Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Class size reductions are no panacea

As North Carolina and most other states face declining revenues for public education, it's a good time to take a second look at one of the sacred cows of education policy — smaller class sizes. The current debate was sparked by an op-ed column in the Washington Post by Eva Moskowitz, who runs a charter school company in New York City. Her Sunday column contends that the drive to reduce class sizes takes money away from other educational needs, including modern technology and even paper. School budgets aren't getting bigger, so when a state legislature, in its infinite wisdom and spurred by teacher unions eager to create more jobs for members, mandates a cut of four or five students from each class, money that could be used for better books, better teacher salaries, better classroom equipment, etc. instead has to go to pay for more teachers.

Throughout the last two decades, North Carolina has mandated smaller classes as a sort of guaranteed cure-all for education problems. The initial logic is compelling: Lower student-teacher ratios allow teachers to devote more time to each student. But that thinking is misleading. Does it really benefit a struggling student if his classroom has 18 students instead of 22? Does that teacher's small additional fraction of time per student really amount to anything?

As Moskowitz points out, the costs of smaller class sizes — another five or six teachers per school — can be spent more effectively on other educational improvements. This is real money. A school that has to hire five more teachers to meet state-mandated class size reductions will have to spend $200,000 or more in pay and benefits. Multiply that by thousands of schools across the state, and you can see one reason why the state education budget is in trouble. Gov. Bev Perdue, a long-time advocate of class size reductions and a darling of the N.C. Association of Educators, refuses to reconsider class size reductions as she struggles to find funding for public schools.

Class size reductions also cause problems for principals and local school boards. If class size reductions require creation of a new class in each grade, principals have to find space to hold those classes in schools that were designed based on larger class sizes. Some schools have been forced to hold classes in rooms designed as cafeterias or teacher lounges, and many counties have been forced to add onto schools or move in mobile classrooms. Even if the state covers the costs of additional teachers required to meet lower class sizes, local governments are stuck with the expense of creating the space for those classes.

This trend is based on the dubious assumption that reducing class size, even by two or three students, will have a positive impact on student achievement. The biggest impact, however, has been to increase job opportunities for education majors, and that impact, more than benefits to students, is what has driven this trend.

It's time to reconsider how we go about improving education. Moskowitz's column should be required reading.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The lector reads, and hears anew

It was my turn to lector at church Sunday. I usually read the Scripture off the bulletin insert before I go to the lectern to read, but the New Testament lesson was not printed, and I had to read the appointed verses from Romans Chapter 5 without any preparation.

Reading the words, as if anew, I felt their impact like never before. Saint Paul's words came to me familiar, yet fresh, as I read:

1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Project counters as professor spreads doubt

I've read a few of Bart Ehrman's books, and I went to hear him when he was at Barton College a few years ago. Ehrman is a tenured professor at my alma mater who has made a living on writing books that tweak Christian sensibilities, notably "Misquoting Jesus," "Jesus Interrupted," "God's Problem," "Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code" and many others, including his latest, "Forgery." Ehrman, who describes himself as a "happy agnostic," seems to enjoy slinging provocative barbs at orthodox Christian beliefs.

The News & Observer reported today that a campus Christian group has organized an anti-Ehrman study aimed at countering the doubts the professor's lectures have cast on unsuspecting Christian students. The Ehrman Project attempts to dispute Ehrman's interpretation of the rise of Christianity in its first few centuries. Much of what Ehrman teaches is not in dispute among modern biblical scholars. The Pentateuch was not written by Moses (whose death and burial is recorded in Deuteronomy). Genesis contains not one but two creation stories, which are contradictory in several aspects (scholars surmise that the two stories came from rival branches of early Judaism, and both were included when the Scripture was written several hundred years after the stories were first told orally). The Gospels have contradictions in the telling of their most important story, the execution and resurrection of Jesus. And the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) use common sources with Matthew and Luke borrowing heavily (in some cases nearly verbatim) from Mark. There were other Gospels that did not make it into the New Testament when it reached its final form in the fourth century. And most scholars agree that not all of the epistles attributed to Paul were actually written by him.

Ehrman won his job based on his scholarship, but it's hard not to get the impression that he takes delight in stomping on the beliefs of faithful Christians. Ehrman tells his story of a strict biblical literalism form of Christianity and how his simple faith was shattered by his first real analysis of Scriptural criticism. Ehrman lost his faith, and he seems to see no reason why his students shouldn't lose theirs.

