What “Alike” Gets Wrong About Education
Apr 4th, 2017 by Dr Karma

When we learned multiplication, one of my classmates discovered he could multiply the top by the bottom OR the bottom by the top and get the same answer.

The teacher made him do his worksheet over.

I watched–and learned–do it her way, or do extra work.

These are the moments that people probably think of when they watch the new Pixar film, Alike. The link I followed made this clear, arguing that the film was touching a cord as it skewers school for making us lose our creativity.

But that’s not what I thought about when I watched this film.

I thought about how I had teachers who fought to teach us science and history in a place (the south) where parents tried to get them fired for doing so.

I thought about my theory of knowledge class–where the very nature of truth and knowledge came under fire–where we were encouraged to debate and to test.

I thought about the encouragement I got from an orchestra teacher when he heard me trying to figure out Flight of the Bumblebee without any sheet music.

I thought about the teacher who circled my cover sheet statement that said 600 words. We had written short stories–the minimum was supposed to be 1000 words. My teacher crossed out her circle after reading the story and wrote “A+ — you couldn’t have added one more word without ruining it!”

I thought about the writing teacher in middle school whose comments were always longer than my papers.

I thought about the teacher who paid out of her own pocket for us all to have our own frog to dissect. Something was coming out of my frog’s abdomen already. I asked what it was and she said, “you’re the best one to figure that out.” (The frog had apparently died of an awful hernia, I discovered.)

I thought about my teachers telling me to learn the rules–before I could break them “prudently.”

I thought about the teachers who forgave me for my chronic lateness–they knew my mom wouldn’t get up to take me to school on time.

I thought about the teachers who listened to me and supported me and encouraged me and basically stood in for the support I didn’t always get at home.

I thought about the teachers who had to deal with us–heartbroken, always–and give advice without reminding us that young love is inherently stupid and dramatic.

I thought about the one teacher who knew I was pregnant the same day I knew (because I told her)–and how she made sure I was always “busy” when it was time to move a piano and who complimented me on the “creative costuming” that let my issue stay hidden until the beginning of the third trimester.

I thought about so many of my university teachers–who managed to open my mind even though I thought I knew how the world worked already.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to think.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to read.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to write.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to act.

I thought about the teachers who encouraged me to sing.

Can education, when done poorly, kill your creativity? Yeah.

But I became a teacher because my teachers opened my world. My teachers gave me a future. My teachers saved me.

Everyone who moves on in education can think of a few bad teachers. And a few amazing ones. And that has made all the difference.

And now I’ve become a teacher–because I want not just education that inspires, but a job that inspires me as well.

PS–why isn’t the current critique of this film about the awful work world too?

PPS–even though I think this kid’s artistic side should be nurtured, he does need to learn to write. (Says the writing teacher.)

PPPS–Yes, I’m also the viewer who thinks the English teacher in The Blind Side is not the bad guy!




Middle Class Students
Feb 18th, 2012 by Dr Karma

One of the things I’ve learned this quarter is fewer students in the middle classes are attending the University of California now. Rich students can afford to pay the new high tuition. Working class students are eligible for need-based scholarships. Of course, many middle-class parents like me couldn’t afford UC tuition.

Our Assembly Speaker is proposing a specific scholarship for middle class students, in part to make up for the cuts to our CalGrant program, which is increasingly unable to close the gap (especially when they try to cut CalGrant every year).

Protecting the middle class is important, since it’s endangered. (To see what will eventually happen to it, click here:,1244/).

However, I think it’s time to consider a more radical solution, one that many first world countries (and a few 2nd and 3rd world countries) have found: free higher education.

We live in a world where a Bachelor’s grants you the same opportunities a high school diploma offered half a century ago. It’s a basic requirement for a decent job. We tell our children that they must get a BA if they want to survive. If they want to succeed, they have to do even more.

Shouldn’t that education be available in the same way that high school has always been? I’m not saying that we educate everyone–schools can still have admission standards (in fact, we could raise them, taking only the actual brightest). There can still be tiers (universities, community colleges, vocational schools), but students will not start their adult lives in debt (and then be blamed by politicians for not being able to do better financially than parents and grandparents who didn’t have the same financial handicap). Those awful for-profit diploma mills will be put out of business–since we are investigating them for fraud, it’s unlikely we would use tax dollars to have students matriculate there.

I know that there would have to be trade-offs. Perhaps we would have to require a year of service from our students. We would certainly have to cut the budget in other places. We would still have a country where more well-off people were in college (due to the current inequality in school funding), but we can’t fix everything with one solution.

If we really believe that our citizens need to be educated, for themselves, for our economy, for our national competitive edge, then we need to do something. Sometimes I doubt we really believe this, though. We sure don’t behave as if we do.

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Supporting the Mental Infrastructure
Sep 20th, 2010 by Dr Karma

Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary of education under George W. Bush, has come out with a new book explaining that the Bush education agenda was flawed.

Of course, this is one in a long line of such books. Cheney seems to be the only one who thinks everything went just fine.

I read an excerpt the book in a recent American Educator. I was shocked (shocked!) to discover that apparently, making tests the only test for whether education is working is a bad idea. It leads to people teaching only to the test, to cheating, and to students knowing how to fill in bubbles while their little minds are unfilled. It leads to an incomplete understanding of whether a teacher is successful or not.

And under George Bush’s plan, it leads to rich schools getting richer and poor schools getting poorer, as schools are punished for low scores. It leads to putting all of the blame on our low-paid and ill-respected educators when the scores don’t turn out right. It leads to a perpetuation of class stereotypes–rich people are just better and smarter and poor people deserve to be poor because they’re lazy and stupid–if they all take one test, surely we can see that (never mind that they are starting off on a teeter-totter rather than a level playing field due to the money coming from property taxes rather than fair allocation).

Wow. Who would have thought that No Child Left Behind would have left children behind? Well, any of us who opposed it from the beginning. Ravitch basically says that everyone in the administration was well meaning, that these were honest mistakes. I will buy that they were well meaning. And some of these mistakes might have been innocent. I mean, all of the consequences were totally forseeable, but not everyone is smart enough to actually think things through. I would guess that some people were fine with letting certain children fall behind–because it defended the class and power status quo, because it might have ultimately led to the dissolution of public education, etc.

Ravitch is good when talking about what went wrong; she is less effective in talking through what needs to be fixed.

Here’s what needs to happen. 1. The ideologues need to look at the reality and to see that this policy is flawed. People on both the right and the left need to make sure that Obama doesn’t keep this policy in place.

2. We need to level the damn playing field–all children have a right to equal education. We will all be stronger if we are all literate.

3. We need to think about the mental infrastructure of this nation. If I want a nation of smart, educated, critical thinkers, which I do, I need to be as supportive of mental infrastructure as I am of the other kinds. Our current economic crisis has meant that banks and car companies and airlines have gotten bailouts, even when those companies have been spending and making money willy-nilly. We have invested a lot of stimulus money in public works–even while the schools in my district (including the university for which I work) are struggling, we have tons of crews working on the roads downtown and the down the street.

Why don’t we consider our schools too big to fail? Wouldn’t giving stimulus money to educators to create smaller class sizes be a good idea that would pay off a thousand times? How many teachers could we hire for what one bank CEO makes? How many decent textbooks could we buy, so that each child has access to one (one of my friends knows a teacher who has 25 books total for six classes of 35 students)?

America is all about investment. Why aren’t we investing in our children? Why aren’t we investing in ourselves?

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