Great Depression. I wonder what moniker history will finally give this time period….the Great, Great Depression? The Greater Depression?

Here are Dr. Petrov’s six reasons why this period will be judged greater:

*Overvalued real estateThe real estate market has been driven by a number of innovations in real estate finance

*Total U.S. creditCredit makes leverage…the more credit in the market, the more leveraged it is

*Explosion of DerivativesWarren Buffet has linked derivatives to ‘financial weapons of mass destruction.’ Derivatives, as well as ‘Value at Risk” (VaR), has skyrocketed in recent years with the potential to destabilize the financial system for decades…The unwinding of these derivatives could only be compared with a nuclear explosion in the financial system.

*Dow-Gold ratio…[This] ratio represents the most important ratio between the relative pieces of financial assets and real assets…When leverage in the financial system increases significantly, so does the ratio. When leverage increases, so does the ratio. A high ratio is interpreted as an imbalance between financial and real assets – financial assets are grossly overvalued, while real assets are grossly undervalued. It implies a correction eventually will be necessary – either through deflation, deleveraging and a collapsing stock market, or through inflation, which implies stagnant market for many years and steadily rising prices of real assets, commodities, and gold, usually associated with stagnant economy and typically resulting in stagflation. Deflation occurred during the 1930s while stagflation occurred during the 1970s.

*Global BubblesIt is impossible to make direct comparison with the 1920s, but today the global economy is rife with bubbles. Back then in the 1920s, the U.S. had its stock and real estate bubbles, while the European communities were struggling to rebuild from the devastations of WWI that ended in 1919.

*Collapsing Bretton Woods II The global monetary system was on a quasi-gold standard during the 1920s….While the media describes the problem as one of illiquidity and confidence, a more serious analysis indicates that boom-time credit has been employed unproductively and so losses must be incurred. In other words, scare capital has been misallocated, poorly invested, and effectively wasted. No amount of money or fiscal policy can fix the errors of the past, just like no modern treatment can quickly restore to health a drug addict debilitated from a decade-long drug abuse.

If Dr. Petrov is correct even harder times are coming. Harder times regarding life choices and harder times in trying to figure out how to teach this mess because for every economist like Dr. Petrovthat argues we are entering a period worse than the Great Depression there are just as many stating we are just in a slump and no comparison can be made.

For me….for now...the jury is still out.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Chicken or the Egg

Which came first….the chicken or the egg?

The question goes back to ancient times when philosophers debated the origins of the universe including Aristotle, Plutarch, and Macrobius. More recent discussions have taken place with Steven Hawking and others. Here's an article regarding the question from 2006 that purports the issue has been solved.

In education we have our own chicken or the egg dilemma. Which came first….the student or the teacher?

Think about it. Students can’t exist without a teacher. Even students conducting independent study have some sort of advisor, guide, or text to teach the student. On the other hand teachers can’t exist without a student. If we are going to teach there has to be a student to teach.

So, when it comes to making educational sacrifices how do we decide who is more important…the teacher or the student?

Who should come first in education?

I’m partial to the notion of putting students first…..ALWAYS, but tough economic times really shows the mettle of some folks. They either get it, or they don’t.

It seems like Americans across all socio-economic boundaries are all re-learning economic lessons these day in a very hands-on, real life fashion. Every week I learn of more and more of our friends and family who have been let go from their jobs.

Conduct a Google blog search using the key words “hiring freeze for teachers” and this is what you find: link after link to various articles regarding hiring freezes in public school systems and university systems across the United States. Here’s an article where teachers are contemplating returning their raises to their cash strapped district.

From time to time I join in on some of the education discussions on the Topix page for my hometown of Douglasville, Georgia….a suburb of Atlanta. One particular discussion touched on the subject of a hiring freeze and the general public was debating where cuts should be made. I entered the conversation to add more information regarding why school nurses are needed in today’s schools considering all of the medicines and chronic…often life threatening burdens our students carry around with them every day.

Then I made pushed the evelope….I issued my opinion stating that if employees were given their pink slips then cuts should be made across the board and not just in the classroom. My exact statement was, “As far as [dismissing] teachers…I think we could lay off a few of the paper pushers at the county offices for local school boards.”