It is possible, however, to accept the findings of modern biblical scholarship without giving up the Christian faith. Marcus Borg, who also spoke at Barton a few years ago, sees the Bible as a wonderful book filled with ancient myth and metaphors, great poetry, advice for living, and a description of God's overwhelming, unconditional love for individual people. Where Ehrman sees fallacies in Scripture, Borg sees metaphor, allegory, allusion or simple human error, non of which detracts from the fundamental truth of the Scriptures. While Borg is solidly in the camp of religious liberals (he was a member of the Jesus Project), he confesses that he remains a Christian. When our church did a study of one of Borg's book a year or so ago, we found it challenging, to say the least, and we sometimes disagreed with Borg's take on a particular Scripture.

Ehrman, and to a lesser extent, Borg, seems to dismiss the canonical Gospels as non-objective, belated accounts by enthusiastic supporters of the new religion. He seems to see no reason why one of the heresies of the early church should not have prevailed, creating a very different Christianity. But such conclusions discount the simple fact that orthodox Christianity evolved over several hundred years of disagreement and study. While political power might have played a role in these debates, early Christians aspired to find the true meaning of Christ's message. The canonical Gospels might not be entirely historically accurate, but they are the best accounts we have of Jesus' life. The letters of Paul, the oldest writing in the New Testament, are the clearest explanations of Christian doctrine and faith in the early church. Most biblical scholars accept the Bible as inherently flawed but the best available resource for understanding God and understanding life.

There is a middle ground between a fundamentalist's inerrancy and Ehrman's dismissive rationality. I hope the Ehrman Project scholars find it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Keep your money; we have ideology

Can the North Carolina General Assembly, newly in the hands of Republicans, be crazy enough to reject $461 million in federal funding for rail improvements? We're about to find out.

Rep. Ric Killian of Charlotte has introduced legislation to refuse the U.S. Department of Transportation grants that would improve tracks and speed passenger trains along the Charlotte-to-Raleigh corridor. His rationale is that $461 million would be bad for North Carolina. How he arrives at that conclusion is as foggy as morning mist over a train station. Killian says accepting the grants will obligate the state to pick up part of the costs. No, say state and federal officials: the grants cover all the costs associated with the project. Well, all those danged passenger trains could hurt freight trains, he says. That's hard to figure, since the grants would provide dual tracks along part of the route and new sidings to allow trains to pass each other. Killian also thinks high-speed rail will hurt small towns that the trains speed through without stopping. Many small towns see freight trains speeding through without stopping now. Should we put up stop freight trains at every little town?

It sounds like Killian's objections are more ideological than pragmatic. GOP governors in Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin rejected high-speed rail grants, so North Carolina can join the bandwagon and, thereby, embarrass President Obama, who has been pushing high-speed rail as both a transportation improvement and an economic stimulus.

I've taken the train from Charlotte to Wilson once, and I found it a pleasant experience. If the trip could be shortened by an hour or two, it would be even more pleasant. If the federal government is giving away $461 million to spend on N.C. tracks and trains, it makes little sense to dream up excuses for not accepting it. Yes, it's true that Congress will have to borrow the money to give it to North Carolina, but Congress is going to borrow that money anyway. One state's rejection of offered grants won't change the federal deficit.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Some basic skills do not fade away

These breasts have not suckled an infant in decades, but they still know how to comfort a frightened child. These hands are no longer a young mother's, but they still know the way to hold a baby. These arms still wrap a child in a protective cloak that no earthly fear can penetrate. These shoulders still can cushion the head of a sleeping child.

Some knowledge never fades. Knowing how to comfort a crying child is one. Some are born with the knowledge. They are nurturers from an early age. Some learn the skills later, out of necessity. The soft voice, the gentle touch, the rhythmic motion stay with you deep in the subconscious. Life's most frightful sounds, of an infant in distress, can be comforted away with the right voice, the right touch, the right motion. It comes back to you, like throwing a ball or riding a bike, and there is no finer silence than the quiet breaths of a baby returning to blessed sleep. Grandchildren are a time machine that takes you back to a time and a feeling almost forgotten in the distant past. You find the skills you had put away and stretch your patience beyond its bounds.

It is good that child-bearing years come early, when energy and vigor are more plentiful. Nothing can prepare young parents for the ordeal of sleepless nights, the terror of nocturnal crying and the irrationality of an inconsolable infant. But at a young age, they are better able to physically adapt. A generation later, muscle memory will return to them those skills honed long ago, but their bodies will not recover as they had the first time around. Grandparents still can comfort and quiet a crying child and find in these immutable skills renewed awe at the miracles of life.

