Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Fins Are On To Something....

Education in America has become an issue of justice. Just spend an hour in an elementary school in a low-income neighborhood, and you’ll see the teachers are overworked, have huge class sizes, and a huge lack of resources. My friend who was a teacher in a local elementary school did not have access to even pencils for her students. She was expected to provide basics for her students out of her own money.

There are a lot of recent movies and documentaries (such as The Lottery by Madeleine Sackler and Waiting For Superman) that are presenting the problem and showing the flock of parents sending their students to “lottery” schools, where families place their hope in a lottery to be chosen for enrollment in a school with better class sizes and higher excellence in academics.

My main issue with this is that families are placing their hope in a system that determines by chance whether students have the chance to be successful. If they don’t get in, the common attitude is then “I have no hope for my son or daughter to do well in school or have the opportunity to go to college.”

Public schools get a bad rap. When I was growing up, I loved public school and didn’t see anything wrong with it. But I also didn’t grow up in a low-income neighborhood where the resources were so lacking for schools as well.

I recently read an article that talked about the philosophy behind education and how America is viewing it in regard to Finland…

The Fins Are On To Something…
What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success - The Atlantic

To quote the article, the main questions Americans seem to be obsessed with in order to make education better are:
• How can you keep track of students' performance if you don't test them constantly?
• How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers?
• How do you foster competition and engage the private sector?
• How do you provide school choice?

Finland differs in their perspective on education reform in the following ways:
First of all, Finland has no standardized tests.
The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America's school reformers are trying to do.
For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what's called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.
Instead, the public school system's teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.

Secondly, it’s all about responsibility, not accountability.
As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. "There's no word for accountability in Finnish," he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."
For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master's degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal's responsibility to notice and deal with it.

Thirdly, Fins focus on cooperation, not competition.
And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Puronen: "Real winners do not compete." It's hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland's success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

Finally, school choice is not a priority.
Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg's comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don't exist in Finland.
"Here in America," Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, "parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It's the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same."
Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it.
Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

Education reform is definitely needed in America, but I wonder if we are asking the right questions. What if we started to ask, “How can we make school opportunities more equal” instead of creating schools that are better and more excellent than what is currently being offered. Of course, our whole American culture of competition would need to change for that to happen. So who knows where to start? We’ll have to start somewhere, and soon, because education is the major stepping-stone to “fullness of life” in our American culture and history.
-Jenni Ingram

Friday, January 13, 2012

The trouble with floors and water is...

My son and my new daughter wanted some help on a flooring project in their condo in Pasadena, CA, so I went down to lend a hand. Our first step was to move the furniture out and pull up the carpet and take it to the dump.  The first hiccup came when we arrived at the dump.  The recent record-breaking windstorm that hit Southern California meant there was a very long line of cars and trucks trying to rid themselves of the branches that had littered their yards.

On Sunday, we wanted to move out the last of the furniture and appliances and then paint. Being an early riser I am, I wanted to get a head start.  Hiccup number two arose as I walked through the house.  I noticed a puddle on the floor that stretched across the dining area, kitchen and entry hall. It stretched so far, it was impossible to tell where it came from. I mopped the water up and waited to see if any new water came in. I couldn’t figure out what generated the mess or if it will delay the floor installation the next day.

After the water clean-up, I began to move out the appliances. When I tried to turn off the water valve for the dishwasher, the valve handle and stem broke off in my hands. Hiccup number three. Before I could take out the dishwasher, I had to fix the valve, which meant letting the other residents know that the water would be turned off the water for half the building (not to mention make our fourth unexpected trip to the hardware store).

By the end of the afternoon, the water mystery was solved (a water line had burst in the unit above us but was quickly fixed), and the happy news was that the floor installation wouldn’t be delayed. A few hours later the water valve was fixed and the dishwasher removed. After debating between fourteen paint samples, my daughter-in-law finally chose the paint color, and we painted the kitchen.

Monday morning. The floor was dry. The appliances moved. The walls painted.  The floor guys were due at 8:00 a.m.  Of course, Eight, Nine o'clock rolled around with no sign of the contractors.  The guys finally showed up at 10:00 a.m.  A few hours into work the floor installers asked me where the base trim was for the kitchen. I told them that the supplier did not send any. There were baseboards for the living room and dining room, but no trim for the kitchen.  Finally, they figured out that it wasn’t ordered, and my son left work early to pick it up. Hiccup number 4. After my son returned with the base, the floor guy said that was  not enough for the living and dining rooms. Thus, another trip to the hardware store.  By the end of Monday evening, the floor and trim was completed and looked great.  Job accomplished.

