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Topic: An Open Letter to Arne Duncan
Replies: 10   Last Post: Mar 25, 2010 8:56 PM

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kirby urner

Posts: 3,690
Registered: 11/29/05
Re: An Open Letter to Arne Duncan
Posted: Mar 24, 2010 3:21 PM
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On Wed, Mar 24, 2010 at 3:02 AM, Jonathan Groves <> wrote:
> Jerry,
> I thank you for posting this story about Walt Gardner's open letter to
> Arne Duncan.  Gardner makes some valid points about businesses controlling
> schools too much and Duncan killing teacher morale and not praising
> good schools enough for their good work.

I continue to take issue with the Op-Ed piece and transferred my
reply to my blog, so my cohorts could better see it.

The business community seeks partnerships with government
that would result in new curriculum options, including more options
to expand student exchange programs to the point of internationalizing
more domestic schools. Not every zip code would be open to such
experimentation, however this is the kind of environment many
businesses experience internally, plus governments need future

Of course our schools are already experiencing a mix of ethnicities,
which is a resource to build on. If a student already speaks
Spanish or Polish, then the weeks or months abroad in a public
school program is maybe not going to require much language
training (except one is always learning more of one's own
language and heritage, so in another sense there's still a lot
of language training going on).

Learning another language is not always the point, though it might
be. Exchanges with other Anglophone cultures such as in Australia,
the Philippines, South Africa... India would be feasible for many of
the USA's mono-lingual, plus provide opportunities to start learning
one or more of the additional languages spoken in these areas, of
which there are a great many.

This program could be bigger than the Peace Corps in a heartbeat
(figuratively speaking) and would provide sustenance for host safe
houses, which would connect to various campuses. Dormitories
would also be built, as well as entirely new campus facilities. If
you're looking for ways to commit to capital expenditures, because
that's your line of work, then here's a way to create a boom sector
that's both politically popular (building schools) and anti-xenophobic
(sharing with aliens).

Having a steady flow of international students through the hallways
is one hallmark of being "world class".

At the curriculum level, I'd say the high technology sector does
not control the schools too much. On the contrary, public schools
are not quickly implementing a more technologically informed math
track such as I write about in this archive.

I think Robert Hansen and I maybe still disagree as to the advisablity
of retaining the "barriers" (GS, note my use of that term) i.e.
the "electric fences" that have been erected between mathematics
and computer science, and the deleterious effects this division is
having across the board.

I'm going to be calling this a Berlin Wall and challenge the Russians
to tear it down (seemed to work before, so why not copy Reagan?).
The Russians need to tear down the Berlin Wall and give us spanking
new curricula that converge computer programming and mathematical
problem solving. Here's a web page giving the kind of thing we're
looking for (a computer science page, but I know of math teachers
using it, check edu-sig archives if skeptical):

Then we would like to exchange lots and lots of teachers so that
our faculty planning meetings might be more productive and world
class. Yes, of course we might use Elluminate and Skype and
those tools as well (I was just in another Elluminate session
yesterday), but there's no substitute for high bandwidth inter-
personal interaction sometimes, as any diplomat well knows.

> Speaking of failing schools, I think the real problem is that the data
> collected on the standardized tests mandated by NCLB lumps all failing
> schools into the same category rather than trying to find the causes
> of failure.  There is a vast difference between a school that fails

A lot of the problem is with these standardized tests themselves.

Consider geometry for example. Imagine a culture that simply turned
its back on the content of 'The Geometrical Foundation of Natural
Structure: A Source Book of Design' by Robert Williams (Dover)
i.e. that purged spatial geometry from its curriculum in some quasi-
fascist manner, along with geography (spatial geometry and geography
go together, along with topology).

You wouldn't want to live in this culture would you?

Students would simply have no clue about the 1:3:4:6:20 volume ratios
twixt the concentrically arranged tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, rhombic
dodecahedron and cuboctahedron. No knowledge of sphere packing,
great circle networks, cartographic projections, global infrastructure...