Monday, March 21, 2011

What are we getting ourselves into?

News of a conflagration in Libya has filled headlines for weeks, but the news today came as a shock. American and allied aircraft and missiles had struck not only the radar installations and surface-to-air missile sites in Libya but also ground troops and even a residence of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

What are we getting ourselves into? The photos and video from Tripoli look a lot like the scenes from Baghdad just eight years ago. President Obama and European leaders swear we will not get involved in a civil war in Libya, but using military force to aid one side against another looks an awful lot like getting involved in a civil war.

The United Nations voted to impose a no-fly zone over Libya as a means of preventing Qaddafi from slaughtering Libyans who wanted to overthrow him. American troops and armament are being used to support the anti-Qaddafi forces and to prevent Qaddafi from attaining his military objectives. No one in Europe or America is an admirer of Qaddafi. He has supported and exported terrorism for decades while strutting about as an Arab Napoleon. He has oppressed Libya and prohibited any political opposition. He is detestable. But is it America's or Europe's role to overthrow him? How much American blood and treasure are we willing to spend to ensure that Qaddafi doesn't prevail? Having set the precedent in Libya, will America be willing to lend military support to rebels in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia or whatever Arab nation is the next to crush a popular revolt? And we have little reassurance that Qaddafi's successor will be any more democratic or humanitarian than he has been.

The world was appalled by Qaddafi's ruthless attacks on his fellow countrymen, but evil exists around the world, not just in Libya. Neither America nor the United Nations can save every poor dissident from every ruthless dictator, but we can get bogged down in a civil war in which we have little at stake. It looks like we're already there.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A book my father left behind

Books by Zane Grey were on the bookshelf when I was growing up, sharing space with the hardcover Bible study books and a few other religious books and fiction. My father was a fan of Zane Grey; they were his books. I remember seeing the hardcover books in his hand as he dissolved himself in the novel and, being interrupted, turned down the corner of a page to keep his place.

When my nephew, who now lives in the house where I grew up, offered one of those books to me, I accepted the gift as a small treasure from my past. This one, "The Man of the Forest," had my father's name and "Dec. '42" on the inside cover. It was my mother's handwriting, marking a date 75 months before my birth.

I had never read a word of Zane Grey, but I knew the name and was familiar with the Old West genre. Some years ago, I read magazines with full-page ads offering collections of Zane Grey novels. The name always intrigued me, the two simple syllables and the unusual first name made more rare by its starting letter. But if I expected something magical from Zane Grey, the novel that my father had read, perhaps many times, did not deliver.

Biographies say Grey's fiction portrayed an idealized version of the Old West. "The Man of the Forest" certainly follows that path. I had expected a more engaging, suspenseful writing style from an author known for "adventure" stories. I found instead an author who tends to wander off on some explanation of a character's personality or habits. Instead of following the advice of writing teachers to "show me, don't tell me," Grey repeatedly tells the reader things that would better be "shown" through the plot. Born in 1872, Grey writes like a Victorian with long-winded sentences and attributions saddled with adverbs, such as "resolutely," "firmly," "engagingly," and so on — wasted words derided as "Tom Swiftlies," to indicate they belong in second-rate juvenile fiction.

"The Man of the Forest" might not be the best example of Grey's writing, but I'm not tempted to sample others. Although his fiction inspired dozens of movies and television shows and his name is synonymous with Old West fiction, I found that the novel my father had cherished and kept for more than 60 years put me to sleep after half a page. It took me weeks to get through it, and I stuck with it not out of interest in Zane Grey but in dedication to my father, in wanting to share something with him. Now I've read a book he owned. I suspect he read far better books. I know I have.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Laptops, new media distract us all

Someone sent me this photo, allegedly taken by the Associated Press, showing state legislators (from Connecticut, I think) goofing off on the job. I can't vouch for the credibility of the photo. It's the sort of thing — two legislators playing solitaire, one on Facebook, another checking baseball scores — that's just about too fantastic to be true, the sort of thing that could be Photoshopped into a scandal.

Legitimate or not, it speaks to a pervasive problem with modern technology. Those laptops that were supposed to make everyone — from state legislators to eighth graders — more productive, better informed, even smarter are, instead, making us suckers for the enticing bait of useless distractions. Some colleges have banned laptops because professors were infuriated that instead of taking notes and looking up references during lectures, the students were emailing, instant messaging, updating Facebook and so forth. Remember when laptops were the latest salvation of education? I doubt that anyone thinks that now, but laptops are pervasive in college classrooms and in many high schools as well. Younger children, reared from the crib on electronic gadgets, think it perfectly acceptable to stare transfixed at a mobile phone's screen as they peck out text messages during meals or when adults are attempting to talk to them. Adults are no different. When I received a "smart phone," I was told if I was the type who liked to play video games while sitting in boring meetings I could download this game and that game. Sorry, I'm not the type.