A gentleman using the screen name “Coach” stated, “If you think about the implications of such a horrible statement before you post it, you might reconsider it. It is some of those paper pushers, not all mind you, that is fighting for teachers jobs.”

I countered, “Not quite sure what you mean by implications…No…I think I’ll stick by my statement. I’ve been involved with three different school systems as an employee, very involved parent, and observer and can truthfully say in “most “ systems there are too many chiefs and not enough braves.

Note the keywords in my post…”most” and from the original posting…”few.” Not all paper pushers as I described them are essential and yes, I do realize there are several great educators out there who end up riding a desk. Many are my friends. We need them, and they do a great job, but there are several [examples] of dead weight out there as well. In all three systems I’ve been involved with the county office has its fair share of folks who were involved in some sort of situation where I would have lost my job [for some of their antics]…yet they get to ride a desk. Yep, I’ll stick by my statement especially since it was not a blanket statement regarding all board employees.”

Clearly, clearly I rattled this guy’s cage for some reason.

He stated, “I am not as smart as you think you are, but here goes…It seems like it’s easy to say, and it has become the first think that is said. I am not at the central office, but I am an administrator…, and I have over the past month or so been sick to my stomach at the prospect of losing teachers. I have lost sleep. I think about families and mortgages and student loans and marriages and kids…[I] get mad and then I get industrious and try to think of who might need who I am losing and I make phone calls and go see people. I help teachers to have better observations. I talk to teacher eligible for retirement about the situation. I re-evaluate what can be done and change my minds hundreds of times on just my opinion on the matter (I do not have the final decision anyway).

And then I walk down the hall, and hear horrible comments like fire “paper pushers” at the board or ‘They are going to fire teachers? What they really need to do is cut down the number of administrators we have.’ And again I think about families, and relationships, and homes, and it pisses me off that the person for whom I have been fighting to keep and losing sleep over despite the fact he/she has problems calling parents, expects me to do his/her classroom discipline, and can’t figure out why 40% of his/her students are failing. I have been fighting to keep them for several reasons. They show signs of hope, they really do love kids, and they have families…just like people I know at the board of education.

It’s a shame that bad economic times brings this out in people.

So stand by your limited convictions, and go start another blog.

Coach’s response caused me great pause. I don't really understand why someone has to resort to personal attacks when discussing an issue, but I finally responded, ”….thank you for clearing up your obvious frustration in the process of letting staff go. I certainly understand where you are coming from as far as having the responsibility of telling teachers they may not have a contract next year, and I in no way meant to belittle the burden all principals have to shoulder at this time…I understand how you have a heart even for those staff members that ‘piss you off’…the staff members that despite ‘the fact he/she has problems calling parents, expects me to do his/her classroom discipline, and can’t figure out why 40% of his/her students are failing.’

Your comment ‘They show signs of hope, they really love kids, and they have families…just like people I know at the board of education’ tugs at my heart.

I’ve seen those educators as well, but at some point we have to understand that the students come first, and if a staff member isn’t coming around not only could they be out of a job…you could be out as well, and the education profession continues to have egg on its face.

How long do we wait for those educators to “get it”? The educators you describe aren’t just newbies, and you and I know it. I’ve seen quite a few 30 year veterans with complaints against them as long as my arm and yet…someone is still waiting for them to “get it.”

I’m sorry my comments seem to make you think my convictions are so limited. One or two comments on a message board certainly do not clue me into who you are or tell you who I am…However, I would think twice before I would belittle an educator’s efforts at educating the general public about his or her subject matter as I do at my blog History Is Elementary. I began my site with the full knowledge of my last principal. She understood the importance of what I was doing even when I have spoken out on issues in a direct opposite line from hers.

She understood that the only way we are going to ever get out from under many of the misconceptions and perceptions the general public has about what we do and how we do it is by speaking out.

Coach didn’t respond to me again, so I don’t know what he thinks about how long it should take for a teacher to “get it”. One year? Two? Five? Ten?

If students should come first….we can’t keep holding onto staff waiting on them to come around. There are plenty of people out there waiting in the wings that “get it” and want to get on with it.

In the meantime, I’m sticking to my original statement on the messageboard. If cuts are made….if sacrifices are requested it should be across the board and not just classroom teachers.

What do you think?