Monday, February 28, 2005

Howard Dean from a Vermonter's perspective

Like me, Howard Dean is what Vermonters call a “flatlander”. I’ve always enjoyed the ironic potential in the term. To locals, newly arrived residents–whether from the plains of Kansas, the Rockies of Colorado, or isolated villages in Nepal–are all flatlanders. Howard came from New York; I came from Massachusetts. In fact, when I first heard of him, I was sitting on a coworker’s front steps in suburban Boston. My then-fiancĂ©, now ex-wife, had gotten a job teaching in Vermont, and we were getting ready to move. “Oh, they’ve got Dean,” said one of my colleagues. I didn’t know him then. “He’s a medical doctor, and he’s the governor.” I was intrigued at the idea of a state being led by anything other than a lawyer. “His wife’s a doctor, too, and she still practices medicine up there.” No kidding?

Once we made the move up here, I became familiar with his preferred appellation, Governor Howard B. Dean, M.D. Definitely odd, I thought. Not a fan of titles, including being called “Mr. Webb” by my students, I found it a bit pretentious. Having had my fill of doctors of one subject or another in college, I’d developed an aversion to calling any doctor, including medical ones, by their title. It smacks of elitism.

While my wife and I hunkered down through the winter on the shores of Lake Champlain, we would listen to the local call-in program on Vermont Public Radio where, once a month, the governor would come on to discuss current issues with the host and then take unfiltered questions from callers for two-thirds of the hour. Tuning in on those long evenings in the middle of the week – finishing dinner, doing laundry, making trips in and out to housebreak the puppy – I gained a sense of who my governor was.

Anyone who is paying attention knows by now that Howard Dean is not a liberal. He signed the Civil Unions law after working to make sure it wouldn’t be a gay marriage law. He signed it in a private ceremony with no press coverage. He held a tough line on state spending for social services, including education, social work, and welfare benefits, areas liberals would have liked to see grow. For the bulk of his career as governor, he was opposed to nationalized health care. He was often more lax on areas of business regulation than many of his Democratic colleagues. Howard Dean and I parted ways on a number of issues.

But during those “Switchboard” programs on VPR, I got to know a man with many admirable characteristics. He listened to what people asked him. He asked clipped clarifying questions if he didn’t understand the caller. He said he didn’t know if he didn’t know. Usually, he did know his policy in depth. He could cite statistics to back up his agenda or to inform the audience. In those days of Clinton’s presidency, I took mastery of the English language for granted as a necessary skill for public officials. Dean’s communication went beyond Clinton’s, however, in one important way. Dean was and is direct. As I listened to his radio responses, he didn’t mince words. He was seldom eloquent and hardly elegant, but he would tell listeners what he believed even if he knew they wouldn’t like it. Howard Dean was and is a guy who knows how to use the tremendous power of telling the truth.

Given his conservative streak, it’s not surprising that Dean would take on liberals who, like me, are okay with higher income taxes or greater regulation of business and industry. Around here he was widely labeled a “Republicrat”. I have a much harder time thinking of liberal causes he defended than of areas in which he forced liberals to compromise with moderates and conservatives. Two that come to mind are his leadership in protecting millions of acres of land from development and, in 2002, openly discussing the possibility of Vermont’s opting out of the federal “No Child Left Behind” education law. Dean did have an effective way of dealing with rabid conservatives who accused him, generally without merit, of advancing a progressive agenda – a skill he will have ample opportunity to apply for himself and his party in the next four years.

As I listened on the air, though, I learned first hand that Howard Dean could hardly be described as weak or delicate. Sometimes he lost his temper. He would elevate his gravelly voice and take control of the conversation – great practice for mainstream media’s “news” shows. He was tenacious. I often think of the description I read last fall of Howard Dean as a short-necked former wrestler. Indeed, he held to his beliefs firmly – though he did experience a sincere conversion on the issue of nationalized health care – and would challenge each misperception, distortion, or lie as it left the lips of an opponent. This, above all, is why I believe Howard Dean is the right man to stand in opposition to George W. Bush: he has no time, tolerance, or patience for lies and distortions, the two greatest products of our Orwellian president, and he is willing to speak frankly to identify and eliminate pretension and dishonesty.

When Howard Dean became known nationally during 2003, Americans seemed genuinely surprised by his candor, or straight-shooting style. It reminded me of a joke a lesbian friend told me as I prepared to depart from Boston seven and a half years ago: “Two lesbians took a vacation up to Vermont. When they got back, they told all their friends how wonderful it was. ‘All the women wear boots and flannel and drive around in pick-up trucks.’ ‘I hate to tell you,’ responded one friend, ‘but up there, they call them farmers.’” Indeed, sometimes in Vermont, those folks advocating for common sense and straight talk are politicians.