The goofing-off legislators might be real, or they might be victims of a clever graphic artist. Either way, they're symbolic of the lack of discipline and labor in so many parts of life — work, study, relationships. The sirens of cyberspace are luring us onto the shoals of declining seriousness and productivity, and we're too busy playing games to notice.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What Charlie Sheen's antics say about society

Having never watched "Two and a Half Men," I'm in no position to judge the television show or its star, Charlie Sheen. But from a couple of scenes caught in channel-flipping and from the excessive news coverage of Sheen's criminal activities and firing from the popular show, I can safely say Sheen, the network and the television-watching public are all getting what they deserve.

In the comedy, Sheen plays a misogynistic, crude, rude womanizer — a character that apparently is not too distant from his actual personality. What surprises me, but shouldn't, is that the American television audience finds this sort of misbehavior entertaining. "Two and a Half Men" was the country's top-rated show, even though I'm not sure it contains a sympathetic or admirable character.

Television has come a long way from the era when its male characters were admirable, respectful, helpful, kind, even heroic. "Father Knows Best," "My Three Sons," "Gunsmoke," "Daniel Boone," "Marcus Welby, M.D.," "The Donna Reed Show," "Leave It to Beaver" and others all had "good" leading men who respected other people and did not spout sarcasm each time they opened their mouths. Not everyone of my generation grew up trying to be like Ozzie Nelson or Jim Anderson, but we weren't copying the crudeness and snarky self-centeredness of Sheen's character.

My hope is that the network's experience in seeing its well-paid star crumble into rants against his employer, his audience and people in general will lead to a return to situation comedies that are not overflowing with sarcasm, one-upmanship and verbal venom. But that's probably hoping too much. There are plenty of Charlie Sheen types around for the networks to hire. We've raised a generation of them.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Libya has been in the headlines before

Libya is the latest Arab country to be roiled by street protests demanding democracy, and President Obama yesterday demanded the resignation of Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy (or Qaddafi or Gaddafi, depending on the current translation of Arabic script). Unlike Tunisia and some other Arab nations, Libya has been a fairly regular fixture in U.S. news over the past 30 years.

How quickly we forget ... or push once-volatile fixations to the back of our mind. A 1981 confrontation between U.S. Navy jets and Libyan fighters over the Gulf of Sidra was one of the first demonstrations of President Reagan's forceful use of military power. Khadafy claimed the Gulf of Sidra, a large section of the Mediterranean Sea, as Libya's territorial waters. The United States and other countries refused to recognize the claim, and U.S. Navy vessels continued to patrol the area. Khadafy sent Soviet-built fighter jets to confront U.S. patrols flying off of an aircraft carrier in the gulf. The confrontation, later portrayed in the popular movie "Top Gun," ended quickly with two Libyan aircraft at the bottom of the Gulf of Sidra.

But Khadafy wasn't through. The bombing of a disco in Germany, which resulted in the deaths of two U.S. servicemen, was traced to Libyan agents. In retaliation, Reagan ordered a bombing raid on Libya, targeting one of Khadafy's homes. Later still, the December 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland was traced to Libya, and Libya ultimately offered compensation to victims' families.

After Libya renounced its weapons of mass destruction program in 2003 and appeared to be eager to be accepted among the community of civilized nations, the oil-rich desert nation, which had been the scene of World War II tank battles in the allies' North Africa campaign, faded from America's attention. (And let's not forget that Libya caused a political stir in the late 1970s when presidential brother Billy Carter was required to register as an agent of the Libyan government.) But with demands for democracy now filling Libyan streets, the seemingly least fragile of all Arab dictatorships is teetering. Khadafy, who took over the country in a bloodless military coup in 1969, has demonstrated his ruthlessness by attacking peaceful demonstrators with heavy weapons even as his ministers and diplomats have renounced him.

Whether Khadafy will go the way of Mubarak and other Arab dictators is not yet known, but his reaction to the protests has reminded Americans of the unpredictable nature of this long-time adversary. Khadafy seems determined to retain control at any cost, and that determination could mean years of civil war and the destruction of the Libyan economy.