My advice to anyone taking on a “small” home improvement project is: be flexible.  There will always be hiccups along the way. But isn't life like that too?

-Neil Fisher

(*picture above taken from HERE)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Where My Life Goal and NCUD's Purpose Align

Achieving a Ph. D in Psychology from Stanford University has been my life long dream.  A dream that I hope someday will turn into reality.  Of course just hoping isn’t good enough; it isn’t going to take me anywhere.  Anatole France put it perfectly when he hesaid “To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.” Accomplishing my dream will not be ‘pan comido’ (a piece of cake), as the Latinos in my community like to say when something is easy to get.  I will have to figure out how to juggle the responsibilities at work, be a single parent and a student. The hardest thing I will have face has nothing to do with the rigorous application process or the finances needed.  Believing in myself will be the hardest part; believing that I can finish the program once I start.  Having my family support me will also be difficult. There is nothing harder to face than your own family and loved ones discouraging you from doing something that you love or strongly believe in.             
            Working for NCUD is another thing that my family does not support due to various reasons. They do not understand why I have a job that has nothing to do with my degree in Psychology.  I explain to them that I might seem irrelevant now, but that I’m gaining a new set of skills that might be useful later on in life.  Working for NCUD provides me with the opportunity to practice my listening skills and to deal with people facing tremendous stressors due to being at the verge of losing their homes to foreclosure.  I am often meeting people who are in the midst of making some of the most important decisions of their lives; weather or not to purchase a home for the first time, repair their credit or move out of the community. 
Being able to help people in my community is something I greatly value.  Whether my family understands it or not, NCUD’s mission and mine align.  NCUD seeks to provide financial education and counseling to low socio economic communities to help them achieve financial stability in the future.  My goal in life is to attain a Ph. D in Psychology and to provide counseling services to the people in my community to help them achieve their overall psychological well being. 
-Carmen Reynaga

Thursday, January 5, 2012

My New Year’s Resolution & The Impact of Film

For many years I have chosen a New Year’s resolution based on guilt and the desire to change something I wasn’t really motivated to change during the other 11 months of the year.  This year, I decided to try something different.  I wanted to pick a resolution I was excited about.  I had no direction prior to the 31st of December, but inspiration hit on the first of the year through a documentary called “These Amazing Shadows.”  
The documentary discusses the necessity and importance of preserving film for future generations, and the launch of the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.  Each year the National Registry Board selects 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films” to add to the registry.  I realized in watching the documentary that I have missed so many classic films that portray huge slices of our history as a nation.  So after little thought, I decided I would make my way through the National Film Registry list.  My goal is to get through the first year’s list (1989) by the end of 2012.  If I complete it early enough, I will move on 1990, etc…

The documentary explained that many of the films chosen each year have cultural significance.  Some of the films are home movies of Japanese internment camps or propaganda films from the early 20th century.  The lists run the gamut from cartoons to classics like “Casablanca”.  One film in particular caught my attention.  In 1992, the board selected a film titled “The Birth of A Nation.”  This propaganda film depicted the Ku Klux Klan’s perspective on the Civil War.  A plot synopsis from IMDB describes the film in the following manner:

The story is told through two families and often their servants, epitomizing the worst racial stereotypes. As the nation is torn apart by war, the slaves and their abolitionist supporters are seen as the destructive force behind it all. The film's racism grows even worse in its second half, set during Reconstruction and featuring the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, introduced as the picture's would-be heroes. The fact that Griffith (director) jammed a love story in the midst of his recreated race war is absolutely audacious. It's thrilling and disturbing, often at the same time.”

The negative power of film is most evident in films like “The Birth of A Nation” and “The Searchers” (known for stereotyping Native American Indians). These films contributed to groupthink, perpetuated racism and created fear among the masses.  Although the cultural significance of “The Birth of A Nation” isn’t positive, it did impact our culture at that time, and therefore was chosen to the Registry.  According to film historians, this film propelled the Ku Klux Klan into mainstream USA, provided a culturally acceptable platform for public lynching and laid the foundation for political leaders like Jim Crowe.  

Although I am excited about many films on the lists, I am hesitant and nervous to watch others.  But this resolution is begging the question, what am I watching today and accepting without hesitation?  What stories are being told today that will be known in the future as some of the most negatively impactful films in history?  Would I even recognize them for what they are? Would you?
-Kirsten Devlin