These students are piss ignorant in other words, and the standardized
tests would have nothing about this. Almost unbelievable. You'd need
to visit a museum to actually see the textbooks and realize this
nightmare science fiction was the actual reality on the ground, even
in 2010! Even some of the gloomiest science fiction writers did not
anticipate this low of a cultural IQ. Arne Duncan said "retarded"
didn't he, or was that out of context?

This status quo is so NOT "world class" it's not funny.

So that's a problem.

My perception is the business community might try to address this
deep ignorance through television. I can't believe I'm the only one
suggesting this approach (meaning I don't believe I am the only
one so suggesting).

> because most of the teachers are lazy, incompetent in pedagogy and/or
> subject knowledge, etc. versus a school that fails because of limited
> resources or lack of cooperation from parents and the community or
> a vast student population from broken or poor homes but that the teachers
> are dedicated to their students.  Schools within this first category

The education system itself should provide a safety net. I know schools
are groaning under the burden of trying to help families survive. They
provide meals, but also sometimes translation services. Many teachers
double as social workers.

Instead of fighting this trend, we need to see it as way better than
warehousing the dispossessed in prisons. Incarceration is not the way
to go forward, and simply feeds the growing perception around the
world that the USA is little more than a police state with imperial
pretensions (see 'Beyond the Age of Innocence' by Kishore Mahbubani
for more analysis from Singapore).

This perception, that the USA is a piteous and pathetic beast, intent upon
eating its own children, is devastating to diplomacy and deprives our
leadership of credibility (another reason presidents have wanted to
close Gitmo, Bush Jr. included). Having these world class international
schools grow up in many zip codes, along with a more genuine commitment
to the educational safety net across the board, would help a lot with
international relations.

Tearing down the Berlin Wall between mathematics and computer science
would be a first step in that direction, as this'd restore some hope
to this picture. We'd get our spatial geometry and geography back,
precious American heritage that is currently being squandered as if
there's no tomorrow.

> fail because they do not try; schools within the second category fail
> because they try to do all the work themselves when it is impossible
> for schools to do that.  Teachers are important factors in students'
> successes, but they cannot do that alone.  They need the help of
> parents and the community and administration as well.  They also need

"The community" includes the business community.

> corporation from their own students, too.  A student is who dead set against
> genuine learning and the work required to learn will not succeed--no matter
> how good the teacher is.  A class full of students who threaten to rebel
> or to complain to the administration who is sympathetic to them
> because they cannot get an easy A with minimal work or because the teacher
> refuses to teach them from the textbook because the teacher knows the book
> is crap (and we know that many math textbooks are crap) cannot be helped much
> by a teacher because either the teacher will give in to the students to
> save his or her job or the teacher will be fired for refusing to give in.
> Ignoring these distinctions between such failing schools is causing
> a lot of unnecessary harm to teachers and students.

Having a steady flow of international students from many walks of
life will do wonders for a school, as the administration well knows
that this school, in this zip code, is developing an international
reputation. Blogging goes on, students compare notes, as do
teachers. Those schools with strong international reputations will
bolster the records of everyone associated with them. Given many
teachers want overseas opportunities as well, they have an incentive,
as do the students, to keep things on track.

School spirit, school pride, is an important element in any school
that's working. These days, that means you need a central server,
maybe a rack of servers, with an accumulating set of records, lots
of lore. Games, plays, debates, year book pictures -- all of this goes
to the server and stays there for later access by alumni. Every public
school has a right to such infrastructure, either on the premises or
in the cloud. This is something the Obama administration might
legitimately help with, as well as the business community. There's
a lot of free software out there, lots of liberal licensing. We're not
talking a huge expense, and even if we are, lets remember this is an
investment that'll pay back with dividends, whereas squandering on
more prisons is just contributing to brain rot.

Students should realize that we have these options to improve
their infrastructure, as well as their curriculum. I would encourage
them to organize, not in opposition to teachers, nor in opposition
to the administration, but in support of both. We would all be so
much better off if the commitment to education were not just lip

Opportunities to travel, to see the world, could be yours, without
having to surrender your civilian status. America fields a surplus
of military personnel right now at a million dollars a troop (rough
estimate, Afghanistan reporting). The Peace Corps has been
dwindling in this climate. Citizen diplomacy has gone to low ebb.