As Dean works to support candidates nationally, I suspect his candor will have a rejuvenating effect on voters and serve as a model to aspiring political leaders in the American West and South. Among ordinary Americans, Democrats will succeed not through the sort of equivocation, capitulation, and obfuscation practiced by Clinton, Gore, and Kerry, but by demonstrating the stamina, certitude, confidence, and enthusiasm Howard Dean brings to “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Reshaping the educational system requires radical reform

High school renewal and reform are on-going processes. Public schooling was invented as a reform. High schooling was invented as a reform. The comprehensive high school was invented as a reform. Creating small schools is another idea for reform. Reform seems to be a way of taking a complicated, flawed institution and trying to fit it into the trends, mores, and governmental demands of the day.

The “Radical Republicans” of the post-Civil War era created mandatory public education. The progressive efforts of the early 20th century included redefining who should be educated and what the masses should learn. The movements for equality in the 1950s-70s again redefined who should be educated, how, and what they should learn. In Vermont, in the 1990s, Act 60 was a further redefinition of how children should learn and what they should learn. In other places, the reforms of the 1990s included the creation of charter schools; in Vermont, school choice districts were created. Generally, reform is a progressive response to inequitable conditions in schools.

With No Child Left Behind, as with many of the reform efforts in the 1990s, emphasis was on accountability. Often enough, reform is about communities, states or the nation getting the best education for their investment. At other times, it is merely an inadequately funded excuse for manipulation of the curriculum, labor practices, or maintaining a failing system at the minimum level tolerable to the voting public.

While national education reform seems to have as its ultimate goal the punishment of the public education system, the enshrinement of inequality, and the diversion of more public resources into the hands of the privileged class that maintain private education, Vermont seems to be on a different path. Vermont has carefully developed standards and benchmarks, and is creating an assessment system, but without the punitive goals of federal legislation. Vermont seems somewhat interested in adequately funding its schools and in breaking the competition between homeowners and children.

Additionally, funding reform programs in Vermont, such as High Schools on the Move, indicates that Vermont is interested in finding more innovative ways to deliver high-quality education. It seems to reflect a progressive desire to move forward. However, it faces the challenges of ingrained beliefs on the part of the public, many teachers, the NEA, and the School Boards’ Association that extensive reform is actually dangerous; that it is easier to stick with a flawed and often unsuccessful model than to take risks where a child’s education is involved.

Two years ago, our school changed our method of instruction for students in grades 9 and 10. We created interdisciplinary teams with integrated curricula. Each team of three teachers is responsible for EST (Educational Support Team) services for its grade level and manages instruction in English, social studies, and science. The ninth-grade curriculum is centered on how and why communities are created, including their habitats, and the tenth-grade curriculum is focused on the ecological and social sustainability of local to global communities. In addition to teaching senior English, I am part of the tenth-grade team.

The creation of “the cores” at grades 9 and 10 was the product of a series of changes in how our students were instructed. Under the persistent leadership of our principal, we were encouraged to team together as teachers for the instruction of electives, and two courses had already been piloted. They were American Studies (American history and literature), which was expanded this year to include art, and Living Systems (biology and world history), which was expanded last year to include English and was the forerunner to our present course by the same name. The ninth-grade core, focusing on community, was created last year.

Our principal made time in the schedule for inter-departmental planning and for multi-block interdisciplinary classes. She was also blessed by a turn-over in high school faculty that over the past six years has allowed her to replace eight of our nine high school core teachers (including math). The most senior teacher is in her eighth year here. Most, though not all, new hires tend to share a vision that collaboration and innovation are good ideas. Most of us are willing to set aside attachment to our traditional, single-subject curricula in order to embrace core curricula that are built around values (community and sustainability) that are much more important and organic to the ways of the world than traditional departmental distinctions.

We have also begun the move away from traditional grading. As tenth-grade is the only course using alternative grading at present, however, each year is still a struggle to explain standards-based grading to students long conditioned to receiving a percentage grade in each subject.

After a year in which we faced the complexity of intensive team teaching, the search for connecting curricular threads, and a backlash from a number of parents, we at the tenth-grade team were exhausted and discouraged, but we have persevered. Thanks to our experiences and to the positive experiences of last year’s ninth-graders, this year has been a string of successes and excitement. We are still working on how to be most accountable for all our students and how to keep strong academics at the forefront, but we have created a system for all our freshmen and sophomores that aims to fill in the cracks for them socially, emotionally, and academically.