Perhaps the only way to reverse this trend is through institution
building in the education sector, and not just at the university level.
The commitment to make our schools safe for USA kids equals
the commitment to make them safe for kids from other countries
as well. That's what "world class" means, at a bare minimum.

> I know that the cooperation of the administration is a major factor
> in teachers' successes because there are ideas I want to try in my teaching
> but that I am not allowed to do so.  For example, I would like to chuck
> their textbooks because they are the standard textbooks that gut nearly all
> reasoning and motivation and beauty from mathematics.  And I would like
> to give assignments and projects that encourage them to think about
> mathematics and to enjoy exploring some ideas on their own.  But I'm
> forced to use the textbook and their assignments and course materials
> as they developed them.  That's not to say that I will or can make my
> ideas work if I tried them.  Instead, this is to say that a mathematics
> teacher who tries to teach students genuine mathematics and genuine
> mathematical thinking will struggle greatly in succeeding at these
> schools because he or she would find it extremely difficult--if not
> impossible--to do so while obeying the schools' policies.

Organizations such as are desperate to enshrine
some status quo that preserves the Berlin Wall and perpetuates this
fascist dictatorship of the ignorant majority, which has no clue about
geodesic anything, doesn't know the tetrahedron is self-dual, and has
no intention of explaining how anything works.

That so many wrong choices have been made is now a scandal and
cover-up is the order of the day. Don't let people know that our
American heritage has been squandered, our textbooks purged and
"sanitized" by a gulag of know-nothing bureaucrats.

Don't let students realize they're being ripped off daily. Don't talk
about the higher living standards we've sacrificed already.

I'm following Ronald Reagan in calling on the Russians because
they know what it's like to suffer under out-of-control bureaucracies.
If some of these world class schools get started in Russia and
show up on TV, then we'll know the Berlin Wall (the digital divide)
is coming down, as Americans will see what a real and relevant
math curriculum really looks like. Like almost nothing they've
currently got going, thanks to oppression and malign neglect.

Or we could do some pilot schools here, as collaborative enterprises?
The ones we build from scratch will have ample room for gardening,
permaculture etc. The J. Baldwin pillow dome idea needs more
time in the sun. Remember that EPCOT is an inspiration (the
original idea, of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow).
Interesting TV will emanate from these places, and will spark student
imaginations everywhere. We should have started construction
already. Maybe we already have.

> Another harm that Arne Duncan is causing is automatically labeling
> schools with high standardized test scores as good schools.  Standardized
> tests as mandated by NCLB completely or almost completely ignore
> reasoning, critical and creative thinking, and other deep traits
> that good learners must have and instead focus mainly on students'
> abilities to regurgitate facts on exams.  Just because a student can
> recite all these facts doesn't mean that the student can make sense of
> them or use them to think critically.  And let's not forget all the
> undetected cheating on these exams.  How many of these good schools
> are really good schools after all?

By my definitions, practically none of them, but not because the
students or teachers are untalented. The problem is people do not
appreciate that radical improvements could occur. These radical
improvements do not obviate the need for study or work, but they
do provide more opportunities to see more of the world and meet
more of its people. Given the international mix in many a business,
learning to problem solve multi-culturally is a must. Mathematics
includes team work, not just solo work. This is a lesson the computer
science people have built many disciplines and tools around, so one
consequence of bridging these cultures will be more practice in
collaborative problem solving (doesn't have to mean at the expense
of solo skills).

In sum, I reiterate my remark that complacency is what's inappropriate
here, plus we need a willingness to experiment, because we have no
choice but to try stuff (this is otherwise known as "the human condition").

We don't wish to squander resources, but "keeping everything the same"
is not what "conservative" means either (as if the status quo were not
squanderous). As Heraclitus noted awhile back, change is inevitable,
so a true conservative takes steps, active measures, to steer in a
promising direction. Liberals, being liberal, believe in sharing the road.
Ronald Reagan took some risks, as did Bush Sr. I'm thinking of a recent
Freeman Dyson lecture here in Portland (blogged about it, oft cited).
Bipartisanship is not out of the question (nor are we inevitably opposed
to smaller additional parties, with their curious slates of candidates).


> Jonathan Groves

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